26 August 2011

26 August - Great Caesar in Britannia

Weather - Tradition says that it always rains today.

Well, tradition is off by a day this year, at least in the Smallest State.  Tomorrow we shall have rain and plenty of it, with high winds to boot, as a really obnoxious windbag named Irene comes for a weekend visit.

Part of the Welcoming Committee
Today, ante diem VII kalendis Septembris, or sometime around now, Julius Caesar paid a visit to the island of the Britons for the first time - and promptly retreated back out to deeper waters.  The welcoming committee - two of whom might have resembled these handsome fellows to the left - wasn't very welcoming.  As Caesar was reasonably annoyed that the Britons sent men to fight against him in Gaul and was coming to put an end to this sort of thing, this lack of hospitality is understandable.  This is his side of the story regarding his first choice of landing-place at Dover:

These matters being arranged, finding the weather favorable for his voyage, he set sail about the third watch, and ordered the horse to march forward to the further port, and there embark and follow him. As this was performed rather tardily by them, he himself reached Britain with the first squadron of ships, about the fourth hour of the day, and there saw the forces of the enemy drawn up in arms on all the hills. The nature of the place was this: the sea was confined by mountains so close to it that a dart could be thrown from their summit upon the shore. 

Considering this by no means a fit place for disembarking, he remained at anchor till the ninth hour, for the other ships to arrive there. Having in the mean time assembled the lieutenants and military tribunes, he told them both what he had learned from Volusenus, and what he wished to be done; and enjoined them (as the principle of military matters, and especially as maritime affairs, which have a precipitate and uncertain action, required) that all things should be performed by them at a nod and at the instant. Having dismissed them, meeting both with wind and tide favorable at the same time, the signal being given and the anchor weighed, he advanced about seven miles from that place, and stationed his fleet over against an open and level shore. Gaius Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, Book IV, Chapter 23.

For the Romans to land at Dover would be like shooting fish in a barrel, with the Romans being the fish.  Caesar weighed anchor and moved down shore to a more congenial area.  His hosts, anticipating that he was likely a stubborn fellow and might not be put off by his cold welcome, followed his ships overland to his new landing spot and prepared to repulse any further attempts.  In this they were aided by (among other things) the design of the Roman ships, high tide, and one of those gales that occasionally springs up in the Channel.

You can read the account of his first attempt in Book IV and Book V with the second and much more successful attempt at the website for the Roman Britain Organization. (Yes, the page for Book V says Book IV at the top; just ignore that.)

Artwork from Ancient Costumes of Great Britain and Ireland, by Charles Hamilton Smith, 1814.