The Roman conquest of Britain commenced in the year AD 43, but previously the Romans led two expeditionary campaigns almost a century earlier in 55 and 54 BC under the command of Gaius Julius Caesar.
Britain had been known to classical Greek writers as early as the 4th century BC, but to the Romans it was first portrayed as a mythical island on the edge of the known world.
Much of what we know about the expeditions comes from a first-hand account by Caesar himself (written in a biased third person perspective) in the Commentarii de Bello Gallico (meaning: Commentaries on the Gallic War), in which Caesar claims that the Britons had supported the Gauls and neighbouring tribes during his conquest of the Gallic region.
The First Invasion
In 55 BC, rather than pressing further north against the Gauls, Caesar turned his attentions towards Britain and questioned several merchants as to how numerous Britain’s nations were, and obtain information about possible landing sites on the south eastern coast.
The tribune Caius Volusenus was despatched with a single ship to undertake a week-long survey of the coastline, but hesitated in going ashore since he “dared not leave his ship and trust himself to barbarians”.
Upon returning to Gaul five days later, the Britons had already been warned about Caesar’s intent from passing merchants and sent several ambassadors to offer hostages and promises of submission.
The ambassadors returned to Britain along with Commius, king of the Belgae Atrebates to persuade as many nations as possible to embrace the “protection of the Roman people”, and apprize Britain’s inhabitants of the impending arrival of Roman forces to their shores.
Caesar gathered a fleet of eighty transport ships to carry up to two legions, numerous warships under a quaestor, and eighteen transports containing cavalry. The fleet sailed for Dubris (Dover), however, upon reaching sight of the shoreline it was apparent that the Britons had planned to resist, and gathered a force of defenders on the cliffs to repel any attempt at landing. After waiting in anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of his fleet to arrive, they sailed seven miles to what is believed to be Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet in Kent.
Caesars accounts state that “the barbarians, upon perceiving the design of the Romans, sent forward their cavalry and charioteers, a class of warriors of whom it is their practice to make great use in their battles, and following with the rest of their forces, endeavoured to prevent our men landing.”
The Roman ships were too low in the water to land the troops, resulting in soldiers having to wade ashore whilst weighed down by heavy armour, all the while being attacked by the enemy from the shallows.
The Romans hesitated to advance, but the standard bearer holding the eagle of the 10th Legion exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the commonwealth and my general” driving back the Britons to establish a beach head.
Caesar was approached yet again by ambassadors of the Britons, accompanied by Commius who had been imprisoned upon his arrival. The ambassadors claimed that the resistance the Roman’s faced were the “common people,” and promised reparations by offering further hostages.
Days later, a storm surge in the English Channel forced the ships carrying Caesar’s Calvary to return to Gaul, whilst an unusually high tide caused the beached warships to fill with water and wrecked several of his transports.
Realising the Romans lacked provisions, the Britons planned to protract hostilities again in the hope that they could vanquish the invaders, or cut off their return so that “no one would afterward pass over into Britain for the purpose of making war.”
After several skirmishes, the ambassadors approached Caesar to sue for peace, for which Caesar doubled the tribute of hostages and set sail with his fleet back to the continent.
The Second Invasion
For the next campaign season, Caesar planned to return to Britain and assembled a much larger army consisting of five legions and around 2,000 cavalry.
Learning from the difficulties he faced in the previous year’s expedition, he designed many of the ships to be more suited for amphibious landings, and established supply lines from Portus Itius to ensure regular transport of provisions.
Caesar and his troops landed relatively unhindered, suggesting that “being alarmed by the great number of our ships, more than eight hundred of which, including the ships of the preceding year, and those private vessels which each had built for his own convenience, had appeared at one time, they (the Britons) had quitted the coast and concealed themselves among the higher points.”
The bulk of the expedition force ventured further inland to engage the Britons, who by this time were harrowing the Romans march towards a fortified woodland enclosure (possibly the hillfort at Bigbury Wood, Kent).
The next morning, Caesar received word from Quintus Atrius that a large number of his ships at anchor were damaged in a storm. The expedition force returned to the coast and worked night and day for ten days to repair the fleet and build a fortified encampment.
Caesar headed back inland and found that the Britons had used the time to amass a large army under the leadership of Cassivellaunus, a tribal warlord from north of the Thames. After several indecisive skirmishes, Cassivellaunus realised he could not defeat Caesar in a pitched battle and disbanded a majority of his forces to use guerrilla tactics to slow the Roman advance.
Several tribes eventually surrendered, including the Cenimagni, Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci and Cassi, revealing to Caesar the location of Cassivellaunus stronghold (believed to be Devil’s Dyke located in present-day Wheathampstead) which was placed under siege.
Cassivellaunus sent word to his allies in Kent, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus and Segovax, described as the “four kings of Cantium”, to stage a diversionary attack on the Roman beachhead to draw Caesar off, but this attack failed, and Cassivellaunus sent ambassadors to negotiate his surrender.
Caesar was determined to return to the continent for the winter to subdue unrest in Gaul, and agreed to an annual tribute from the Britons. He then simply left, leaving not a single Roman soldier in Britain until the arrival of Emperor Claudius’s legions in AD 43.
Header Image : Illustration by Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) “The Britons” – Public Domain