Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

The First Coming of Julius Caesar

"I was just thirty years old," my grandfather said, "and had been made a captain in the King's body-guard, when we heard that a great number of ships were being collected on the opposite coast. Our people, you know, had come from there not many years before, and there were always a number of people going backwards and forwards between the two countries. The man who brought the news was a trader who used to carry tin from here, and bring back wine and other things that are better in Gaul than they are here. He told us that it was the Roman general who was gathering the ships, that he meant to bring over an army in them, and to conquer the island. We had heard of these Romans for some few years past; that they had been fighting in Gaul, and had conquered a great part of the country. Some of our young men had gone over and fought on the side of the Gauls. They said that these Romans came from a country that was a long way to the south, that they were not very strong or big, much shorter in fact than the Britons or Gauls, but wonderfully good fighters, with excellent armour and weapons, and very skilful in using them. The King, when he heard this, held a council, and it was decided that envoys should be sent to the Roman general—Caesar was his name—to ask him what he wanted. They were not only to bring back his answer, but were to find out for themselves a number of things that it was well for us to know, as, for instance, how many soldiers Caesar had with him, and when he was likely to come. The envoys returned in a few days' time. Caesar had told them that the Britons had injured him by helping his enemies in Gaul. This they must not do any more, and, as a pledge that they would not, they must give him hostages and pay tribute. Besides this, they found out for themselves that the Romans expected to find great riches in the island, especially pearls, of which they think very much. Caesar had, they thought, about eight or nine thousand men with him. Other kings in the island had sent envoys who had promised to give what Caesar asked, but our men did not believe that they really intended to do so. A day or two after they came back, we saw a Roman ship sailing along about a mile from the coast. We heard afterwards that one of the Gauls who favoured Caesar was in it, and that he had come to find out what he could about us. That, of course, could not have been very much, as he never dared leave his ship.

"Our King never thought of giving hostages, or paying tribute, so he sent at once to his chiefs, and to the other kings within reach, telling them what he had heard and found out, and asking them for help. Before long, there were many thousands of men—at least three times as many as Caesar had—collected together. Meanwhile, there were men watching along the coast for the first sight of the enemy's ships. It was towards the end of summer when we heard of their coming. Our men were all within easy reach, and before the Romans were within a mile of the shore, all the cliffs were lined with foot-soldiers and horse-soldiers and chariots. Of course they saw that it was of no use trying to land where the cliffs were. They would have been soon destroyed by our darts and stones. So they rowed along looking for a convenient place, and we followed along the shore. It was not difficult, even for the men on foot, to keep up with them, for the ships were mostly heavy, and the rowers could move them but very slowly. In about an hour and a half's time—it was then nearly noon—they found what they wanted, a place where the shore was low, and there was deep water almost up to the edge. Even then, they found it no easy matter to get to land. We could see them standing on the sides of their ships, while their officers seemed to be urging them to jump in. But they did not know how deep the water was, for it was thick with sand, and then they had their heavy armour on, and they did not like to make the trial, all the less because we were standing ready for them, some on the shore, and others knee-deep in the water. We began to think that there was not much to be afraid of, when, all of a sudden, we found ourselves pelted with such a shower of darts and stones that there was no standing against it. The darts came with a force that no one could possibly put into his throw, and the stones were of such a size—as big as a man's head some of them—that I could not have thrown them twice the length of a spear, and I was able to throw as far as most men in those days. I was knocked over myself; and should have been drowned, being in the water at the time, had not my brother carried me ashore."

C.  Where did the stones come from?

G.  From the machines, catapults they call them. You must have seen them. The old man did not know anything about them, when he told the story, nor did any one else in Britain till the Romans came again. But to go on with his story.

"I came to myself very soon, and then I saw that we had all been obliged to get out of reach of the darts and stones. Very soon afterwards, I saw a man with something shining in his hand jump from one of the ships into the water."

Roman soldiers in Britian


C.  Ah! that must have been the Eagle. The extract that was read by the master the other day was about it. "The officer who carried the eagle of the Tenth Legion"—this is what it was—"prayed to the gods that what he was going to do might turn out well for the legion, and said, 'Comrades, jump down, except you want to let the enemy have the eagle; I at least will do my duty to my country and my general.' This he shouted at the top of his voice, and at the same time jumped down into the sea and began to carry the eagle in the direction of the enemy."

G.  Caesar wrote that, did he? So my grandfather was not mistaken. But to go on.

"A number of men from all the ships followed him. Even then we made a good fight of it. They were better armed, but then they didn't know the ground as we did. However, whenever they were hard pushed, boats full of their own people came to help them, and at last they made their way to the shore, driving us before them. We could not stand against their arms. Their heavy iron swords broke ours into pieces, while ours could hardly make any impression upon their armour. We thought it a lucky thing that they had no horsemen to pursue us with.

"The next day the King held a council. We were all greatly discouraged. It seemed no use to fight with these strangers. If they could land in spite of us, when the advantage was so much on our side, what was the good of trying to meet them on equal terms? So we sent envoys to the general, saying that we would do what he wanted, that is, make our submission to him and give hostages. He gave us ten days to fetch the hostages.

"But before the time was out the Romans got into great trouble. On the fourth day after their coming there was a very high tide, which always comes on the day after the full moon, and a strong wind blowing on to the shore with it. They did not seem to know anything about high tides. The ships had not been drawn up on the shore out of the reach of the sea, and those that were at anchor had their cables so short that they were sunk. Some of our chiefs, who were in their camp, waiting for the hostages, when they saw what had happened, made the best of their way to the King. 'We have these people in a trap,' they said. 'Their ships are so damaged that they will not be able to get away. They have no provisions to speak of. And, besides, there are not nearly so many as we thought. Let us starve them out. If we do, we shall not be troubled with the Romans coming over here again.' The King thought that this was excellent advice; only if we were to do the thing properly, we must keep our plans secret. So the people were told to go in and out of the camp as usual, with various things to sell to the soldiers. But an ambush was laid in the woods, and when one of the legions came out of the camp next day, and began to help themselves to the corn in the fields, as their way was, we attacked them without any notice. We knew exactly where they would be, for they had reaped all the wheat except one corner at the further end. It was all the better for us, because it had woods round it except on one side.

"At first we had the better of them, for they had piled their arms in a heap, that they might have their hands free for cutting the wheat, and some of them had taken off all their armour except their helmets. We killed a good many of them before they could get hold of their swords and spears. And when they did get hold of them they were all in confusion, and this made us more than a match for them, in spite of their iron arms and armour. But before we had done anything like all we wanted, we saw another body of them coming out of their camp, all ready for fighting. Their chief general was leading them himself. One of my comrades knew him at once, for he had been in the camp, and had seen him also two or three times on the other side of the sea. He wasn't very tall or strong to look at, but I could see that he had a face like a hawk, for at one time I was not more than a hundred paces off. All our people who had been across the sea said that he was a wonderful man to plan and scheme. No one ever found him off his guard. You see that even then he had suspected something, and had this new army ready to help his men. If he had not done this, I reckon that not many of the others would have got back to the camp. As it was, there was very little more fighting that day. They were glad to leave off without losing any more men, and we were not strong enough to attack them when they were prepared to fight.

"For some days after it rained so hard that it was not possible to do anything. Still we weren't idle. We sent messengers to all the kings and chiefs within reach, begging them to come to our help with all the men that they could bring. 'The enemy,' we told them, 'are not nearly as strong as we thought'—that we knew from their camp being so small. 'Now is the time to get rid of them for good and all. Most of their ships are broken to pieces, and they will not be able to get away, if they are beaten. We shall kill every one of them, and it will be a long time before their countrymen trouble us again.'

"Some of the chiefs would not help, but most of those that were at all within reach either came themselves or sent their sons or brothers with bands of men. Day after day they came flocking into our camp, till we had about three times as many men as they had. Even then some of us were against fighting. I was one of them. I thought it better to wait and starve them out. You see they hadn't a great store of food with them, and they could not get more without running some risk. If we kept on the watch while they were foraging for provisions we must find them, sooner or later, off their guard. However, we were overruled, and the party that was for fighting had their way. It was just what the Romans wanted. The first fine day they came out of their camp, and drew up their men in order of battle. We attacked them, and what I had expected happened. We could not stand against them in an open fight. That day it was all the worse, because most of our side had never seen Romans before, and lost all heart when they found what they were like. They had been loud in boasting of what they would do, but they broke and fled almost as soon as they came to close quarters. In that battle we lost more men than on all the days before put together. This time the Romans had some horsemen, which they had never had before. There were not many of them, but they cut down numbers of our men in the pursuit.

"After this every one agreed that it would be better to make peace; so we sent envoys to the Roman camp. Caesar was fairly gracious to them. The only difference he made in his terms was that the number of hostages must be doubled.

"The next morning we had a great surprise—the Romans were gone! They had mended their ships all unknown to us, and now they embarked during the night. We knew nothing about it, for the fires were left burning in their camp. Besides, we were too busy attending to the wounded and burying the dead to heed what they were doing. Not long after we heard that they had got across the sea without losing any of their ships. More's the pity, I thought to myself, for I felt sure they would come again."