Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain: 1st Invasion

Celtic Tradition of Raven: 
I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech (Taliesin). The raven offers initiation—the destruction of one thing to give birth to another. For deeper understanding, the heroine must journey through darkness to emerge into morning’s new light. 

 INTRODUCTION

The epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first unpublished novel in a series, Celtic Spirit Warrior Chronicles, set in Ancient Britain, Gaul (modern day France), and Rome prior to the invasion of Claudius in 43 AD. Although Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain occurred approximately 90 years earlier in 55 and 54 BC, there is historical and archaeological evidence that suggests these invasions were not momentary diversions from Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. It was a plan to establish powerful tribal dynasties in southeast Britain that were loyal to Rome.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The next series of posts will summarize events that precipitated the final Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. The article below highlights Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain in 55 BC. Following his invasions, pro- and anti-Roman factions arose in Britain that provides the backdrop for APOLLO’S RAVEN, an epic tale about the odyssey of a Celtic warrior princess who meets the great-grandson of Mark Anthony.


Caesar’s Invasion Celtic Britain

Planning

In 55 AD, Caesar was anxious to invade Britain because powerful British chieftains were aiding Celtic tribal leaders in Gaul with their war against Rome. Most of Caesar’s information about the geography and culture of Britain was limited and derived from traders. Thus, he wanted to learn more about the island’s size, the names of tribal rulers, their military state and organization, and the harbors suitable for landing larger vessels. He dispatched Commius, the King of the Atrebates Tribe in Gaul, to persuade the British chieftains to negotiate terms upon his landing in Britain.

Dover Cliffs Britain

White Dover Cliffs Britain

As Caesar prepared his fleet for the British excursion from Gaul (modern day Boulogne France), news of his aggressive intentions reached the tribal rulers in southeast Britain. In response, they sent envoys to Caesar promising hostages and tribute. Encouraged by their willingness to negotiate, Caesar allowed the envoys to return home. Unbeknownst to him, one of the chieftains took Commius as prisoner.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze


Roman Landing

At midnight in late summer, eighty ships that transported two legions (about 10,000 soldiers) sailed for Britain. Caesar left instructions for 18 ships to transport the cavalry further north on the coastline. When his warships first reached the British shore early the next morning, the white hills (modern day Dover Cliffs) were lined with warriors armed with spears. With only a thin beach on which Caesar’s troops could disembark, the Celtic fighters held the vantage of being able to hurl their spears down on them. Since the landing was impossible, Caesar directed his fleet seven miles north to an open, flat expanse of shingle beach. British horsemen and charioteers followed Caesar’s ships on the hilltops as they sailed up the coastline.

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover


Battle on the Beach

After landing at the new location, Caesar’s forces faced formidable Celtic warriors who were waiting on the beach ready to fight. Roman soldiers were forced to jump overboard into the channel water without knowing how deep the bottom was. Laden with heavy equipment, the Romans struggled to maintain their footing in the surf as they fought Celtic horsemen who seized very opportunity to dash their mounts at isolated groups struggling to get ashore.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Romans, finding it impossible to keep formation, at first panicked in battle. Caesar ordered his warships to catapult hot fire of sling-stones, arrows, and artillery at the British warriors to drive them from their point of vantage. Caesar recounts an eagle-bearer from the Tenth Legion emboldened his comrades by leaping into the water and shouting, “I, at any rate, shall not be found wanting in my duty to my country and general.”

Once the Romans were firmly on land, their troops charged and routed the Britons. After the British were defeated near the coastline, the tribal rulers dispatched envoys to discuss terms of surrender to Caesar. Commius, the Atrebates King who Caesar had earlier sent to Britain, was released. The envoys promised to meet Caesar’s every need and allowed him to use the natives at his disposal.

Pebble Beach Deal UK

Shingle Beach Near Deal UK, Probable Location of Caesar’s Landing in Britain


Tidal Phenomenon 

On the fourth day of the Roman expedition, the ships carrying the Roman cavalry were driven back by a sudden storm. On the same night, the full moon brought a tidal phenomenon that Caesar had not been prepared to face. Waves surged up the beach and destroyed or damaged most of his ships. Some of the soldiers repaired the damaged ships using the timber and copper from the worst wrecks while others foraged for corn in the surrounding fields. As a consequence of this calamity, there was a marked change in the attitude of the Celtic chieftains who secretly met and pledged to take up arms again and starve out their invaders. They covertly called upon their followers to fight.

Ancient Roman Warship Model

Roman Warship Model

Caesar was unaware of this treachery as there were no signs of hostile movements by local inhabitants who continued to farm and visit the Roman encampment. That all changed when outposts outside the main camp reported there was a cloud of dust in an area that had been taken by the Romans. Now suspecting a new plot had broken among the natives, Caesar ordered a battalion to march a considerable distance to where warriors in chariots had ambushed some of his soldiers foraging for food.

Cliffside Dover Cliffs Britain

Coastal White CliffsBritain


Chariot-fighting

In the subsequent battle, Roman infantrymen were thrown into confusion by the British use of chariot-fighting, a fighting tactic which they had never encountered in warfare. The charioteers, galloping wildly down the whole field of battle, terrified the Roman soldiers by charging their horses into the melee of fighting. A fighter would leap out of the chariot and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the driver would take position a short distance from battle to retreat if they became overpowered. Even on the most treacherous terrain, the charioteers had perfect control over their horses. Hence, the Britons combined the skill of an infantryman with the mobility of the cavalry. It was only through military discipline that the Romans were able to overcome their opponents. After the victorious battle, Caesar returned to base camp with his remaining troops.

Celtic Horned Helmet

Celtic Horned Helmet Found at River Thames Date 150-50BC

Roman Victory

News of Caesar’s weakened position and an appeal to expel the invaders from their entrenchments spread throughout the countryside. Another wave of enemy forces advanced on foot and horseback toward the Roman encampment. Caesar charged his two legions against these tribal forces which were ultimately not able to withstand the Roman attack. In retaliation for the British treachery, several of the native farms were burned to ashes.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Finally, the tribal chieftains agreed to surrender under the terms that the number of hostages previously imposed would double. With the equinox close on hand, Caesar feared his repaired ships might not withstand the ocean’s storms and thus he sailed back to the Continent with only a few of the promised hostages. When he ordered the remaining hostages be sent to Gaul, the British rulers refused to send them.

During the following winter months, Caesar ordered his generals to build a fleet of newly designed ships that could better handle the seas in the British Channel for his second invasion.

(To be Continued)

References:

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

John Manley, 2002. AD 43—The Roman Invasion of Britain. Charlston, SC: Tempus Publishing Inc.

Graham Webster, The Roman Invasion of Britain; Reprinted 1999 by Routledge, New York.

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