Julius Caesar's First Landing in Britain: August 26th, 55BC

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Julius Caesar's First Landing in Britain: August 26th, 55BC


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


HAVING SUBDUED Gaul, or so it seemed at the time, Julius Caesar launched an expedition to Britain. It was late in the campaigning season and it is doubtful if he was bent on conquest, more likely a reconnaissance in strength. He would certainly have hoped to increase his prestige at home and he might have wanted to postpone a recall to Rome, where his enemies could get at him. He was probably encouraged by some British chiefs, hoping to use the Romans as allies against rival tribes. Whatever Caesar's intentions, he was defeated by the British weather.

A Gaulish chieftain named Commius was sent across the Channel to enlist support for the Romans among the British tribes, while a trusted officer took a fast galley to reconnoitre the coast. Caesar assembled eighty ships at Boulogne to carry two legions, the Seventh and the Tenth, plus irregulars, altogether some 12,000 men. The cavalry and their horses were to sail separately from Ambleteuse, a few miles north. After waiting for a wind the Roman ships left Boulogne in the early hours of August 26th and came in sight of the white cliffs of Dover around 9am. The cliffs were bristling with menacing British warriors, horsemen and war chariots. It was obviously no place to land, but Caesar waited for hours offshore for the cavalry, which had got penned in Ambleteuse by fide and wind. In the afternoon the Roman fleet sailed north-east without them to pass the South Foreland and come in sight of the long stretch of flat shore to the north. The Britons moved along on land to keep pace.

The Roman ships drew in and anchored offshore, probably about where Deal is now, and the legionaries were faced with wading to land, burdened with weapons and gear, while the Britons threw javelins at them and galloped menacingly to and fro on the beach. It was not an agreeable prospect and the soldiers hung back until the eagle-bearer of the Tenth jumped into the sea and shouted to his comrades to follow him and defend the standard. …

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