The Gallic Wars, Book V

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54 BC: The Second Invasion of Britain & Further Unrest in Gaul

Over the winter, Caesar ordered the legions to build as many ships as possible in preparation for a second expedition to Britain, changing the shape for easier loading and unloading, to better cope with the Channel, to carry larger numbers of animals and to be able to be steered by both sails and oars. They built and equipped six hundred transportation vessels and twenty eight warships, much to Caesar’s delight. Before he rejoined the army he dealt with the Piristae tribe in Illyria, who were making raids over the frontier. When they sued for peace he demanded hostages from them and asked for reparation of any damage.

A map of Gaul in the 1st c. BC, showing the relative positions of the Helvetii and the Sequani. (c) US Military Academy, Dept. of History.

Having ordered the ships and sufficient men to assemble at Portus Itius, from where it was only thirty miles to Britain, with four legions and eight hundred cavalry, Caesar marched to the Treveri on the borders of the Rhine as they had not attended annual council meetings of chiefs, had not submitted to his authority and were rumoured to be plotting with the Germans. Two rivals were vying for supremacy, Cingetorix, who swore loyalty to Caesar on his arrival, and Indutiomarus, who was preparing for war against the Romans. Feeling isolated, he gave Caesar excuses for his behaviour. Although he did not believe him, Caesar was keen to start his campaign in Britain so he demanded from him two hundred hostages including his son and relations in order to keep the peace and having urged the other tribe leaders to support Cingetorix, he set out to Portus Itius.

He found all but sixty ships (which had been driven off course) assembled there together with four thousand cavalry from all parts of Gaul and the leaders of all the tribes whose loyalty was questionable. One of these was Dumnorix from the Aedui tribe, whom he knew to be untrustworthy and influential among the Gauls. When he begged to be allowed to stay in Gaul and Caesar refused, Dumnorix firstly plotted with other chiefs, saying Caesar planned to kill them in Britain and then, as the Romans were about to set sail after four weeks of delay due to bad weather, he sneaked out of camp with some Aeduan horsemen. Caesar knew, for the sake of keeping the other Gallic leaders loyal, he could not allow Dumnorix to stay behind and so he sent cavalry after him with orders to either bring him back or kill him if he refused. When Dumnorix refused to obey and return he was killed.

Caesar’s Second Invasion of Britain, 54 BC. (c)

Leaving T. Labienus behind with three legions and two thousand cavalry to guard the port, send corn supplies and look after matters in Gaul, Caesar set out for Britain with five legions and two thousand cavalry. They were driven off course by a change in the current but rowed to the best landing places with no Britons waiting to oppose them. They had withdrawn to higher ground when they saw the large number of Roman vessels approaching. Leaving ten cohorts and three hundred cavalry under Q. Atrius’ command to guard the ships, Caesar marched against these Britons at midnight. Driven back by the cavalry, the Britons retreated to a wood where defences had been prepared previously but were driven back by the seventh legion. The next day he sent infantry and cavalry to pursue them until news came from Atrius that a large storm during the night had driven ashore or damaged almost all their ships. All forces withdrew to the beach where they found forty ships had been completely destroyed. Caesar sent for skilled workmen and ordered Labienus to build as many as he could. The Romans spent the next ten days hauling all the remaining ships together and fortifying the camp before resuming their campaign.

Caesar then described the population, customs, geography and mineral resources of Britain. In the meantime, the Britons had appointed Cassivellaunus as their leader. In the first encounter between cavalry, the Britons, after being driven into the woods, attacked while the Romans were making camp and were off-guard and, although they were repelled, their unfamiliar tactics were making life difficult for the Romans in this unfamiliar terrain. However, when Caesar attacked with large forces the following day they were successful in routing and killing a large number of Britons, as a result of which the tribes dispersed and did not fight again in full force.

16th century perception of the first “English people” in times of the war against Julius Caesar, illustrated in the manuscript “Théâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre avec leurs habits et ornemens divers, tant anciens que modernes, diligemment depeints au naturel”.

Made by Lucas de Heere in the 2nd half of the 16th century. Preserved in the Ghent University Library.
(c) Lucas

Caesar next, having crossed the Thames, successfully attacked and drove away Cassivellaunus and his tribe. Thereafter, Cassivellaunus used four thousand charioteers to harass and attack Roman troops as they marched and plundered the countryside. Caesar was helped from an unexpected quarter when envoys from the Trinovantes tribe asked him to bring home and appoint Mandubracius leader of their tribe, who had fled to Caesar’s protection when his father had been killed by Cassivellaunus. Caesar agreed once forty hostages and grain had been handed over. Following this, several other British tribes also surrendered and pledged loyalty, also providing information as to the whereabouts of Cassivellaunus. He had ordered four kings in Kent to attack the Romans’ naval base but, when these were defeated, Cassivellaunus surrendered.

As the end of summer was approaching, Caesar decided to return to Gaul, crossing the Channel in two trips as some ships had been destroyed, those newly built by Labienus had not arrived and he had a large number of prisoners and hostages which had to be packed aboard tightly.

Gold stater of the Eburones.
Triskele on the obverse, Celticized horse on the reverse. (c)

During the winter, Q. Titurius Sabinus and his troops suffered a serious defeat: because the grain harvest was poor that year, Caesar had decided to winter quarter the legions by distributing them among a larger number of tribes, thereby weakening them if there was any trouble. Sabinus and L. Aurunculeius Cotta were sent to the Eburones tribe. Caesar was already worried about a Gallic revolt when Tasgetius, whom he had put on the throne of the Carnutes tribe, was murdered. Two weeks later, the Eburones revolted led by Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, firstly attacking Sabinus’ camp unsuccessfully and then sending envoys through whom Ambiorix acknowledged his debt to Rome, the reason for giving them this warning, but saying he was unable to withstand the league of Gauls formed against the Romans, which was planning to attack imminently and simultaneously all the Roman camps along with help from German mercenaries; he urged Sabinus to withdraw.

During a Roman council of war, Cotta and others thought they should stay and fight whilst Sabinus believed they could not resist large numbers of Gauls, who were angry at Roman domination of their country and should withdraw to the protection of another legion. Eventually Sabinus prevailed and they prepared to march out of camp at dawn, having had little sleep. They were ambushed two miles out of camp in woods by Gauls who cut off the column in both the front and rear. Cotta proved the most effective in encouraging the troops, ordering them to abandon the baggage and form a circle and initially they fought off the Gauls, holding out for a large part of the day, despite heavy losses.

Statue of Ambiorix in Tongeren. (c) ArtMechanic

When Sabinus arranged to meet with Ambiorix to plead for their lives, he was killed, as was Cotta in the subsequent fighting. A few Romans escaped to tell Labienus what had happened but the rest committed suicide that night rather than fall into enemy hands. Ambiorix lost no time in rousing other Gallic tribes to revolt, firstly the Atuatuci, then the Nervii who, having summoned other local tribes, immediately attacked the camp of Q. Tullius Cicero, who had wintered in their territory. Cicero and his troops fortified the camp and held the Gauls at bay for a number of days until leaders of the Nervii requested an audience, saying all Romans in Gaul were under attack and Sabinus had been killed; they offered Cicero safe passage. He refused to surrender so the Nervii laid siege to their camp, building in three hours a high rampart and deep trench three miles in circumference, so large were their numbers, and then began to build towers and make grappling hooks.

On the seventh day, the Gauls hurled fire darts at the thatched huts in the Roman camp and the fire was quickly spread by a gale which sprang up. Thinking victory was in their grasp the Gauls attacked but the Romans fought bravely and killed a large number of the Gauls, who were closely packed in front of the rampart and burnt their tower. The attack provided two centurions, T. Pullo and L. Vorenus, with an opportunity to show off their bravery: they were constantly vying to prove who was the better soldier and so they left the fortification to single-handedly attack the Gauls. Each saved the other, killed a number of the enemy and returned safely to camp.

Vorenus in HBO’s Rome.

Finally Cicero managed to get a message to Caesar, taken by the slave of a Nervian deserter, who passed through enemy lines without suspicion. Caesar immediately alerted and summoned, with their forces, M. Licinius Crassus, Q. Fabius Maximus and Labienus. Labienus informed Caesar that he thought it would be dangerous for him to leave his position because of the proximity of large numbers of the Treveri so Caesar proceeded without him. He informed Cicero of his approach via a message tied to a javelin, which was thrown into Cicero’s camp by a Gallic horseman, and this greatly raised spirits. As Caesar approached, the siege was abandoned and around sixty thousand Gauls marched to oppose his forces which numbered around seven thousand. The two sides met in a valley with Caesar enticing the Gauls to fight on ground disadvantageous to them by feigning fear and even smaller numbers. The Gauls were put to flight with many of them killed after an attack by the Roman cavalry. Caesar congratulated Cicero and his troops for their brave stand.

News of Caesar’s victory resulted in the Treveri fleeing to their homes without attacking Labienus but Caesar decided to spend the remainder of the winter in Gaul, fearing further revolts. He met with many of the tribal leaders and persuaded most to remain obedient but there was some unrest: the Senones tried to kill and then banished their king, Cavarinus, whom the Romans had installed, Indutiomarus and the Trevei conspired with the Germans, to no avail, and having declared Cingetorix, his son in law, a public enemy, harassed Labienus and his camp again but were routed and many were killed by cavalry which Labienus had gathered from neighbouring tribes. Indutiomarus himself was killed after Labienus had placed a price on his head.

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