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On This Day: Caesar invades Britain

Updated: Feb 18

August 26th, 55 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar first ‘invasion’ of Britain takes place. Britain was not unknown to the Classical world. As early as the 4th century BC, the Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians traded for Cornish tin. Greek authors even refer to the Cassiterides, or 'tin islands' describing them being situated somewhere near the West coast of Europe (cf. Eratosthenes map below).



The first direct contact with the Romans, however, came when the general and future dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar, made two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC as part of his conquest of Gaul believing the Britons had been helping the Gallic resistance.


Of all the Amorican tribes, who occupied the areas of modern day Normandy and Brittany, the Veneti, with their seagoing experience, had close trading links with their neighbours across the Gallic Sea, or the English Channel. In South-west Britain were the Dumnonii, mainly in Devon and Cornwall, and the Durotriges whose territory extended East to the Hampshire Avon and westwards to the River Exe. Both of these tribes almost certainly provided their continental cousins with support and encouragement in their resistance to the Roman invader. It is not inconceivable that those of the Veneti who managed to escape Caesar’s wrath would have fled across the Channel.


The flight of the Veneti, and the help they received from their brethren in the mysterious and apparently prosperous island across the water, attracted Caesar’s attention. Although he had expressed no intention of remaining, Caesar determined to reconnoitre Britain because some Britons had rendered assistance to his enemies in the Gallic campaign. He felt:


‘It would be a great advantage merely to have visited the islands, to have seen what kind of people the inhabitants were, and to have learned something about the country with its harbours and landing places.’


Caesar, with his customary speed for decisive action, made his preparations late in the summer of 55 BC. An officer, Gaius Volusenus, was despatched in a warship to search the British coastline for a suitable landing place and with instructions to report back as soon as possible. Meanwhile a task force of two legions and a cavalry regiment, together with a fleet of about 80 ships, was assembled at Boulogne.


Not all Britons were necessarily hostile to Caesar’s intentions. A number of tribes, for example, sent envoys to the continent, promising hostages and offering submission. Quick to exploit this hopeful gesture, Caesar sailed on August 25th. Having crossed the Channel overnight, by mid-morning of August 26th, the eighty ships approached the coast of Kent preparing for a beach landing. On board were some 12,000 soldiers of Legio VII and Legio X, the latter reputedly Caesar’s favoured legion. All had not gone well, however. The hoped for rendezvous with the cavalry sailing from a more northerly embarkation port never occurred. The transport ships were delayed by bad weather and the contingent never caught up with the main body of the task force thereby severely handicapping Caesar’s subsequent operations.


The sight greeting the Roman force that August morning was alarming. The clifftops were lined with warriors, and horsemen and charioteers prepared to repel any Roman attempt to land. The Romans were faced with very grave difficulties. The size of their ships prevented them from running aground to allow the soldiers to disembark on the beach. At length the invaders managed to anchor just offshore, probably somewhere near modern town of Deal, but this meant the heavily-laden troops had to wade ashore in the face of a determined enemy. Hesitant to do so, the Roman attack stalled until the Aquilifer (eagle-bearer) of Legio X jumped overboard carrying the legion’s sacred eagle into the surf all the time exhorting his fellow legionaries to follow him. Fearful of the disgrace that would befall them if they lost the eagle, the soldiers of the Tenth leapt into action. Waterlogged Romans waded ashore and, after initial difficulties, eventually had sufficient numbers landed to charge the Britons forcing them to flee.


Caesar’s first expedition to Britain did gain a foothold on the coast of Kent but, hindered by storm damage to the ships and a lack of cavalry, was unable to advance much further. The expedition, more a ‘reconnaissance in force’ than a full invasion, was fundamentally a military failure. Even so, it was a political success. The Roman Senate declared a 20-day public holiday in Rome in honour of the unprecedented achievement of obtaining hostages from Britain and defeating Belgian tribes on returning to the continent. Undoubtedly buoyed by the reaction of the Senate and people of Rome, Caesar launched a second expedition the following campaign season in 54 BC. This time he took with him a substantially larger force and proceeded to coerce or invite many of the native British tribes to pay tribute and give hostages in return for peace. A friendly local king, Mandubracius, was installed, and his rival, Cassivellaunus, was brought to terms. Hostages were taken, but historians disagree over whether the tribute agreed was ever paid by the Britons after Caesar returned to Gaul with his forces.


Caesar had conquered no territory and had left behind no troops, but he did establish clients on the island and had brought Britain into Rome's sphere of political influence. Emperor Augustus had planned invasions in 34, 27 and 25 BC, but circumstances were never favourable, and the relationship between Britain and Rome settled into one of diplomacy and trade. The latter is evidenced by archaeology which has shown there was an increase in imported luxury goods into south-eastern Britain.


Rome appears to have encouraged a balance of power in southern Britain, supporting two powerful kingdoms: the Catuvellauni, ruled by the descendants of Tasciovanus, and the Atrebates, ruled by the descendants of Commius. This policy was followed until AD 39 or AD 40, when Caligula received an exiled member of the Catuvellaunian dynasty and staged an invasion of Britain that collapsed in farcical circumstances before it had even left Gaul. When Claudius successfully invaded in AD 43, it was in aid of another fugitive British ruler, this time Verica of the Atrebates. From then on Roman influence spread across the islands until Britannia was incorporated as a province of the Empire and remained so for the next 400 years.


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Reference:


Carr, H., (2023), ‘Julis Caesar’s Roman legions invade Britain’, BBC History Magazine (August), p. 7.

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