Caesar's first invasion
Deal Beach in Kent.
This shoreline near Walmer Castle is probably in the area where Julius Caesar and his troops landed during the two Roman excursions to Britain of 55 and 54 BC. In the distance, the cliffs of Dover may be seen to the south. The beach is made up of small stones or shingles.
[Fig.1: Area of Deal Beach where Caesar's ships probably landed (photo: Athena Review).]
Caesar, the historian.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar became governor and military commander of the Roman province of Gaul, which included modern France, Belgium, and portions of Switzerland, Holland, and Germany west of the Rhine. For the next eight years, Caesar led military campaigns involving both the Roman legions and tribes in Gaul who were often competing among themselves. The story has been preserved in Caesar's account, Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, originally published in 50 BC.
In the first century BC, Britain was settled by Iron Age societies, many with long-term roots in Britain, and others closely tied to tribes of northern France (fig.2). Commerce was flourishing, populations were relatively large, and at least seven different British tribes had their own coinages. Tribes in southwest Britain and Wales controlled considerable mineral wealth in tin deposits and copper mines.
For this period, Caesar is the only extant source providing first-hand descriptions of Britain. His observations, while confined to the southeast areas of Kent and the lower Thames, are thus essential to understanding those regions. While no doubt self-serving in a political sense when written, Caesar's account is nevertheless regarded as basically accurate and historically reliable both by earlier scholars such as C. Rice Holmes (1907), and by today's authorities including Sheppard Frere (1987).
Both the 55 and 54 BC Roman expeditions left from Boulogne (Portus Itius), and landed at Deal, a few miles northeast of Dover. In 55 BC, the Roman cavalry ships were forced back to Gaul by a storm, and Caesar's troops were confined to the shore. In 54 BC, a larger Roman expedition landed at Deal and penetrated inland along the River Thames.
[Fig.2: Map of the crossings of Caesar over the English Channel.]
The first Roman landing in Britain (55 BC).
Caesar probably planned an expedition to Britain in 56 BC, a year when the Armorican tribes in the coast of Britanny revolted against the Romans with aid from the tribes of southern Britain. The operation was further delayed by battles with the Morini and Menapi, Belgic tribes who controlled the Straits of Dover.
Finally, on August 26, 55 BC, two Roman Legions (about 10,000 soldiers) under Caesar's personal command crossed the channel in a group of transport ships leaving from Portus Itius (today's Boulogne). By the next morning (August 27), as Caesar reports, the Roman ships were just off the chalky cliffs of Dover, whose upper banks were lined with British warriors prepared to do battle. The Romans therefore sailed several miles further northeast up the coastline and landed on the flat, pebbly shore around Deal.
The Britons met the legionaries at the beach with a large force, including warriors in horse-drawn chariots, an antiquated fighting method not used by the Roman military. After an initial skirmish, the British war leaders sought a truce, and handed over hostages.
Four days later, however, when Roman ships with 500 cavalry soldiers and horses also tried to make the channel crossing, they were driven back to France by bad weather. The same storm seriously damaged many of the Roman ships on the beach at Deal. This quirk of fate resulted in Caesar's initial landing force having no cavalry, which seriously restricted the mobility of the 55 BC operations. It was also disastrous for the planned reconnaissance since the legionary soldiers were forced to repair the ships and were vulnerable to the British forces who began new attacks.
Thus immobilized, the Roman legions had to survive in a coastal zone which they found both politically hostile, and naturally fertile. The need to procure food locally resulted in scouting and foraging missions into the adjacent countryside. Caesar reports abundant grain crops along a heavily populated coastline; and frequent encounters with British warriors in chariots. After repairing most of the ships, Caesar ordered a return to Gaul, thus curtailing the reconnaissance of 55 BC.
The second Roman expedition to Britain (54 BC).
The next year saw the Romans organize a much larger expedition to Britain, with a total of 800 ships used to transport five legions and 2000 cavalry troops, plus horses and a large baggage train. They sailed from Boulogne at night on July 6, and landed unopposed the next day on the beach between Deal and Sandwich.
Upon seeing the large size of the Roman force, the Britons retreated inland to higher ground. Caesar immediately marched inland with most of his troops to the Stour River, about 12 miles from the beach landing camp. At daybreak on the 8th of July, 54 BC, the Romans encountered British forces at a ford on the Stour (later the town of Canterbury). The Romans easily dispersed the Britons, who retreated to a hill fort or stronghold (oppidum), which from Caesar's description, is probably the hill fort at Bigbury, a site with earthwork and ditch enclosures mile and a half from the river ford. The Seventh Roman legion attacked the hillfort but were blocked out by trees piled in the entrance by the Britons. To advance, the Roman troops filled in the outer ditch with earth and brush, making a ramp across it, and then capturing the fort.
Bad news came for the Romans, however, shortly thereafter from the beach camp at Deal. An overnight storm had driven most of the Roman ships on shore. The main body of troops returned to the beach, to find at least forty boats completely wrecked. Security precautions required Caesar's army to spend ten long days building a land fort within which the entire fleet of 760 ships was transported. This, the second catastrophe for Roman ships in as many years caused by storms on the open beach, could have been averted had Caesar sailed only a few miles further up the coast to the protected harbor at Richborough (where the Romans landed when they next invaded Britain, in 43 AD).
[Fig.3: Tribes in Northern Gaul during Caesar's excursions to Britain, 55-54 BC.]
During this ten day hiatus, a large British force was briefly united under a single commander, Cassivellaunus, who ruled the Catuvellauni tribe on the north side of the River Thames. The army of Cassivellaunus met the Romans again at the Stour crossing. The Britons used chariot warfare, with two horses pulling a driver and warrior, the latter hurling javelins, then dismounting at close quarters to fight infantry-style. After a hard-fought battle, the Romans eventually drove back the Britons, and then pursued Cassivellaunus toward the Thames.
In the wooded terrain north of the River Thames, Cassivellaunus adopted scorched-earth, guerrilla-warfare methods, destroying local food sources and using chariots to harrass the Roman legions. But neighboring tribes who resented the domination by Cassivellaunus, including the Trinovantes and their allies the Cenimagni, Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci and Cassi (the latter five tribes, known to us only through Caesar's account) then went over to the Romans.
Caesar thus learned from native informants the location of the secret stronghold of Cassivellaunus, probably the hill fort at Wheathampstead, located on the west bank of the River Lea, near St. Albans. Even as the Roman army under Caesar were massing outside his fort's gates, however, Cassivellaunus made the bold move of ordering his allies in Kent to attack the Roman beach camp at Deal. This attack failed, and Cassivellaunus then gave up. Yet the terms of surrender he negotiated with the Romans seem to have been moderate, as Caesar had learned of mounting problems back in Gaul, and wanted to return there. The Roman legions left Britain in early September, 54 BC. They were not to return again for 97 years, when the Claudian invasion of AD 43 began the active Roman conquest of Britain. Caesar's two expeditions, meanwhile, provided basic information on the terrain, inhabitants, and political, economic and military customs of Britain, our only direct historical record for that time period.