Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

The Second Coming of Julius Caesar

C.  IT looks, grandfather, as if Caesar was afraid, his going off so quietly.

G.  Well, my boy, it seems to me that he was afraid in one way, and was not afraid in another. He found out that he had not brought enough men, and that he had come too late, for it was close upon the stormiest time of the year. And then he knew what our people ought to have done, and what he should have done, if he had been in their place. No doubt he was glad enough to get safe back across the sea; I take it there was more danger in that than in anything else. And that he was really afraid I don't believe, for, you see, he came again. But to go on with my grandfather's story.

"There was great rejoicing and not a little boasting when we found the camp empty. 'They have had enough of it,' some of us said, 'we shall not see anything more of them.' That I never believed; their general, I was quite sure, was not a man to draw back from anything that he had set his hand to. And so it turned out.

"We were not left long in doubt about what he was going to do. Before the winter was over we heard from our friends on the other side of the sea that all the ships in the country were being brought together to the harbours on the opposite coast, and that a number of new ones were being built. Later on we were told that the soldiers were being brought up to the coast, and that there would be more than three times as many as had come the year before. All this looked very serious, and as if the Romans really meant to conquer the island this time. There was some talk among us of all the kings in the country joining their forces together; but it came to nothing, at least then. All that was done was to gather as big an army as we could find, and to watch the coast. Some time after midsummer—the days, I remember, were beginning to get a little shorter—the fleet came in sight, at much about the same place where it had been first seen the year before. But they seemed, somehow, to be coming the other way. They had been carried too far; I suppose, by the tide, and were now coming back. As soon as we caught sight of the first ships, we made haste to get down to the beach where they had landed the year before. But when we saw what a multitude of vessels there was—there must have been nearly ten times as many as had come the last time—our men got fairly frightened. In spite of all that some of the chiefs could do to keep them at their post, they left the shore. In the end, the Romans landed without any one trying to hinder them. Afterwards we found that many of the ships we saw had no soldiers on board, but belonged to merchants. They had come with the army to buy and sell—buy any plunder that the soldiers might get, and sell them wine and other things. However, I doubt whether if we had tried to stop them from landing we should have done any good.

"They did not give us any rest. The very day of their landing, their general, without even waiting to pitch his camp, as we had expected that he would do, marched up the country after us. We tried to stop him at a difficult place, where he had to cross a river and then make his way up a steep hill; but it was of no use. We could not stand against him, and had to fall back upon a strong fort that had been built about twelve miles from the sea. It was now early in the morning, for the Romans must have started very soon after midnight. The camp was a very strong place, and could not be taken, we thought, in a whole moon, except by starving the garrison out. Well, it was, as I said, early in the morning when the Romans came up, and they had taken the place before noon. The soldiers covered themselves with their shields while they filled up the ditch first, and then made a mound against the wall. And all the time they did this there was no getting at them, they stood so close together and so firm. I don't suppose that we wounded more than two or three. After a while we gave up trying; in fact we left the place to be taken.

Roman Soldiers Attacking a Fort


"That night we held a council. Some were for giving in to the Romans without any more delay. 'We can't make any head against them,' they said, and it really seemed as if they were right. But most of us were for holding out, but how this was to be done we could not think. At last I took courage to say what I knew a great many besides myself were thinking. 'If we are to save Britain from being conquered, I said, 'we must unite, we must have one general.' For a time there was silence. At last some one cried out, 'And who is this one general to be?' ' Who can doubt?' I said; 'it must be King Caswallon,' There was no silence after that, you may be sure. Some clapped their hands, but only a few, many hissed or groaned. There was not a man in all Britain so hated and feared as King Caswallon. He was never quiet, but always trying to get hold of something that belonged to his neighbours, or to do them a mischief in some way. Still, as I said, he was the only man, because there was no one else who had anything like the power, no one else who was great enough for the others to submit to him. People will obey a man whom they hate so long as they fear him; but they won't obey one whom they despise. Well, there was much talking, but at last all agreed that King Caswallon was to be asked to take the chief command.

By good luck we had some time to get our men together, for the Roman general had to go back to see after his ships, which had been damaged by a storm—so our spies told us. By the time he had finished looking after them, King Caswallon came up with his men. His cavalry and his chariots were the best in Britain, and we hoped that he would have better success than we had had. And so it turned out for a time. First there was a fight of cavalry, and the Roman horsemen followed our men so far into the woods that they were entangled. The King saw this and cut off a good many of them. A few days afterwards he found them quite off their guard. They were busy fortifying the camp, and seemed not to have any notion that we were in the neighbourhood. We crept up close to them under cover of the woods, which somehow they had forgotten to watch, and fell on the companies that were nearest to us. These we put to flight; two new companies, which we heard afterwards were reckoned to be the best soldiers they had, hardly did any better; we broke right through them, killing a good many, and carrying off the body of one of their chief officers. We lost hardly any of our men.

There was one thing, you know, in which we had the better of them, and that was our chariots. These had great scythes fastened to their axles, and did a great deal of damage to the enemy. Our men used to drive them up at full gallop, and it was very seldom that they did not manage to break through the Roman line with them. I have seen a dozen chariots go clean through a division. After a time they got more used to them, for they were wonderfully brave men. Then they took to killing the horses. But to the very last, the first rush of the chariots made a great impression upon them.

"Of course we were greatly encouraged by our success. Unluckily, it made us too bold. A few days afterwards we tried a regular pitched battle with the enemy, and were terribly beaten. As they had now a great number of cavalry, they pursued us a long way and killed a great many of our men. The next day half or more of those that escaped went away to their homes. They had had enough of fighting with the Romans.

"Very soon after this the Romans marched to the river Thames. That was then King Caswallon's boundary on the south. It could only be forded in one place, and that not at all easily, the water was so deep and the stream so strong. Besides, to make it all the harder, a number of stakes had been driven into the bed of the river. I was not there at the time, but I heard what happened afterwards from some one who was present. They did not stop for a moment when they came to the water's edge, though the stream was running strong, and the other bank was covered with men. They went into the river at a run, foot-soldiers and horse-soldiers mixed together. It was so deep that the men on foot had only their heads above the water. Even that did not stop them, nor, as you may suppose, did the men that were posted on the other bank. In fact, none of them stayed till the Romans got across. They said there was no standing against such wonderful soldiers.

"After this King Caswallon did not try to meet the enemy in open fight again. He sent all his foot-soldiers home, keeping only some of the horsemen and chariots. With these he followed the Romans on their march. Neither man nor beast was left in the open country; all were driven into the woods; and as soon as ever a Roman soldier left the main body to get a little plunder or to look for provisions—and they had not much food beyond what they could get in this way—he was sure to be cut off. The King could not stop the enemy from going on; still, they lost many men in this way.

"However, they did our people a great deal more harm than we could do them. There was not a village anywhere near their line of march that was not burnt, nor a house or field that was not plundered, no, nor a fruit tree that was not cut down. Then some of our tribes began to fall off and make peace with the Romans. The first to do so were the Trinobantes. Caswallon had killed their king, and driven his son into banishment. They made a treaty with Caesar, sending him hostages, and a quantity of corn for his army. Others did the same. From some of their envoys the Romans learnt the way to Caswallon's chief town. It was a difficult place to find, with woods and marshes all round it, but these traitors sent the Romans a guide. It was a strong place, as we had been used to reckon strong places, but the Romans made very short work with it; they attacked it on two sides at once, and the King's people did not wait for them, but made the best of their way out. The King and his tribe lost thousands of cattle there.

"Then Caswallon tried his last chance. He sent orders to the kings on the sea-coast that they were to try to destroy the ships. If that could be done Caesar would certainly have to go back. They did what they were ordered to do, but it was of no use. The fortification round the ships was too strong and too well protected. The kings were beaten back and lost many men.

"After this there was nothing left for Caswallon but to make peace. This he found easy enough, for Caesar was very anxious to get away, because he had heard bad news from the other side of the sea. The King had to give hostages, and he agreed to pay a tribute every year. Part of this tribute the Romans took away with them, but the rest they never got. Caesar had plenty to do in Gaul, as we heard from our friends and kinsmen over there, and though he sent once or twice to ask for what was owing, he never did anything else."

That was my grandfather's story. Well, the Romans never came again till about forty years ago, though I remember that there was talk about their coming once or twice when I was a young man.