Transcript – Julius Organises and Invades (55 BC) | The One With The British Weather
In our last episode of The History of Britain we had a look at why the Romans would want to add Britain to the ever expanding Roman territory. In this one we will look at how one of the most famous generals in history went about doing that.
Julius and his friends landed in Britain in 55 BC, but he had wanted to visit in 56 BC. What stopping him invading then, was some pesky Gauls. The Gauls in question were the Veneti from the Armorican peninsula, which is Britanny in France. They kicked off and Julius had to head on over and put them in their place. This wasn’t as simple as it might have been, because the Veneti were pretty good sailors, and as we mentioned last week, the Romans really weren’t used to the English Channel and Atlantic. This delayed Julius by a whole year. Not because it took him a year to sort out the rebellious Gauls, but because back in the day there was a campaigning period. You couldn’t do a lot of scrapping over the winter. It’s too cold and food was much harder to come by. It was very much the ancient equivalent of staying at home and eating beans, because it’s too cold to head out to Tescos.
So Julius got over his set back. How exactly does a general go about organising an invasion of an unknown island miles away from nice comfortable Rome?
Before we go over that, it’s worth saying that we are going to stick to boot into old Julius for the rest of this, but we are possibly being a bit unfair. It’s not 100% clear how much of an invasion this was meant to be. It’s entirely possible the aim was to go over there, knock some heads together and soften up the place for later. So bare that in mind, while we spend the next few minutes picking over every mistake he made, and laugh at him.
So anyway, how did Julius go about planning. Well, to be honest, badly – see we told you we would be harsh. He bollocksed up in three whole different ways.
The first way was trusting in the business community. He needed to know as much as possible about the Britons and what was going on in Britain. So he gathered together his merchants, who we know had been trading across the channel. They have it the old ‘Britannia you say’ nope, never heard of it.’
It may be his merchants didn’t know anything useful, or maybe they spotted if Julius spend the summer ripping through Southern England, that would seriously hamper their trade. Them turkeys just didn’t fancy kicking off that particular festive period.
Next up in the bad decisions was to send out a scout ship under a man names Volusenus. He was meant to have a check of the coast and find somewhere for him to land. We will go into how this was a mistake in a bit.
The final of the trio of bad decisions was backing Royalty. In particular a chieftain called Commius. Commius was in charge of the Atrebates tribe in what is now Belgium. He had been put in place by Julius himself following the kicking the Gauls in that region got. The Britains had either guessed or heard than the Romans were planning to nip over the channel. It’s possible that the merchant Julius had been walking to warned them. A few of the Briton tribes decided to send envoys over to meet Julius and promise that they would submit to the Romans. That feels a little cowardly, but considering Julius himself brags about killing a million Gauls and enslaving a million more, you can see why the Britons might be keen on skipping that bit. This is relevant to Commius, because he was sent back to Britain with the envoys. His job was to visit the tribes there, probably including the branch of his Atrebates that were in Britain, and get more of them to just pre-submit. Julius was obviously keen to just turn up and immediately claim a victory without having to murder his way around the countryside. This didn’t work. Puppet kings (or presidents for that matter, to bring it up to 2017) are rarely popular. Especially ones who are suggesting everyone should just give up. So the Britons just locked him up.
So it seems that Julius had failed to gather any useful info and was going to face a resistant population when he landed. You can sort of see why Julius messed it up, he was distracted again. Like with the year before, with the Veneti, it was kicking off in the provinces he was meant to be governing. This time the problem came from the Germanic peoples in the east. This time it looked like the tribes from across the Rhine were going to attack his province. The Rhine was a very useful natural border, with Rome on one side and heathens on the other. Probably sick of getting interrupted, Caesar massively overreacted to this Germanic forray over the border. He marched over and killed everyone he could find on the West side of the Rhine. He then built a bridge to get to the east bank. Although, saying it like that is a bit of an understatement. It was a seriously impressive feat. He built a bridge, crossing the Rhine, with local lumber, in just ten days. He had a mooch around on that side, but left fairly quickly, taking the bridge down behind him. Obviously he had proved his point. So it was back to focusing on Britain, but this delay meant it was getting late in the year. Julius wasn’t going to wait another year, so he went for it, regardless of any pesky seasons.
Given it was getting late and and his intelligence gathering was a complete wash, how did he go about with the more logistical side of getting an army together?
Well he had himself two whole legions, which is about 10,000 soldiers, ready to go. Now that sounds like a lot to us, especially if we are going to give him the benefit of the doubt over how much of an invasion this was meant to be. For a bit of context 10,000 soldiers is a similar number to the number of soldiers historians reckon William the Conqueror took with him to England in 1066. And nobody is calling him William the Visitor now are they.
While his 10,000 soldiers were all ready and raring Caesar’s cavalry were getting ready in a different port, so Caesar decided to set off without them. They could catch up later. It was already the 24th of August, so it was getting late on in the year and he had one eye on the campaign period we mentioned earlier. The bloke was in a rush, so he set sail with his legions. Now we get to what excellent spot had our man Volusenus found for him? From Caesar’s description of the point of British coast he first got to, it’s assumed where they had picked to land was the White Cliffs of Dover.
For those of you wondering what’s wrong with that, imagine getting off your ship to land on the beach. It sounds quite nice. I mean, who doesn’t like a trip to the seaside? But now imagine that some merchants and a puppet king had told everyone that you were about to invade. So when you turned up the cliffs above you was lined with angry looking natives. They also like a trip to the seaside, and had decided to bring along their favorite heavy and pointy things along with them.
Storming a beach while having things thrown at him didn’t appeal to Julius, so he decided to head down the coast a bit and find a better spot. (probably giving Volusenus a dry slap on the way) Unfortunately, they were followed by the Britons. So their next issue was landing on a beach full of Britons, who hadn’t conveniently left their pointy things back in Dover. To make it worse the Romans ships couldn’t cope with shallow water, so the soldiers had to jump into deeper water and fight their way from there to shallow water and then onto the beach. Thinking strategically, we believe this is know as ‘having an absolute mare’. The whole, Romans not being good sailors is really starting to look important.
The story from the Roman sources claims that the legions were reluctant to go in the water at first. That is until a brave standard-bearer leapt into the sea, clutching the Eagle standard. You might have seen these standards in films, they were like the Roman equivalent of medieval banners. They were symbols of each legion and was a sort of representation of the honour and pride of the men. Losing it would be very bad news for everyone involved. The brave standard bearer jumped into the water and 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.”
Isn’t that a lovely story? Very Hollywood. It’s more likely he screeched something along the lines of:
“I’m getting seasick on that fucking boat. Hurry up and get in the fucking water you pack of cowardly cunts.
Whatever he said, it worked. The Romans got their feet wet, and managed to fight their way to the beach. The Britons ran off in their speedy chariots and since Julius’ cavalry was still sailing over, he had to let them go, because he didn’t have anything fast enough chase them with. The Britons had obviously decided that Julius was too hard core for them and decided to submit to him to avoid taking a kicking. For some of them this was the second time they had submitted. There was obviously some concern about how Julius would react to all this and in a classic attempt to not get shouting at the representatives of the tribes blamed the attack on commoners. The rulers obviously had no intention of resisting Roman rule, but there is no telling these stupid confused poor people. The poor, hey. Am I right? Convincing stuff.
Julius must have been looking forward to consolidating his position and just wait for the tribute to start rolling in. It was all coming up Julius. He had landed, beat the Britons and was looking all set to take charge of a good bit of South East England. Briton Tribes were coming and submitting to him (again) and his cavalry were on the way over the channel.
Then disaster struck. Like a modern day tourist from Southern Europe, he hadn’t taken into account the British weather. A big storm blew up and it really ruined his day. Firstly, it happened when his cavalry were sailing across the channel, forcing them to turn around and go back to Gaul. Secondly, Julius had set up a camp near where he had landed, but he hadn’t pulled his ships far enough onto the beach. He wasn’t used to our weather and tides and his ships were thrown about and a lot of them got broken. And we bet he didn’t even have his brolly with him.
Now the Romans had gone from a nice victory and a rosy immediate future to being wet, horseless and without enough ships to get home.The Britons spotted this and quickly left to start organising getting their own back.
Julius had himself two fairly big problems now. Firstly he would have to fix his ships if he wanted a route back to Gaul, and secondly, it looked like he would be forced to hang around near the beach for a bit so he would need some food for this 10,000 men. Ever the decisive general, he got one legion to set up to defend and fix his ships while the other was sent out for forage for food (foraging being a military euphemism for nicking some stuff).
Julius was hanging around waiting for his dinner, when someone spotting a massive dust cloud in the direction of his foraging legion. This either meant his soldiers were dancing for joy over how much food they had found, or they were under attack. Assuming the latter he grabbed up men and marched over to help the foraging legion. They had indeed been attacked by a force of opportunistic Britons. It sounded pretty bad for the Romans, who were particularly freaked out by the Britons chariots. Still, Julius and his legions managed to fight their way into a retreat back to the beach.
The Britons and their chariots sounded like a massive problem for the Romans, and Julius certainly seemed pretty impressed with them. We have been reading about all this quite a bit, and it seems unacceptable for anyway to talk about 55 BC without including this quite long quote from his book ‘The Gallic Wars’ So if you will excuse us, here it goes:
“In chariot fighting the Britons begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents’ ranks into disorder. Then, after making their way between the squadrons of their own cavalry, they jump down from the chariot and engage on foot. In the meantime their charioteers retire a short distance from the battle and place the chariots in such a position that their masters, if hard pressed by numbers, have an easy means of retreat to their own lines. Thus they combine the mobility of cavalry with the staying power of infantry; and by daily training and practice they attain such proficiency that even on a steep incline they are able to control the horses at full gallop, and to check and turn them in a moment. They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning”
Once again the Britons decided they were probably not going to come out on top, so went and submitted to the Romans (some of them for the third time)
Julius must have had enough with the whole thing. He accepted their submissions and demanded hostages to make sure they stuck to it this time. He didn’t even hang around to collect the hostages and just headed back to Gaul, leaving instructions that hostages should be sent after him.
This was not a roaring success from Julius. Yes he had technically won, but not many victories end with you racing home to get away from who you have just beaten. Most of the tribes didn’t even bother to send the hostages across.
Its also worth noting that the Romans sailed back over in ten less ships than they sailed across in. Which means it was either a cramped journey, or they had lost more than 10% of their men.
That’s the end of Julius’ first go at Britain. Join us next time when we will have a look at Julius’ second bite at the cherry. Maybe this one won’t end with Julius and his mates running away from the mean Britons. In the meantime there will be a companion episode on the extent of the Roman territories, so we can see where our island fit into it all.
Nice, one. Cheers.