Julius Caesar’s Second Incursion Onto Brittania
Less than a year after Caesar’s first expedition to Britannia, Caesar led another campaign onto the island. This time, he had relatively accurate knowledge regarding the entire island’s geography. Descriptions of the island’s northernmost region were sparse and based on hearsay, but suffice it to say that the Romans knew it was far north approaching the arctic circle. But Caesar knew of Hibernia (modern: Ireland), that it lay west of Brittania beyond a channel equidistant between the channel between Brittania and Gaul, and that in between Hibernia and Britannia was an island named Man (modern: Isle of Man). As for what else Caesar needed to know, he knew where to land his ships, which was to be north of modern Dover.
During the winter of 55-54 B.C, Caesar had ordered a new fleet of ships to be built in addition to his preexisting fleet. These ships were to have lower depths, flatter hulls, to be equipped with sails and oars, and be made wider to carry more cargo and pack animals. These new ships were meant to address the difficulties the Romans had the year prior in sailing shallows, landing troops ashore, and keeping sufficient supplies. Six hundred of these ships were built and twenty eight war ships, as well.
In the meantime, Caesar completed his diplomatic duties attending to the districts throughout Gaul and Illyrica (modern: Dalamatian Coast).
By the start of 54 B.C., Caesar and his legions were gathered at the port of Itium (modern: Boulogne, France). Also gathered for the Romans were 4,000 cavalry of the Gaul and their chieftans, among whom was Dumnorix.
Now as the Romans were awaiting favorable winds to launch their fleet to Britannia, Dumnorix cried about being afraid of the sea and asked to not go. Caesar did not excuse him, so Dumnorix riled up the Gallic cavalry and chiefs by creating a conspiracy that Caesar’s purpose to go to Brittania was to Only kill the Gallic chiefs in secret away from Gaul. One day, Dumnorix and some of the cavalry escaped the camp. Caesar sent his cavalry after them ordering Dumnorix killed if he resisted to return. Dumnorix was killed, but his cavalry returned. His last words were cries that he was a free man and that Gaul was a free state.
Caesar then departed with five legions and 2,000 cavalry. He left Titus Labienus in charge of three legions and 2,000 cavalry to guard the port and generally watch over Gaul while Caesar campaigned abroad. The Romans landed on the same shore they had discovered the year prior near Cantium (modern: Kent, England). This time, however, they were not met with a war party for the Britons saw them coming with a much larger and mightier fleet and force.
What should be made of this campaign?
The Britons kept to their forests and woods, which were furthermore shielded by their man-made thickets and simple, wooden walls. In two instances, the Romans besieged these strongholds by approaching the walls in the testudo formation and breaking down the stacks of felled trees that served as the fortifications’ walls. In melee combat, the Romans bested the Britons.
Where the Britons fared best were on open fields where they would catch the Romans harvesting fields for grain and whenever the Romans detached their cavalry too far from their camps and marching columns to engage with the Britons positioned on the outer edge of the surrounding forests.
The Britons employed a chariot strike-and-flee tactic. Any time their chariots engaged with Roman cavalry, the second man riding in the chariot next to the charioteer would jump off, kill or take down their enemy’s horse, and then kill the man who had just fallen off it. Otherwise, they formed up their infantry loosely, spread out in small groups at the forest’s edges, and would rotate these small groups back and forth too relieve each other and keep each other fresh. The worst the Britons did to Rome was kill one of the mid-tier officers in charge of some cavalry, a tribune named Quintus Laberius Durus. In fact, a storm on the coast did greater damage to the Roman fleet than the Britons did to Caesar’s force. And in that storm still only some forty ships were destroyed.
The challenge for the Romans was the fact that the indigenous tribes of Britons formed a coalition led by Cassivellaunus. So, everywhere the Romans marched, they were faced with ambush and strikes. But fairly easy work was made of these encounters.
Caesar simply stopped sending his cavalry out very far. They would have to stay close, within check of a legion. The only consequence of this conservative approach was that the Romans were limited in the devastation they could wreck upon tribal Britannian lands.
The goal now was to cut the head off of this anti-Roman coalition, Cassivellaunus.
In Caesar’s camp was a hostage acquired during the last year’s campaign in Britannia. His name was Mandubracius and he had been the son of the king of the Trinobantes tribe. That king, his father, had been just recently killed by Cassivellaunus. The Britons were always engaged in tribal warfare amongst each other. So, the Trinobantes beseeched Caesar to return Mandubracius to them in exchange for their support, hostages, and a food supply. Five others tribes then surrendered to Caesar as well. They also informed Caesar of the nearness and location of Cassivellaunus’s stronghold.
So, Caesar marched to this stronghold where Cassivellaunus had retreated his army to, situated near the River Thames. The Romans crossed where the Thames was most shallow, at a depth of five feet. And despite some sharp, wooden palisades constructed underwater and along the river banks, the Romans with cavalry in charge were able to cross the river and storm the opposite side where Cassivellaunus’s forces stayed. Then, upon the stronghold, the Romans assaulted on two sides and made quick work of the enemy, which was no match for Roman infantry without their guerrilla charioteers. The Romans took its booty and massacred the resistors.
Then, four tribal chiefs attempted an assault on the Roman naval encampment, which had been guarded by one legion, or specifically in this case 10 cohorts and 300 cavalry in the charge of Quintus Atrius. One of these chiefs was Cingetorix who had, just prior to Caesar’s embarkation to Britain, caused a minor revolt among the Treveri (modern: Luxembourg, Belgium) as he vied for chieftancy of it with his rival. As a potent defense made this assault short-lived – the Romans met the Briton advance quickly before it could penetrate the camps wooden fortifications and surely handed them a defeat – quick note shall be made of the general makeup of the population of Britannia at this time.
The interior of Britannia was populated by natives and the coasts of Britannia were populated by descendants of the Belgae. The island was heavily populated. Those on the coast were considered nearly civilized as they carried on life like the rest of Gaul participating in trade and developing a crafts, fashion, and a form of education based on oral tradition, astrology, and druidism. The inland natives were more unique. They went shirtless, shaving all but their head and moustache, and donned blue dye called woad on their skin. They had a curious practice of joining with each other in groups of marriage sharing multiple partners. Up to a dozen men – fathers, sons, brothers, and friends – would share each other’s wives, keeping track of their offspring only by record of one’s mother.
These Britons, having put the defeated Cassivellaunus in chief command of their fight against Caesar, faced no option but to sue for peace. The alternative was for them to suffer further devastation of their lands. They were charged with a yearly tribute owed to Rome and a giving of hostages. The Romans had no difficulty crossing the sea back into Gaul just in time for the upcoming winter.
When Caesar returned to Gaul, it was time to set up camp for winter. Because of droughts that summer in Gaul, there was a diminished grain supply. One legion went to Hither Gaul, somewhere peaceful. But the rest were individually set up amongst the various tribes of the Belgae all within a 100 mile radius of each other. So, Caesar kept his forces adequately situated for the winter while keeping the rising tide of rebellion among the Belgae in check.