Gallic Wars

Author: Julius Caesar  | Date: 1927

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Caesar Harvard University Press, The Loeb Classical Library Cambridge, Mass. 1927

Britain Is Invaded!

[55 B.C.]

Only a small part of the summer was left, and in these regions, as all Gaul has a northerly aspect, the winters are early; but for all this Caesar2 was intent upon starting for Britain. He understood that in almost all the Gallic campaigns aid had been furnished for our enemy from that quarter; and he assumed that if the season left no time for actual campaigning, it would still be of great advantage to him merely to have entered the island, observed the character of the natives, and obtained some knowledge of the localities, the harbors, and the landing-places. For almost all these matters were unknown to the Gauls. In fact, nobody except traders journey thither without good cause; and even traders know nothing except the seacoast and the district opposite Gaul. Hence, although he summoned to his quarters traders from all parts, he could discover neither the size of the island, nor the number or the strength of the tribes inhabiting it, nor their manner of warfare, nor the ordinances they observed, nor the harbors suitable for a number of large ships.

To gain such knowledge before he made the venture, Caesar thought Gaius Volusenus a proper person to send on in advance with a ship of war. His orders were to spy out everything and to return to him at once. He himself with all his forces started for the territory of the Morini, whence was the shortest passage across to Britain. He commanded the general concentration here of ships from the neighboring districts, and of the fleet which he had built in the previous summer for the Venetian campaign.

[Having learned of his intentions, the Britons sent emissaries to him, promising to give hostages that they would accept Roman dominion. Volu-senus reported such observations of Britain as he was able to make from shipboard. Then Caesar completed his arrangements on the Continent.]

He caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch. He ordered the cavalry to proceed to the harbor further on, embark, and follow him. They took somewhat too long to dispatch the business. He himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs. Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore.

Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there. Meanwhile he summoned together the lieutenant-generals and tribunes to inform them what he had learnt from Volusenus, and what he wished to be done; and he warned them that, to meet the requirements of tactics and particularly of navigation—with its liability to movements as rapid as they were irregular —they must do everything in the nick of time at a hint from him. He then dismissed them; and catching at one and the same moment a favorable wind and tide, he gave the signal, and weighed anchor. Moving on about seven miles from that spot, he grounded his ships where the shore was even and open.

The natives, however, perceived the intention of the Romans. So they sent forward their cavalry and charioteers —an arm which it is their regular custom to employ in rights-and following up with the rest of their forces, they sought to prevent our troops from disembarking. Disembarkation was a matter of extreme difficulty, for the following reasons: The ships, on account of their size, could not be run ashore, except in deep water. The troops—though they did not know the ground, had not their hands free, and were loaded down with the great and grievous weight of their arms—had nevertheless at one and the same time to leap down from the vessels, to stand firm in the waves, and to fight the enemy. The enemy, on the other hand, had all their limbs free, and knew the ground exceedingly well, Either standing on dry land or advancing a little way into the water, they boldly hurled their missiles or spurred on their horses, trained to such tactics. Frightened by all this and wholly inexperienced in this sort of fighting, our troops did not press on with that fire and force they were accustomed to display in land engagements.

When Caesar remarked this, he commanded the ships of war (which were less familiar in appearance to the natives and could move more freely at need) to pull away a little from the transports, to row at top speed, to come around on the exposed flank of the enemy, arid thence to drive and dear them off with slings, arrows, and artillery. This movement proved of great service to our troops. The natives, frightened by the shape of the ships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar type of the artillery, came to a halt and retired—but only for a short space.

At this moment, while our troops still hung back, chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, the eagle-bearer of the Tenth Legion, after a prayer to heaven to bless the legion by his act, cried:

"Leap down, soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told that I at any rate did my duty to my country and my general."

Having said this with a loud voice, he leaped overboard and began to bear the eagle against the enemy. Then our troops exhorted each other to wipe out so dire a disgrace, and, with one accord, leaped from the ship. And when the troops on the nearest ships saw them, they likewise followed, and drew near to the enemy.

The fighting was fierce on both sides. Our troops, however, because they could not keep rank, nor stand firm, nor follow their proper standards—for any man from any ship attached himself to whatever standard he chanced upon—were in considerable disorder. But the enemy knew all the shallows, and as soon as they had observed from the shore a party of soldiers disembarking one by one from a ship, they spurred on their horses and attacked them while they were in difficulties. Many surrounded few; others hurled missiles into a whole party from the exposed flank.

Caesar observed this. Causing the boats of the warships as well as the scouting vessels to be manned with soldiers, he sent them to support any parties whom he had seen to be in distress. The moment our men stood firm on dry land, they charged with all their comrades close behind, and put the enemy to rout. However, their pursuit could not go very far as the cavalry had not been able to hold on their course and make the island. This one thing was lacking to complete the wonted success of Caesar.

So the enemy were overcome in the fight.

1Most celebrated of laconic reports of American military victories was a penciled notation on a soiled envelope dashed off by Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie (1813): "Dear Gen’l: We have met the enemy, and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem. O. H. Perry."

2Note that although this is an eyewitness account Caesar disdains use of the reporter’s "I" and speaks of himself in the third person.

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Chicago: Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, ed. Caesar in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 2, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ALFJ62RQUMQ5SEC.

MLA: Caesar, Julius. Gallic Wars, edited by Caesar, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 2 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ALFJ62RQUMQ5SEC.

Harvard: Caesar, J, Gallic Wars, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 2 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ALFJ62RQUMQ5SEC.