There is a weather-beaten, lichen-stained monument by the beach at Walmer in Kent, which is easy to miss if you’re out for a seaside stroll. The carved head is a representation of Julius Caesar and the monument signifies that Walmer beach is the landing site of the Romans’ first expedition to Britain.
In August of 55BC, Caesar, having subdued the Gauls for the moment and always on the lookout for new opportunities for fame and glory, decided to make an excursion across the channel. His intention was reconnaissance rather than conquest. Britain may have been a semi-mythical land to most Romans, but it had strong trade links and tribal alliances with the Gauls. Caesar, always a risk taker but nobody’s fool, sent Commius, a Gaulish chieftain, across the Channel to drum up support for the expedition ahead of the crossing.
Commius was unsuccessful, and perhaps duplicitous. When Caesar, accompanied by two legions of 12,000 men in eighty ships, made the crossing in late August, the reception committee was far from friendly. To make matters worse, his ships could not anchor close to the shore. This meant his army would have to wade through deep water to reach the beach, where the hostile Britons stood, ready for a fight. In Caesar’s own account:
And then, while our troops still hung back, chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, the eagle-bearer of the Tenth Legion, after a prayer to heaven to bless the legion by his act, cried: “Leap down, soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy; it shall be told that I at any rate did my duty to my country and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he cast himself forth from the ship, and began to bear the eagle against the enemy. Then our troops exhorted one another not to allow so dire a disgrace, and leapt down from the ship with one accord. And when the troops on the nearest ships saw them, they likewise followed on, and drew near to the enemy.
The Romans fought their way to dry land, where, with their superior organization, they routed the Britons. And for just over a week, Caesar and his men successfully defended this beachhead. There were more skirmishes, but the Britons avoided any kind of pitched battle where the Roman fighting machine would crush them. During this week, Caesar met with some local chieftains, signing peace treaties and taking hostages.
Caesar viewed this first expedition as preparation for the conquest of Britain, just as he had conquered Gaul. He returned the following year with a larger force and fought his way through Kent and up to the Thames. But he could never launch the full scale invasion and conquest he coveted. Those laurels went to the Emperor Claudius a century later. Soon after Caesar’s second expedition, the Gauls revolted, and his British ambitions were put aside forever.
But did that first landing really happen at Walmer? The claim derives from a reading of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, in which he describes this British campaign, and there is no archaeological evidence to support it. In 2017, a team from the University of Leicester uncovered a site further up the Kent coast at Pegwell Bay and asserted, based on their findings, that this is the true landing location. It seems that Walmer’s monument to Caesar may eventually have to be moved.
[The excerpt from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico is from the 1917 Loeb Classical Library translation by HJ Edwards, available on-line here. Illustration of the ‘Standard Bearer of the Tenth Legion’ by James William Edmund Doyle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]