Caesar’s British gamble

Julius Caesar loved to roll the dice. And in 55–54 BC he took one of his greatest gambles yet, leading two invasions of Britain. These were meant to be glorious staging-posts on his journey to supreme power in Rome. But, as Guy de la Bédoyère relates, a combination of poor planning, enemy chariots and inclement British weather almost left his career in tatters

Julius Caesar, depicted in a first-century BC bust

This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement

In late August 54 BC, Cicero, the celebrated Roman lawyer, was on the edge of his seat. His brother Quintus, commander of the XIV Legion, was with Julius Caesar on his second invasion of Britain. As Quintus’s letters arrived, taking about four weeks to reach Cicero in Rome, tales unfolded of the ocean, the tribes and settlements of the Britons, the battles, and the brilliance of Caesar’s leadership.

Cicero gushed at the romance and glamour. “Oh, what a delightful letter was yours to me about Britain! I dreaded the ocean, I dreaded the coast of that island… what battles you have to write about!”

Nothing could better illustrate one of Caesar’s main reasons for being in Britain at all. Invading this little known and remote island was a brilliant publicity opportunity for one of history’s greatest personalities.

Gaius Julius Caesar (c100–44 BC) was one of the most ambitious politicians and generals in history. From the beginning he took risks, sometimes insane ones. Captured by pirates in the Aegean in his mid-twenties, he raised his own ransom money. Once free he raised a fleet, returned and captured the pirates, ordering their throats cut before crucifying them. The invasions of Britain were typical of a man who simply loved to roll the dice.

Caesar wanted supreme power. He once told the inhabitants of a poor Alpine village that he would prefer to be “the first man here than the second in Rome”. And in Rome he shamelessly courted the mob by putting on wild animal fights and theatrical performances.

He brazenly used bribery, borrowing wildly to buy himself into the post of pontifex maximus (chief priest) at a very young age. On election day, mindful of his gigantic debts, he told his mother he would return as chief priest or not all. He knew that, if the vote came off, he would be made. It did, and he was.

By 59 BC Caesar was consul, one of Rome’s two chief magistrates. He quickly marginalised his co-consul Bibulus, passing legislation as if he was the only man in charge. Then Caesar managed to secure the governorship of Gaul. He was certain it would make him rich and provide him with the opportunity to win triumphs because of the military command that came with the job.

Sharing women

Conveniently, in 61 BC the Helvetii tribe had embarked on expanding their territory. That threatened Roman possessions in southern Gaul. The war to conquer all Gaul began in 58 BC and Caesar had a vested interest in keeping it going.

Not surprisingly, Caesar had enemies in the Senate. His army was a political threat and they knew it. But they couldn’t stop Caesar using his friends (for the moment) Pompey and Crassus to persuade the Senate to have his governorship of Gaul extended by another five years. These three men had sewn up the Roman world for themselves in an arrangement now known to history informally as ‘the first triumvirate’. Crassus would die in 53 BC in a battle against the Parthians, and Caesar would go on to defeat and destroy Pompey at Pharsalus in central Greece in 48 BC. But for the moment the deal worked wonderfully to Caesar’s advantage.

With his governorship extended, and his forces enlarged, Caesar could continue to wage a war of conquest in Gaul. It was a brilliant campaign that lasted nine years, and it gave Caesar the tantalising opportunity to cast his net, and burnish his reputation, yet further – by launching an invasion of Britain.

By Caesar’s time Britain was known to be an island with tribes whose customs were a source of curiosity. On the edge of the known world, it lurked in the fog and mist like another planet. Caesar was fascinated by how groups of “10 to 12 men have wives together in common”, brothers and even fathers and sons sharing the same women.

Caesar claimed the Britons had supported the Gauls in the war. It was an obvious pretext to invade. Perhaps it was even true – he believed the British ‘maritime tribes’ had migrated from Gaul. Caesar also claimed that he needed the intelligence it had proved impossible to get out of the Gauls. At the same time, he knew a war could make a sensational story because the powerful Gaulish Druids were thought to have originated in Britain and were still being trained there.

Was it just greed? Suetonius, a later Roman historian, said Caesar apparently believed Britain would be an excellent source of pearls to add to his collection of gems and art. Seneca said Caesar could not bear the thought that the ocean might be a barrier to success.

To soften up the Britons, Caesar sent over a tame king of the Gaulish Atrebates called Commius, whom Caesar had made his puppet monarch. Commius was to tell the Britons to “seek Caesar’s protection” – in other words, give in to him.

It was “late summer” 55 BC when Caesar hastily put together a 38-ship fleet, enough for two legions of about 5,000 men each and cavalry. Since Commius had told the Britons Caesar was coming, it’s no surprise a reception committee of Britons gathered on the clifftops of Kent to greet him.

However clever Caesar was, or thought he was, he and his force were totally unprepared for the local conditions. It proved almost impossible for the heavily laden troops to beach the ships. They were forced to do this in deep water while being attacked by the Britons, and were too scared to disembark.

Where eagles dared

Taking advantage of a lull in the Britons’ efforts, the standard-bearer of the Xth Legion famously took the initiative. “Leap down soldiers!” he cried, “unless you want to betray your eagle to the enemy.” He said he at least would do his duty. His shamed comrades had no choice but to follow him. It’s a marvellous vignette and one has to wonder whether Caesar embellished events to provide an allegory of his own leadership.

The Britons were too smart to fight more. They had imprisoned Commius but now handed him back and sued for peace. They had no need of him anyway. They wanted Caesar gone without any more trouble: he obviously had nowhere near enough troops to finish them off. Caesar of course depicted this as a victory. He agreed to ‘pardon’ them. Under the circumstances he had no choice. “Peace was thus established,” he bragged.

So far Caesar’s gamble had paid off – up to a point. Then things went badly wrong – again. The 18 transports still in the process of bringing the cavalry over were forced by a sudden storm to return to the continent. His cavalry was gone.

Incredibly Caesar had also overlooked that the channel is tidal. Overnight a full moon brought an exceptionally high tide, swamping the remaining ships, and totally destroying 12. It’s the only fixed date we have for this episode. Caesar says he arrived four days before. There was a full moon on or around 30 August that year, so he must have landed on 26 August.

The woad-caked Britons saw their chance. While Caesar organised repairs, the VIIth Legion was sent foraging, only to be attacked. The Britons revealed their secret weapon: the chariot. “Our troops were thrown into confusion,” said Caesar before showing how he (naturally) saved the day “at the most advantageous moment”. He raced into the fray and led the disorientated Romans back to camp. Just as the Britons were about to move in for the kill, Caesar lined up the legions and advanced, chasing the Britons off. Once more peace was arranged, Caesar demanding double the number of hostages previously agreed.

Masterstroke or fiasco?

Caesar promptly sailed back to Gaul. He had spun a tricky situation into what looked like a masterstroke. He had supposedly defeated the Britons in an exceptionally daring campaign. In reality he had nearly lost his entire fleet to the weather and tides. He could easily have lost all his men too. A defeat would have destroyed his career and had his enemies beside themselves with glee. Caesar must have known that even his most gullible fans might realise how close he had come to a fiasco.

The following year, Caesar decided to do the job properly. This time he sailed over with five legions and cavalry – and Quintus Cicero. Caesar had the ships drawn up further on a gentler, sandy beach. The Britons made themselves scarce. Caesar said they were scared by the size of his force but he would say that. More likely, the Britons had worked out that, by pulling back, Caesar would have to leave his fleet behind.

Caesar walked into the trap. He caught up with the Britons 12 miles inland, driving them out of a fortified camp with the VIIth Legion “who formed a tortoise” with their shields. Next day, disaster loomed again. Forty ships had been destroyed by an overnight storm. The rest would need major repairs. Caesar had to return to the coast. The repair work would take a valuable 10 days.

Romans run ragged

The Britons used the time wisely. They gathered under the command of Cassivellaunus, a tribal king of the Catuvellauni who ruled north-west of the Thames (now Hertfordshire). The endless internecine territorial disputes were set to one side in the interests of a common cause.

Caesar headed into Britain again, making for the Thames. The Britons used guerrilla warfare, with small units constantly attacking and withdrawing, being replaced by fresh troops. British chariots and cavalry ran the Romans ragged. The fighting carried on all the way to the Thames where Caesar found a place to ford. The Britons were waiting on the other side, having fortified the bank with stakes. According to Caesar, his troops moved so quickly that the Britons abandoned the riverbank. Is that true? Or were they simply pulling him in further? It’s clear the guerrilla war continued on the north side of the river. Caesar was dangerously extended. Cassivellaunus must have known that.

Caesar was saved by a stupid mistake. It was a classic error that helped Claudius (reigned AD 41–54) conquer Britain a century later: the Britons fell out among themselves.

The Trinovantes, a tribe in the Essex area, bitterly resented Cassivellaunus, who had killed their leader. Their leader’s son, Mandubracius, fled to Caesar for help. The Trinovantes realised they could serve their own interests by asking Caesar to send Mandubracius home in return for their help. With the Trinovantes onside, some other tribes came over to Caesar too.

This supplied vital intelligence about Cassivellaunus’s sprawling settlement, population and cattle. Caesar attacked while Cassivellaunus attempted a diversion, ordering several Kentish tribes to attack Caesar’s naval base. But the Romans fought them off. Cassivellaunus capitulated. Either that or he realised his interests would be best served by getting shot of Caesar as fast as possible. Caesar demanded a “promise” of peace, hostages and tribute and sailed back to Gaul. It was already the middle of September and he needed to prepare for winter and politicking in Rome.

Caesar’s leadership won him enormous loyalty. At some point in the invasions, reported by Plutarch, a soldier dashed into a marsh to rescue centurions trapped by the Britons. Caesar was watching and ran to greet the soldier, who then threw himself at Caesar’s feet, begging his pardon for having lost his shield. However, in reality the story also shows how tricky the fighting was.

The campaign of 54 had had Cicero excited and fascinated. He was also a little chastened. “Your letter gives me to understand that we have no reason either for apprehension or exultation.” So what had really happened? It was obvious that Quintus had made it clear to his brother that the campaign of 54 hadn’t exactly been a sensation.

A triumph over adversity?

When Caesar wrote up his tales of derring-do in Britain for his Gallic Wars he wasn’t stupid enough to pretend it had all gone swimmingly. The news about the difficulties of bringing the Britons to heel was bound to filter back to Rome. But he was smart enough to present it as a triumph over adversity. Indeed, he probably exaggerated the problems to amplify his achievements. The fact that Quintus had had time to write poetry and compose a tragedy in his tent speaks volumes.

Caesar scarcely mentioned Britain again. He returned to Gaul, mourning the death of his daughter, Julia, who had died in childbirth while he was in Britain. She was married to Pompey and it marked the beginning of the end of their alliance.

If Caesar had never bothered with an account of his invasions of Britain in his Gallic Wars, we would know almost nothing about them. We would only have Cicero’s letters and a few other scattered references. There is not a single archaeological feature or artefact definitively associated with Caesar’s British campaigns. But, recent excavations near Pegwell Bay in Kent (which corresponds with Caesar’s description) have uncovered evidence of first-century BC Roman military activity that might be the evidence archaeologists have been seeking for generations.

The real impact on Britain was slow-burn. Caesar’s career moved on. Within a decade he would be dictator perpetuus (dictator for life) in Rome, ambition having taken him to the top in a uniquely dangerous new variant on a post traditionally only used in times of emergency. His enemies in the Senate believed he was trying to become king. Misjudging the mob, who adored Caesar, they assassinated him in March 44 BC.

Meanwhile Britain was caught in a Roman tractor beam. Caesar didn’t introduce Britain to the Roman world, but he did hugely accelerate the process. For decades there had been cross-channel trade with the Mediterranean world. Britain’s metal ores and agricultural products were exchanged for the prestige goods the tribal leaders coveted. Italian wine and oil were among the prized luxuries they consumed and had deposited in their tombs as grave goods.

Now more than ever the British tribes looked to Rome for support in their conflicts. Their leaders also gradually adopted the trappings of Roman power, especially in the south-east. Latin words and Roman symbols appeared on their coins and abstract images gave way to more classical style art like eagles and realistic portraits.

By the time Caesar’s great nephew and adoptive son Augustus was emperor (27 BC– AD 14) some kings in Britain willingly sought his protection. Roman money and military support propped up loyalist tribal chieftains.

The final piece in the chain was when Claudius, badly in need of a victory to prove his worth as an emperor, used those connections to justify and prosecute a war of conquest in AD 43. More than anything else, he needed to match and exceed the achievements of his forbears. Merely by going to Britain at all, Caesar had set a benchmark for audacity. If Caesar had never bothered with Britain, perhaps Claudius would have looked elsewhere for his triumph.

In Caesar’s extraordinary life, the invasions of Britain were a sideshow. But they set in train a series of events that changed this island’s history forever, echoing right down to our own times in an ever-changing relationship with the continent of Europe.

Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and broadcaster, specialising in ancient Rome. His books include The Real Lives of Roman Britain (Yale, 2015)

Book: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (Profile Books, 2016)

Advertisement

Television: A new documentary, Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator, presented by Mary Beard, is due to air on BBC One soon