In the late summer of 55 BC, Julius Caesar set sail for Britain to undertake the first of his two invasions of the island. What were his motives in bringing war against an island-bound people about whom the Romans knew next to nothing? His stated intention was to force the Britons to respect Roman might by punishing them for having sent warriors in support of most of the insurrections in Gaul. It is doubtful that this support, if it existed at all, could have been of such a scale to have warranted such drastic action, particularly when, by Caesar's own admission, the tribes of southern Britain were, at this time, locked in a bitter internal struggle to restrict the dominance of, though he does not mention them by name but their territory corresponds to that of the later tribe, the Catuvellauni under Cassivellaunus.
Is it inconceivable that he wished to conquer the island and create a new Roman province? After all, his reasons for embarking upon the Gallic campaign in the first instance had been to increase his popularity with the lower orders whilst wildly enriching himself in the process; enjoying astonishing success in both. We know that he was aware that Britain was rich in tin and other metals, gold coins and iron ore are mentioned, as is also that the population was "exceedingly large"; slaves being an extremely valuable commodity. Even Roman commentators believed that he was motivated by plunder; Cicero, writing at the time, noted the disappointment that had greeted the discovery that the gold wealth of the Britons had been massively overstated, while Suetonius, several centuries later, concluded that Caesar had gone to Britain in search of pearls. These testimonies indicate that the expedition was intended to be much more than a quick raid. If they had embarked for profit, then to acquire it, through mining, taxation or plain theft, Rome would have had to maintain a constant presence in Britain.
Of course we know now that a Roman conquest was not practicable at this time, as to have attempted it truly would have been going out on a limb, requiring extreme martial effort in an utterly unknown land, with the army's communications to Rome separated by a sea and the still unpacified tinder-box that was Gaul. Caesar is clear in his writings that the information he had gathered of the island and its peoples was extremely vague, and although he had a rough idea of its size, it is quite possible that he intended a conquest without quite realising the enormity of the task.
Indeed, his preparations appear to have exceeded his stated remit of wishing only to give the unruly Britons a bloody nose before withdrawing back across the Channel; he went to the trouble of recruiting a Gaul named Commius and instructed him to travel to Britain, where he was thought to hold considerable influence, and urge as many of the tribes as possible to place themselves under Rome's "protection". We may wonder what place this had in what was intended to be a short-term punitive expedition. At the very least, by seeking allies, he would be sowing the fast-growing seeds of Roman influence on British soil. In the event, Commius' acts of diplomacy came to nothing; having harangued the first nobles he saw after disembarking, he was immediately placed under arrest and bound.
There is, therefore, reason enough to suspect that Caesar wished to add Britain to the Empire, but we cannot state this with any certainty, and so the easiest conclusion to draw is that he intended only to achieve a propaganda coup back in Rome; how heroic a deed for a son of the great city to boldly venture into an unknown land and win glory in battle against the savages who dwelt there. What we probably can be sure of is that the first invasion of 55 BC, undertaken at the very end of the campaigning season and supported by just two legions, could only have been an investigative probe in preparation for the much larger invasion of the following year.
The invasion was no great secret; traders from the northern Gallic ports had spread word of it across the Channel, and directly some of the British tribes sent embassies to Caesar, offering friendship to Rome and also, as was the custom of the time, hostages as surety. The Britons, therefore, could not simply be the wholly introspective farming communities that we might fondly imagine them to have been, for here is evidence that they were capable of gathering intelligence from foreign shores and then undertaking a proper diplomatic mission in response.
But could it be that they had more advanced sources of information than merely relying on passing tradesmen with a tale to tell? When Caesar crossed the Channel, he found that an army of Britons was waiting for him in the very place where he had intended to disembark. He had, in the area of what is now Dover, picked a very obvious landing site as this marks the shortest distance across the Channel, yet it is odd all the same that what must have been a significant force just happened to be waiting on top of the White Cliffs when he appeared. We do not know how strong a force this was, but to have posed a significant threat to two legions, of perhaps 8,000 men, it must have been comparable if not far greater. It is quite possible that this army had been here for weeks in anticipation of a landing, but it should not be underestimated how difficult it is, even for well-organised nations such as Rome, to keep a large body of men standing in the field for several weeks; the mere provision of food and water for such a host is a monumental task. Furthermore the harvest was approaching if not directly upon them; had not this army of farmers better things to occupy their time than staring blankly out across the sea? Perhaps a look-out had lit a beacon and summoned the army from the surrounding settlements in the area? It seems unlikely, unless they were able to deploy in battle order on the cliffs with the most incredible speed and efficiency before the first ships arrived. The obvious conclusion to draw, therefore, is that, far from acquiring a mere suspicion that the Romans were going to invade one day, a spy may have discovered the date of the fleet's departure, and possibly its destination too.
Having seen the host arrayed before him, occupying dominant positions on the surrounding heights, Caesar knew at once that it would be decidedly to his disadvantage to land troops where the Britons would be in an excellent position to repel them, and so he made no move.
So much for the natives lacking a sense of strategy. The primitive barbarians that we think of today would not have made any defensive move until the Romans had landed, whereupon they would seize their arms, march in the general direction of the invaders and unleash a mad and disorganised charge upon them, wherever they happened to meet them. Yet none of this happened. They clearly understood enough of strategic concepts to discover in advance what moves their enemy would make, how to use the lie of the land to their favour, and, by choosing to directly oppose the landing on the shoreline, it is clear that they understood that a Roman infantryman's strength was fighting in formation as a unit, and that this strength is best countered as the army struggles ashore, utterly disjointed as it tries to establish a foothold.
Caesar, therefore, ordered his foremost ships to lower their anchors and wait for the remainder of the fleet to arrive, whereupon he sailed further along the coast for seven miles where he found an alternative landing area. Unwilling to be outmanoeuvred, the Britons sent their cavalry and chariots ahead to shadow the ships while the foot soldiers followed on behind as quickly as they could.
The Romans disembarked, but soon discovered the perils of an ad hoc landing on unfamiliar terrain. Their ships were so large that the legionaries had to wade ashore in deep water, naturally disorganised and encumbered by their heavy equipment. The British cavalry arrived on the scene at this point and, on foot, began to engage the struggling Romans on the shoreline. It would appear that, being out of the water and having freedom of manoeuvrability, they had by far the better of it. The Britons, however, did not get carried away by their success and make some foolhardy move that would have surrendered the initiative, instead they knew a good thing when they were onto it and refused to budge from their dominant position. Those of them who had remained mounted caused further consternation amongst the invaders by making hit and run sorties with throwing-spears, something that the Romans were not used to and had no means to counter. We can imagine, trapped in the water with nothing in their favour, that this must have been a very grim moment for them and their losses may have been considerable. Indeed they must have been in some distress because Caesar made a bold move which, more by bluff than force of arms, gained his men a breathing space. In essence, he hoped to overawe the natives with unfamiliar "terror" weapons, and so he ordered his warships to run themselves aground on the right flank of the Britons and pepper them with missiles, including deck-mounted artillery. The sight of these unusual ships and their alien weapons unnerved the Britons, who fell back a little up the beach.
The Roman infantry now attempted to come ashore, but, with the deep water still an obstacle and the Britons in close proximity, they struggled to form-up and men of all units became mixed up together. The Britons took full advantage of their obvious confusion and attacked again, once more putting the veteran X Legion under severe pressure. The throwing-spear cavalry were still active, some leapt upon and mobbed isolated parties as they disembarked from their boats, while the rest harassed the right flank of the main force. This was not a shambolic brawl but clearly demonstrates the basic battlefield tactics with which any organised army is familiar; hold the enemy at a position of disadvantage, destroy isolated groups, and attack an exposed flank with cavalry. However brutal this landing must have been, the Roman ability to reinforce their lines saved the day for them. Caesar had the small boats of the warships loaded with reserves and dispatched them to any point where he could see that his men were in difficulties. By such means, the Romans were finally able to secure a foothold, properly form-up and then charge the Britons off the beach.
The defeated British immediately sued for peace, and Caesar, having had the cheek to reproach them for waging unprovoked war against him, agreed terms and sent them on their way. Yet the British clearly had no intention of treating this peace with any degree of seriousness, and nor should they, for who would surrender their independence on the outcome of a relatively minor battle? Their strategy in seeking a cessation of hostilities hints at clever diplomacy. By binding Rome to a peace treaty they would place a considerable curb on the invaders' aggressive movements inland, whilst at the same time it left the Britons free to bide their time until the weight of circumstance had tipped in their favour. The initiative, once with Caesar after successfully forcing a landing, had been handed back to the Britons on a plate.
Their chance came just four days later. A violent storm and the unfamiliar behaviour of the English Channel conspired to batter the Roman fleet, holing some vessels, wrecking others, and rendering the vast majority unsailable. The Britons quickly received news of this and knew that they had a chance to destroy Caesar. Not only did the Romans have their backs to the sea, but the transports bringing their cavalry across had been forced to return to Gaul, and with the loss of the fleet had gone their grain supply. Again, the strategic thinking of the Britons is surprising. Rather than attacking the Romans directly, they decided that it would be best to keep them pinned to the coast, frustrate their efforts to venture inland in search of food, and, as it was very late in the campaigning season, subject them to the hardships of a northern winter before, one assumes, finishing the job in the new year, by which time the Romans should be much depleted, starving and demoralised. Caesar, however, was a brilliant general and, with his fleet in ruins, he suspected that hostilities would be renewed. Before they could begin, he ordered very large foraging parties to bring corn into the camp every day from across the surrounding area, whilst his men worked feverishly to repair the fleet, eventually making the vast majority "tolerably seaworthy".
While the ships were still in disrepair, the Britons had raised a war host and laid an ambush in the woods surrounding a cornfield; one of the few that the Romans had not yet touched. The VII Legion, presumably in its entirety, arrived in this field, and when its men had laid down their weapons and, in small groups, fallen out to fell the corn, the Britons sprung their trap. Caesar wrote that a few of the legionaries fell before they were able to form up, though surely many more than a mere handful must have perished in the first moments if several thousand men had dispersed across what must have been an area of no small size. Those who had found comrades in time and had achieved some semblance of a formation were nevertheless sorely pressed; confusion reigned as men became packed tightly together, surrounded on all sides by the British cavalry who rained their missiles upon them. In particular, Caesar notes, chariots were a considerable nuisance, and he was clearly impressed by them:
"In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents' ranks into disorder. Then, after making their way between the squadrons of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariots and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance from the battle and place the chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry; and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning."
In this passage we see the fighting prowess of the British noble elite, in particular we can infer that they were excellent individual fighters on foot as, by the nature of their deployment, they must dismount and find themselves somewhat in the thick of the enemy with few friends to hand. In contrast to the commonly held belief that many Britons would needlessly kill themselves in adherence to an honour code that forbade them to retreat from an enemy, here we see that the finest warriors of the tribe positively revelled in the practice of a strategic withdrawal if they found that the odds were too heavily stacked against them.
At this most desperate of moments for the Romans, Caesar, having observed the tell-tale signs of dust clouds on the horizon, arrived on the scene with two cohorts of reserves. The presence of these reinforcements forced the Britons to break off their attack, although Caesar had not engaged them. The respite enabled the VII Legion to properly reform, but there was no continuation of the battle; the Britons, often regarded as impetuous fighters once the battle joy is upon them, showed considerable restraint and clearly had no intention of attacking an organised Roman legion, whilst in his turn Caesar must have felt himself outmatched to have made no attempt to fight them off, instead he marched his men back to camp without further ado.
The Britons may have become a little too optimistic by their half-success for, having summoned sizeable reinforcements from the local tribes, they advanced on the Roman camp. Their intentions are unclear, but it is surely unlikely that, given their earlier caution, they would have assailed the camp directly and needlessly surrendered the advantage to Caesar by attacking his disciplined men in a prepared and, most likely, formidable position. It is probable that they intended only to put the Romans under siege and starve them out; Caesar makes no mention of their preparations for an attack, instead he rather confirms that there was never intended to be one, because he marched his two legions, flanked by a very small number of cavalry under the now-released Commius, out into the open to offer battle. Why did he do this unless his only alternative was starvation under siege? Why surrender a position that gave him a considerable advantage, and instead risk a fight in the open against a large enemy who, quite plainly, had such an overwhelming dominance in cavalry?
Caesar is remarkably silent about the battle that followed; he simply states that the fighting was brief and the Britons were put to flight, and his men, too encumbered by their armour to give chase for long, did what little they could in their pursuit and cut down a number of refugees.
In my view it is questionable whether a battle took place at all. Caesar, in only the previous paragraph, pointed out that he was aware that even if he could bring the Britons to battle and was victorious, their superior speed would quickly spirit them out of harm's way and would, one assumes, leave them free to chance their arm another day. It is curious that in the very next paragraph after the battle, Caesar mentions that a peace treaty was concluded with the Britons on harsher terms, and thereafter his legions set sail for Gaul before the onset of winter and the rough conditions that would impede a crossing of the Channel. All very sensible, but these are a lot of loose ends to tie up in the space of a dozen lines.
The British cavalry and chariots are mentioned again and again in the invasion battles and quite clearly played a pivotal role in all of them. To have won any battle, the Romans would have had to counter these in some way, yet Caesar repeatedly points out that his men had no means of doing so. How then did he win? Why did the British, having resolved to let winter and starvation do their work, even consider fighting him in a set piece battle, having previously declined one against half as many enemies? It makes no sense and so we should question whether there was a battle. Caesar's campaign, if it had been intended as an invasion, was a failure, and even if it had been a mere reconnaissance expedition it had achieved little. So, with the repairs to his fleet completed, in however dubious a fashion as Caesar himself intimates, it may well be that the VII and X Legions simply abandoned a bad job and returned to the continent with their tails between their legs.
Caesar's account of his campaigns in the west are widely considered to be as valid a study in political propaganda as they are of historical interest, so it certainly would not be a stretch to imagine that he decided to invent a conclusion to the campaign that was more palatable to public opinion. This is only my judgment, however. Caesar's recollections are the best source we have of the war and so, given his obvious bias towards his own sense of achievement, we can only read between the lines to get at what may be the truth. In my case, I have considered matters from the British perspective and have only pointed out the contradictions, as I see them, in Caesar's writing, together with other events that make little sense in the context of what had gone before.