Robert Chamber’s tells us that on this day in 55 BC, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar first landed in Britain. Of course we can’t know the exact date but Chambers has done an awful lot of research. He has looked at the date of the autumn equinox, the phases of the moon, even the times of the tides in that year. He even tells us that it was a Sunday and I believe him. Robert Chambers published a book in 1869 describing notable events on every day of the year. I like him very much and look to him on days when wikipedia lets me down. As I’m in Edinburgh at the moment I will probably, at some point, be on the street named after his brother, but I digress.
In the early days of the Roman Empire, Britain was right on the edge of the known world. It was so on the edge that some people believed it to be a mythical place. Others though knew it to be an excellent source of tin. Once the Romans had started to move in on Gaul they wanted to see what Britain was like. If Caesar had intended to invade our island, it didn’t go very well. It seems that they tried to land at Dover, but were kept away by angry Britons throwing spears at them from the cliffs. They were forced to move further along the coast, perhaps to Deal. Chamber’s source, a Mr. Lewin, thinks that the tide would have taken them west, to Romney Marsh, he further suggests that may be how the marsh got it’s name.
Some of the Roman ships were unable to reach the shore because of a storm. The ones that did make it didn’t fair too well either. The Romans, being from the Mediterranean, were surprised by the high tides and storms that we have here. Caesar’s beached war ships filled with water. The ones anchored further from the shore were driven against each other and many were wrecked or rendered unseaworthy. By now the Britons were hoping the Caesar would be stranded over the winter months and they would be able to starve him into submission. But the Romans managed to repair enough of their ships to make it back to Gaul before the weather worsened.
Even the Roman Emperor, who was pretty full of himself, had to admit that his mission hadn’t resulted in his ‘accustomed success’. Back in Rome though news of the landing had still been a cause for celebration. The Senate organised a twenty day festival of thanksgiving. Even then politicians were good at spin.
Caesar returned to Britain the following year but still failed to make any headway. Ostensibly he wanted to conquer Britain because they were helping the Gauls in their battles against the Roman invaders. It is quite likely though, that they were hoping to plunder the rich mineral sources here. What they found were a people that already had strong trading links, not just with Gaul, but as far away as Phoenicia. The Britons were, we’re told, polygamous and had other unspecified ‘exotic social habits’ and were fond of painting themselves blue. Caesar was most impressed by their skill with chariots in warfare.
It would be almost another hundred years before the Romans launched a successful invasion of Britain. Emperor Caligula did try in 40 AD but he was a bit strange and just came back to Rome with a load of sea shells that he had made his troops gather from the coast of Gaul. He claimed that is was plundered from Neptune, the god of the sea and everyone had to pretend it was marvellous.