Chapter II, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1
The Landing of the Romans - Battle with the Britons - Defeat of the latter- - They sue for Peace, which is granted - Privations of the Invaders - The War breaks out again.Pages: <1> 2 3 4 5
Caesar embarked the infantry of two of his legions in eighty vessels, which he assembled at Itius-Portus, supposed by some writers to be Calais, by others the village of Wessant, between that place and Boulogne. He divided the vessels amongst his principal officers, and set sail with a favourable wind during the night. Eighteen galleys at a distant part of the coast had received his cavalry, and sailed about the same time. At ten the following morning the expedition appeared off the coast, where the inhabitants were seen in arms, ready to receive it. The spot, it would seem, was unfavourable for landing, and, for the first time in his life, Caesar hesitated, and dropped anchor till three in the afternoon, hoping for the arrival of.-his other galleys. Disappointed in his expectation, he sailed along the coast, and finally decided on disembarking at Deal, where the shore was comparatively level, and presented less difficulty for such an enterprise. But here, too, the Britons were prepared, a considerable force being collected to oppose him.
The galleys drew too much water to permit the invaders to land at once upon the beach, and the soldiers hesitated. There was a momentary confusion amongst them.
"Follow me, comrades!" exclaimed the standard-bearer, "if you would not see the eagle in the hands of the enemy.
For myself, if I perish, I shall have done my duty to Rome and to my general."
At these words he plunged into the waves, and was followed by the men, who leaped tumultuously after him, ashamed, most likely, of their previous cowardice and hesitation. On reaching the shore, they fell with the utmost fury on the enemy, whose undisciplined ranks could ill sustain the shock of the Roman legion; still, they fought desperately, excited by their bards and priests, who sang the songs of victory, and exhorted them to renew the combat each time they seemed to waver.
We can easily imagine the cool steadiness of the Romans, and the fiery courage, mingled with terror and surprise, of the Britons at finding themselves exposed to men armed and disciplined in so novel a manner. Desperate acts of devotion, doubtless, were not wanting amongst them. At last they were compelled to give way, and retreat to the shelter of the woods, with their chariots and broken ranks Caesar himself informs us that he was prevented from pursuing the victory by the absence of his cavalry - a circumstance which he bitterly laments, since its presence alone was wanting to crown his fortune.
Although it does not appear that he ventured to follow the fugitives, the victory must have been complete, seeing they sent ambassadors, accompanied by Comius, whom the Britons released from his prison and chains to sue for peace. The victor complained, and with some show of justice, of the reception he had met with, after they had sent envoys to him in Gaul with offers of submission, and also of the arrest of his ambassador; and lamented the blood that had been shed.
To this harangue the Britons artfully replied that they had imprisoned Comius in order to preserve him from the fury of the people, and with this excuse Caesar either was or affected to be content. He granted the peace they came to solicit, and demanded hostages, which were promised, for the future
It is not to be supposed that an all-powerful, and, in this instance, a patriotic priesthood like the Druids would patiently permit their influence to be annihilated, and the institutions they had established with so much care destroyed by a mere handful of invaders, who had barely obtained a landing-place on the coast of the island. In the deepest recesses of the gloomy forests which they inhabited, fearful rites were doubtless celebrated. Human victims poured forth their blood on Odin's altar; oracles were delivered, and omens seen, calculated to rouse the courage of the vanquished Britons, and excite them once more to take arms against the enemy, whose position became anything but a secure one.
A storm dispersed the eighteen galleys which were to transport the cavalry of Caesar, and drove them back upon the coast of Gaul. This was not the only misfortune the Romans endured. That same night the moon was at its full; it was the season of the equinox, and the tide rose to an unusual height, filling the vessels which Caesar had drawn out of the reach of danger, as be imagined, on the sands. The larger ships, which had served him as a means of transport, were driven from their anchors, and many of them wrecked.
Although perfectly aware of the perils which menaced their invaders, the Britons appear to have proceeded with the utmost caution. Whilst a league was secretly being formed to crush them, their chiefs appeared daily in their camp, professing unbroken friendship.
The Britons, who had secretly collected their forces, fell suddenly upon the seventh legion, which had been sent to a distance to forage. The plan was well contrived to defeat the enemy in detail. Many o± their leaders remained in the neighbourhood of the camp, in order to lull suspicion, whilst their confederates surprised the Romans, who - having laid aside their arms - were soon surrounded, and must have been cut off but for the timely arrival of Caesar, who, warned by his outposts that a cloud of dust thicker than usual had been seen at a distance, guessed immediately what had occurred. With a portion of his army he fell upon the assailants, and, after a desperate struggle, disengaged the threatened legion, and returned with it to the camp in safety. The lesson was a sharp one, and the rains soon afterwards setting in, the invader did not attempt to renew the battle.
The islanders, meanwhile, had not been idle: messengers had been dispatched in every direction, calling on the various nations to take arms; the Druids preached war to the death; and a sufficient force was soon assembled to attack the Romans in their camp. Discipline, however, again prevailed against the courage of the barbarians, as Tacitus contemptuously calls them; although he admits at the same time their bravery, and adds that it was a fortunate thing for Caesar that the country was so divided into petty states, and that the jealousies of their respective rulers prevented the-unity of action which alone could ensure success. Had the Britons been united, they might have bid defiance to the legions of Home.
Once more the islanders demanded peace, which Caesar granted them; in fact, he was scarcely iu a position to do otherwise, for he already meditated a retreat. He embarked his army suddenly in the night, and retired to Gaul, taking the hostages he had received with him.
Although the senate at Rome ordered a thanksgiving of twenty days for the triumph of the Roman arms, the first expedition against the island cannot be regarded in any other light than a failure. For the second invasion preparations were made commensurate with the importance of the task proposed.
Caesar having assembled 800 vessels, on board of which were five legions, and 2,000 horsemen of the noblest families in Gaul, sot sail, and landed without opposition once more at Ryde. This time there was no enemy to oppose him; for the Britons, terrified at the appearance of this immense armament, had retreated to their natural fastnesses, the forests.
Leaving ten cohorts and 300 horsemen to guard the camp and fleet, under the orders of Quintus Atriua, Caesar set forward in search of the enemy, whom he discovered, after a march of twelve miles, on the banks of a river, where they had drawn up their chariots and horsemen. Profiting by their elevated position, they accepted, or rather engaged, the combat.
The shock must have been terrible, for we find that it was near night when the battle ended. The Britons, as usual after a defeat, retreated once more to their woods, where it was impossible for the legions of Rome to follow, or the cavalry to act against them.
On the following morning, just as the victorious leader was about to re-commence his march, news arrived from tho camp that a violent tempest had seriously damaged the fleet. Many of his vessels were wrecked, and others rendered unfit for service.
Like a prudent general, Caesar at once returned to the camp, to assure himself of the extent of the injury done to his fleet, and found it more considerable than he imagined. Forty vessels were lost; the rest could be repaired, though not without great labour and time. Every artificer in his army was set to work; others were sent for from the continent; and instructions written to Labienus in Gaul to construct new galleys to replace those which were lost.
The next step was worthy of the genius and reputation of Caesar. After having repaired his ships, he caused his legions to draw them out of reach of the tide, high up on the shore, and enclosed the whole of them in a fortified camp; - » an immense work, when we consider that it was executed in an enemy's country, and the scanty means at his command for such an undertaking.
The gigantic task performed, he set forth once more in search of the confederate Britons.
It would fill a volume to detail, step by step, the progress of the Romans; to describe battle after battle, and treaties which were no sooner made than broken. The success of the invaders increased.
The kingdom of Cassibelan was overrun, and that heroic monarch compelled to submit and sue for peace, through the Comius who had formerly been his captive.
Caesar, wishing to pass the winter in Gaul, where he feared a rebellion against his authority, granted the request, and, after imposing an annual tribute upon Britain, and exacting hostages from the inhabitants, took his departure for the continent.
Caesar cannot be said to have conquered the island. It is true that, wherever he encountered the natives in battle, his armies were victorious; but he made no permanent settlement: and when the state of Britain is considered, the desperate courage of the people, the absence of roads and means of communication, the reasons will appear plain.
In Rome the progress of the invasion was watched with intense anxiety, and more than one classic writer has borne witness to the bravery of the ancient Britons. Cicero, in his letter to his friend Trebatius, then serving in the army, warns him against being surprised by the chariots of the Britons 5 and, in another portion of his correspondence, the illustrious orator says: -
"I learn there is neither gold nor silver in Britain; try, therefore, to take some chariot of war, and return quickly amongst us."
To Atticus he writes: -
"We are expecting the termination of the war in Britain. We know that there is neither gold nor silver in the island, nor any hope of bringing back plunder, unless it be slaves."
Rome, in fact, gained nothing by the enterprise, Caesar everything; it enhanced his military reputation, increased his popularity with the people, and earned him the love of his soldiers.
For nearly a century after the invasion of Caesar, Britain remained in a state of independence. Some of its princes, there is every reason to believe, paid tribute to Rome, but the number must have been few. Augustus several times declared his intention of reducing the island to obedience, but never made any attempt to do so: the empire, he said. was already too large, and he found it convenient to forget Britain.
Caligula afforded the world a pitiful spectacle of madness of power. He assembled an army on the coast of Gaul, and embarked on board the imperial galley, from whence he issued orders to commence the attack against an imaginary enemy. Afterwards he informed his astonished legions that they had conquered the sea, and commanded them to gather up the shells upon the shore, the spoils of their bloodless victory, for which he afterwards decreed himself the honours of a triumph in Rome.
Claudius, his successor, resolved on a regular invasion of the island, and in the forty-third year of the Christian era he dispatched four legions, with their auxiliaries, under the command of Aulus Plautius, an excellent general, who surprised the Britons by the rapidity of his movements. They rallied, however, under their leaders, Togodumnus and Caractacus, two brothers: the latter, by his heroic resistance and dignity in misfortune, acquired a fame imperishable.
The Britons, having drawn the invaders into a marshy part of the country, fell upon, them with great fury, and many were destroyed. This news induced Plautius to retreat as far as the right bank of the Thames, and to write to Claudius, inviting him to pass over to the island and conclude the war himself. The emperor accepted the invitation, and took the command of his legions in Britain. He crossed the Thames, and seized upon the fortress of Camalodunum - Colchester or Maiden, authorities are divided as to which - receiving in his progress the submission of a number of petty kings and chiefs.
Having reduced a part of the country to the condition of a Roman province, Claudius returned to enjoy the honours of a triumph in Rome. It was celebrated with a degree of unusual magnificence, splendid games, and rejoicings. The emperor mounted the steps of the Capitol on his knees, and decorated his palace with a naval crown, in token of his victory over the sea.
The provinces voted him wreaths; the senate, annual games, a triumphal arch, and the glorious surname of Britannicus. This last honour was accorded to his infant son, whom he was in the habit of bearing in his arras in view of the people, and who was predestined to so tragical a death.
Vespasian, while yet the lieutenant of Aulus Plautius, acquired great glory against the Beiges. He conquered the Isle of Wight and the southern portion of the island.
After passing four years on the island, Plautius was recalled to Rome, where the jealousy of the emperor limited the honours decreed to the victorious general to a simple ovation. He was succeeded by Ostorius Scapula, who found, on his arrival, the affairs of his countrymen in the greatest disorder.
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