Gaius Julius Caesar. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
FROM DOT TO DOMESDAYPrehistory
Julius Caesar
“... a soldier and general not in the least inferior to any of the greatest and most admired commanders who had ever appeared at the head of armies.”
Plutarch ‘Parallel Lives’ Caesar
Expeditions to Britain
55BC, The First Expedition
During the years 58–51BC, ambitious Roman proconsul, Gaius Julius Caesar campaigned in Gaul – an area which he had chosen, notes Suetonius:
“... as the most likely to enrich him and furnish suitable material for triumphs.”
‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ The Deified Julius Chapter 22
Caesar published his own account of ‘The Gallic War’, in which he refers to himself in the third person. The campaigning season of 55BC was drawing to a close. Caesar had returned to Gaul after mounting a raid – famously, bridging the Rhine – against the Germans:
“Only a small part of summer remained, and in these parts, the whole of Gaul having a northerly trend, winter sets in early: nevertheless Caesar made active preparations for an expedition to Britain; for he knew that in almost all the operations in Gaul our enemies had been reinforced from that country. Besides, if there were not time for a campaign, he thought that it would be well worth his while merely to visit the island, see what the people were like, and make himself acquainted with the features of the country, the harbours, and the landing-places; for of all this the Gauls knew practically nothing.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapter 20
Caesar mentions military considerations, but another motive for taking a look at Britain was the possibility that riches might be found there. Suetonius:
“They say that he was led to invade Britannia by the hope of getting pearls, and that in comparing their size he sometimes weighed them with his own hand; that he was always a most enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists; also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts.”
‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ The Deified Julius Chapter 47
Be that as it may, Caesar continues:
“No one, indeed, readily undertakes the voyage to Britain except traders; and even they know nothing of it except the coast and the parts opposite the different regions of Gaul. Accordingly, though Caesar summoned traders from all parts to meet him, he could not ascertain the extent of the island, what tribes dwelt therein, their strength, their method of fighting, their manners and customs, or what harbours were capable of accommodating a large flotilla.
To procure information on these points before risking the attempt, he sent Gaius Volusenus, whom he considered perfectly competent, with a galley, instructing him to make a thorough reconnaissance and return as soon as possible. At the same time he marched with his whole force for the country of the Morini, as the shortest passage to Britain was from their coast, and ordered ships to assemble there from all the ports in the adjacent districts, as well as the fleet which he had built in the previous summer for the war with the Veneti. Meanwhile his design became known and was reported by traders to the Britons, whereupon envoys came to him from several tribes of the island, promising to give hostages and to submit to the authority of the Roman People. On hearing what they had to say, Caesar graciously reassured them, and sent them home, enjoining them to abide by their resolve. Along with them he sent Commius, whom, after the overthrow of the Atrebates [southern neighbours of the Morini], he had set up as king over that people – a man of whose energy and judgement he had a high opinion, whom he believed to be loyal, and who was reputed to have great influence in the country [i.e. in Britain]. He instructed him to visit all the tribes he could, to urge them to trust to the good faith of the Roman People, and to announce that Caesar would soon arrive. Volusenus reconnoitered all the features of the coast, as far as he could get the chance, for he could not venture to disembark and trust himself to the barbarians, and in five days returned to Caesar and reported his observations.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapters 20 & 21
One late-August night, “about the third watch” (i.e. around midnight), Caesar set sail for Britain. He had two legions (probably around ten thousand men) in “about eighty transports” and an unspecified number of warships. A further eighteen transports, which had been delayed by contrary weather, were to follow carrying cavalry:
“... Caesar, with the leading ships, reached Britain about the fourth hour [about 9am]; and there, standing in full view on all the heights, he saw an armed force of the enemy. The formation of the ground was peculiar, the sea being so closely walled in by abrupt heights that it was possible to throw a missile from the ground above on to the shore. Caesar thought the place most unsuitable for landing, and accordingly remained till the ninth hour [about 3pm], waiting at anchor for the other ships to join him... getting wind and tide together in his favour, Caesar gave the signal, weighed anchor, and sailing on about seven miles further, ran the ships aground on an open and evenly-shelving shore.
From his descriptions, it would seem pretty clear that Caesar initially arrived at Dover, and then, having discounted Dover as suitable for landing, he finally came ashore near Deal (to the north-east of Dover). That is the most widely accepted scenario, anyway, but it is not a certainty – see: Time and Tide I.
The barbarians knew what the Romans intended. Sending on ahead their cavalry and charioteers – a kind of warriors whom they habitually employ in action – they followed with the rest of their force and attempted to prevent our men from disembarking. It was very difficult to land, for these reasons. The size of the ships made it impossible for them to ground except in deep water; the soldiers did not know the ground, and with their hands loaded, and weighted by their heavy, cumbrous armour, they had to jump down from the ships, keep their foothold in the surf, and fight the enemy all at once; while the enemy had all their limbs free, they knew the ground perfectly, and standing on dry land or moving forward a little into the water, they threw their missiles boldly and drove their horses into the sea, which they were trained to enter. Our men were unnerved by the situation; and having no experience of this kind of warfare, they did not show the same dash and energy that they generally did in battles on land.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapters 23 & 24
Caesar ordered his warships to launch a barrage of missiles – “slingers, archers, and artillery machines” – to clear space for his men to disembark from the transports:
“... the barbarians, alarmed by the build of the ships, the motion of the oars, and the strangeness of the artillery, stood still, and then drew back a little. And now, as our soldiers were hesitating, chiefly because of the depth of the water, the standard-bearer of the 10th legion, praying that his attempt might redound to the success of the legion, cried, “Leap down, men, unless you want to abandon the eagle to the enemy: I, at all events, shall have done my duty to my country and my general.” Uttering these words in a loud voice, he threw himself overboard, and advanced, bearing the eagle against the enemy. Then, calling upon each other not to suffer such a disgrace, the men leaped all together from the ship. Seeing this, their comrades in the nearest ships followed them, and advanced close up to the enemy.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapter 25
The Romans fought their way ashore and, eventually, the Britons were put to flight. Because his cavalry had failed to make the Channel crossing, Caesar was unable to give chase and complete his victory. Soon, the Britons sent envoys to negotiate a peace. They also returned, Caesar's emissary, Commius of the Atrebates, who, on his arrival in Britain, they had seized and clapped in irons. Caesar demanded hostages:
“Part of the required number they handed over at once, saying that they had to fetch the rest from long distances, and would deliver them in a few days. Meanwhile they ordered their followers to go back to their districts, while chiefs began to come in from all parts and place themselves and their tribes under Caesar's protection.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapter 27
It was now four days since the Romans had arrived in Britain, and the eighteen ship-loads of cavalry, at last, set sail for Britain. They were in sight of Caesar's camp when a violent storm sprang up, driving them back across the Channel. Unfortunately, the storm also flooded Caesar's warships, which he had drawn up on the beach. Of the transports, which were at anchor, several were wrecked, and the rest were damaged. “The whole army was seized by panic” – there were no other ships, they had no facilities to repair the damage, and, since they were expecting to overwinter in Gaul, there were no corn supplies:
“When this became known, the British chiefs who had waited on Caesar after the battle took counsel together. They knew that the Romans had neither cavalry nor ships nor grain; and they gathered that their troops were few from the smallness of the camp, which, as Caesar had taken over the legions without heavy baggage, was extraordinarily contracted. They therefore concluded that their best course would be to renew hostilities, cut off our men from corn and other supplies, and protract the campaign till winter, being confident that, if they overpowered them or prevented their return, no invader would ever again come over to Britain. Accordingly they renewed their oaths of mutual fidelity, and began to move away one by one from the camp and to fetch their tribesmen secretly from the districts.
Caesar was not yet aware of their plans; but from what had happened to his ships and from the fact that the chiefs had left off sending hostages, he guessed what was coming. Accordingly he prepared for all contingencies. He had corn brought in daily from the fields into camp; utilized the timber and bronze belonging to the ships that had been most severely damaged to repair the rest; and ordered everything required for the purpose to be brought over from the continent. The men worked with hearty goodwill; and, thus although twelve ships were lost, he managed to have the rest made tolerably seaworthy.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapters 30 & 31
One day, the 7th legion, whilst engaged in reaping corn, was ambushed. The dust of the battle was seen from the Roman camp, and Caesar set out with reinforcements. When he arrived on the scene, he found that the Romans had been surrounded by British cavalry and chariots:
“Chariots are used in action in the following way. First of all the charioteers drive all over the field, the warriors hurling missiles; and generally they throw the enemy's ranks into confusion by the mere terror inspired by their horses and the clatter of the wheels. As soon as they have penetrated between the troops of [their own] cavalry, the warriors jump off the chariots and fight on foot. The drivers meanwhile gradually withdraw from the action, and range the cars in such a position that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the enemy's numbers, they may easily get back to them. Thus they exhibit in action the mobility of cavalry combined with the steadiness of infantry; and they become so efficient from constant practice and training that they will drive their horses at full gallop, keeping them well in hand, down a steep incline, check and turn them in an instant, run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and step backwards again to the cars with the greatest nimbleness.
Our men were unnerved by these movements, because the tactics were new to them; and Caesar came to their support in the nick of time. When he came up the enemy stood still, and our men recovered from their alarm. Thinking, however, that the moment was not favourable for challenging the enemy and forcing on a battle, he simply maintained his position, and after a short interval withdrew the legions into camp.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapters 33 & 34
As can be seen from Caesar's description (and also substantiated by the archaeological record), the notion that the Britons attached blades to the axles of their chariots is a myth. At any rate, a period of stormy weather followed the ambush. The Britons took the opportunity to muster “a large body of horse and foot” and approached the Roman camp:
“Caesar foresaw that what had happened on previous days would happen again – even if the enemy were beaten, their mobility would enable them to get off scot free; however, he luckily obtained about thirty horsemen, whom the Atrebatian, Commius, already mentioned, had taken over with him, and drew up the legions in front of the camp. A battle followed; and the enemy, unable to stand long against the onset of our troops, turned and fled. The troops pursued them as far as their speed and endurance would permit, and killed a good many of them; then, after burning all the buildings far and wide, they returned to camp.
On the same day the enemy sent envoys, who came to Caesar to sue for peace. He ordered them to find twice as many hostages as before and take them across to the continent; for the equinox [26th September] was near, and, as his ships were unsound, he did not think it wise to risk a stormy passage. Taking advantage of favourable weather, he set sail a little after midnight. All the ships reached the continent in safety; but two transports were unable to make the same harbours as the rest, and drifted a little further down.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapters 35 & 36
Caesar's first expedition to Britain had lasted about three weeks.
Dio Cassius remarks:
“From Britain he had won nothing for himself or for the state except the glory of having conducted an expedition against its inhabitants; but on this he prided himself greatly and the Romans at home likewise magnified it to a remarkable degree. For seeing that the formerly unknown had become certain and the previously unheard-of accessible, they regarded the hope for the future inspired by these facts as already realized and exulted over their expected acquisitions as if they were already within their grasp; hence they voted to celebrate a thanksgiving for twenty days.”
‘Romaika’ Book XXXIX Chapter 53
Troops (“about three hundred infantry”), from the two ships that had been separated from the rest, were ambushed by Morini tribesmen. Caesar despatched his cavalry, who chased off the attackers. The next day, the legions just returned from Britain, commanded by Titus Labienus, marched against the rebel Morini, and most were captured. The rest of Caesar's legions, which had been engaged in a punitive campaign against, the Morini's easterly neighbours, the Menapii, returned from their expedition. Caesar:
“... quartered all the legions for the winter in the country of the Belgae. Thither two British tribes and no more sent hostages: the rest neglected to do so.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book IV Chapter 38
54BC, The Second Expedition
“... he crossed over again to Britain, giving as his excuse that the people of that country, thinking that he would never make trial of them again because he had once retired empty-handed, had not sent all the hostages they had promised; but the truth of the matter was that he mightily coveted the island, so that he would certainly have found some other pretext, if this had not offered itself.”
Dio Cassius ‘Romaika’ Book XL Chapter 1
The legions were settled in winter quarters. Caesar ordered that the troops should build as many new ships as possible, and that damaged ones should be repaired. The new ships were to be built to his own design:
“To enable them to be loaded rapidly and hauled up on shore, he had them made a little shallower than those which are habitually used in the Mediterranean ... to carry stores as well as the numerous horses, he built them a little wider than those which were in use in other waters. All these vessels he ordered to be constructed both for rowing and sailing, which was greatly facilitated by their low freeboard, and the tackle required for fitting them out to be imported from Spain.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 1
Caesar gives few dating clues, but it would have been during May, 54BC, that he was pleased to find that “thanks to the extraordinary energy of the troops” about 600 of his new-style ships and 28 warships had been built:
“Heartily commending the soldiers and officers who had superintended the work, he gave the necessary instructions, and ordered all the ships to assemble at Portus Itius, from which he had ascertained that the passage to Britain was most convenient – the run to the continent being about thirty miles.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 2
Unrest was brewing amongst some Gallic tribes, but Caesar was determined to press ahead with his expedition to Britain. Whilst the fleet was assembling, he hastily patched up trouble within the Treveri – “in order to avoid having to waste the summer in the country of the Treveri [the Moselle valley] after having made all his preparations for a campaign in Britain”. When he got back to Portus Itius, the fleet, except for 60 ships which had failed to arrive due to bad weather, was ready to sail:
“Some four thousand cavalry from the whole of Gaul and the leading men from all the tribes assembled at the same place [i.e. Portus Itius]. A few of them, of whose fidelity he was assured, he had determined to leave in Gaul, taking the rest with him as hostages, as he was afraid that, during his absence, there would be disturbances in the country.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 5
Unfortunately, “for about twenty-five days”, the fleet was prevented from sailing by a north-westerly wind.
The Roman statesman Cicero had a younger brother, Quintus, who was serving under Caesar and was going on the expedition to Britain. Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus: “The result of the British war is a source of anxiety. For it is ascertained that the approaches to the island are protected by astonishing masses of cliff. Moreover, it is now known that there isn't a pennyweight of silver in that island, nor any hope of booty except from slaves, among whom I don't suppose you can expect any instructed in literature or music.” (‘Letters to Atticus’ Book IV no16)  From a reference he makes in the letter, it is apparent that Cicero wrote it shortly before the 8th June. Dates provided by Cicero's correspondence have allowed historians to derive a chronological framework for Caesar's second expedition. See: Time and Tide II.
The weather turned in Caesar's favour, and he immediately ordered his forces to board. Whilst the Romans were distracted, one of Caesar's hostages – Dumnorix, a particularly troublesome chieftain of the Aedui – made his escape. When Caesar was informed, he suspended the embarkation. A detachment of cavalry was sent after Dumnorix, with orders to bring him back dead or alive. Dumnorix refused to submit and was killed:
“Having disposed of this business, Caesar, leaving Labienus on the continent with three legions and two thousand cavalry to protect the ports, provide for a supply of corn, ascertain what was passing in Gaul, and act as the circumstances of the moment might dictate, set sail towards sunset with five legions and the same number of cavalry as he had left behind. A light south-westerly breeze wafted him on his way: but about midnight the wind dropped; he failed to keep his course; and drifting far away with the tide, he descried Britain at daybreak lying behind on the port quarter. Then following the turn of the tide, he rowed hard to gain the part of the island where, as he had learned in the preceding summer, it was best to land [i.e. probably in the vicinity of Deal]... The ships all reached Britain about midday, but no enemy was visible: large numbers, as Caesar found out afterwards from prisoners, had assembled at the spot , but, alarmed by the great number of the ships, more than eight hundred of which, counting those of the preceding year and the private vessels which individuals had built for their own convenience, were visible at once, they had quitted the shore and withdrawn to the higher ground.
Caesar disembarked the army and chose a suitable spot for a camp....
Clearly concerned for his brother, on 2nd July Cicero wrote to Atticus: “Judging from my brother Quintus' letter, I suspect that by this time he is in Britain. I await news of him with anxiety.” (‘Letters to Atticus’ Book IV no15)  Quintus duly wrote to his brother, confirming his safe arrival, and Cicero replied: “How glad I was to get your letter from Britain! I was afraid of the ocean, afraid of the coast of the island. The other parts of the enterprise I do not underrate; but yet they inspire more hope than fear, and it is the suspense rather than any positive alarm that renders me uneasy. You, however, I can see, have a splendid subject for description, topography, natural features of things and places, manners, races, battles, your commander himself – what themes for your pen!” (‘Letters to his Brother’ Book II no15. For the date of this letter, see: Time and Tide II.)
.... Having ascertained from prisoners where the enemy's forces were posted, he left ten cohorts and three hundred cavalry near the sea to protect the ships, and marched against the enemy about the third watch. He felt little anxiety for the ships, as he was leaving them at anchor on a nice open shore... After a night march of about twelve miles Caesar descried the enemy's force. Advancing with their cavalry and chariots from higher ground towards a river [the Stour], they attempted to check our men and force on an action. Beaten off by the cavalry, they fell back into the woods and occupied a well-fortified post of great natural strength [Bigbury hillfort, a couple of miles west of Canterbury, is the favourite suggestion], which they had apparently prepared for defence some time before with a view to intestine war, for all the entrances were blocked by felled trees laid close together. Fighting in scattered groups, they threw missiles from the woods, and tried to prevent our men from penetrating within the defences; but the soldiers of the 7th legion, locking their shields over their heads, and piling up lumber against the defences, captured the position and drove them out of the woods at the cost of a few wounded. Caesar, however, forbade them to pursue the fugitives far, partly because he had no knowledge of the ground, partly because much of the day was spent and he wished to leave time for entrenching his camp.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapters 8 & 9
The next morning, having already despatched three divisions of mixed infantry and cavalry in pursuit of the Britons, Caesar received news that, overnight, his ships had, once more, been the victims of a violent storm. Recalling his troops, he returned to the coast. “About forty ships” were completely wrecked and most of the rest were damaged. He decided to have all the ships dragged ashore, and to extend the camp's defences to include the beached ships. He sent word to Gaul – ordering that extra craftsmen be sent over to help with repairs, and telling Labienus to use the legions there “to build as many ships as possible”. After some ten days, and nights, of labour the ships had been hauled up and the fortification was complete:
“... Caesar left the same force as before to protect them, and advanced to the point from which he had returned. By the time that he arrived reinforcements of Britons had assembled on the spot from all sides. The chief command and the general direction of the campaign had been entrusted by common consent to Cassivellaunus, whose territories are separated from those of the maritime tribes by a river called the Thames, about eighty miles from the sea. He had before been incessantly at war with the other tribes; but in their alarm at our arrival the Britons had made him their commander-in-chief.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 11
As they advanced, the Romans were harried by the Britons. The Romans found the British, chariot-based, tactics difficult to counter:
“... it was clear that the infantry, owing to the weight of their armour, were ill fitted to engage an enemy of this kind; for they could not pursue him when he retreated, and they dared not abandon their regular formation: also that the cavalry fought at great risk, because the enemy generally fell back on purpose, and, after drawing our men a little distance away from the legions, leaped down from their chariots and fought on foot with the odds in their favour... Besides, the Britons never fought in masses, but in groups separated by wide intervals; they posted reserves and relieved each other in succession, fresh vigorous men taking the places of those who were tired.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 16
The next day, the Britons resumed their harassment of the Romans, though Caesar notes “with less vigour than the day before”. At noon, three legions and all the Roman cavalry were foraging when they were attacked, in force, from all directions:
“The men charged them vigorously, beat them off, and continued to pursue them until the cavalry, relying on the support of the legions, which they saw behind them, drove them headlong: they killed a great many of them and never allowed them to rally or make a stand or get down from their chariots. After this rout the reinforcements, which had assembled from all sides, immediately dispersed; and from that time the enemy never encountered us in a general action.
In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch writes: “He was so much master of the good-will and hearty service of his soldiers, that those who in other expeditions were but ordinary men, displayed a courage past defeating or withstanding when they went upon any danger where Caesar's glory was concerned... in Britain, when some of the foremost officers had accidentally got into a morass full of water, and there were assaulted by the enemy, a common soldier, whilst Caesar stood and looked on, threw himself into the midst of them, and after many signal demonstrations of his valor, rescued the officers, and beat off the barbarians. He himself, in the end, took to the water, and with much difficulty, partly by swimming, partly by wading, passed it, but in the passage lost his shield. Caesar and his officers saw it and admired, and went to meet him with joy and acclamation. But the soldier, much dejected and in tears, threw himself down at Caesar's feet, and begged his pardon for having let go his buckler... This love of honour and passion for distinction were inspired into them and cherished in them by Caesar himself, who, by his unsparing distribution of money and honours, showed them that he did not heap up wealth from the wars for his own luxury, or the gratifying his private pleasures, but that all he received was but a public fund laid by for the reward and encouragement of valor, and that he looked upon all he gave to deserving soldiers as so much increase to his own riches. Added to this, also, there was no danger to which he did not willingly expose himself, no labour from which he pleaded all exemption. His contempt of danger was not so much wondered at by his soldiers, because they knew how much he coveted honour. But his enduring so much hardship, which he did to all appearance beyond his natural strength, very much astonished them.” (‘Parallel Lives’ Caesar)
Having ascertained the enemy's plans, Caesar led his army to the Thames, into the territories of Cassivellaunus. The river can only be forded at one spot, and there with difficulty. On reaching this place, he observed that the enemy were drawn up in great force near the opposite bank of the river. The bank was fenced by sharp stakes planted along its edge; and similar stakes were fixed under water and concealed by the river. Having learned these facts from prisoners and deserters, Caesar sent his cavalry on in front, and ordered the legions to follow them speedily; but the men advanced with such swiftness and dash, though they only had their heads above water, that the enemy, unable to withstand the combined onset of infantry and cavalry, quitted the bank and fled.
The ford used by Caesar may have been the only one he considered suitable for his purpose, but it wasn't the only crossing point on the Thames. Almost 800 years after Caesar, Bede noted that the remains of the sharpened stakes “... are to be seen to this day, apparently about the thickness of a man's thigh, cased with lead, and fixed immovably in the bottom of the river.” (‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ Book I Chapter 2)  Even if these really were the very stakes encountered by Caesar (the piles of a Romano-British bridge is more likely), Bede doesn't actually say where they were. There is no reason why the stakes should have survived – after all, if they were an impediment to using the ford, surely they would have been removed at some stage. Nevertheless, it seems there has always been a tendency to place Caesar's ford where ancient timber stakes have been found. William Camden, in ‘Britannia’ (first published in 1586), identified ‘Coway Stakes’, near Walton, as the site. At Brentford, apparently in the 1870s during dredging operations, a line of stakes was found. In addition, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ records Edmund Ironside crossing the Thames, twice, there in 1016. So, though the evidence is less than compelling, Brentford appears to be the most popular candidate for Caesar's crossing place.
Cassivellaunus, abandoning, as we have remarked above, all thoughts of regular combat, disbanded the greater part of his force, retaining only about four thousand charioteers; watched our line of march; and moving a little away from the track, concealed himself in impenetrable wooded spots, and removed the cattle and inhabitants from the open country into the woods in those districts through which he had learned that we intended to march. Whenever our cavalry made a bold dash into the country to plunder and devastate, he sent his charioteers out of the woods (for he was familiar with every track and path), engaged the cavalry to their great peril, and by the fear which he thus inspired prevented them from moving far afield. Caesar had now no choice but to forbid them to move out of touch with the column of infantry, and, by ravaging the country and burning villages, to injure the enemy as far as the legionaries' powers of endurance would allow.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapters 17–19
At this point in his narrative, Caesar reveals that he had been accompanied from Gaul by a high ranking Briton called Mandubracius – a young man whose father had been king of the Trinovantes (spelled ‘Trinobantes’ by Caesar). To save his own life, Mandubracius had fled to Caesar, in Gaul, when his father had been killed by Cassivellaunus. The Trinovantes (“about the strongest tribe in that part of the country”) now approached Caesar and offered their submission. Caesar acceded to their request that Mandubracius be sent to rule as king, with Caesar's protection from Cassivellaunus, and guaranteed that they would suffer no predations at the hands of his own troops. In return, Caesar demanded forty hostages and grain for his army – which the Trinovantes promptly supplied. Encouraged by the terms the Trinovantes had received, five, otherwise unknown, tribes – the Cenimagni, the Segontiaci, the Ancalites, the Bibroci and the Cassi – also surrendered. Caesar learned from them that:
“... the stronghold [actual word: ‘oppidum’] of Cassivellaunus, which was protected by woods and marshes, was not far off, and that a considerable number of men and of cattle had assembled in it. The Britons apply the name of stronghold to any woodland spot, difficult of access and fortified with a rampart and trench, to which they are in the habit of resorting in order to escape a hostile raid. Caesar marched to the spot indicated with his legions, and found that the place was of great natural strength and well fortified; nevertheless he proceeded to assault it on two sides....
The location of Cassivellaunus' oppidum is yet another subject which has long been debated. In the early 1930s, following excavations, Sir Mortimer Wheeler suggested that a site at Wheathampstead (where the remaining earthworks are known as ‘the Devil's Dyke’ and ‘the Slad’), to the north of St.Albans, fitted the bill. Sir Mortimer's identification still tends to be the favourite, but it is by no means certain.
.... The enemy stood their ground a short time, but could not sustain the onset of our infantry, and fled precipitately from another part of the stronghold. A great quantity of cattle was found in the place, and many of the garrison were captured as they were trying to escape, and killed.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 21
Cicero to Quintus: “Your remark, that you are a greater favourite with Cæsar every day, is a source of undying satisfaction to me... As for the British expedition, I conclude from your letter that we have no occasion either for fear or exultation.” (‘Letters to his Brother’ Book III no1)
Meanwhile, Cassivellaunus had sent word to the four kings – Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segovax – who ruled Kent, ordering them to “collect all their forces” and mount an attack on Caesar's coastal camp. The attack was easily repulsed – many Britons were killed and the leader, one Lugotorix, was captured – the Romans suffered no losses.
“On receiving news of the action, Cassivellaunus, who was greatly alarmed by the defection of the tribes, following the numerous disasters which he had sustained and the ravaging of his country, availed himself of the mediation of the Atrebatian, Commius, and sent envoys to Caesar to propose surrender. Caesar had resolved to winter on the continent, because disturbances were likely to break out suddenly in Gaul: not much of the summer remained, and the enemy, as he knew, could easily spin out time....
Clearly, Caesar was as keen to come to terms as Cassivellaunus was. The fact that Commius was the intermediary might suggest that it was Caesar himself who initiated negotiations. The news he was receiving from Gaul would seem to have disturbed him sufficiently to abandon his original intention of wintering in Britain. Though he doesn't mention it himself, Caesar had returned to the coastal camp during the campaign. Cicero to Quintus: “From Britain I have a letter of Cæsar's dated the 5th of August, which reached me on the 31st, satisfactory enough as far as the British expedition is concerned, in which, to prevent my wondering at not getting one from you, he tells me that you were not with him when he reached the coast.” (‘Letters to his Brother’ Book III no1)  The date of Caesar's letter is, perhaps, too early to suggest his visit was occasioned by the British attack on the camp. Possibly, then, it was motivated by the need for urgent correspondence with Labienus in Gaul.
.... Accordingly he ordered hostages to be given, and fixed the tribute which Britain was to pay annually to the Roman People, at the same time strictly forbidding Cassivellaunus to molest Mandubracius or the Trinovantes.
On receiving the hostages, he led back the army to the sea, where he found the ships repaired....
Cicero to Atticus: “I received a letter on the 26th of September from my brother and from Cæsar, dated from the nearest coasts of Britain on the 29th of August. Britain done with – hostages taken – no booty – a tribute, however, imposed; they were on the point of bringing back the army.” (‘Letters to Atticus’ Book IV no18)
.... When they were launched, he arranged to take the army back in two trips, as he had a large number of prisoners and some ships had been destroyed by the storm.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapters 22 & 23
The first trip was made satisfactorily. The ships, having unloaded, were joined by sixty new ships – built by Labienus – for the return voyage to Britain. Yet again, the weather conspired against Caesar, and most of the empty vessels were driven back:
“Caesar waited for them a considerable time in vain; and then, for fear the lateness of the season (just before the equinox) should prevent his sailing, he was obliged to pack the troops rather closely. A dead calm followed, and unmooring at the beginning of the second watch [about 9pm], he reached land at dawn and brought all the ships safe ashore.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book V Chapter 23
Using the schedule constructed by T. Rice Holmes (see: Time and Tide II), Caesar had been in Britain about ten weeks.
“[Caesar's] expedition into Britain was the most famous testimony of his courage. For he was the first who brought a navy into the western ocean, or who sailed into the Atlantic with an army to make war; and by invading an island, the reported extent of which had made its existence a matter of controversy among historians, many of whom questioned whether it were not a mere name and fiction, not a real place, he might be said to have carried the Roman empire beyond the limits of the known world. He passed thither twice from that part of Gaul which lies over against it, and in several battles which he fought, did more hurt to the enemy than service to himself, for the islanders were so miserably poor, that they had nothing worth being plundered of. When he found himself unable to put such an end to the war as he wished, he was content to take hostages from the king, and to impose a tribute, and then quitted the island.”
Plutarch ‘Parallel Lives’ Caesar
Epilogue
In 52BC, most of the Gallic tribes united in rebellion, under the leadership of Vercingetorix of the Arverni (who gave their name to the Auvergne region of central France). The uprising culminated in a battle against Caesar, at Alesia. Commius, the Atrebatian, was one of the Gallic commanders:
“Caesar, as we have already mentioned, had found Commius a loyal and serviceable agent in former years in Britain; and, in acknowledgment of these services, he had granted his tribe immunity from taxation, restored to it its rights and laws, and placed the Morini under his authority. Yet so intense was the unanimous determination of the entire Gallic people to establish their liberty and recover their ancient military renown that no favours, no recollection of former friendship, had any influence with them, but all devoted their energies and resources to the prosecution of the war.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book VII Chapter 76
The Gauls were defeated. Vercingetorix was taken prisoner, and eventually executed. The account of his decisive victory at Alesia brings Caesar's own record of ‘The Gallic War’ to a close. However, after his assassination, in 44BC, an extra (eighth) book was written by, his friend, Aulus Hirtius, in which the subsequent mopping-up operations are described. After Alesia, Caesar was determined to crush Gallic resistance. Campaigning was normally abandoned during the wintertime, but he pressed on through the winter of 52/51BC. By the end of the campaigning season of 51BC, Gaul was subdued. One of the leaders of Gallic resistance during this period was Commius. Hirtius reveals that Commius was particularly embittered because there had been an attempt to assassinate him. Prior to Alesia, Caesar's lieutenant, Titus Labienus had discovered that Commius was “raising a conspiracy against Caesar”. Labienus sent Gaius Volusenus to kill Commius “under pretence of conference”. The plan went awry. Commius was not killed, but he did receive a serious head wound:
“Upon this transaction, it was said that Commius made a resolution never to come within sight of any Roman.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book VIII Chapter 23
Hirtius makes it plain that the plan to assassinate Commius – clearly accepted as discreditable – was conceived by Labienus in Caesar's absence. Hirtius was, of course, writing after the civil war and Caesar's own assassination. In 49BC, Labienus had turned against Caesar, and shifted his allegiance to Caesar's enemies. According to Dio Cassius (‘Romaika’ Book XLI Chapter 4), Labienus: “... had abandoned Caesar and deserted to the other side, and he announced all Caesar's secrets to Pompey. One might feel surprise, now, that after having always been most highly honoured by Caesar to the extent even of commanding all the legions beyond the Alps whenever the proconsul was in Italy, he should have done this. The reason was that when he had acquired wealth and fame he began to conduct himself more haughtily than his rank warranted, and Caesar, seeing that he put himself on the same level with his superior, ceased to be so fond of him. And so, as Labienus could not endure this change and was at the same time afraid of coming to some harm, he transferred his allegiance.”  In 45BC, Labienus was killed in battle against Caesar. Appian, writing around the mid-2nd century AD, says (‘The Civil Wars’ Book II Chapter 105) that Labienus' head was taken to Caesar.
At any rate, by the end of 51BC's campaigning season, Commius' people, the Atrebates, had capitulated, but Commius and his band of cavalry continued to ambush Roman supply trains. Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) was in charge of the Roman winter quarters in Atrebatian territory. Antony sent Volusenus to hunt down Commius – a task Volusenus was pleased to be given, because of his “great aversion to Commius”. After a number of encounters there occurred a skirmish in which Commius thrust his spear through Volusenus' thigh:
“When their commander was wounded, our men no longer hesitated to make resistance, and, facing about, beat back the enemy. When this occurred, several of the enemy, repulsed by the great impetuosity of our men, were wounded, and some were trampled to death in striving to escape, and some were made prisoners. Their general escaped this misfortune by the swiftness of his horse. Our commander, being severely wounded, so much so that he appeared to run the risk of losing his life, was carried back to the camp. But Commius, having either gratified his resentment, or, because he had lost the greatest part of his followers, sent embassadors to Antonius, and assured him that he would give hostages as a security that he would go wherever Antonius should prescribe, and would comply with his orders, and only entreated that this concession should be made to his fears, that he should not be obliged to go into the presence of any Roman. As Antonius judged that his request originated in a just apprehension, he indulged him in it and accepted his hostages.  Caesar, I know, has made a separate commentary of each year's transactions, which I have not thought it necessary for me to do, because the following year, in which Lucius Paulus and Caius Marcellus were consuls [i.e. 50BC], produced no remarkable occurrences in Gaul.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book VIII Chapter 48
“... he [Caesar] had not pursued the wars in Gaul full ten years, when he had taken by storm above eight hundred towns, subdued three hundred states, and of the three millions of men, who made up the gross sum of those with whom at several times he engaged, he had killed one million, and taken captive a second.”
Plutarch ‘Parallel Lives’ Caesar
That is not, however, the end of Commius' story. Sextus Julius Frontinus (who, incidentally, was governor of Britain in the mid-AD70s), in his ‘Strategemata’ (examples of military stratagems), under the heading of ‘On Retreating’, gives the following illustration:
“Commius, the Atrebatian, when defeated by the deified Julius, fled from Gaul to Britain, and happened to reach the Channel at a time when the wind was fair, but the tide was out. Although the vessels were stranded on the flats, he nevertheless ordered the sails to be spread. Caesar, who was following them from a distance, seeing the sails swelling with the full breeze, and imagining Commius to be escaping from his hands and to be proceeding on a prosperous voyage, abandoned the pursuit.”
‘Strategemata’ Book II Chapter 13 Example 11
Now, it seems odd that Caesar would be in pursuit of Commius after the latter had just come to terms with Antony – Hirtius gives no indication that Caesar was in any way unhappy with Antony's clemency – so possibly Frontinus' tale (perhaps he heard it whilst he was serving in Britain) is associated with an incident earlier in the year. However, it does seem to be likely that Commius did indeed migrate to Britain (after all, where better “that he should not be obliged to go into the presence of any Roman”) and establish himself as leader of the British Atrebates.
Translations:
Dio Cassius ‘Romaika’ by Earnest Cary
Cicero ‘Letters’ by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh
Frontinus ‘Strategemata’ by Charles E. Bennett
Julius Caesar ‘The Gallic War’ by T. Rice Holmes
Suetonius ‘Lives of the Twelve Caesars’ by J.C. Rolfe
Plutarch ‘Parallel Lives’ by J. Dryden, revised A.H. Clough
Aulus Hirtius ‘The Gallic War’ by W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn
Bede ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ by A. M. Sellar
The Veneti inhabited the southern coast of the Breton peninsula. They were a powerful seagoing people who dominated trade between south-western Britain and Gaul. By the onset of the winter of 57/56BC, Caesar believed that Gaul had been subdued. The Veneti, however, initiated a rebellion. Caesar responded by ordering that a fleet of warships be built. According to Strabo (‘Geography’ Book IV Chapter 4), the Veneti intended to prevent Caesar crossing to Britain and disrupting trade. Caesar gives no indication that he had, at this stage, any intention of making such a voyage, but he does mention (‘The Gallic War’ Book III Chapter 9) that the Veneti summoned reinforcements from Britain. At any rate, in late-summer, 56BC, the Veneti's rebellion climaxed in a sea-battle. Caesar was impressed by their ships:
“When these ships encountered our fleet, the latter [i.e. the Roman warships] had the advantage only in speed and in being propelled by oars; in other respects the former, from their more suitable construction, were better adapted to the conditions of the coast and the force of the storms. They were so solidly built that our ships could not injure them by ramming; owing to their height, it was not easy to throw javelins on to them; and for the same reason it was difficult to seize them with grappling-irons. Moreover, when it began to blow hard and they were running before the wind, they could weather the storm more easily; they could lie up more safely in shallow water; and when they were left aground by the ebb, they had nothing to fear from a stony bottom and sharp rocks; whereas our ships were in great danger from all these contingencies.”
‘The Gallic War’ Book III Chapter 13
As things turned out, the Roman fleet routed the Veneti, but Caesar would later have hybid vessels built – incorporating features of both Roman and Gallic ships – for his second expedition to Britain.
(See also: Ictis, the Tin Trade, and the Veneti.)
The night (i.e. the time between sunset and sunrise) was divided into four equal watches, so the third watch would begin around midnight.
Roman miles. A Roman mile (i.e. ‘mille passus’ – literally ‘a thousand paces’) equates to about 1620 yards – a little shorter than the standard mile of today (1760 yards).
Caesar here reveals that one of the legions is the 10th. It later becomes apparent that the other is the 7th.
Or possibly about a week. See: Time and Tide I.
The territory occupied by the Belgae was rather larger than the modern country of Belgium. Towards the west it was bounded by the Channel/North Sea; to the north and east, the Rhine; towards the south by the Seine and Marne. The Morini, the Menapii and the Atrebates were Belgic tribes. The Belgae were, says Caesar (‘The Gallic War’ Book I Chapter 1), “the bravest” of the peoples of Gaul. Caesar believed this was because, being “furthest removed from the civilization and refinement” of Roman influence, they were not often visited by merchants, and so had not been tainted by “wares which tend to produce moral enervation”. They were “constantly at war” with the Germans.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BC–43BC). Of more than 900 surviving letters, dating from 67BC onwards, 416 were addressed to, his friend and publisher, Titus Pomponius Atticus.
All the dates quoted from Cicero on this page have been converted into the Julian Calendar:
a.d. VI Kal. Sext. a.u.c. 700 = 27th July 700AUC, which converts to 2nd July, in the Julian Calendar, of the year 54BC.
Plutarch (c.AD45–c.120) was born, and lived most of his life, in Chaeronea, eastern Greece. The ‘Parallel Lives’ are paired biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, written, during Plutarch's later years, in the first decades of the 2nd century. Twenty-two pairs survive. Caesar's Greek counterpart is Alexander. In the introduction to Alexander, Plutarch writes:
“It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.”
Kal. Septembr. = 1st September = 5th August Julian.
Because, before Caesar's reforms, there were only 29 days in September:
a.d. IIII Kal. Octobr. = 27th September = 31st August, Julian.
a.d. VIIII Kal. Nov. = 24th October = 26th September, Julian.
Because, before Caesar's reforms, there were only 29 days in September:
a.d. vi Kal. Octobr. = 25th September = 29th August, Julian.
Aulus Hirtius had, apparently, served with Caesar in Gaul. Caesar designated Hirtius, along with Caius Vibius Pansa, for the consulship of 43BC. Both men died fighting against Mark Antony in that year.