Romani non Invicta: Julius Caesar in Britannia Part One

Romans! Their empire started with the founding of Rome in 753 BCE and arguably didn’t fall until it got its bones picked by the Goths in 410 CE. For over a millennia they ruled most of the known world and through their reputation influenced the peoples beyond their borders. 

I could talk about the great Roman triumphs, the campaigns, the infrastructure, I could make endless high quality Monty Python references. However I don’t want to. Like most men I revel in the humiliation of the powerful, and Romes history has a huge amount of nutrition for my ego. However we don’t often hear about it. Rome was a military and economic powerhouse but its most useful trait was being the total master of its own PR. Great defeats were either removed from the written record or celebrated like victories, and so the people presumed they were victories. 

The first name most people reach for when asked about the Romans is Gius Julius Caesar, so that seems a good place to start. Particularly with his excursions into Britannia, the first in 55 BCE, he described as an exploration, the second a year later he describes as an invasion. 

55 BCE The Expedition.

By this point Julius Caesar was an extremely powerful governor of a massive area of Gaul, with several legions and a massive war chest at his disposal. He had an awareness of the soggy island across the channel but no Roman had ever been there. The information the Romans held on Britannia came from the Greeks who had been there in previous centuries, and through Galic merchants who maintained trade with the dozens of tribes on the island. 

Side Note: The name Britannia comes from the Greek name for the island “Island of the painted people”. Think of that next time you see our top 1% belting out Rule Britannia in the audience at the Royal Albert Hall. 

There are a number of reasons Rome had avoided taking a look at Britannia before this point. Firstly their control over Gaul had been tenuous, they had successful occupied a chaotic maelstrom of proud warrior cultures but it would be impossible to claim they had successful subjugated them. Secondly Rome really sucked at water, they had almost no combat effectiveness on the water, their huge, well trained, disciplined legions requiring open space to operate, but they also had a significant history of sinking ships on calm days in the Mediterranean. 

Under Gius Julius Caesar, Gaul was comparatively settled, and our boy Julie wasn’t scared of a bit of water, he had big imperial balls! He really wanted to invade but there were two problems, a governor, even one with the prestige of our boy Julie couldn’t go declaring war without sanction of the state. Mounting a full scale invasion independently of Rome could potentially lose him everything. No one loves a war criminal. In addition to this, whilst he had an immense army at his disposal he didn’t exactly have a navy. I’m guessing he didn’t like the sevenths legions changes of swimming the channel in full armour. 

So rather than an invasion he decided an expedition would be more suitable. He could sell it to Rome as he was just going to have a chat with the British tribes who had been inciting rebellion in his Gallic territories. He also had enough boats for a small force. 

First thought he sent out two groups, ambassadors to assess the temperament of the British chieftains and buy the support of some where possible. The second group he sent out was a scout whose objective was to scout the southern coast and find an ideal landing ground for his forces. Unfortunately this is where he made his first big mistakes. Both groups he sent out were staffed by absolute fucking morons. 

The scouts decided the most awesome place to land a small army was at Dover, with its fortress like white cliffs providing an incredible defence against any poor sods landing on the beech below. The coast here is heavily stepped and there is was a fair distance his armoured men would have to wade from the boats to the beach. 

The ambassadors had also shagged the pooch. Rather than discretely assessing numbers and morale they had tipped off all of the local tribes to Caesars plans, Tens of thousands of warriors were stood on the cliffs watching as the Roman boats approached. 

Its worth remembering at this point that the Roman forces were part of the largest professional army the world had ever seen, they won battle after battle through courage, experience and discipline. However when looking up at the mass of heavily armed painted men and women I would guess more than a few of them laughed and said “fuck that”. So the boats sailed a little way down the coast to somewhere that looked a little less like suicide. 

Even here, Initially the men were reluctant to get off the boats, having been followed by British cavalry and chariots. On the verge of mutiny one man lept from the boat and gave a stirring oration that stirred the men into action. Given this is Caesars own account I would take it with a pinch of salt and I am guessing this unknown soldier merely made fun of their genitals and told them go to home to their knitting. We know the man was the standard-bearer of Legio X (the tenth legion) and its fascinating to contemplate what the world would look like now if this one man hadn’t taken the lead. 

Whatever was truly said, it worked. Two legions flowed from the boats with all the grace of men coated in metal wading through chest height water. The British charged to meet them, bare in mind the they were lightly or completely unarmoured, experienced in single combat and skirmishing. The Romans couldn’t form up to defend themselves against the nimble onslaught. But Roman discipline held and the British were driven to a safe distance by slings and catapults from the ships. Allowing Caesar to form a foothold and a forward base. This was painted by Julie as a supreme victory, in reality both sides probably got a bloody nose but Rome had established itself in Britannia and technically the British withdrew. I’m happy to call it Romes victory but hardly worthy of songs and poems. 

Additionally Caesar couldn’t really move from this position, the British had Cavalery and Chariots and they excelled at what we would not call guerrilla warfare. Caesar did pack some cavalery for this trip but they were to leave Gaul from a different port. The horses were then delayed in leaving by bad weather. However they were now on their way, and in sight of the legions on the coast …. When a storm rose up and destroyed the ships. The same storm battered the living crap out the beached ships leaving the legions with no route of retreat or resupply. A lot of trouble appears to have been caused by the fact the Romans didn’t really understand tides and didn’t know how to predict them. Remember that tides weren’t really a thing in the Mediterranean doesn’t really do tides. Add to this the fact they possessed the naval acumin of a colander, I would imagine seeing the sea rise up, kill five hundred cavalery and smash their boats unnerved them. The British looked on grinning at their good luck. They decided that it would be prudent to deny the expeditionary force access to food. 

Caesar had only brought enough supplies for a short expedition, in order to survive and escape he would need to repair the boats and find food. He was forced to divide his forces, one legion to forage, the other to repair. This left very few soldiers left to actually defend the ships and those repairing them.   

Some time after he had set the teams to their tasks Caesar was made aware of a growing and unusual column of dust coming from the direction he had sent the foraging legion. He was now faced with two choices, lose half his force and starve or risk everything. He rallied his remaining men and left in the direction of the dust. 

What he found was Legio X taking an absolute pounding by the British. It appeared an ambush had been successfully set and the legion were unable to main formation as they were encircled. Whats most impressive though is the description of the British Charioteers and Horsemen. The rode at full gallop towards the Roman square using the power of their horses to hammer the lines, the description of the pure strength and athletic ability of the British even captivated Caesar, his description of this skirmish coming as close to respect for “barbarians” as his diaries ever get. The charioteers rode hard at the romans with a spearman on the yolk stabbing at the immobilised invaders. They then wheeled hard away before swinging back for another blow from another direction. 

To be fair to the tenth legion their discipline held long enough for Caesar to arrive with his other legion. On seeing the reinforcements the British withdrew for fear of being encircled themselves. Caesar reports this was due to their fear and respect of him however every documented skirmish with the Britons had shown their aptitude for guerrilla  “hit and run tactics” that’s where they excelled and the speed and agility afforded by their chariots and horse lent itself to this style of combat. They did not attempt pitched combat historically so I am guessing they withdrew to avoid a pitched battle, their work being done on both the Roman numbers, capacity to forage and their morale. Caesar, unable to pursue the Britons without any cavalery, withdrew to his camp. 

Side Note: In his diaries Caesar states he chased the thousands of retreating British with thirty horses however there is no mention of these horses before or after. It feels very much like a fabrication to highlight his valour. 

At this point a massive storm rolled in, preventing further British attacks. Caesar used this time to focus all efforts on repairing his ships. The British used this time to call warriors from all of the southern tribes. The treeline positive bustled with warriors, watching and waiting for the storm to pass. When it did the British warriors made their first big mistake. 

The Romans had no idea how to defend against the Britons style of combat, the fast paced, hit and run chaotic melee in which the Britons thrived. But now the Britons tried to engage the legions in pitched battle. The speed and agility of  the Charioteers was completely mitigated In pitched battle. Where as the Romans were intensively trained and experienced in this style of combat. This was their style of combat and they had owned it for hundreds of years. 

Despite being heavily outnumbered and battered by waves and waves tribesmen they held, and they held, and was the tribesmen started to ware down, they pushed back. The Britons withdrew. That night, at the first opportunity Caesar loaded his men onto the shifts and left. I would imagine his parting words, standing on the stern of the ship were “Fuck you Britain”. 

This first encounter demonstrated some pros and cons. Britannia had, prior to this been considered to be a mythical island, protected by Gods and inhabited by barbarians. The legions under the command of Gius Julius Caesar survived this first encounter, all be it bloodied but certainly not humbled. The question of whether this was luck or skill has some distance in it. The Britons had faced the Romans before as mercenaries in Gaul, they knew Roman tactics. What Caesar describes as the Britons retreating again and again is more likely to be in line with standard celtic tactics and not “barbarians fleeing before the might of Rome”. However Caesar managed to paint this as a gleaming victory that resulted in twenty-five days of celebration in Rome. 

Sources

As I said above the Romans were master of their own PR. My two sources for this were the diaries of Julius Caesar and Tacitus. Both of these chaps had very specific pro-Roman agendas. I have stated in previous posts that histories and historians written before the seventeenth century were mostly written to tell a story and impart a moral with no intention of mitigating the authors biases. 

Side Note: When I refer to diaries I do not mean “Dear Diary, today Cassavalaunus was really mean to me and made me cry, why doesn’t he like me?” These were works written by the man himself, intended to be published to further the glory of his dynasty. I am genuinely surprised Caesar didn’t publish his diaries under the title “That bloody island”. 

Final Thoughts
I like to picture this great man stood on the prow of a hastily retreating boat, transferring his gaze from the battered, starved and decimated ranks with him to the quickly vanishing coast line and somberly thinking “how the hell am I going to spin this one?” before whispering “screw you, you soggy bastard island”.
He had suffered poor intelligence, ship wreck, watching five hundred cavalry just sink out of sight, he suffered defeat and humiliation. This is a man who doesnt really “do” defeat, I would get he was fairly pissed off at this point. And we know he does spin it so well that the senate grant him an invasion the following year.

To Be Continued …..

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