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David Nightingale: Caesar's invasions Of England

When Julius Caesar attacked England he described the Brits as (quote) “...barbarians... with long hair … who shave their bodies except for head and lip … paint themselves with (dark blue) woad... and groups of 10 or 12 share their wives... offspring being held to be the children of him to whom the maiden was brought first...” [ref.1, pp.153-154].

Caesar lived from BC 100-44, and later came to be regarded almost as a god. The first emperor, however, was actually his adopted son, Augustus Caesar.

Julius Caesar could ride at a gallop [ibid, p.14] with both hands behind his back – there were no stirrups then – and as a young man had once been captured by pirates, who demanded a ransom of 20 talents for his release. He told them that he was worth more than that, and said “50 talents”, and as he was being freed told them he would come back later and crucify them. This he actually did.

He was ruthless in battle, and today, on account of the hundreds of thousands of savage murders he and his armies committed (shades of today's ISIS caliph) he would be a war criminal.

He wrote about his expeditions to England in 7 papyrus rolls. In one book he says “By using a water clock we were able to say that the nights were shorter than in Gaul...” Writing in those times was in Latin, sometimes on bark, or papyrus rolls or animal hides, and erasures could be done with a sponge. Professional scribes could copy these rolls, and great libraries, such as in Alexandria and Rome, had many such papyrus rolls.

In 55 BC Caesar ferried 2 legions, in about 80 transport vessels, from the mainland of Gaul, i.e. from France and Belgium. [Ibid, p.146]. Reaching the UK they spied fully-armed Brits all along the high cliffs – and decided not to disembark. He writes that using a favorable wind and tide he moved his ships about 6 miles further along the coast to a flat and open shore, but the Brits had guessed his plan and sent their cavalry and chariots there also.

Coming off the ships Caesar's men were weighed down in the surf by their heavy shields and swords, and panicked. He quickly ordered his warships to be rowed fast to a flank, which surprised the Brits, and Caesar's men successfully drove the Brits off, using slings and arrows. Caesar writes that the Brits soon sent him envoys and hostages.

When I was a 9,10,11,12 yr old boy being required to translate such things into English I found it all boring, and didn't like memorizing declensions and cases and rules of grammar; indeed, this would be a contributary reason for going into easier material such as physics. But in using other people's translations Caesar's books become quite fascinating.

In that 1st expedition his cavalry had not arrived on time, because all 18 ships had been forced to turn back to France on account of storms. Also, further storms off the English coast had damaged many of his beached transport ships, and he realized they might not be able to get back to France for the winter – plus there was no corn. So the Brits took advantage of this predicament, and re-engaged. However, once more the Romans beat them back, and Caesar demanded further hostages, and, after managing to repair just enough ships, using parts from the more heavily damaged ships, the Romans managed to get back safely to Gaul.

His 2nd expedition to England came the following summer. During the winter in Gaul his men had built 600 more ships. Caesar assembled these at PORTUS ITIUS – which is near France's Cap Gris Nez, only 22 miles from England – and they managed to reach the island this time with their cavalry. His legions advanced right up to the river Thames, and beyond, with many tribes deciding to join rather than oppose.

In later years the northern limit came to be Hadrian's wall (which still exists) in Northumberland.

Interestingly, within 4-500 years the Roman Empire had collapsed, and the next invasion of England was from the Vikings, around 800 AD.


References: 1. “The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature”, ed. P.E.Knox & J.C.McKeown; Oxford Univ. Press, 2013.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.


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