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Caesar in Britain (55 B.C.E.)

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21:44   |   Feb 22, 2017

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Caesar in Britain (55 B.C.E.)
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  • In 55 BCE, the situation in Gaul had been stabilized.
  • But Caesar had even higher ambitions.
  • He was going to invade Britain.
  • The Romans knew virtually nothing about the island.
  • It was on the edge of the known world, with one foot in the realm of myth.
  • People disagreed over whether it was an island at all, or instead a massive, unexplored continent
  • lying just off the Gallic coast.
  • Some said that it was full of riches, with gold and silver lying openly on the ground
  • and pearls on the beaches.
  • There were stories about the souls of the dead being ferried across the channel, which
  • lead some to believe that the island itself was entirely fictional.
  • But Caesar knew better.
  • The Gauls conducted regular trade with Britain, and Caesar met with people who claimed to
  • have been there.
  • This is why Caesar had been so keen to eliminate the last shred of resistance in Gaul last
  • year.
  • It's also why he went out of his way to build a permanent base around modern Calais.
  • This is where he planned to make his crossing.
  • Everything was in ready, but there were new developments.
  • Two massive German tribes, over 400,000 people, began to cross the Rhine that winter.
  • This is exactly the kind of thing what Caesar wanted to avoid.
  • As soon as the snows began to melt, Caesar assembled his legions.
  • Before long, he was marching to meet the German threat.
  • His goal was to find a way to stop this before it spiraled out of control.
  • When he got close, the Germans sent a diplomat.
  • The diplomat told Caesar that the Germans had been forced from their homes by a much
  • larger German tribe, and if the the Romans could find them place to resettle, they would
  • commit themselves to being strong and loyal allies to the Roman people.
  • This story didn't move Caesar at all.
  • He wasn't interested in new German allies, he was interested in his expedition to Britain.
  • He told the diplomat that Gaul was already filled to capacity, which wasn't really true.
  • But, he said, there was a tribe back on the German side of the Rhine that kept on asking
  • for Roman assistance against invaders.
  • If they marched to that tribe's aid instead, they would probably be allowed to settle in
  • their territory when the whole thing was over.
  • This was a pretty clever way to kill two birds with one stone.
  • Keep the Romans out of it, and stabilize the German side of the Rhine in the process.
  • The diplomat took Caesar's offer back to the Germans.
  • This was a giant decision, and they debated the issue over several days.
  • While the Germans debated, Caesar took this opportunity to close the distance between
  • them and his army.
  • After a few days, the German diplomat returned, saying that they would agree to Caesar's plan,
  • as long as they could get the tribe on the other side of the Rhine to swear and oath
  • guaranteeing their safety.
  • They would need a few more days to get in touch with them.
  • So a few more days passed, and Caesar continued to close the distance.
  • And then, something happened.
  • According to Caesar, 800 mounted Germans ambushed Caesar's men while they were out foraging
  • for supplies, killing a small number of them before running away.
  • Personally, I have doubts that the Germans attacked first, but regardless, Caesar claimed
  • that this only confirmed his worst suspicions, and that the Germans were only playing for
  • time while reinforcements flooded across the Rhine.
  • The next morning, Caesar prepared for battle.
  • A large German delegation, including all of the tribal leadership, arrived at the Roman
  • camp, formally apologizing for the sudden outbreak of violence.
  • Caesar ignored their apologies, and arrested them on the spot.
  • Let's take a step back for a minute.
  • Caesar crossed a line here.
  • Remember why he went to war against the Veneti last year?
  • Rome sent diplomats, the Veneti arrested them, and Caesar responded by going to war.
  • This is exactly the same thing, in reverse.
  • The hypocrisy wasn't lost on anybody.
  • When word of this got back to Rome, Cato denounced Caesar for violating a truce and committing
  • a sacrilege.
  • Cato suggested, half-jokingly, that the Senate should turn Caesar over to the Germans in
  • order to absolve the city of sin.
  • Nobody took him seriously.
  • Back to Caesar.
  • With the German leadership in custody, Caesar marched on the tribes, and launched a full-out
  • attacked.
  • The Germans were leaderless, and nobody was able to coordinate a meaningful defence in
  • time.
  • It quickly turned into a one sided slaughter.
  • Many Germans escaped, but were pursued by the cavalry all the way back to the Rhine.
  • Some even tried to swim back to German territory, but we're told that they all drowned.
  • The Romans would later try to spin this into a great military victory.
  • But let's be honest.
  • It wasn't.
  • It was Caesar needlessly slaughtering at least tens, maybe hundreds of thousands people that
  • were only interested in Rome's protection.
  • But Caesar wasn't done.
  • His fear was that persistent instability on the Rhine would jeopardize his expedition
  • to Britain.
  • He decided to take his army across the Rhine to punish the Germans, which, he hoped, would
  • prevent any further incidents from derailing his plans.
  • Some friendly Germans volunteered to ferry his men across the river, but in a classic
  • display of that famous Roman arrogance, he calls this beneath the dignity of the Roman
  • people.
  • Caesar had his men begin to construct a massive bridge across the Rhine.
  • Caesar describes the process of building this bridge in excruciating detail.
  • I read his account, and it almost killed me.
  • All you need to know is that the Romans got it done in 10 days, and people who care about
  • this kind of thing think it was some sort of technical achievement or something.
  • Anyway, Caesar placed a strong garrison at both ends of the bridge, to protect it from
  • attack.
  • Then, he marched off into German territory.
  • But there was nobody there.
  • All of the villages were abandoned.
  • The tribes had been alerted as soon as Caesar began building the bridge, and had fled into
  • the woods.
  • Caesar then marched all over the place, burning down every abandoned village he could find.
  • Nobody would come forward to fight him.
  • After 18 days of this, Caesar just declared victory, claiming that he had successfully
  • scared the Germans away.
  • But that wasn't really true.
  • He didn't know this at the time, or maybe he did and he chose not to share it, but there
  • was an army further into German territory, ready to fight the Roman invasion.
  • But the invasion never came.
  • Caesar turned his army around and marched back across the Rhine.
  • He then destroyed the bridge, to prevent the Germans from using it in the future.
  • Caesar had now wasted more than a month on the Rhine, when he was supposed to be in Britain.
  • The whole thing was a giant waste of time, and if we're being honest, it didn't accomplish
  • anything.
  • Well, it does give Caesar the distinction of being the first Roman general to lead an
  • army across the Rhine.
  • That's significant, and honestly that little piece of propaganda may have been the point
  • of the whole thing.
  • But now, Caesar was finally free to lead his expedition to Britain.
  • He ordered his leftover ships from last year to move up to modern Calais, and marched his
  • army to the permanent base that he had conveniently built there.
  • At this point, Caesar makes this radical claim that the people in Britain were sending supplies
  • to his enemies in Gaul.
  • This is almost definitely not true.
  • See, the Romans had this funny attitude toward war.
  • They always liked to frame their wars as defensive, even when they weren't.
  • It's that Roman legalism, it makes you do funny things.
  • Anyway, once the legions and ships and weak justifications were all in place, Caesar was
  • ready to launch his expedition.
  • He only had enough transports to carry 2 of his 8 legions, but that was enough.
  • He loaded his 2 legions onto the ships, and left the remaining 6 in Labienus's capable
  • hands.
  • The transports pushed off in the middle of the night, so that they would arrive off the
  • coast of Britain by mid-morning.
  • But Romans were terrible sailors, and the weather on the North Atlantic was a lot more
  • unpredictable than they were used to.
  • Early in the morning a storm whipped up, and a bunch of the ships lagging behind were forced
  • to turn back.
  • Unfortunately, these happened to be the ships carrying all of Caesar's cavalry.
  • The rest of the fleet continued toward the island, and after the sun rose, the men on
  • the ships saw this.
  • The White Cliffs of Dover.
  • A wall of chalk, in places over 100 metres high, spanning for kilometres in each direction.
  • This was literally the worst place on the entire island to attempt to make a landing.
  • As the ships got closer, they could see people lining the cliffs.
  • Native Britons, with their bodies covered in blue war paint, ready for battle.
  • Those on foot wielded swords and spears with shields.
  • But many were on horseback, and some stood on chariots.
  • It must have been quite a sight.
  • Caesar brought his ships to a stop.
  • Obviously he couldn't land here, so he had to figure out what to do next.
  • After consulting with his subordinates, Caesar decided on a course of action.
  • The fleet waited until the late afternoon for stragglers to catch up, at which point
  • they headed up the coast to the northeast, searching for a suitable place to land.
  • As they moved, the Britons on the shore shadowed them along the cliffs.
  • Let's me take a moment here and talk about how the British chariots worked.
  • One person drove the chariot, while other riders threw javelins or other projectiles.
  • The horses were very fast, and were trained to turn on a dime, which allowed them to zigzag
  • erratically, or charge full speed at the enemy line only to turn at the last second.
  • All the while, the riders threw their javelins.
  • When they ran out of projectiles, the driver would get down off the chariot, with their
  • sword or spear and shield, and fight on foot.
  • While they fought, the chariot riders made sure that they were parked just behind the
  • line of battle, ready to leave at a moment's notice.
  • If the fighting turned ugly, all they had to do was take a few steps back, and they
  • would be galloping away within seconds.
  • Caesar goes on at length about how effective this tactic was.
  • Anyway, for the rest of the afternoon the Romans ships moved northeast, searching for
  • a place to land.
  • After many kilometres, the cliffs began to drop away, and they came across a suitable
  • beach.
  • But the Britons were still shadowing the ships.
  • The infantry was having trouble keeping up, but the cavalry and chariots were doing just
  • fine.
  • When the Roman ships stopped, the Britons set up down on the beach, and every minute,
  • more Britons caught up, and joined their ranks.
  • This would be a contested landing.
  • The soldiers on their ships were not thrilled by this.
  • Amphibious assaults were not really in their wheelhouse.
  • The order was given to disembark, but nobody moved.
  • After a tense moment, a man bearing an eagle standard came forward, and, according to Caesar,
  • he shouted "leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy.
  • I, for my part, will perform my duty to the Republic and to my general."
  • And with that, he jumped into the water, all by himself.
  • This shamed his fellow soldiers, and within moments everybody was jumping in after him.
  • As they moved toward the shore, the Romans were subject to intense missile fire, and
  • when they got into shallow water, the British cavalry charged.
  • But the Romans held their ground, and the fighting continued.
  • Caesar stayed aboard his ship, and watched as the battle play out.
  • Whenever a spots in the line started to look like they were close to collapse, he sent
  • a rowboat full of infantry as reinforcements.
  • The fighting was tough, but the Romans absorbed the worst of it when they met the initial
  • cavalry charge.
  • As time went on, the Romans gained sturdier footing, and eventually a signal was given
  • and the Britons withdrew.
  • Remember, the Britons were mostly cavalry and chariots, while the Romans were all infantry.
  • The Britons easily disengaged without much fuss.
  • We don't get an exact casualty count from this engagement, but we get the impression
  • that the Romans paid a heavy price.
  • It was starting to get dark, so the Romans got to work.
  • Caesar and the rest of the men came ashore, and the transport ships were pulled up onto
  • the beach.
  • Caesar moved some of his men onto solid ground where they built their fortified encampment.
  • They spent the night safely behind walls.
  • As the sun rose the next day, the gravity of their situation started to set in.
  • Caesar's cavalry hadn't made it, which meant that the Romans were literally in uncharted
  • territory, with virtually no ability to scout ahead.
  • But almost immediately, things started to improve.
  • Diplomats from a nearby tribe showed up, claiming that they weren't part of the army that resisted
  • the Roman landing.
  • The diplomats came offering peace, and surrendered hostages to the Romans as a sign of good faith.
  • It seems unlikely that this tribe had nothing to do with the battle that just took place
  • in their back yard, but Caesar wasn't really in a position to argue, so he accepted their
  • peace offering.
  • The weather was still pretty awful, so with peace established, Caesar let his men rest
  • for a couple of days while the supplies were brought down off the ships.
  • Back in Gaul, they were also keeping a close eye on the weather.
  • There were still a bunch of ships full of cavalry eager to make the crossing.
  • They decided to try again.
  • This time they were able to successfully navigate the storm.
  • They found Caesar's camp, and prepared to come ashore.
  • But suddenly, the weather turned again, and fleet was pushed back out to sea.
  • Their ships simply were not built for weather like this.
  • The fleet was scattered for a second time, and many of the ships were badly damaged.
  • They barely made it back to the Gallic coast, and would not attempt a third crossing.
  • This was some pretty bad luck, and it was about to get a lot worse.
  • The Romans discovered that the ships up on the beach had been knocked around during the
  • storm, and some of them were so badly damaged that they were no longer seaworthy.
  • Caesar and his two legions were now stuck on the island.
  • The Romans had no scouts, very little food, and were surrounded by locals who, only a
  • few days earlier, had tried to kill them.
  • The first order of business was to repair the ships.
  • Caesar scoured his legions for anybody with experience as a woodworker or a craftsman,
  • and immediately set them to work patching up the ships.
  • The second order of business was supplies.
  • The craftsmen needed wood, and everybody else needed food.
  • Foraging was possible, but without any cavalry, their range was severely limited.
  • Each day, Caesar would send half of his men to fan out over the countryside and gather
  • whatever supplies they could find.
  • This was fine for a while, but with each passing day they were forced to go further and further
  • afield.
  • It didn't take long for the locals to realize that the Romans were stuck.
  • This dramatically changed the dynamic.
  • In the dead of night, the British diplomats and hostages secretly slipped out of the Roman
  • camp.
  • The next day, while everyone was all spread out searching for supplies, a group was suddenly
  • attacked by British chariots and cavalry.
  • Some people ran back to the camp and told Caesar what was happening.
  • When he heard that his men were under attack, Caesar immediately ordered everyone back to
  • camp, and told them to prepare for battle.
  • He then grabbed two cohorts, around 1,000 men, and personally lead them out of the camp.
  • The men under attack were barely holding their own.
  • But when Caesar and his cohorts came into view, the British cavalry and chariots turned
  • and fled.
  • Caesar didn't have any way of chasing them down, but in retaliation he marched to the
  • nearest village and burned it to the ground.
  • It was becoming clear that the native Britons were becoming openly hostile, so Caesar kept
  • everybody close for the next couple of days, while the craftsmen continued to repair the
  • ships.
  • Eventually, the Britons showed up again, this time with a large army.
  • They had been spending their time forming a tribal coalition, for the purpose of kicking
  • the Romans off the island.
  • Caesar's had around 8,000 infantry under his command, so his options were pretty limited.
  • He deployed his men in a standard line in front of his camp, and waited for the Britons
  • to attack.
  • The chariots zipped back and forth and threw their javelins.
  • Then the cavalry charged.
  • The Roman infantry held their ground.
  • After that, in Caesar's words, "the enemy was unable to sustain the attack."
  • They obviously weren't used to fighting heavy infantry.
  • The Britons turned and fell back.
  • The Romans, in a surprise move, surged forward and pursued them as fast as they could.
  • The British cavalry and chariots were too fast to catch, but everybody on foot was killed
  • on the spot.
  • The Romans were now all fired up, and spread out all over the countryside, where they killed
  • any civilians they could find and burned their villages to the ground.
  • The next day, the Britons sent diplomats again, acting all nice, talking peace.
  • This looked awfully familiar.
  • Even if Caesar didn't trust them, he was still in a precarious position, so he accepted their
  • peace offer at face value.
  • He also demanded from them twice as many hostages, which they agreed to.
  • Around this time, the weather improved.
  • His transport ships were, frankly, not quite repaired, but close enough.
  • Under the cover of darkness he loaded everybody onto the leaky, busted up ships, and pushed
  • off around midnight, leaving a deserted camp for the Britons to find the next day.
  • The first Roman expedition to the island of Britain was officially over.
  • If you ask me, it was an unmitigated failure, and they were lucky to escape with their lives.
  • First of all, they must have been disappointed by the level of poverty on the island.
  • There were no secret riches.
  • No gold, no pearls, nothing.
  • Second, whatever Caesar's ambitions were for the island, I'm sure it wasn't "unify the
  • opposition, barely survive two battles with them, and leave in the middle of the night
  • with your tail between your legs."
  • But these were fixable problems.
  • If he had more ships he could pack them full of cavalry, and if he made the crossing in
  • the spring, he could avoid the late summer storms.
  • Caesar resolved to return next year.
  • During the nighttime escape from Britain, some of the transports were blown off course.
  • Again.
  • One ship, carrying 300 soldiers were blown deep into Belgae territory.
  • When news spread that a battered, isolated group of Romans had washed up on shore, 6,000
  • Belgae descended on their position.
  • The 300 Romans grabbed weapons, got into a tight group, and held their ground, as the
  • Belgae completely surrounded them.
  • The Belgae told the Romans to lay down their arms, but the Romans refused.
  • There was a tense standoff for several hours.
  • The Belgae occasionally closed in and tried to take the Romans by force, but they fended
  • them off every time.
  • Late in the day, Roman cavalry showed up out of nowhere.
  • Caesar had got word that some of his men were trapped in Belgae territory, and had ordered
  • every rider at his disposal to ride all day to come to their rescue.
  • We're starting to see why Caesar's men would later become fanatically loyal.
  • The 6,000 Belgae turned and ran, and the Roman cavalry pursued them.
  • Many Belgae were killed, but more importantly, all 300 Romans escaped with only a few minor
  • wounds.
  • Caesar's right hand man Labienus was becoming quite familiar with the Belgae, so Caesar
  • sent him at the head of a legion to punish them for this transgression.
  • This was the third year in a row that Caesar had been forced to fight the Belgae.
  • He didn't want to have to fight them again next year, so he had his legions winter with
  • Labienus in Belgae territory, to keep an eye on them.
  • Caesar returned to Cisalpine Gaul, and despite his lacklustre results in Britain, he sent
  • an account of the expedition back to Rome.
  • The response was rapturous.
  • Britain was still a magical place in the mind of the public, and they gobbled up every little
  • detail.
  • Bowing to public pressure, the Senate voted for 20 days of celebration in Caesar's honour.
  • Even with all of his setbacks, Caesar's PR campaign was a resounding success.

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