Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

Julius Cæsar's Two Visits to Britain

[55 and 54 B.C.]

THERE were left of the fighting season after Cæsar came back across the Rhine just a few weeks; and what could he do better with them than go over and conquer Britannia? This first record of an invasion upon us comes in at the fag-end of a chapter, and the invasion was made simply to fill up the summer! Nobody, Cæsar tells us, seemed to know anything about the island; and yet it was the fact that in all his wars with the Gauls, the Gauls were helped by men out of Britain. Before he will face the danger with his army he sends over a trusty messenger, to look about and find out something as to coasts and harbors. The trusty messenger does not dare to disembark, but comes back and tells Cæsar what he has seen from the ship. Cæsar, in the mean time, has got together a great fleet somewhere in the Boulogne and Calais country; and—so he says—messengers have come to him from Britain, whither rumors of his purpose have already flown, saying that they will submit themselves to the Roman Republic. We may believe just as much of that as we please. But he clearly thinks less of the Boulogne and Calais people than he does even of the Britons, which is a comfort to us. When these people—then called Morini—came to him, asking pardon for having dared to oppose him once before, and offering any number of hostages, and saying that they had been led on by bad advice, Cæsar admitted them into some degree of grace; not wishing, as he tells us, to be kept out of Britain by the consideration of such very small affairs. "Neque has tantularum rerum occupationes sibi Britanniæ anteponendas judicabat." We hope that the Boulogne and Calais people understand and appreciate the phrase.

Having taken plenty of hostages, he determines to trust the Boulogne and Calais people, and prepares his ships for passing the Channel. He starts nearly at the third watch,—about midnight, we may presume. A portion of his army—the cavalry—encounters some little delay, such as has often occurred on the same spot since, even to travelers without horses. He himself got over to the British coast at about the fourth hour. This, at midsummer, would have been about a quarter past eight. As it was now late in the summer, it may have been nine o'clock in the morning when Cæsar found himself under the cliffs of Kent, and saw our armed ancestors standing along all the hills ready to meet him. He stayed at anchor, waiting for his ships, till about two P.M. His cavalry did not get across till four days afterwards. Having given his orders, and found a fitting moment and a fitting spot, Cæsar runs his ships up upon the beach.

Cæsar confesses to a good deal of difficulty in getting ashore. When we know how very hard it is to accomplish the same feat on the same coast, in these days, with all the appliances of modern science to aid us, and, as we must presume, with no real intention on the part of the Cantii, or men of Kent, to oppose our landing, we can quite sympathize with Cæsar. The ships were so big that they could not be brought into very shallow water. The Roman soldiers were compelled to jump into the sea, heavily armed, and there to fight with the waves and with the enemy. But the Britons, having the use of all their limbs, knowing the ground, standing either on the shore or just running into the shallows, made the landing uneasy enough. "Nostri,"—our men,—says Cæsar, with all these things against them, were not all of them so alert at fighting as was usual with them on dry ground;—at which no one can be surprised.

Cæsar had two kinds of ships—"naves longæ," long ships for carrying soldiers; and "naves onerariæ," ships for carrying burdens. The long ships do not seem to have been such ships of war as the Romans generally used in their sea-fights, but were handier, and more easily worked, than the transports. These he laid broadside to the shore, and harassed the poor natives with stones and arrows. Then the eagle-bearer of the Tenth Legion jumped into the sea, proclaiming that he, at any rate, would do his duty. Unless they wished to see their eagle fall into the hands of the enemy, they must follow him. "Jump down," he said, "my fellow-soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I at least will do my duty to the Republic and to our General." When he had said this with a loud voice, he threw himself out of the ship and advanced the eagle against the enemy. Seeing and hearing this, the men leaped forth freely, from that ship and from others. As usual, there was some sharp fighting. "Pugnatum est utrisque acriter." It is nearly always the same thing. Cæsar throws away none of his glory by underrating his enemy. But at length the Britons fly. "This thing only was wanting to Cæsar's good fortune,"—that he was deficient in cavalry wherewith to ride on in pursuit, and "take the island!" Considering how very short a time he remains in the island, we feel that his complaint against fortune is hardly well founded. But there is a general surrender, and a claiming of hostages, and after a few days a sparkle of new hope in the breasts of the Britons. A storm arises, and Cæsar's ships are so knocked about that he does not know how he will get back to Gaul. He is troubled by a very high tide, not understanding the nature of these tides. As he had only intended this for a little tentative trip,—a mere taste of a future war with Britain,—he had brought no large supply of corn with him. He must get back, by hook or by crook.

The Britons, seeing how it is with him, think that they can destroy him, and make an attempt to do so. The Seventh Legion is in great peril, having been sent out to find corn, but is rescued. Certain of his ships—those which had been most grievously handled by the storm—he breaks up, in order that he may mend the others with their materials. When we think how long it takes us to mend ships, having dockyards, and patent slips, and all things ready, this is most marvelous to us. But he does mend his ships, and while doing so he has a second fight with the Britons, and again repulses them. There is a burning and destroying of everything far and wide, a gathering of ambassadors to Cmsar asking for terms, a demand for hostages,—a double number of hostages now,—whom Cæsar desired to have sent over to him to Gaul, because at this time of the year he did not choose to trust them to ships that were unseaworthy; and he himself, with all his army, gets back into the Boulogne and Calais country. Two transports only are missing, which are carried somewhat lower down the coast. There are but three hundred men in these transports, and these the Morini of those parts threaten to kill unless they will give up their arms. But Cæsar sends help, and even these three hundred are saved from disgrace. There is, of course, more burning of houses and laying waste of fields because of this little attempt, and then Cæsar puts his army into winter quarters.

What would have been the difference to the world if the Britons, as they surely might have done, had destroyed Cmsar and every Roman, and not left even a ship to get back to Gaul? In lieu of this, Cæsar could send news to Rome of these various victories, and have a public thanksgiving decreed,—on this occasion for twenty days.

On his return out of Britain, Cæsar, as usual, went over the Alps to look after his other provinces, and to attend to his business in Italy; but he was determined to make another raid upon the island. He could not yet assume that he had "taken it," and therefore he left minute instructions with his generals as to the building of more ships, and the repair of those which had been so nearly destroyed. He sends to Spain, he tells us, for the things necessary to equip his ships. We never hear of any difficulty about money. We know that he did obtain large grants from Rome for the support of his legions; but no scruple was made in making war maintain war, as far as such maintenance could be obtained. Cæsar personally was in an extremity of debt when he commenced his campaigns. He had borrowed an enormous sum, eight hundred and thirty talents, or something over £200,000, from Crassus,—who was the specially rich Roman of those days,—before he could take charge of his Spanish province. When his wars were over, he returned to Rome with a great treasure; and indeed during these wars in Gaul he expended large sums in bribing Romans. We may suppose that he found hoards among the barbarians, as Lord Clive did in the East Indies. Clive contented himself with taking some: Cæsar probably took all.

Having given the order about his ships, he settled a little matter in Illyricum, taking care to raise some tribute there also. He allows but a dozen lines for recording this winter work, and then tells us that he hurried back to his army and his ships. His command had been so well obeyed in regard to vessels, that he finds ready, of that special sort which he had ordered with one bank of oars only on each side, as many as six hundred, and also twenty-eight of the larger sort. He gives his soldiers very great credit for their exertions, and sends his fleet to the Portus Itius. The exact spot which Cæsar called by this name the geographers have not identified, but it is supposed to be between Boulogne and Calais. It may probably have been at Wissant. Having seen that things were thus ready for a second trip into Britain, he turns round and hurries off with four legions and eight hundred cavalry—an army of 25,000 men—into the Treves country. There is a quarrel going on there between two chieftains which it is well that he should settle,—somewhat as the monkey settled the contest about the oyster. This, however, is a mere nothing of an affair, and he is back again among his ships at the Portus Itius in a page and a half.

He resolves upon taking five legions of his own soldiers into Britain, and two thousand mounted Gauls. He had brought together four thousand of these horsemen, collected from all Gaul, their chiefs and nobles, not only as fighting allies, but as hostages that the tribes should not rise in rebellion while his back was turned. These he divides, taking half with him, and leaving half with three legions of his own men, under Labienus, in the Boulogne country, as a base to his army, to look after the provisions, and to see that he be not harassed on his return. There is a little affair, however, with one of the Gaulish chieftains, Dumnorix the Æduan, who ought to have been his fastest friend. Dumnorix runs away with all the iEduan horsemen. Cæsar, however, sends after him and has him killed, and then all things are ready. He starts with altogether more than 800 ships at sunset, and comes over with a gentle southwest wind. He arrives off the coast of Britain at about noon, but can see none of the inhabitants on the cliff. He imagines that they have all fled, frightened by the number of his ships. Cæsar establishes his camp, and proceeds that same night about twelve miles into the country,—eleven miles, we may say, as our mile is longer than the Roman,—and there he finds the Britons. There is some fighting, after which Cæsar returns and fortifies his camp. Then there comes a storm and knocks his ships about terribly,—although he had found, as he thought, a nice soft place for them. But the tempest is very violent, and they are torn away from their anchors, and thrust upon the shore, and dashed against each other till there is infinite trouble. He is obliged to send over to Labienus, telling him to build more ships; and those which are left he drags up over the shore to his camp, in spite of the enormous labor required in doing it. He is ten days at this work, night and day, and we may imagine that his soldiers had not an easy time of it. When this has been done, he advances again into the country after the enemy, and finds that Cassivellaunus is in command of the united forces of the different tribes. Cassivellaunus comes from the other side of the Thames, over in Middlesex or Hertfordshire. The Britons had not hitherto lived very peaceably together, but now they agree that against the Romans they will act in union under Cassivellaunus.

Cæsar's description of the island is very interesting. The interior is inhabited by natives,—or rather by "aborigines." Cæsar states this at least as the tradition of the country. But the maritime parts are held by Belgian immigrants, who, for the most part, have brought with them from the Continent the names of their tribes. The population is great, and the houses, built very like the houses in Gaul, are numerous and very thick together. The Britons have a great deal of cattle. They use money, having either copper coin or iron rings of a great weight. Tin is found in the middle of the island, and, about the coast, iron. But the quantity of iron found is small. Brass they import. They have the same timber as in Gaul,—only they have neither beech nor fir. Hares and chickens and geese they think it wrong to eat; but they keep these animals as pets. The climate, on the whole, is milder than in Gaul. The island is triangular. One corner, that of Kent, has an eastern and a southern aspect. This southern side of the island he makes 500 miles, exceeding the truth by about 150 miles. Then Cæsar becomes a little hazy in his geography,—telling us that the other side, meaning the western line of the triangle, where Ireland lies, verges towards Spain. Ireland, he says, is half the size of Britain, and about the same distance from it that Britain is from Gaul. In the middle of the channel dividing Ireland from Britain there is an island called Mona,—the Isle of Man. There are also some other islands which at midwinter have thirty continuous days of night. Here Cæsar becomes not only hazy but mythic. But he explains that he has seen nothing of this himself, although he has ascertained, by scientific measurement, that the nights in Britain are shorter than on the Continent. Of course the nights are shorter with us in summer than they are in Italy, and longer in winter. The western coast he makes out to be 700 miles long; in saying which he is nearly 100 miles over the mark. The third side he describes as looking towards the north. He means the eastern coast. This he calls 800 miles long, and exaggerates our territories by more than 200 miles. The marvel, however, is that he should be so near the truth. The men of Kent are the most civilized, indeed they are almost as good as Gauls in this respect! What changes does not time make in the comparative merits of countries! The men in the interior live on flesh and milk, and do not care for corn. They wear skin clothing. They make themselves horrible with woad, and go about with very long hair. They shave close, except the head and upper lip. Then comes the worst habit of all,—ten or a dozen men have their wives in common among them.

We have a very vivid and by no means unflattering account of the singular agility of our ancestors in their mode of fighting from their chariots. "This," says Cwsar, "is the nature of their chariot-fighting. They first drive rapidly about the battle-field,—per omnes partes,—and throw their darts, and frequently disorder the ranks by the very terror occasioned by the horses and by the noise of the wheels; and when they have made their way through the bodies of the cavalry, they jump down and fight on foot. Then the charioteers go a little out of the battle, and so place their chariots that they may have a ready mode of returning should their friends be pressed by the number of their enemies. Thus they unite the rapidity of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and so effective do they become by daily use and practice, that they are accustomed to keep their horses, excited as they are, on their legs on steep and precipitous ground, and to manage and turn them very quickly, and to run along the pole and stand upon the yoke,"—by which the horses were held together at the collars,—"and again with the greatest rapidity to return to the chariot." All which is very wonderful.

Of course there is a great deal of fighting, and the Britons soon learn by experience to avoid general engagements and maintain guerrilla actions. Cæsar by degrees makes his way to the Thames, and with great difficulty gets his army over it. He can do this at only one place, and that badly. The site of this ford he does not describe to us. It is supposed to have been near the place which we now know as Sunbury. He does tell us that his men were so deep in the water that their heads only were above the stream. But even thus they were so impetuous in their onslaught, that the Britons would not wait for them on the opposite bank, but ran away. Soon there comes unconditional surrender, and hostages, and promises of tribute. Cassivellaunus, who is himself but a usurper, and therefore has many enemies at home, endeavors to make himself secure in a strong place or town, which is supposed to have been on or near the site of our St. Albans. Cæsar, however, explains that the poor Britons give the name of a town—"oppidum"—to a spot in which they have merely surrounded some thick woods with a ditch and rampart. Cæsar, of course, drives them out of their woodland fortress, and then there quickly follows another surrender, more hostages, and the demand for tribute. Cæsar leaves his orders behind him, as though to speak were to be obeyed. One Mandubratius, and not Cassivellaunus, is to be the future king in Middlesex and Hertfordshire,—that is, over the Trinobantes who live there. He fixes the amount of tribute to be sent annually by the Britons to Rome; and he especially leaves orders that Cassivellaunus shall do no mischief to the young Mandubratius. Then he crosses back into Gaul at two trips,—his ships taking half the army first and coming back for the other half; and he piously observes that though he had lost many ships when they were comparatively empty, hardly one had been destroyed while his soldiers were in them.

So were ended Cæsar's second and last invasion of Britain. That he had reduced Britain as he had reduced Gaul he certainly could not boast;—though Quintus Curtius had written to his brother to say that Britannia was—"confecta"—finished. Though he had twice landed his army under the white cliffs, and twice taken it away with comparative security, he had on both occasions been made to feel how terribly strong an ally to the Britons was that channel which divided them from the Continent. The reader is made to feel that on both occasions the existence of his army and of himself is in the greatest peril. Cæsar's idea in attacking Britain was probably that of making the Gauls believe that his power could reach even beyond them,—could extend itself all round them, even into distant islands,—than of absolutely establishing the Roman dominion beyond that distant sea. The Britons had helped the Gauls in their wars with him, and it was necessary that he should punish any who presumed to give such help. Whether the orders which he left behind him were obeyed, we do not know; but we may imagine that the tribute exacted was not sent to Rome with great punctuality. In fact, Cæsar invaded the island twice, but did not reduce it.

by Anthony Trollope

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