Julius Caesar never added Britain to his expanding Roman conquests. He had his eye on the islands, however. His two expeditions laid the foundations for the final Roman invasion in 43 AD and provide us with some of the first written accounts of Britain.
Britain before the Romans
Britain was not completely isolated. Greek and Phoenician (a North African and Middle Eastern civilisation) explorers and sailors had visited. Tribes from Gaul and modern Belgium had made expeditions and settled in the south. Tin resources had brought traders, and as Rome expanded north, Italian wine started to appear in southern Britain.
Britons lived by agriculture: arable farming in the south, grazing animals further north. They were a tribal society, ruled by local kings. Probably a mix of Celtic peoples, their language was certainly related to modern Welsh.
Britons may have fought with the Gauls against Caesar’s invading armies. Caesar claims that Belgic fighters fled across the Channel and Armorican (in modern Brittany) tribes called in British help.
Despite major military commitments in Gaul and across the Rhine in Germania, Julius Caesar made his first British expedition in 55 BC. Gaius Volusenus, the first Roman to see Britain, allowed a single warship to scout the Kent coast for five days.
Fearing an invasion, southern British rulers crossed the Channel offering to submit to Rome. Caesar sent them home, telling them to advise other tribes to adopt the same attitude.
With 80 shops carrying two legions and with further naval support, Caesar set out in the early hours of 23rd August, 55 BC.
They made an opposed landing, probably at Walmer near Dover, and set about talking to local leaders. The Mediterranean has practically no tides, and the stormy English Channel was playing havoc with Caesar’s ships. Sensing weakness, the British attacked again but were unable to defeat the encamped Romans.
Caesar returned to Gaul with hostages from two British tribes, but without making any lasting gains.
He sailed again in the summer of 54 BC, hoping for calmer weather and with a larger force in adapted ships. As many as 800 vessels, including commercial hangers on, set out.
His second landing was unopposed and Caesar’s force was able to move inland, fighting his first action before returning to the coast to secure his landing grounds.
Meanwhile, the Britons were reacting, uniting under the leadership of Cassivellaunus. After several small actions, Cassivellaunus realised a set-piece battle was no option for him, but his chariots, which the Romans were not used to, and local knowledge could be used to harass the invaders. Nonetheless, Caesar was able to cross the Thames, using an elephant to devastating effect, according to later sources.
Cassivellaunus’ tribal enemies, including his son, came over to Caesar’s side and directed him to the warlord’s camp. A diversionary attack on the Roman beach-head by Cassivellaunus’ allies failed and a negotiated surrender was agreed.
Caesar left with hostages, the promise of an annual tribute payment and peace deals between the warring tribes. He had rebellions in Gaul to deal with and took his entire force back over the Channel.
A first account
Caesar’s two visits were an important window on British life, largely unrecorded before then. Most of what he wrote was second hand, as he never travelled far into Britain.
He recorded a temperate climate on a ‘triangular’ island. The tribes he described as similar to the barbarian Gauls, with Belgae settlements on the south coast. It was illegal to eat hare, cock and goose, he said, but fine to breed them for pleasure.
The interior was less civilised than the coast, according to Caesar. Warriors painted themselves blue with woad, growing their hair long and shaving their bodies, but wearing moustaches. Wives were shared. Britain was described as the home of the Druidic religion. The skills of their charioteers were praised, allowing warriors to hit and run in battle.
His accounts of agricultural prosperity may have been slanted to justify returning for a valuable prize.
Once Romans arrived in Britain there was to be no turning back. Alliances had been struck and client kingdoms established. Trade with the Roman-occupied continent soon increased.
Caesar’s successor Augustus intended three times (34, 27 and 25 BC) to complete the job, but the invasions never got off the ground. Britain continued to supply taxes and raw materials to the Empire while Roman luxuries headed the other way.
Caligula’s planned invasion of 40 AD also failed. Accounts of its farcical end may have been coloured by the ‘mad’ emperor’s unpopularity.
Emperor Claudius in 43 AD had no such problems, though some of his troops baulked at the idea of travelling beyond the limits of the known world.
The Romans remained in control of southern Britain until the late fourth and early fifth centuries. As barbarians flooded into the Empire, its northernmost outpost was left to fend for itself.