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Roman Invasion of Britain

Updated on February 19, 2012

The First Landing

In 55 BC Julius Caesar decided to invade Britain with two legions, the Seventh and the Tenth. Each Roman legion had about 5,500 soldiers in it. A supporting f1eet carrying supplies and cavalry would follow soon afterwards. When his ships arrived off the Kent coast, and he saw the waiting Britons on the cliff ready to hurl their spears down on his troops, Caesar decided to sail along the coast to a safer landing place.

He had been told that Richborough harbor would be suitable, but he could not find it. Caesar landed at a beach near Deal, still watched by the Britons. However, his boats ran aground some yards from the beach and the Romans were sitting targets for the British spears.

Caesar's troops had won their first victory in Britain. The Romans could have pressed on, but Caesar decided that his small army could be attacked by the Britons in their horse-drawn chariots. So he ordered his men to build a fortified camp, and waited for his supplies and cavalry.

Four days later there was a storm. Heavy rain and winds dashed the shore. The tide swept high up the beaches. Caesar was taken by surprise. Several of the Roman ships were wrecked, the supplies and cavalry were delayed, and the Britons' chariots began to attack the camp. After beating off the attack, Caesar held negotiations with the Britons.

He kept quiet about his army's difficulties and asked for money and hostages in exchange for leaving the Britons alone. The Britons agreed, and Caesar sailed back to Gaul. He sent reports to Rome of his discoveries and his victories, saying little about his hurried departure.

The Second Landing

In the following year, 54 BC, Caesar returned. This time his force was better prepared. The Romans took about 800 ships and five legions with cavalry, in all more than 30,000 men.

The newly designed Roman ships could now sail closer to the beach. Caesar set sail earlier than he had the year before, on 6 July, and again landed near Deal.

This time there was practically no opposition from the Britons. The Roman legions marched inland. But news then arrived that some of the ships had been lost and damaged in a storm, and Caesar ordered a retreat to the coast. Repairs cost ten days before the army again went inland.

The most powerful tribe among the Britons was the Catuvellauni, under their king, Cassivellaunus. The Catuvellauni wisely avoided a full-scale battle, and raided the Roman columns with swift chariot attacks instead. The Romans struck north to Cassivellaunus's base at Wheathampstead. If the British tribes had banded together they could have fought off the invaders, but some tribes hated the Catu vellauni. They did nothing, and this allowed Caesar to capture Wheathampstead. Even a surprise attack by another tribe, the Cantiaci, on Caesar's base in Kent could not unsettle the Romans. They looked secure.

However, Caesar decided to leave. He may have felt he had gained enough glory from his victories. Possibly he worried that he hadn't enough troops or that future storms could again wreck his fleet. He had also heard rumors of trouble in Gaul. Roman bases there were short of manpower, because of the number of soldiers taken to invade Britain.

Caesar again took hostages and money, and sailed back to Gaul. It would be nearly one hundred years before the Romans conquered Britain.

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