Friday, 29 January 2010

Julius Caesar’s Invasion of Britain

In 55BC and again in 54BC, Britain was invaded by the great Roman general Julius Caesar. Despite winning several victories, Caesar retreated to the Continent and Rome left Britain alone for nearly a century.

By the spring of 55bc, Roman forces under the general Julius Caesar had completed the conquest of the Celtic tribes in Gaul, a territory covering modern France, Belgium and parts of the Netherlands. Caesar decided to cross the Channel and invade southern Britain.

At the time southern Britain was inhabited by Celtic tribes related to those in Gaul. Caesar complained that many British warriors had fought in Gaul and he feared that the British might try to invade Gaul to aid their fellow Celts. But Caesar had another reason to invade. He was due to stand for election as Consul, the highest post in Rome, and needed a quick and popular victory to gain votes. In 55bc Caesar began gathering his armies.

After dealing with an invasion of Gaul by some German tribes, Caesar loaded a force of some 10,000 men into ships and set sail. A scouting vessel sent some weeks earlier had reported a good harbour at Dover and flat beaches at Deal. Caesar arrived off Dover, but there was such a strong force of Celtic warriors that he diverted to Deal. At Deal the Romans were met by a force of British warriors who lined the shore. The legionnaries hesitated to wade ashore. Then the standard bearer of the X Legion leapt into the surf and yelled out “Jump Comrades, unless you wish to betray our eagle to the enemy”. Grasping the sacred eagle standard he waded towards the British, followed by the rest of the X Legion.

The fighting on the beach was savage, but eventually the Romans got ashore. Caesar ordered a fortified camp to be built and sent out messages to the local chiefs demanding hostages to be given in return for peace. Some hostages began to arrive, but four days after the landing a massive storm lashed the coast. The Roman fleet was scattered and many ships destroyed. Taking advantage of the fact that Caesar was cut off from his base, the Britons attacked. The Romans drove the Britons off, but it was far from a convincing victory. Caesar took more hostages, then returned to Gaul.

In the spring of 54bc, Caesar returned to Deal. This time he brought nearly 30,000 men and 600 supply ships. Although the fleet was again damaged by a storm, Caesar constructed a secure base camp and established regular crossings to bring fresh supplies. Two weeks after landing he marched his army inland.

At a fortified settlement, perhaps Bigbury near Canterbury, Caesar met a large British army. The Britons were led by Cassivellaunus, King of the mighty Catuvellauni tribe which was based north of the Thames. The British ambushed a Roman force, but the next day Caesar inflicted a heavy defeat on the enemy. The tribes south of the Thames made peace, as did some in East Anglia, but Cassivellaunus defied Caesar. As Caesar marched north across the Thames, Cassivellaunus used his mobile chariots to ambush Roman patrols and harry the camps at night.

By the late summer, the Roman armies had marched deep into Catuvellauni territory and captured several towns. But Cassivellaunus had kept his army intact and was far from defeated. At about this time Caesar heard rumours that several tribes in Gaul were preparing to revolt. He decided to make peace. He asked Cassivellaunus for hostages and a cash tribute and for the promise that he would not attack the tribes which had surrendered to Rome. Eager to be rid of Caesar, Cassivellaunus agreed.

As autumn closed in Caesar embarked his troops on his ships and sailed for Gaul. He later went on to fight a series of bitter civil wars against other Roman generals and become dictator of Rome. But he was never free to return to Britain, where the Catuvellauni soon became the richest and most powerful tribe of all.

This is an extract from the book "What Everyone Needs to Know About British History", by Rupert Matthews.

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