Caesar in Britain (55 B.C.E.)


In 55 BCE, the situation in Gaul had been
stabilized. But Caesar had even higher ambitions. He was going to invade Britain. The Romans knew virtually nothing about the
island. It was on the edge of the known world, with
one foot in the realm of myth. People disagreed over whether it was an island
at all, or instead a massive, unexplored continent lying just off the Gallic coast. Some said that it was full of riches, with
gold and silver lying openly on the ground and pearls on the beaches. There were stories about the souls of the
dead being ferried across the channel, which lead some to believe that the island itself
was entirely fictional. But Caesar knew better. The Gauls conducted regular trade with Britain,
and Caesar met with people who claimed to have been there. This is why Caesar had been so keen to eliminate
the last shred of resistance in Gaul last year. It’s also why he went out of his way to build
a permanent base around modern Calais. This is where he planned to make his crossing. Everything was in ready, but there were new
developments. Two massive German tribes, over 400,000 people,
began to cross the Rhine that winter. This is exactly the kind of thing what Caesar
wanted to avoid. As soon as the snows began to melt, Caesar
assembled his legions. Before long, he was marching to meet the German
threat. His goal was to find a way to stop this before
it spiraled out of control. When he got close, the Germans sent a diplomat. The diplomat told Caesar that the Germans
had been forced from their homes by a much larger German tribe, and if the the Romans
could find them place to resettle, they would commit themselves to being strong and loyal
allies to the Roman people. This story didn’t move Caesar at all. He wasn’t interested in new German allies,
he was interested in his expedition to Britain. He told the diplomat that Gaul was already
filled to capacity, which wasn’t really true. But, he said, there was a tribe back on the
German side of the Rhine that kept on asking for Roman assistance against invaders. If they marched to that tribe’s aid instead,
they would probably be allowed to settle in their territory when the whole thing was over. This was a pretty clever way to kill two birds
with one stone. Keep the Romans out of it, and stabilize the
German side of the Rhine in the process. The diplomat took Caesar’s offer back to the
Germans. This was a giant decision, and they debated
the issue over several days. While the Germans debated, Caesar took this
opportunity to close the distance between them and his army. After a few days, the German diplomat returned,
saying that they would agree to Caesar’s plan, as long as they could get the tribe on the
other side of the Rhine to swear and oath guaranteeing their safety. They would need a few more days to get in
touch with them. So a few more days passed, and Caesar continued
to close the distance. And then, something happened. According to Caesar, 800 mounted Germans ambushed
Caesar’s men while they were out foraging for supplies, killing a small number of them
before running away. Personally, I have doubts that the Germans
attacked first, but regardless, Caesar claimed that this only confirmed his worst suspicions,
and that the Germans were only playing for time while reinforcements flooded across the
Rhine. The next morning, Caesar prepared for battle. A large German delegation, including all of
the tribal leadership, arrived at the Roman camp, formally apologizing for the sudden
outbreak of violence. Caesar ignored their apologies, and arrested
them on the spot. Let’s take a step back for a minute. Caesar crossed a line here. Remember why he went to war against the Veneti
last year? Rome sent diplomats, the Veneti arrested them,
and Caesar responded by going to war. This is exactly the same thing, in reverse. The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on anybody. When word of this got back to Rome, Cato denounced
Caesar for violating a truce and committing a sacrilege. Cato suggested, half-jokingly, that the Senate
should turn Caesar over to the Germans in order to absolve the city of sin. Nobody took him seriously. Back to Caesar. With the German leadership in custody, Caesar
marched on the tribes, and launched a full-out attacked. The Germans were leaderless, and nobody was
able to coordinate a meaningful defence in time. It quickly turned into a one sided slaughter. Many Germans escaped, but were pursued by
the cavalry all the way back to the Rhine. Some even tried to swim back to German territory,
but we’re told that they all drowned. The Romans would later try to spin this into
a great military victory. But let’s be honest. It wasn’t. It was Caesar needlessly slaughtering at least
tens, maybe hundreds of thousands people that were only interested in Rome’s protection. But Caesar wasn’t done. His fear was that persistent instability on
the Rhine would jeopardize his expedition to Britain. He decided to take his army across the Rhine
to punish the Germans, which, he hoped, would prevent any further incidents from derailing
his plans. Some friendly Germans volunteered to ferry
his men across the river, but in a classic display of that famous Roman arrogance, he
calls this beneath the dignity of the Roman people. Caesar had his men begin to construct a massive
bridge across the Rhine. Caesar describes the process of building this
bridge in excruciating detail. I read his account, and it almost killed me. All you need to know is that the Romans got
it done in 10 days, and people who care about this kind of thing think it was some sort
of technical achievement or something. Anyway, Caesar placed a strong garrison at
both ends of the bridge, to protect it from attack. Then, he marched off into German territory. But there was nobody there. All of the villages were abandoned. The tribes had been alerted as soon as Caesar
began building the bridge, and had fled into the woods. Caesar then marched all over the place, burning
down every abandoned village he could find. Nobody would come forward to fight him. After 18 days of this, Caesar just declared
victory, claiming that he had successfully scared the Germans away. But that wasn’t really true. He didn’t know this at the time, or maybe
he did and he chose not to share it, but there was an army further into German territory,
ready to fight the Roman invasion. But the invasion never came. Caesar turned his army around and marched
back across the Rhine. He then destroyed the bridge, to prevent the
Germans from using it in the future. Caesar had now wasted more than a month on
the Rhine, when he was supposed to be in Britain. The whole thing was a giant waste of time,
and if we’re being honest, it didn’t accomplish anything. Well, it does give Caesar the distinction
of being the first Roman general to lead an army across the Rhine. That’s significant, and honestly that little
piece of propaganda may have been the point of the whole thing. But now, Caesar was finally free to lead his
expedition to Britain. He ordered his leftover ships from last year
to move up to modern Calais, and marched his army to the permanent base that he had conveniently
built there. At this point, Caesar makes this radical claim
that the people in Britain were sending supplies to his enemies in Gaul. This is almost definitely not true. See, the Romans had this funny attitude toward
war. They always liked to frame their wars as defensive,
even when they weren’t. It’s that Roman legalism, it makes you do
funny things. Anyway, once the legions and ships and weak
justifications were all in place, Caesar was ready to launch his expedition. He only had enough transports to carry 2 of
his 8 legions, but that was enough. He loaded his 2 legions onto the ships, and
left the remaining 6 in Labienus’s capable hands. The transports pushed off in the middle of
the night, so that they would arrive off the coast of Britain by mid-morning. But Romans were terrible sailors, and the
weather on the North Atlantic was a lot more unpredictable than they were used to. Early in the morning a storm whipped up, and
a bunch of the ships lagging behind were forced to turn back. Unfortunately, these happened to be the ships
carrying all of Caesar’s cavalry. The rest of the fleet continued toward the
island, and after the sun rose, the men on the ships saw this. The White Cliffs of Dover. A wall of chalk, in places over 100 metres
high, spanning for kilometres in each direction. This was literally the worst place on the
entire island to attempt to make a landing. As the ships got closer, they could see people
lining the cliffs. Native Britons, with their bodies covered
in blue war paint, ready for battle. Those on foot wielded swords and spears with
shields. But many were on horseback, and some stood
on chariots. It must have been quite a sight. Caesar brought his ships to a stop. Obviously he couldn’t land here, so he had
to figure out what to do next. After consulting with his subordinates, Caesar
decided on a course of action. The fleet waited until the late afternoon
for stragglers to catch up, at which point they headed up the coast to the northeast,
searching for a suitable place to land. As they moved, the Britons on the shore shadowed
them along the cliffs. Let’s me take a moment here and talk about
how the British chariots worked. One person drove the chariot, while other
riders threw javelins or other projectiles. The horses were very fast, and were trained
to turn on a dime, which allowed them to zigzag erratically, or charge full speed at the enemy
line only to turn at the last second. All the while, the riders threw their javelins. When they ran out of projectiles, the driver
would get down off the chariot, with their sword or spear and shield, and fight on foot. While they fought, the chariot riders made
sure that they were parked just behind the line of battle, ready to leave at a moment’s
notice. If the fighting turned ugly, all they had
to do was take a few steps back, and they would be galloping away within seconds. Caesar goes on at length about how effective
this tactic was. Anyway, for the rest of the afternoon the
Romans ships moved northeast, searching for a place to land. After many kilometres, the cliffs began to
drop away, and they came across a suitable beach. But the Britons were still shadowing the ships. The infantry was having trouble keeping up,
but the cavalry and chariots were doing just fine. When the Roman ships stopped, the Britons
set up down on the beach, and every minute, more Britons caught up, and joined their ranks. This would be a contested landing. The soldiers on their ships were not thrilled
by this. Amphibious assaults were not really in their
wheelhouse. The order was given to disembark, but nobody
moved. After a tense moment, a man bearing an eagle
standard came forward, and, according to Caesar, he shouted “leap, fellow soldiers, unless
you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the
Republic and to my general.” And with that, he jumped into the water, all
by himself. This shamed his fellow soldiers, and within
moments everybody was jumping in after him. As they moved toward the shore, the Romans
were subject to intense missile fire, and when they got into shallow water, the British
cavalry charged. But the Romans held their ground, and the
fighting continued. Caesar stayed aboard his ship, and watched
as the battle play out. Whenever a spots in the line started to look
like they were close to collapse, he sent a rowboat full of infantry as reinforcements. The fighting was tough, but the Romans absorbed
the worst of it when they met the initial cavalry charge. As time went on, the Romans gained sturdier
footing, and eventually a signal was given and the Britons withdrew. Remember, the Britons were mostly cavalry
and chariots, while the Romans were all infantry. The Britons easily disengaged without much
fuss. We don’t get an exact casualty count from
this engagement, but we get the impression that the Romans paid a heavy price. It was starting to get dark, so the Romans
got to work. Caesar and the rest of the men came ashore,
and the transport ships were pulled up onto the beach. Caesar moved some of his men onto solid ground
where they built their fortified encampment. They spent the night safely behind walls. As the sun rose the next day, the gravity
of their situation started to set in. Caesar’s cavalry hadn’t made it, which meant
that the Romans were literally in uncharted territory, with virtually no ability to scout
ahead. But almost immediately, things started to
improve. Diplomats from a nearby tribe showed up, claiming
that they weren’t part of the army that resisted the Roman landing. The diplomats came offering peace, and surrendered
hostages to the Romans as a sign of good faith. It seems unlikely that this tribe had nothing
to do with the battle that just took place in their back yard, but Caesar wasn’t really
in a position to argue, so he accepted their peace offering. The weather was still pretty awful, so with
peace established, Caesar let his men rest for a couple of days while the supplies were
brought down off the ships. Back in Gaul, they were also keeping a close
eye on the weather. There were still a bunch of ships full of
cavalry eager to make the crossing. They decided to try again. This time they were able to successfully navigate
the storm. They found Caesar’s camp, and prepared to
come ashore. But suddenly, the weather turned again, and
fleet was pushed back out to sea. Their ships simply were not built for weather
like this. The fleet was scattered for a second time,
and many of the ships were badly damaged. They barely made it back to the Gallic coast,
and would not attempt a third crossing. This was some pretty bad luck, and it was
about to get a lot worse. The Romans discovered that the ships up on
the beach had been knocked around during the storm, and some of them were so badly damaged
that they were no longer seaworthy. Caesar and his two legions were now stuck
on the island. The Romans had no scouts, very little food,
and were surrounded by locals who, only a few days earlier, had tried to kill them. The first order of business was to repair
the ships. Caesar scoured his legions for anybody with
experience as a woodworker or a craftsman, and immediately set them to work patching
up the ships. The second order of business was supplies. The craftsmen needed wood, and everybody else
needed food. Foraging was possible, but without any cavalry,
their range was severely limited. Each day, Caesar would send half of his men
to fan out over the countryside and gather whatever supplies they could find. This was fine for a while, but with each passing
day they were forced to go further and further afield. It didn’t take long for the locals to realize
that the Romans were stuck. This dramatically changed the dynamic. In the dead of night, the British diplomats
and hostages secretly slipped out of the Roman camp. The next day, while everyone was all spread
out searching for supplies, a group was suddenly attacked by British chariots and cavalry. Some people ran back to the camp and told
Caesar what was happening. When he heard that his men were under attack,
Caesar immediately ordered everyone back to camp, and told them to prepare for battle. He then grabbed two cohorts, around 1,000
men, and personally lead them out of the camp. The men under attack were barely holding their
own. But when Caesar and his cohorts came into
view, the British cavalry and chariots turned and fled. Caesar didn’t have any way of chasing them
down, but in retaliation he marched to the nearest village and burned it to the ground. It was becoming clear that the native Britons
were becoming openly hostile, so Caesar kept everybody close for the next couple of days,
while the craftsmen continued to repair the ships. Eventually, the Britons showed up again, this
time with a large army. They had been spending their time forming
a tribal coalition, for the purpose of kicking the Romans off the island. Caesar’s had around 8,000 infantry under his
command, so his options were pretty limited. He deployed his men in a standard line in
front of his camp, and waited for the Britons to attack. The chariots zipped back and forth and threw
their javelins. Then the cavalry charged. The Roman infantry held their ground. After that, in Caesar’s words, “the enemy
was unable to sustain the attack.” They obviously weren’t used to fighting heavy
infantry. The Britons turned and fell back. The Romans, in a surprise move, surged forward
and pursued them as fast as they could. The British cavalry and chariots were too
fast to catch, but everybody on foot was killed on the spot. The Romans were now all fired up, and spread
out all over the countryside, where they killed any civilians they could find and burned their
villages to the ground. The next day, the Britons sent diplomats again,
acting all nice, talking peace. This looked awfully familiar. Even if Caesar didn’t trust them, he was still
in a precarious position, so he accepted their peace offer at face value. He also demanded from them twice as many hostages,
which they agreed to. Around this time, the weather improved. His transport ships were, frankly, not quite
repaired, but close enough. Under the cover of darkness he loaded everybody
onto the leaky, busted up ships, and pushed off around midnight, leaving a deserted camp
for the Britons to find the next day. The first Roman expedition to the island of
Britain was officially over. If you ask me, it was an unmitigated failure,
and they were lucky to escape with their lives. First of all, they must have been disappointed
by the level of poverty on the island. There were no secret riches. No gold, no pearls, nothing. Second, whatever Caesar’s ambitions were for
the island, I’m sure it wasn’t “unify the opposition, barely survive two battles with
them, and leave in the middle of the night with your tail between your legs.” But these were fixable problems. If he had more ships he could pack them full
of cavalry, and if he made the crossing in the spring, he could avoid the late summer
storms. Caesar resolved to return next year. During the nighttime escape from Britain,
some of the transports were blown off course. Again. One ship, carrying 300 soldiers were blown
deep into Belgae territory. When news spread that a battered, isolated
group of Romans had washed up on shore, 6,000 Belgae descended on their position. The 300 Romans grabbed weapons, got into a
tight group, and held their ground, as the Belgae completely surrounded them. The Belgae told the Romans to lay down their
arms, but the Romans refused. There was a tense standoff for several hours. The Belgae occasionally closed in and tried
to take the Romans by force, but they fended them off every time. Late in the day, Roman cavalry showed up out
of nowhere. Caesar had got word that some of his men were
trapped in Belgae territory, and had ordered every rider at his disposal to ride all day
to come to their rescue. We’re starting to see why Caesar’s men would
later become fanatically loyal. The 6,000 Belgae turned and ran, and the Roman
cavalry pursued them. Many Belgae were killed, but more importantly,
all 300 Romans escaped with only a few minor wounds. Caesar’s right hand man Labienus was becoming
quite familiar with the Belgae, so Caesar sent him at the head of a legion to punish
them for this transgression. This was the third year in a row that Caesar
had been forced to fight the Belgae. He didn’t want to have to fight them again
next year, so he had his legions winter with Labienus in Belgae territory, to keep an eye
on them. Caesar returned to Cisalpine Gaul, and despite
his lacklustre results in Britain, he sent an account of the expedition back to Rome. The response was rapturous. Britain was still a magical place in the mind
of the public, and they gobbled up every little detail. Bowing to public pressure, the Senate voted
for 20 days of celebration in Caesar’s honour. Even with all of his setbacks, Caesar’s PR
campaign was a resounding success.