Roman Britain – Julius Caesar Invades Britannia (55-54 BC)

Most British history begins with the Romans.

Winston Churchill opens his History of English Speaking Peoples with “In the summer of the Roman year 699, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Christ, the Proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turned his gaze upon Britain” (1). But before turning his gaze Britain, Julius Caesar was in the midst of a series of wars in Gaul -the vaguely defined region of Western Europe comprising present-day France, Belgium, Western Germany, and parts of Switzerland. It was populated by tribes of Celts and Germanic peoples.

At the time, Julius Caesar was in a tripartite power struggle known as the triumvirate, a three-part political partnership that left each of the three members vying for power with their fellow consuls: Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. All three were ruthless Roman military leaders. On the homefront, the aristocracy of Rome yearned for a return to the early Roman Republic, the days described in Livy’s histories, and they loathed the new spirit that had taken the populace. But Rome had grown into a vast bureaucratic economy and the working class people demanded action, entertainment, and above all victory. Caesar knew that he needed to gain the popularity of the plebeians if he was to secure his political power and cancel his debts. Thus, much like Crassus, who had brought home captivating stories of his conquests in Mesopotamia, Caesar hoped to do the same with Gaul. The people of Rome would be regaled with fanciful tales from Julius Caesar, ever the self-promoter, in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”).

Then a strange detour happened during the Gallic Wars. While in pursuit of the Western Gauls, Caesar’s forces took note of alliances between the Celts living off the coast of Europe on a well-insulated island located just off the coast from Brittany (Western France). Refugees from the Gauls were welcomed onto this island known as Britannia, and so in the summer of 55 BC Caesar sailed with eighty transport ships and two legions for this fabled island in part for revenge and in part for reconnaissance. They sailed at midnight and by morning spotted the white cliffs of Dover dotted with armed men. Caesar deemed it an unsuitable landing spot so they sailed up further to a shallow beach where they fought the natives in the surf, ending with the Romans forcing the Britons to turn in flight, but poor weather wrecked several Roman ships causing dismay among the legionaries. The Romans stayed for barely a fortnight, likely near the coast, until peace was made with the warring Britons. The Romans reconstructed transport vessels and returned to Gaul. Caesar was glad to return with some captives, though the expedition could not have been further from success. Back in Rome, the Senate praised Caesar’s expedition ‘beyond the known world,’ while aristocrats, like Cicero, were dismayed that no riches were found in Britannia.

Never to be outdone, and despite certain criticisms in Rome for his self-aggrandizing expedition in Britannia, Caesar returned again the following year in 54 BC with five legions and a well-stocked cavalry in some six to eight hundred ships. The sheer sight of this armada must have been menacing to the native Britons. After once again being beset by storms, the ships were in need of repair, Caesar pushed further inland on Britannia, easily dominating tribes and crossing the Thames near Brentford, West of London. However, his forces were plagued by guerrilla warfare led by a chieftain named Cassivellaunus, a warlord located north of the Thames who had subdued many other tribes, including the Trinovantes whose exiled king, Mandubracius, promised support to Caesar. With the backing of the Trinovantes, five other kingdoms fell in line to support Caesar and the location of Cassivellaunus was revealed. Caesar’s forces bombarded the location until a peace treaty was brokered with Cassivellaunus promising hostages, tribute, and support to the reinstated kingship of Mandubracius.

After the peace was secured Caesar to return to Gaul where instability had returned. Upon returning to Rome, Caesar proclaimed a conquest and a victory over Britannia, while his captives of Briton marched behind him through the streets of Rome, however the battle was hardly a conquest. It did, however, open the door to new routes of Roman trade, culture, and influence in Britannia.

In Rome, the death of Cassius while fighting abroad brought an end to the tenuous balance of power within the Triumvirate, leading to a bloody Civil War that ended with Caesar being anointed as Emperor, or Dictator for Life of Rome (he refused kingship), signaling a harrowing death-knell for the old Roman Republic. Shortly thereafter, amidst whispers that Caesar was in open rebellion against the Senate and that he wished to be crowned king of Rome, Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15) by a clutch of conspirators. His death brought about the birth of the Roman Empire, next ruled by Augustus, formerly known as Octavius, after the collapse of the Triumvirate and the death of Mark Antony.

At any rate, Roman forces would not again occupy the British mainland for nearly 100 years -not until the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”).

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