Our best picture of the warlike side of the
Britons comes from the account written by Julius Caesar about
his two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC.
Although he gives the impression that they
were reconnaissance expeditions, it is fairly clear that on
the second visit he was determined on the conquest of Britain
which, however, was not carried through.
Julius Caesar on Britain
He tells us something of what he knew of
The central regions of Britain are inhabited
by a people who claim to have originated there, on the coast live
the immigrant Belgae, who came to plunder and fight, but stayed
to cultivate the land. The population is very large; they have
many houses rather like those in Gaul [France] and large herds.
They use bronze or gold coins or, as an
alternative, iron rods of fixed weight. Tin is found inland and
small quantities of iron near the coasts but they import their
copper. Apart from the beech and fir, there are trees of every
kind as in Gaul. They think it is wrong to eat hares or chickens
or geese but they breed them as pets. As the cold is less severe,
the climate is more temperate than in Gaul.
The island is triangular, and one side,
about 282 (Roman) kilometres long, is opposite Gaul. Kent forms
one corner and nearly all the ships from Gaul land there. This
side points east while the other points south. Another side looks
west towards Spain; the Britons reckon it is roughly 1,070
In this direction is Ireland which they reckon
is about half the size of Britain and about the same distance away
from it as Gaul. In the middle of the Irish Channel is the Isle of
Man; they think there are a number of smaller islands off the coast.
Some geographers have written that in midwinter in these islands
there are in about thirty days continual darkness.
View the changing native Briton tribal borders
through a set of detailed maps.
Though I made enquiries, I could find nothing
about this, but we did discover from accurate measurement by
water-clock that the nights are shorter than on the Continent. The
third side, thought to be 1,223 kilometres long, looks north with no
land opposite, but one corner points roughly towards Germany. The
circumference of the whole island measures 3,058 kilometres.
The most civilised people are those in Kent
which is entirely a coastal area; they have much the same customs
as the Gauls. Most of those living further inland do not sow corn
but live on milk and flesh and wear clothes of animal skins. All
the Britons, though, dye their skins with woad which produces a
blue colour and thereby they look all the more terrifying in
They do not cut their hair but shave all the
rest of the body except the head and upper lip. Wives are shared
between groups of ten or twelve men, usually made up of brothers or
fathers and sons. The children are reckoned as belonging to the man
each girl marries first.
This account suggests that what Caesar sees with
his own eyes is properly reported but that he has been told some
rather fanciful stories as well. For example, he has this to say
I have nothing very certain to say about this
island except that the inhabitants are less civilised than the
British, for they eat great quantities of food - and men as well.
Moreover, they consider it an honourable thing, when their fathers
die, to eat them...
Whoever the early folk of Ireland were, either in prehistory or
mythology, they certainly were not the inventions of later story
tellers and oral tradition, the leprechauns
A Roman tribune from the imperial era on celluloid
The first visit
Caesar set sail from Boulogne with some ten thousand
men in eighty transports at about midnight on 25 August 55 BC.
The cavalry were to embark from a spot further north
and follow the main fleet. Caesar reached the British coast at about
nine o'clock in the morning under the cliffs of Dover. Above him he
could see the British forces so he dropped anchor and waited for the
whole fleet to gather together. At about 15.30 they moved off northwards
along the coast and found a suitable landing place somewhere between
Deal and Walmer.
But the British had followed him along the coast and
were there to greet him with their cavalry and war chariots, and the
Roman infantry were reluctant to land until a standard-bearer jumped
into the surf and started to wade towards the beach.
A fierce fight developed and the Romans only got
ashore with difficulty but, when the British did run off, Caesar
was unable to chase them because his cavalry had still not arrived.
However, some of the British had second thoughts and came back and
offered to cooperate with the Romans.
Caesar spent the next two days waiting for the
cavalry. Their ships met with a tremendous storm on the crossing
and thought it safer with the horses on board to return to Gaul.
The storm had a disastrous effect on Caesar's camp which he had
constructed on the shingle foreshore. The warships had been beached
and these were damaged together with the transports which were riding
at anchor a little way out.
This series of sequential maps of pre-Roman Britain cover
the available information for the period between 55 BC to
AD 43 (click or tap on map to view full sized)
A Briton from Barnard's New Complete & Authentic History of
The British took advantage of this mishap by
ambushing the Seventh Legion which had been sent out to reap the
Britons' harvest in the fields. A fight started and Caesar had to
march to the rescue with reinforcements and drive off the British.
The British force had hidden in a wood with their chariots and
Caesar gives a description of how they attacked his troops:
They began by driving all over the field,
hurling javelins, and then they worked their way between their
cavalry units where the warriors jumped down and fought on foot.
Meanwhile the chariot drivers retired a short distance from the
fighting and stationed the cars in such a way so that their masters,
if outnumbered, had an easy means of retreat to their own lines.
In action, therefore, they combined the
mobility of cavalry with the staying power of foot soldiers. Their
skill may be judged by the fact that they control the horses at full
gallop on the steepest incline, check and turn them in a moment, run
along the shaft, stand on the yoke, and get back again into the
chariot quick as lightning.
Bigbury hill fort is located under the mass of trees, upper centre,
nearest the main road
A few days later the British gathered a large force and attacked
the Roman camp but were driven off. The Romans chased them as
well as they could, with the few horses that they had, killed the
stragglers, and burnt several houses.
Later that day, British envoys arrived to make
peace. Caesar demanded that hostages be brought over to Gaul,
decided to make the best of a bad job and set off back to Boulogne.
Before leaving for Italy, he decided to make a full attempt at
conquest next year and left orders that preparations should be
The second visit
Next year he repeated the voyage, with eight
hundred ships this time and two thousand cavalry. He built a camp,
probably in the same place as the previous year.
There he received news that the British force had
withdrawn from the beaches to a fortified place at Bigbury Woods,
some distance inland, not far from present-day Canterbury on the
River Stour. Leaving ten battalions and three hundred cavalry to guard
the camp, Caesar set off inland, following the track that led to the
crossing of the River Stour.
He arrived there to find that Bigbury was a strongpoint
that overlooked the crossing-place, and that the Britons were pouring
down the slope with their cavalry and war chariots to bar his
passage of the river. However, he managed to cross and attack Bigbury,
which had its entrances blocked with masses of felled trees. The troops
of the Seventh Legion, working under cover of interlocked shields, piled
up branches against the fortifications, stormed the position and drove
the Britons out at the cost of a few minor casualties.
The Romans spent the rest of the day building a
marching camp. Next morning Caesar sent out a light force of infantry
and cavalry in three parties to overtake the Britons. Just as they
were leaving, a messenger arrived from the Roman camp on the seashore
with the news that an overnight storm had wrecked nearly all the
After what had happened last year, this was incredible
news. It shows how little the Romans had learnt from that experience.
So there was a delay of ten days during which time the camp was
refortified and the ships beached inside it.
When he got back on the road to Bigbury, Caesar found
that the British had offered the leadership of their disparate forces
to Cassivellaunus, king of the Catuvellauni, whose territory lay beyond
the Thames in the later regions of Middlesex, Hertfordshire, and
He began to attack the legions on the march and a
running fight developed. When the Romans entrenched for the night
the Britons attacked the outposts. Heavy fighting developed and the
Britons were only driven off after reinforcements had been brought
up. Next morning the fight was resumed.
While Caesar was occupied quelling Gaul and attempting to do
the same to Britain, Rome was developing
After a concerted effort by the legions and the
cavalry the Britons withdrew and Caesar was able to resume the march.
They reached the River Thames at present-day Brentford. This must have
been anticipated by Cassivellaunus who had sharpened stakes stuck
into the river bed beneath the water and on the banks. On the other
bank was the British army.
The Romans' blood was up. Without delay they dashed
across the river and scattered the enemy.
An apparent conquest
When all his troops were across, Caesar set out for
Cassivellaunus' stronghold at Wheathampstead near present-day St
Albans. All along the line of march he was under attack from the
British cavalry and chariots. Whenever he sent out patrols or cavalry
to plunder the countryside, they were cut off and attacked.
On this march envoys arrived from the Trinovantes whose
territory lay in Essex and southern East Anglia. Their king had been
assassinated by Cassivellaunus and his son had fled to Gaul to seek
help from Caesar. In return for hostages and a promise to submit to
his orders, Caesar sent the young man back to his people with the
As a result of this decision, Caesar received offers
of help and friendship from five more tribes in southern and western
Britain. This heartened the Roman force and when they reached
Wheathampstead, the oppidum was immediately attacked from two
sides and, after a brief resistance, the Britons retreated. Caesar
says that great quantities of cattle were found there.
John Deare's late eighteenth century sculpture shows Julius
Caesar and his troops on their beachhead in Kent, desperately
fighting off the Britons
Republican and early Roman empire cavalry
Meanwhile, Cassivellaunus had instructed four of the Kentish
leaders to make a surprise attack on the Roman HQ on the coast, In
the engagement one of the Kentish leaders was killed and the rest
Caesar tells us that he decided at this point to
winter in Gaul so he demanded hostages from the Britons, fixed an
annual tribute to be paid to Rome (acting as though he had conquered
the country) and forbade Cassivellaunus to interfere with the
He then marched back to the coast and, after some
problems due to a shortage of transports, managed to load up his
army and returned to Gaul. He never came back to Britain.
Archaeological evidence for these expeditions is
very sparse. The site of Bigbury is known. It is situated on the Downs,
on the North Down trackway, overlooking the route which Caesar took on
his way to the Thames. The main earthwork consists of a rampart that is
2.4m high and an outer ditch some five mteres wide and encloses some
There are two entrances and an annexe on the north-west.
The interior has been vandalised by gravel digging during which a good
many finds have been made, including a fire-dog, cauldron hooks,
ploughshares, horse-bits, and a slave-chain with a barrel padlock.
Hill forts and chariots
From the Thames at Brentford has come one of the stout
stakes sunk into the river. At Wheathampstead, the Devil's Dyke and
another earthwork called the Slad together enclose about 36 hectares.
The Devil's Dyke is massive, some 457m long, 12.2m deep, and nearly
forty metres wide at the top. The Slad may be natural. So far any
efforts to find traces of Caesar's camps have been unavailing. The
site known as Caesar's Camp in Surrey is an early Iron Age hill fort.
Shown here is a gold Gallo-Belgic quarter stater of the C-type,
which can be dated between 80-60 BC, at least a couple of
decades before the first of Julius Caesar's expeditions to
The Iron Age warriors had a fearsome reputation, and we can see
that they were able to put up a good show even against Caesar's
highly trained professional army.
As mercenaries they were employed as far afield
as Greece. It was warriors who returned to Gaul after the termination
of their contracts who brought with them their pay in the form of
Macedonian staters and, by doing so, who provided the
prototypes for the Gallic staters that were subsequently
minted by various Iron Age chieftains. These coins were also copied
It is clear from what Caesar says that the use of
chariots in warfare was old-fashioned at the time but this did not
prevent them being very effective against the Roman infantry, and
they were only overcome when Caesar was able to deploy sufficient
cavalry on his second expedition.
The problem with all ad hoc forces which are
only brought together on specific occasions is their lack of
training. Cassivellaunus, however good a soldier he was in native
warfare, would have found that at such short notice it was was
virtually impossible to control his troops tightly enough to win
against a professional army.
It seems clear that, by the end of the campaign,
Caesar was as anxious for peace as was Cassivellaunus, and it is
probable that it was he who proposed a settlement to Cassivellaunus,
since it was Commius, Caesar's ally, who conducted the negotiations.
The situation in Gaul had become so dangerous at the time that it
took Caesar three years of hard fighting to put down the several
rebellions that broke out in the winter of 54 BC, so he never had
time to consider a third expedition to Britain.
There is no doubt that he had failed in his second
expedition and that Rome knew this as well as he did. Though he had
in fact met and defeated far larger forces than in his first campaign
when a public thanksgiving was decreed for twenty days and triumphal
gateways set up, no thanksgiving was decreed this time.
The feeling of disappointment with the outcome of
the expedition is summed up in a letter written by Cicero to a friend
On 24 October I received a letter from my
brother Quintus and from Caesar, sent from the nearest point on the
shore of Britain on 25 September. They have settled affairs in
Britain and taken hostages: there's no booty, though they have
imposed a tribute; they are bringing the army back from the island.
The warriors who confronted Caesar in their chariots
were the aristocrats. They were able to afford the equipment, the
chariot and the driver, a magnificence at odds with what little we
know of their rustic homesteads.
Their martial tradition must have been a strong
one, judging from the fact that in the Arras culture, many were
buried with their weapons and some with their chariots but it is
difficult to know how the tradition arose. It may be that it has its
origin in the Late Bronze Age when the leaf-shaped swords and the
horned helmets were in vogue and so martial activity had a pedigree
of several hundreds of years.
It gives us an insight into the society of the time
which we can broaden by adding to the picture the druids, the guardians
of the social and religious traditions of the period, and we can also
add the new industrial traditions that were growing up at the time and
base them all on the age-old tradition of agricultural production
which was the bedrock of Iron Age society.
A coin minted to celebrate Julius Caesar's victories in