A 'century' of Roman infantry soldiers led by a standard bearer and a centurion.
Julius Caesar fighting the Britons during his first
campaign in 55 BC. Caesar invaded the island with a military
force of two legions or about 10,000 men, mainly
-Painting by Edward Armitage
Gaius Julius Caesar
The invasion of the 'Mystery Island' in the year 55 BC
The First Expedition to Britain
By Gaius Julius Caesar (BC
Only a small part of the summer was left, and in these regions, as all Gaul has a northerly aspect, the winters are early; but for all this Caesar was intent upon starting for Britain. He understood that in almost all the Gallic campaigns succors had been furnished for the enemy from that quarter; and he supposed that if the season left no time for actual campaigning, it would still be of great advantage to him merely to have entered the island, observed the character of the natives, and obtained some knowledge of the localities, the harbors and the landing places; for almost all these matters were unknown to the Gauls. In fact, nobody except traders journey thither without good cause; and even traders know nothing except the sea coast and the districts opposite Gaul. Therefore, although he summoned to his quarters traders from all parts, he could discover neither the size of the island, nor the number or the strength of the tribes inhabiting it, nor their manner of warfare, nor the ordinances they observed, nor the harbors suitable for a number of large ships.
To gain such knowledge before he made the venture, Caesar thought Gaius Volusenus a proper person to send on in advance with a ship of war. His orders were to spy out everything and to return to him at once. He himself with all his forces started for the territory of the Morini, from which was the shortest passage across to Britain. He commanded the general concentration here of ships from the neighboring districts, and of the fleet which he had built in the previous summer for the Venetian campaign. Meanwhile his purpose had become known and had been reported through traders to the Britons, and deputies came to him from several states in the island with promises to give hostages and to accept the empire of Rome. He heard them, and made them a generous promise, encouraging them to keep their word; then he sent them back home, and along with them he sent Commius, whom he himself, after subduing the Atrebates, had made king over them. Caesar approved his courage and discretion,, and believed him loyal to himself; and his influence was reckoned to be of great account in those parts. Him he commanded to visit what states he could, to exhort them to seek the protection of Rome, and to announce his own speedy advent thither. Volusenus observed all the country so far as was possible for an officer who did not dare to disembark and trust himself to the rough natives, and on the fifth day returned to Caesar, and reported his observations in Britain.
While Caesar tarried where he was to fit out his ships, deputies came to him from a great part of the Morini to make excuse for their policy of the previous season, when in their barbarism and ignorance of our usage they had made war against Rome, and to promise that they would carry out his commands. Caesar thought this overture exceedingly opportune. He did not wish to leave an enemy in his rear, nor had he a chance of carrying out a campaign because of the lateness of the season; nor did he think the settlement of such trivialities should take precedence of Britain. He therefore ordered them to furnish a large number of hostages; and when they brought these he received them under his protection. When about eight transports--enough in his opinion, to carry two legions (about 10,000 men - Ed.) across--had been collected and concentrated, he distributed all the ships of war he had over between his quartermaster-general, lieutenant-generals, and commandants. To the total stated eighteen transports should be added, which were detained eight miles off by the wind, and prevented from entering the port of concentration; these he allotted to the cavalry. The rest of the army he handed over to Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, lieutenant-generals, to be led against the Menapii and against those cantons of the Morini from which no deputies had come to him. He commanded Publius Sulpicius Rufus, lieutenant-general, with a garrison he considered sufficient, to hold the port.
These arrangements made, he caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch; he ordered the cavalry to proceed to the further harbor, embark and follow him. They took somewhat too long to despatch the business; he himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs. Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore. Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there. Meanwhile he summoned together the lieutenant-generals and tribunes, to inform them what he had learnt from Volusenus, and what he wished to be done; and he warned them that, to meet the requirements of tactics and particularly of navigation--with its liability to movements as rapid as they were irregular--they must do everything in the nick of time at a hint from him. He then dismissed them; and catching at one and the same moment a favorable wind and tide, he gave the signal, and weighed anchor, and moving on about seven miles from that spot, he grounded his ships where the shore was even and open.
The natives, however, perceived the design of the Romans. So they sent forward their cavalry and charioteers--an arm which it is their regular custom to employ in fights--and following up with the rest of their forces, they sought to prevent our troops from disembarking. Disembarkation was a matter of extreme difficulty, for the following reasons. The ships, on account of their size, could not be run ashore, except in deep water; the troops, though they did not know the ground, had not their hands free, and were loaded with the great and grievous weight of their arms--had nevertheless at one and the same time to leap down from the vessels, to stand firm in the waves, and to fight the enemy. The enemy, on the other hand, had all their limbs free, and knew the ground exceedingly well; and either standing on dry land or advancing a little way into the water, they boldly hurled their missiles, or spurred on their horses, which were trained to it. Frightened by all this, and wholly inexperienced in this sort of fighting, our troops did not press on with the same fire and force as they were accustomed to show in land engagements.
When Caesar remarked this, he commanded the ships of war (which were less familiar in appearance to the natives, and could move more freely at need) to remove a little from the transports, to row at speed, and to bring up on the exposed flank of the enemy; and thence to drive and clear them off with slings, arrows and artillery. This movement proved of great service to our troops; for the natives, frightened by the shape of the ships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar type of the artillery, came to a halt, and retired, but only for a little space. And then, while our troops still hung back, chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, the eagle-bearer of the Tenth Legion, after a prayer to heaven to bless the legion by his act, cried: "Leap down, soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy; it shall be told that I at any rate did my duty to my country and my general." When he had said this with a loud voice, he cast himself forth from the ship, and began to bear the eagle against the enemy. Then our troops exhorted one another not to allow so dire a disgrace, and leapt down from the ship with one accord. And when the troops on the nearest ship saw them, they likewise followed on, and drew near to the enemy.
The fighting was fierce on both sides. Our troops, however, because they could not keep rank, nor stand firm, nor follow their proper standards--for any man from any ship attached himself to whatever standard he chanced upon--were in considerable disorder. But the enemy knew all the shallows, and as soon as they had observed from the shore a party of soldiers disembarking one by one from a ship, they spurred on their horses and attacked them while they were in difficulties, many surrounding few, while others hurled missiles into a whole party from the exposed flank. Caesar noticed this; and causing the boats of the warships, and likewise the scout vessels, to be manned with soldiers, he sent them to support any parties whom he had observed to be in distress. The moment our men stood firm on dry land, they charged with all their comrades close behind, and put the enemy to rout, but they could not pursue very far, because the cavalry had not been able to hold on to their course and make the island. This one thing was lacking to complete the wonted success of Caesar.
So the enemy were overcome in the fight; and as soon as they had recovered from the rout they at once sent deputies to Caesar to treat for peace, promising that they would give hostages and do what he commanded. Together with these deputies came Commius the Atribatian, who, as shown above, had been sent forward by Caesar into Britain. When Commius disembarked and delivered Caesar's message to the Britons in the character of an ambassador, they had seized him and thrown him into chains; but now, after the fight, they sent him back. In their entreaty for peace they cast the blame on the misdeed upon the multitude, and sought pardon in consideration of their ignorance. Caesar complained that though of their own motion they had sent deputies on to the Continent to seek peace from him, they had now begun war on him without cause; but he agreed to pardon their ignorance, and required hostages. Part of these they gave at once, part they said they would summon from the more distant parts and give in a few days. Meanwhile they ordered their own folk to get back to their fields, and the chiefs began to assemble from every quarter, and to deliver themselves and their states to Caesar.
Peace was thus established. Four days after the arrival in Britain the eighteen ships above mentioned, which had embarked the cavalry, weighed anchor in a gentle breeze, from the upper port. When they were nearing Britain, and in view of the camp, so fierce a storm suddenly arose that none of them could hold on its course; some were carried back to the selfsame port whence they had started, others were driven away, with great peril to themselves, to the lower, that is, to the more westerly, part of the island. None the less, they cast anchor; but when they began to fill with the waves they were obliged to stand out to sea in a night of foul weather, and make for the Continent.
That same night, as it chanced, the moon was full, the day of the month which usually makes the highest tides in the ocean, a fact unknown to our men. Therefore the tide was found to have filled the warships, in which Caesar had caused the army to be conveyed across, and which he had drawn up on dry land, and at the same time the storm was buffeting the transports, which were made fast to anchors. Nor had our troops any chance of handling them or helping. Several ships went to pieces, and the others, by loss of cordage, anchors, and the rest of the tackle, were rendered useless for sailing. This, as was inevitable, caused great dismay throughout the army. For there were no other ships to carry them back; everything needed for the repair of ships was lacking; and, as it was generally understood that the army was to winter in Gaul, no corn had been provided in these parts against the winter.
When they became aware of this, the British chiefs who had assembled at Caesar's headquarters after the fight took counsel together. As they knew that the Romans lacked cavalry, ships, and corn, and perceived the scantiness of the army from the smallness of the camp (it was stressed even more by the fact that Caesar had brought the legions over without baggage), they thought that the best thing to do was to renew the war, cut off our corn and other supplies, and prolong the business into the winter; for they were confident that when the present force was overcome or cut off from return no one thereafter would cross over into Britain to make war upon them. Therefore they conspired together anew, and departing a few at a time from the camp, they began secretly to draw in their followers from the fields.
Although Caesar had not yet learnt their designs, yet the misfortune of the ships and the fact that the chiefs had broken off the surrender of hostages led him to suspect that events would turn out as they did; and therefore he prepared means to meet any emergency. He collected corn daily from the fields into the camp, and he utilised the timber and bronze of the ships which had been most severely damaged to repair the rest, and ordered the necessary gear for that purpose to be brought from the Continent. The work was most zealously carried out by the troops; and thus, though twelve ships had been lost, he was able to render the rest tolerably seaworthy.
Meanwhile one legion, called the Seventh, had been sent as usual to collect corn, nor as yet had any suspicion of hostilities intervened, since part of the people remained in the fields, and part were actually frequent visitors to the camp. Then the outposts on duty before the gates of the camp reported to Caesar that a greater dust than usual was to be seen in that quarter to which the legion had marched. Caesar suspected the truth--that some fresh design had been started by the natives--and ordered the cohorts which were on outpost to proceed with him to the quarter in question, two of the others to relieve them on outpost, and the rest to arm and follow him immediately. When he had advanced some little way from the camp, he found that his troops were being hard pressed by the enemy and were holding their ground with difficulty; the legion was crowded together, while missiles were being hurled from all sides. The fact was that when the corn had been cut from the rest of the neighborhood one part remained, and the enemy, supposing that our troops would come hither, had hidden by night in the woods, then, when the men were scattered and, having grounded arms, were engaged in cutting corn, they had suddenly attacked them. They had killed a few, throwing the rest into confusion before they could form up, and at the same time surrounding them with horsemen and chariots.
Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows. First of all they drive in all directions and hurl missiles, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus, they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot.
When our troops were thrown into confusion in this fashion by the novel character of the fighting, Caesar brought assistance in the very nick of time; for his arrival caused the enemy to halt, and enabled our men to recover from their fear. This done, he deemed the moment unsuitable for provoking and engaging in a combat; he therefore stood to his own ground and, after a brief interval, led the legions back to camp. In the course of these events all our troops were busily reoccupied, and the natives who remained in the fields withdrew. Then for several days on end storms ensued, severe enough to keep our men in camp and to prevent the enemy from fighting. Meanwhile the natives despatched messengers in every direction, to tell of the scanty numbers of our troops and to show how great a chance was given of getting booty and of liberating themselves for ever by driving the Romans out of their camp. By this means they speedily collected a great host of footmen and horsemen, and came on towards the camp.
Caesar saw that the result would be the same as on the previous day--that the enemy, if repulsed, would use their speed to escape from danger; nevertheless, as he had got about thirty horsemen, whom Commius, the Atrebatian before mentioned, had brought over with him, he formed the legions in line before the camp. When battle was joined the enemy, unable to endure for long the attack of our troops, turned and fled. The Romans followed after, as far as their speed and strength enabled, and slew not a few of them, then, after setting on fire all buildings far and wide, they retired to camp.
On the same day deputies sent by the enemy came to Caesar to treat of peace. For them Caesar doubled the number of hostages previously commanded, and ordered them to be brought to the Continent, because the equinox was close at hand, and with a damaged flotilla he did not think it right to subject his crossing to the hazard of winter storms. He himself, taking advantage of a spell of fair weather, weighed anchor a little after midnight, and all the ships came safe to the Continent; but two of the transports were unable to make the same port as the rest, and were carried a little lower down the coast.
When about three hundred men had been landed from the vessels and were marching rapidly to camp, the Morini, who had been left by Caesar in a state of peace when he set out for Britain, were fired by the hope of booty, and surrounded the troops, at first with a very large number of their own folk, bidding them lay down their arms if they did not wish to be killed. The Romans formed square and defended themselves, and at the noise of shouting some six thousand men speedily came upon them. Upon report of this Caesar sent the whole of the cavalry from the camp to assist his men. Meanwhile our troops withstood the enemy's assault, and fought with the greatest gallantry for more than four hours; they received but a few wounds, and slew a good many of the enemy. Howbeit, as soon as our cavalry came in sight, the enemy threw down their arms and fled, and a great number of them were slain.
The Gallic War, 58-49 BC
(De bello gallico), Book IV, Chapters 20-37.