Julius Caesar’s Second Invasion of Britain (54 BC)

Julius Caesar’s Winter Preparations

While Caesar spent the winter of 55/54 BC in Rome he had left orders with his legionary legates encamped in northern Gaul to build him a fleet of ships to his own specification. The 600 transports were to be of shallow draft, and thus easier to and beach, but to contain stores and animals they had to be broader.

Caesar, when departing from his winter quarters into Italy, as he had been accustomed to do yearly, commands the lieutenants whom he appointed over the legions to take care that during the winter as many ships as possible should be built, and the old repaired. He plans the size and shape of them. For dispatch of lading, and for drawing them on shore, he makes them a little lower than those which we have been accustomed to use in our sea; and that so much the more, because he knew that, on account of the frequent changes of the tide, less swells occurred there; for the purpose of transporting burdens and a great number of horses, [he makes them] a little broader than those which we use in other seas.

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 1

When he returned to Gaul the following Spring, Caesar found six-hundred new transport vessels of his new design along with twenty-eight new triremes awaiting him at various places on the Gaulish coast closest to Britain.

Caesar orders his fleet be assembled at Portus Itius

After ordering his fleet be assembled at Portus Itius, Caesar was first obliged to put down an uprising of the Treviri tribe of the Ardennes, then of the Aedui tribe in the Auxerre region of central France, which he accomplished with the aid of four legions, eight-hundred cavalry and his own peculiar brand of diplomacy.

Caesar Crosses the Channel (again)

Things set right on the continent, Caesar then loaded his transports with five legions and two-thousand auxiliary cavalry troopers, along with a considerable number of hostages taken from amongst the Gaulish nobility.

Leaving behind three legions and two-thousand horse to secure his rear, under the command of his legate Titus Labienus, Caesar’s fleet, numbering in excess of eight-hundred vessels, set sail from Portus Itius at sunset and arrived off the shores of Cantium the following mid-day. This time his landing on the beaches between Walmer and Deal was unopposed, near the mouth of the Great Stour River.

The British host which had originally gathered to repulse him having once sighted his mighty invasion fleet evidently decided not oppose the landing and melted away into the Kentish countryside, allowing Caesar to establish his bridgehead without hinderance. This time the ships were not beached, but left riding at anchor.

He came to land at the same place as before, no one daring to oppose him because of the number of his ships and the fact that they approached many points on the shore at the same time; and he straightway got possession of the harbour.

Cassius Dio, Roman History Book 40, Chapter 1

Bridgehead Encampment

Immediately after establishing a foothold on the British coast Caesar headed inland, leaving behind ten legionary cohorts and three-hundred cavalry troopers under the command of his legate Quintus Atrius to secure his rear.

Caesar, having disembarked his army and chosen a convenient place for the camp, when he discovered from the prisoners in what part the forces of the enemy had lodged themselves, having left ten cohorts and 300 horse at the sea, to be a guard to the ships

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 9

It is evident from his wording that this rear-guard did not comprise a single legion, as he would have simply named the unit in question, instead he states that ‘ten cohorts’ were left behind, implying that they had been drawn from several – perhaps all five – of the legions he had at hand.

The bridgehead encampment built by Caesar’s rear-guard must have been of a size sufficient to house at least five-thousand men (and three hundred horses) in field conditions and would have required a defensive enclosure of at least 25 acres (c.10 ha). Nothing of this camp has been found by modern archaeology but most modern scholars are convinced that it must have been situated somewhere in the area of Walmer and Deal.

The Battle at the River and the Fall of the British Camp

Leaving the bridgehead, Caesar and his army, comprising five slightly under-strength legions and seventeen hundred horse, advanced by night a distance of about twelve miles until, at dawn, British warriors, horses and chariots were sighted upon the high ground on the opposite bank of a river – unnamed by Caesar but almost certainly the Great Stour. While crossing the river Caesar’s army was hindered by repeated charges from the British chariots and mounted warriors, but once his own cavalry had safely forded they were at once put to work against the opposing mobile forces, soon causing the horses and chariots to withdraw from the field of battle into the surrounding heavily-wooded countryside. Without the support of cavalry the British infantry were no match for their Roman legionary counterparts and quickly retreated into prepared positions on the west bank of the river.

This defended British position, described by Caesar as ‘a place admirably fortified by nature and by the artifice of man,’ was seen by him to be the product of earlier ‘civil wars’ among the indigenous Kentish tribes and was evidently uninhabited at the time of his encounter. These extant earthworks had been further strengthened by having all entrances blocked with tree-trunks. Caesar set a single one of his legions, the Seventh, to the task of reducing the fortifications, perhaps in order to indulge their taste for vengeance after having been mauled by British forces whilst foraging in Cantium during the previous campaign season.

Roman soldiers forming the testudo or ‘tortoise’ formation

The hastily improvised entrenchments were to prove no match for the Roman antagonists. The Seventh Legion assumed the famous testudo or ‘tortoise’ formation, with shields held aloft, to the fore and at the sides, making it almost invulnerable to attack. Under the cover of this defensive armour-plating the legionaries created a causeway and ramp across the defensive ditch and rampart of the British camp, thereby breaching its defences and overrunning the interior.

But the soldiers of the seventh legion, having formed a testudo and thrown up a rampart against the fortification, took the place and drove them out of the woods, receiving only a few wounds.

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 9

The defenders were quickly overwhelmed and those who were given the opportunity fled into the surrounding woods, but Caesar forbade any of his own forces from pursuit as it was approaching nightfall and he ‘wished time to be left for the fortification of the camp.’ We must also bear in mind that his men had not yet been afforded any time to rest since leaving Gaul.

The hillfort of the Cantiaci is not named by Caesar, probably because it was uninhabited at the time of his campaigns and, being described by him as situated within woodland, it had probably been uninhabited for a reasonable period prior to his arrival. Guided by the narrative of Caesar but unconfirmed by any archaeological evidence, modern scholars have identified the Iron-Age hillfort at Bigbury, directly west of Canterbury on the opposite bank of the Great Stour, as the site of the Seventh Legion’s victory in Cantium.

Early the next morning Caesar sent out a number of separate forces, presumably upon different trajectories, to reconnoitre the Kentish countryside and to seek out the British forces, while the general himself remained at the field encampment with the remainder of his army. The exact size and composition of these expeditionary forces is not given in Caesar’s commentaries (GW, V.x-xi), which merely records that ‘tripertito milites equitesque,’ or three divisions of both infantry and cavalry were despatched, but he later reports that ‘legiones equitatumque revocari‘, his legions and cavalry were recalled, which implies that each division had a legion at its core. The cavalry contingent which accompanied these three expeditionary divisions cannot be known with any certainty but was probably in the region of three to four-hundred troopers. Caesar thus retained about five to eight-hundred cavalry and the better part of two legions at his base camp, one of these legions probably being the Seventh, who had borne the brunt of the fighting the previous day.

Ceasar’s Fleet is Damaged by Storms

At the same moment that the first of these expeditionary forces had made contact with the rearmost stragglers of the fleeing British host Caesar received news from Quintus Atrius at the bridgehead encampment which caused him to order the immediate cessation of pursuit and to recall all three scouting divisions back to camp. Whilst Caesar had been encamped on the night of the battle a serious storm had struck the Straits of Dover and wrecked almost his entire fleet, many vessels of which had been at anchor when the storm struck and had been driven upon the shingle beaches.

[S]ome horse came to Caesar from Quintus Atrius, to report that the preceding night, a very great storm having arisen, almost all the ships were dashed to pieces and cast upon the shore, because neither the anchors and cables could resist, nor could the sailors and pilots sustain the violence of the storm; and thus great damage was received by that collision of the ships.

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 10

Leaving his field-encampment and returning to the beach-head, Caesar found that forty ships had been completely destroyed, while the others, in varying states of repair, could with some considerable effort be made seaworthy once more.

Ceasar’s Fleet is wrecked at Dover

To ensure the safety of his men Caesar ordered that while repairs were being undertaken every vessel in his fleet should be brought ashore within a single large fortification which was to include the beach-head encampment within its perimeter. Word was sent to the reserve force in Gaul to supply engineers and the necessary ship-building materials, also orders for his legates there to build him more vessels to his recent specifications and to send them to Britain. To effect these ‘strong fortifications’ and to undertake the necessary repairs to his fleet took ten days, working day and night, before Caesar was satisfied that he could return to his task of bringing the Britons to battle. Ten days during which the British tribes could muster a significant response to his invasion army. He had lost the initiative and this was to have serious consequences with his long-term plans.

Physical evidence for Caesar’s shipyard extension to his bridgehead fortifications, which must have been of some considerable size, has never been found in the area of Walmer and Deal. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence at all, for any of the furious boat-building activities which must have been undertaken on the Kentish beaches – and we should expect little. It is very likely that Caesar had no idea of the large supplies of iron-ore which were available nearby in the Weald of Sussex, and even if he did, his forces were not in a position to obtain these raw materials without exposing himself to other dangers. Caesar’s experiences in Britain the previous year had probably prompted him to carry a sufficient quantity of iron nails to enable him to effect most of the repairs, and he could quite easily have had extra supplies sent over from the continent along with the legionary engineers which he is known to have requested from his legate Labienus at Portus Itius. Given this, we are not likely to find any iron-smelting sites attributable to Caesar, and all the other shipyard activities, such as the felling and transport of timber, the shaping of the wood and the fixing of sails and rigging will leave little or no evidence after the passing of two millenia. The absolute lack of any evidence for the bridgehead fortifications is, however, most perplexing to later antiquarians and modern archaeologists alike.

The Advance Through Cantium and the Battle at the Camp

After ten days then, Caesar returned to his field-encampment and quickly found that the British had re-appeared on the scene in greater numbers than before. The forces of the British, visible from the Roman camp, this time consisted not only of the various peoples from the four corners of Cantium, but also of the combined tribes from the entire south-east of England. This army was placed under the overall command of the warlord Cassivellaunus whose own lands were bordered to the south by the Thames; his people later became known to Rome as the Catuvellauni, perhaps named after this spirited leader. Despite the presence of the British army, Caesar advanced his forces westwards through Kent but the British did not give battle and retreated before him. Caesar does not give the dispositions of his mobile army, but it is possible that it operated in the same manner as described before, with three legionary divisions supported by cavalry stationed in the vanguard and upon the flanks while he rode at the centre with two legions and the rest of the cavalry. The only military actions during this advance were, apparently, mere skirmishes between Caesar’s screening cavalry and the British chariots, the Roman auxiliaries consistently proving themselves the better of the two opponents.

Did Caesar bring War Elephants?

Ancient Roman reliefs of elephants in the Getty Villa

Polyaenus a 2nd-century CE Greek author, known best for his Stratagems in War, mentions one such affray.

When Caesar’s passage over a large river in Britain was disputed by the British king Cassivellaunus, at the head of a strong body of cavalry and a great number of chariots, he ordered an elephant, an animal till then unknown to the Britons, to enter the river first, mailed in scales of iron, with a tower on its back, on which archers and slingers were stationed. If the Britons were terrified at so extraordinary a spectacle, what shall I say of their horses? Amongst the Greeks, the horses fly at the sight of an unarmed elephant; but armoured, and with a tower on its back, from which missiles and stones are continually hurled, it is a sight too formidable to be borne. The Britons accordingly with their cavalry and chariots abandoned themselves to flight, leaving the Romans to pass the river unmolested, after the enemy had been routed by the appearance of a single beast.

Polyaenus’ Stratagems 8.23.5

The veracity of this quote should be questioned as Caesar himself does not mention war elephants in his memoirs of the British campaigns. Although as the purpose of his memoirs was for propaganda, he would not want his glory to be overshadowed by an elephant!

Caesar’s brings his opponent to action

Only when Caesar’s forces had stopped to make another field encampment somewhere in west Kent were the British infantry finally brought into action. While the camp ditch was being dug and the rampart erected, the British warriors emerged from the Kentish countryside and threw themselves upon the Roman defensive pickets. These were quickly reinforced by the first (double strength) cohorts from two of Caesar’s legions who apparently tried to envelop the British forces in a ‘pincer’ movement, but the native tribesmen managed to withdraw through the narrowing gap before the manoeuvre could be completed and melted back into the gathering darkness.

But the enemy, after some time had elapsed, when our men were off their guard, and occupied in the fortification of the camp, rushed out of the woods, and making an attack upon those who were placed on duty before the camp

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 15

It is not known whether Cassivellaunus himself commanded the force which attacked Caesar’s second field camp, but the fact that their commander not only realised the danger but was also able to effect an escape proves at the very least that this was a competently led force. The British assault on the camp was not without success, however, for one of Caesar’s military tribunes, Quintus Laberius Durus by name, was killed in the attack.

Where was Caesar’s second field encampment located?

As already mentioned, Caesar’s Commentaries contain very little detail of his advance through Kent, mentioning neither the disposition of his forces nor the topography through which they moved. Caesar twice mentions the Thames, however, no mention is made of his forces actually sighting this river, nor any other prior to his report of the attack on his camp. Presumably Caesar’s second field encampment where he was set upon by the forces of Cassivellaunus lay somewhere east of the Medway, possibly in the area between Maidstone and Chatham. Therefore the camp would lie upon the line of the North Downs Way somewhere in the area of Burham Common, perhaps at Burham Hill Farm or at Keeper’s Lodge on nearby Wouldham Common. There is no archaeological evidence, however, to support this assumption. There are a number of scattered Roman pottery finds in the area, but this medium is hardly in keeping with an army operating under field conditions as pottery was prone to breakage, also Roman coin finds, including solitary finds and hoards, are all dated to the later Roman occupation period.

Further Battles in Kent and at the Flumen Tamesin

The following morning the British forces were visible upon the hilltops before the Roman camp, prompting Caesar to send out his cavalry to test their strength. The cavalry were harassed only by a number of small raiding parties which were easily repulsed, so three legions were sent out under the overall command of the legate Gaius Trebonius to look for supplies. While engaged in foraging, these legions were protected by a defensive screen comprising all of Caesar’s available cavalry, numbering seventeen-hundred troopers. Suddenly, from many directions, the British charged upon the dispersed legionaries, in some places breaking through the cavalry cordon and bringing the legions themselves to battle, to the point even, of threatening the Roman standards.

[W]hen Caesar had sent three legions, and all the cavalry, with C. Trebonius, the lieutenant, for the purpose of foraging, they flew upon the foragers suddenly from all quarters

Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars – Book V Chapter 17

The legionaries were soon rallied under Trebonius and the attack was soundly repulsed with many British falling beneath the short, stabbing gladius of the Roman legionary and many more succumbing to the long, slashing spatha of the mounted auxiliaries, as the natives fled from the scene in disarray.

Following up on this success and in response to intelligence reports concerning the whereabouts of the British warlord Cassivellaunus, Caesar immediately marched his entire mobile army to a ford across the River Thames where he found the British host waiting upon the opposite bank. The natives had fortified the north side of the river-crossing by an intermittent palisade from which they taunted the Romans, daring them to cross the river and fight, confident in the knowledge that they had placed a great many sharpened stakes in the riverbed, hidden beneath the waterline, upon which they expected to entrap any advancing enemy.

Caesar crosses the Thames

Caesar had already learned of these defences from disaffected British captives, so, forewarned and lusting for battle, his legions crossed the river at the same time as his cavalry, easily avoiding the underwater obstacles and falling upon the surprised defenders. The combined British army of Cassivellaunus was smashed to pieces on the north bank of the Thames, the separate tribal contingents each departing the battlefield by the most expedient routes to return homeward.

All except the British overlord himself, shorn of the peregrine mass of his army, who alone confronted the invaders from within the borders of his homelands, harassing them by continual guerrilla-like raids assisted by a highly mobile force of four-thousand loyal charioteers.

 Route Map of Caesar’s invasion of Britain

Rivers of the Cantaci

The lands of the Cantaci possesses three main river systems:

  • The Stour flows from the south central portion of the region, passing through Canterbury before emptying into the channel around modern Richborough. The Stour consists of a number of tributaries which amalgamate before reaching the sea. The river was navigable for trade and military supplies, and was apparently easily fordable, as Caesar makes no mention of any difficulties in crossing it once the opposition had been driven away.
  • The second river system is the Medway in west Kent. This system consists, like the Stour, of a number of tributaries which amalgamate and empty into the Thames estuary at Rochester. Again, this river was navigable for trade and military supplies but not overly large or fast flowing. The Medway is not mentioned at all by Caesar, implying that he faced no opposition in its crossing, but it was the site of a major battle during Claudius’s invasion in 43 CE.49
  • A final river which needs to be discussed is the Thames, marking, as stated, the northern boundary of Kent. This river was much wider than the other two but the Romans do not seem to have encountered exceptional difficulties in fording it on any occasion, even in the face of opposition. The Thames was, and still is, a major artery of trade and would be the site of the main trading port in England under the Romans and subsequent rulers, London.

Where was Caesar’s Battle of the Thames?

My studies regarding the site of Caesar’s second marching camp in Kent places this encampment somewhere upon the ridge of the North Downs Way overlooking Burham. Given this, it would follow that the scene of the battle between his foraging legions and the ambushing British forces would have been somewhere on the flood plain of the Medway’s east bank, possibly in the area between Eccles and Aylesford. Aside from the well known Romano-British villa just west of Eccles itself, there are plenty of LPRIA, ‘Belgic’ and Romano-British archaeological sites known and recorded in this area, as well as a number of scattered finds, as one might expect in that part of Britain lying closest to the Romanising influences of the continent. Despite the profusion of remains from the time period, there are none which may be positively attributed to Caesar’s battles in Kent. There are, however, two sites of particular interest; a ‘Late iron-age Urnfield’ containing many cremation burials which was excavated by A.J. Evans in 1886 in an old sand quarry about 200 yards (c.183 m) north-east of the church at Aylesford (TQ 7309 5924; Archaeologia Vol.LII, 1890/2, pp.315-388), also another cemetery containing ‘many Roman burials’ which was found (c.1893) at Burham ‘near the road towards Eccles’ (VCH Kent vol.III, 1932, pp.149, 153).

Concerning the scene of Caesar’s crossing of the Thames where his forces circumvented the underwater obstacles prepared by the British, it is possible that this occurred at Brentford, upstream along the Thames from the site of the later Roman capital. A number of piles driven into the river-bed and foreshore on the north side of the river here may possibly be dated to the Late Pre-Roman Iron-Age, and a number of bronze-, iron-age and Roman weapons and artefacts dredged from the area are now on display in the London Museum and the British Museum. These unconnected finds cannot be taken as evidence for the actual site of Caesar’s forced crossing; it is more likely that these piles represent the remains of a pier or landing-stage to allow larger vessels to unload cargoes ashore or onto smaller vessels for further riverine transport upstream, the artefacts may be due to accidental deposition during normal dockside activities (TQ 1792 7704; EHNMR-397917). It may be significant, however, that Brentford is known to be the site of two battles in later times, both of which were fought on the north bank of the Thames in the area of Syon Park (TQ 1760 7680; OS):

  • 1016 – Following the death of King Aethelred there were two contenders for the throne of England, Edmund Ironside and Knut the Dane. Two days after Edmund had repulsed Viking longships from London, he crossed the river at Brentford with his army and put the forces of Knut to flight, despite having lost some of his troops who tried to cross the Thames further downstream in a flanking movement.
  • November 12th 1642 – During the English Civil War Prince Rupert commanding the King’s Welsh Regiment defeated and routed two regiments of Parliamentary infantry under the command of Colonel Holles who had been detailed to hold the crossing, the Royalist forces then held the crossing, expending all of their powder and shot, until the rest of the King’s army arrived and drove off the Parliamentarians.

The Fall of Cassivellaunus Fortress and his Capitulation

The Trinovantes, whom Caesar describes as the most powerful tribe in the region, and who had recently suffered at Cassivellaunus’ hands, sent ambassadors, promising him aid and provisions. Mandubracius, who had accompanied Caesar, was restored as their king, and the Trinovantes provided grain and hostages. Five further tribes, the Cenimagni (possibly the Iceni), Segontiaci, Ancalites, Bibroci and Cassi (Cassi may be the precursors of the powerful Catuvellauni tribe?), surrendered to Caesar, and revealed to him the location of Cassivellaunus’ stronghold, possibly Wheathampstead Hillfort, which he proceeded to put 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 beach-head to draw Caesar off, but this attack failed, and Cassivellaunus sent ambassadors to negotiate a surrender. Caesar was eager to return to Gaul for the winter due to growing unrest there, and an agreement was mediated by Commius. Cassivellaunus gave hostages, agreed an annual tribute, and undertook not to make war against Mandubracius or the Trinovantes. Caesar wrote to Cicero on 26 September, confirming the result of the campaign, with hostages but no booty taken, and that his army was about to return to Gaul. He then left, leaving not a single Roman soldier in Britain to enforce his settlement. Whether the tribute was ever paid is unknown.

Thus Caesar departed entirely from the island and left no body of troops behind in it; for he believed that such a force would be in danger while passing the winter in a foreign land

Cassius Dio, Roman History Book 40, Chapter 4

Roman Sites to visit in South East England