CAESAR'S BRITAIN

"Sixty winters ere that Christ was born, Caius Julius, emperor of the Romans, with eighty ships sought Britain. There he was first beaten in a dreadful fight, and lost a great part of his army. Then he let his army abide with the Scots, and went south into Gaul. There he gathered six hundred ships, with which he went back into Britain. When they first rushed together, Caesar's tribune, whose name was Labienus, was slain. Then took the Welsh sharp piles, and drove them with great clubs into the water, at a certain ford of the river called Thames. When the Romans found that, they would not go over the ford. Then fled the Britons to the fastnesses of the woods; and Caesar, having after much fighting gained many of the chief towns, went back into Gaul."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[1]

Introduction

 

Caesar's 55 and 54 BC visits were not permanent

 

His Roman consulship ended, Cæsar received a substantial prize for his services, the government of the province of Gaul for five years. Before Cæsar left Italy to take up his command, he had the satisfaction of seeing his opponent, Cicero, driven into banishment. That done, Cæsar crossed the Alps. The next nine years (for his government was extended) he was engaged in almost incessant war, though still finding time to manage the politics of Rome. These campaigns ended in making Gaul a Roman possession, from the Alps to the British Channel, and from the Atlantic to the Rhine.[2]

In the first century BC, compared with the settled Mediterranean, Britain was isolated from trade and general European contact. A succession of migrations had created a degree of kinship between Britain and Gaul; and Cæsar being aware of British tribal support for the Gauls planned an expedition to Britain. Cæsar was specifically aware of both the Catuvellauni of Hertfordshire and the Trinovantes of Essex and Suffolk,[3] although on landing, he was actually confronted by the Cantii of Kent. When Cæsar first landed in Britain, the headquarters of Cassivellaunus, the senior British leader, was at Verulamium, near St. Albans, which was surrounded by forests and swamps. The Cassivelauni lived in the huge eastern tracts above the estuary. The Cantii tribe, in the long peninsula south of the estuary, had already given that region their name of Kent. The river was a border between them, Londinos a sort of no-man's-land.

'In the past this evidence was thought to indicate successive waves of Belgic invaders, but this is no longer widely believed. Although Cæsar recorded Belgic raiders to England who may have settled there, it is now thought to indicate payments for military service, close cultural links and trading ties as well as gifts cementing political or social alliances across the Channel.

'A few Iron age artefacts have been discovered in the area from c60 BC. It is now thought that there were two separate peoples in Suffolk at this period, with a boundary roughly from Newmarket to Stowmarket and Aldburgh. To the north were the Iceni, and in the south the Trinovantes. Their names are known from Roman writers. The iron age Iceni tribal heartlands were in North West Suffolk around Ixworth and the Blackbourne Valley and Icklingham, West Stow and the Lark Valley.

'In South Suffolk, Clare Camp, formerly Erbury, may have been an iron age fort of the Trinovantes but no archeological evidence exists for this idea. These people also had a settlement at Long Melford and this Stour Valley group looked to Camulodunum next to where Roman Colchester arose. They were known as Trinovantes and because of their origins are also called the Belgic or Belgae tribes and were possibly late arrivals from the Continent. They were an organised society able to produce luxury goods such as the gold torcs found at Ipswich.

'In 55 BC, Julius Cæsar led his first expedition to Britain, probably just after the Roman Empire began the conquest of Gaul. Caesar wrote down his experiences in his book on the Gallic Wars, De Bello Gallico. Many of his perceptive comments contribute to our knowledge of the time. He wrote that one of his opponents was King Diviciacus of the Suessiones in Belgic Gaul who had previously had control over a large area of Britain. This supports the idea of close links between Britain and Belgica around this time.'

Caesar's 55 BC Invasion

On August 26, 55 BC, two Roman Legions, the VII and X (about 10,000 legionaries, including their auxiliaries), under Cæsar's personal command crossed the channel in a fleet of transport ships leaving from Boulogne.[4] The next morning Cantii warriors confronted the Romans at Dover; but Cæsar sailed further up the coast and landed at Deal. The legionaries met a large force of Britons, including warriors in horse-drawn chariots, on the beach. On first receiving news of the Roman landing, the Britons under Cassivellaunus (also known as Kasswallawn) gathered together at a fort between Rochester and Canterbury.

In this first expedition Cæsar did little more than effect a landing on the coast with considerable loss. The VII Legion was attacked and Cæsar, who had been unable to land his cavalry in heavy weather, saw that he was outnumbered. After making minor manoeuvers and repairing most of the ships wrecked in a bad storm, Cæsar ordered a return to Gaul, ending his reconnaissance.
 

Celtic-style chariot

 

Apparently Cæsar was quite impressed with the Cantii tactics, because he wrote the operational report below.

“Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows: first they drive in all directions and hurl javelins, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw the ranks of soldiers into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile their charioteers retire gradually from the battle, and place chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the enemy, they have a ready means of retreat 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 slopes without loss of control, to check them and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back to the chariot.”

Caesar's 54 BC Invasion

 

British Celtic Chief

 

Cæsar invaded Britain again early in 54 BC, with a force of about 35,000 men with 2000 cavalry and a large baggage train, carried in a flotilla of 800 ships. They sailed from Boulogne on July 6, and landed between Deal and Sandwich. Cæsar pushed in quickly, but another storm damaged his fleet and delayed him. This time Cassivelaunus did not oppose his landing; and when the Britons met him in the field, they were defeated. Then Cassivellaunus changed his tactics and adopted guerrilla-warfare methods and a scortched-earth policy, laying waste the country as the Britons withdrew. But Celtic rivalries and disunity motivated the neighbouring tribes (including the Trinovantes and their allies), to change their allegiance and they switched their support to the Romans. Cæsar crossed the Thames some little way to the westward of London, and the tribes began to submit, isolating Cassivellaunus. Even while Cæsar's army was attacking his own fort, however, Cassivellaunus made the bold move of ordering his remaining allies to attack the Romans at Deal. This attack failed, and Cassivellaunus was forced to surrender.

Yet Cæsar's surrender terms were moderate as Cæsar had mounting problems back in Gaul, and wanted to return there. Cassivellaunus had to give hostages and promise tribute. The legions left Britain in early September 54 BC and Romans did not return to Britain for nearly a century. Cæsar returned to Rome a hero with British hostages and tribute, as well as the newly submissive province of Gaul. Cæsar installed as King of the Trinovantes a British prince whose father had been killed by Cassivellaunus. Caesar, of course, demanded an annual tribute in return.

Britain Post-Caesar

Although the Romans now left Britain, the next hundred years produced large changes in British society. The Belgic culture crossed the Channel into southern Britain along with growing Roman contacts. There was a flowering of celtic arts and an establishment of land division still visible. Large settlements with earthworks were established.

The first inscribed Celtic coinage from North of the Thames was soon produced by Addedomarus who may have been a king of the Trinovantes. In 12 BC, the Emperor Augustus launched his armies against Holland and Germany and established a permanent force on the Rhine. Britain exported corn, hides, cattle and iron to the empire to support the Roman military effort and the administrations it set up across the channel. Britain grew wealthy on this trade and its culture was changed profoundly by this close contact with the Empire.

Around this time the Catuvellauni were centred on Hertfordshire, with a mint at St Albans (Verulamium). They seem to have expanded their power and influence over the next 50 years. Early coins of Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni were marked VER or VERL, but also a few marked CAM exist. CAM presumably refers to Camulodunum or Colchester in the heart of Trinovante territory; however, his later coins dropped the CAM mark. Tasciovanus' later coins were marked TASCIO RICON, the celtic equivalent of TASCIO REX or King Tasciovanus.

There would seem to have been some connection between the two main, Celtic tribes at this time, but it became even closer a few years later. In 10 AD, Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni was succeeded by his son, Cunobelinus or Cymbeline who ruled them until about 40 AD. Cunobelinus is generally considered to have also later ruled the Trinovantes, but whether he conquered them or had some legitimate claim which was recognised by that tribe, is now unknown. Inc.25 AD, the Essex and South Suffolk Trinovantes were absorbed by the Catuvellaini from the west. Coins show that their ruler was Cunobelinus or Cunobelinus (supposedly Shakespeare's Cymbeline). He took over Camulodunum and seems to have moved his main mint and capital from St Albans to Colchester. During his long and powerful rule he issued large numbers of gold, silver and bronze coins of increasingly Romanised designs. About one million of his gold "corn-ear" staters were produced. They have the letters CAMV with an ear of corn on one side and a horse design with CVN on the other.

Cunobelinus died in c41 AD. Over his 30-year reign, Cunobelinus had built up the most powerful kingdom of its time in Celtic Britain, extending his influence south of the Thames and also westwards according to Dio Cassius in his "Roman History". Ruling from Colchester after uniting the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes, he was powerful enough to be referred to as Britannorum rex, or King of the Britons, by Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars. Cunobelinus had ruled a vastly greater area than the Catuvellauni had controlled in 55 BC when Julius Cæsar had first arrived. This expansion and the death of the great Cunobelinus may have led the emperor Claudius to consider yet another invasion, to restore Roman authority. Claudius was also looking for a military triumph to cement his tenuous hold on power in Rome.[5]

ENDNOTES

1          See Humanities Web, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Chronicle B.C.E. 60 - A.D 410, at http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=s&p=l&a=c&ID=1908&o=.

2          The St Edmundsbury Haverhill Official Guide, Haverhill 'From the Iron Age to 1899', http://www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk/sebc/visit/hh-to-1899.cfm.

3          Ibid. 'The Trinovantes were centred on Colchester and covered South Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. These people looked to Camulodunum next to where Roman Colchester arose. They were known as Trinovantes and because of their origins are also called the Belgic or Belgae tribes and were possibly late arrivals from the Continent.'

4          See BBC News "Doubt over date for Brit invasion", at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7483566.stm, dated 1 July 2008. Dr Olson suggests the invasion was launched on 22 August and landed on 23 August, due to strong tides.

5          Extensively quoted from the St Edmundsbury Haverhill Official Guide, Haverhill 'From the Iron Age to 1899', http://www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk/sebc/visit/hh-to-1899.cfm.

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