Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

The Departure of the Legions

The resolution to leave Britain was announced at a general meeting of the soldiers on the following day, and was received by it with tremendous enthusiasm. To most who were present, Gaul seemed a land of promise. It was from Gaul that almost every article of luxury that they either had or wished to have was imported, and some of the necessities of life, as notably wine, were known to be both better and cheaper there than in Britain. Comfortable quarters in wealthy cities, which were ready to be friendly, or could easily be brought to reason if they were not; easy campaigns, not against naked Picts, but against civilized enemies who had something to lose; and when the time of service was over, a snug little farm, with corn land, pasture, and vineyard, and a hard-working native to till it—such were the dreams which floated through the soldiers' minds; and they were ready to go anywhere with the man who promised to make them into realities. Older and more prudent men who knew that there were two sides to the question, and the unadventurous, who were well content to stay where they were, could not resist the tide of popular feeling, and concealed, if they did not abandon, their doubts and scruples. As money was scarce, the men volunteered to forego their pay till it could be returned to them with large interest in the shape of prize-money. They even gave up to the melting pot the silver ornaments from their arms and from the trappings of their horses. The messengers who were sent with the tidings of the proposed movement to the other camps—which were now mainly to be found in the southern part of the island—found the troops everywhere well disposed, and within a few days every military station was alive with the stir and bustle of preparations for a move.

One of the most pressing cares of the new leaders of the army was the securing the means of transport. There was a great number of merchant ships, indeed, which could be pressed into the service, and which would perform it very well if only the passage in the Channel could be made without meeting opposition. The question to be considered was whether they could reckon upon this, or would the fleet, which was still supposed to acknowledge the authority of Honorius, prevent them from crossing. The chief person to be reckoned with in this matter was, of course, the Count of the Shore, and a despatch was immediately sent to him. It was the production of Constans, and ran thus——

"Constantine, Emperor of Britain and the West, to Lucius Ælius, Count of the Saxon Shore, greeting.

"Having been called to Empire by the unanimous voice of the People and Army of Britain, and desiring to give deliverance from tyranny and protection from violence to other provinces besides this my Island of Britain, I purpose to transport such forces as it may be necessary to use for this purpose to the land of Gaul. I call upon you therefore, having full confidence in your loyalty, to give me such assistance as may be in your power, for the accomplishment of this end, and promise you, on the other hand, my favour and protection. Farewell.

"Given at the Camp of the Great Harbour."

The Count received this communication about ten days after his arrival at the villa. The writer would scarcely have been pleased at the comments which he made as he read it.

" 'Constantine, Emperor.' How many more Emperors are we to have in this unlucky island? 'Of Britain and the West.' And I doubt whether he can call a foot of ground his own fifty miles from the camp. 'To deliver other provinces from oppression and violence.' Why not begin by trying his hand at home? 'Full confidence in my loyalty.' Truly valuable praise from so excellent a judge in the matter. 'Such assistance as may be in my power.' Well, I should be glad to see the last of this crew of adventurers and villains; but he sha'n't have my ships."

The Count's position indeed was one of singular difficulty. He had thought it best—indeed he had found it necessary, if he was to do his own work—to keep on friendly terms with the usurpers who had gone before Constantine. It had been quite hopeless for him to attempt to coerce the legions. If they chose to make Emperors for themselves, he must let them do it, so long as they did not interfere with this liberty as a loyal subject. But this was a different matter. Crossing over into Gaul meant downright hostility to the authorities in Italy. How could he help it forward? And yet how could he prevent it? He had three ships available. All the others were laid up for the winter in harbours on the eastern and south-eastern shores of the island. With these he might do some damage to the legions in their passage; but the passage he could not hope to prevent. And if he did prevent it, what would be his own future relations with the army? Clearly he could not stay in Vectis, or indeed anywhere in Britain, for there was no place which he could hope to hold against a small detachment of the army. And to go, though it could easily be done, and would save him a vast amount of trouble, would be to give up his whole work, and to leave the unhappy inhabitants of the coast without protection from the pirates of the East. After long and anxious deliberation, which he did not disdain to share with his daughter and Carna, he resolved on a middle course, by following which he would neither help nor hinder. The first thing was to seek an interview with Constantine or his representatives, and a messenger was accordingly despatched suggesting a conference to be held on shipboard, under a flag of truce, off the mouth of the Great Harbour.

The proposition was accepted, and three days afterwards the conference was held, in the way that the Count had suggested. Each party brought a single ship, which was anchored for the greater convenience of carrying on the conversation, but was perfectly ready to slip its anchor in case of any threatening of treachery. The Count's vessel had the Imperial standard at its mast-head; Constantine's, on the other hand, had no distinguishing characteristic. Both he and his two sons were present, but the father was as silent as usual, and the chief spokesman was Julian.

The Count was very brief in his greetings, and indicated, as plainly as he could without saying it in so many words, that he did not acknowledge the pretensions of the usurper.

"My lord," he said, "you have asked me to help in the transport of your army across the Channel. Briefly then I have not the means. I have but three ships ready for sea, and not one of these can I spare."

"The Emperor can command their services," said Julian.

"I have received no instructions from my master," returned the Count, "to use them except for the protection of the coast."

"You have them now," said Julian, "and you will refuse to obey them at your peril."

"My commission is made out by Flavius Honorius Augustus, and I know no other to whom I can yield obedience."

A pause followed this plain speech; the party on board with Constantine debated the situation with some heat, Julian maintaining that the Count must brought to reason, the others being anxious to keep on good terms with him.

"A single cohort can bring him to order," cried the young Prince.

"Can drive him out of the villa doubtless," said the more prudent Constans, "but not bring us an inch nearer getting the ships."

"We may at least count on your friendship," said Constans, Julian retiring sulkily from the negotiations; "you will not hinder the passage."

"I have nothing to do with the disposition of the legions," answered the Count, "and, as I said before, have no instructions except to defend the shore against the Pirates."

"His Majesty will not be ungrateful," said Constans.

"I owe no duty but to Honorius, and desire no favour but from him," was the Count's reply, and the conference was at an end.

The result was as favourable as Constantine could have expected. At least no opposition would be offered. Preparations for the passage were accordingly hurried on with all possible speed. All the towns along the coast were put under requisition for all the shipping that they could furnish, and, for the most part, were glad enough to answer the call. Whatever might happen in the future, it would be at least something to be rid of such troublesome neighbours. If other legions were to come, they might be more orderly and well-behaved. If these were to be the last, perhaps this would be a change for the better. Every one accordingly exerted himself to the utmost to supply the demand for transports.

It was a curious medley of vessels that assembled in the Great Harbour in the late autumn for the embarkation of the army. Old ships of war that had lain high and dry from before the memory of man were hastily pitched over and launched. Merchant vessels of every kind were there, from the huge hulks that were accustomed to carry heavy cargoes of metal from Cornwall, to the light barks that carried on the trade in wine, olive oil, fruit, and such light goods between Armorica and Britain; even the fishing vessels from the villages along the coast were pressed into the service, and laden to the full, sometimes even to a dangerous depth, with military material and all the miscellaneous property with which an army of twenty thousand men would be likely to be encumbered. The greater part of this force had been collected at the Camp of the Great Harbour, which indeed was overflowing, and more than overflowing, with troops. But the garrisons that were situated to the eastward, as at Regnum and Anderida were to join the fleet as it sailed, while those from the inland and coast stations of the South and Eastern Britain were to make the best of their way to the Portus Lemanus. This was to be the rendezvous for the whole force, and the point for commencing passage. The longer voyage, direct from the Harbour to the mouth of the Sequana (the Seine) or the projecting peninsula, now known as Manche, was dreaded, for the Channel had even a worse reputation in those days than it has now. It was arranged, accordingly, that the flotilla should sail along the coast as far as the Portus Lemanus, and cross from thence to Bononia. The first half of November had passed before the preparations for departure were completed, and there were some who advised Constantine to delay his passage till the following spring. That he knew to be impossible; it was better to run any risk of storm or shipwreck than to face the winter with an ill-paid and discontented army.

At early dawn, on the fifteenth of the month, the embarkation began, the munitions of war, stores, and other baggage having been already, as far as was possible, put on board of the heavier transports. The water-gate of the camp was thrown open, and at this Constantine, his sons, and his principal officers took their place. The priest who served the church within the camp offered a few prayers, and solemnly blessed the eagle of the Second Legion, which constituted, as has been said, the main part of the forces in the camp. When this ceremony was concluded, Constantine addressed the army.

"By this gate in the days of our ancestors Vespasian led forth the Second Legion, then, as now, one of the chief ornaments and supports of the Empire, to execute the judgment of God on the rebellious nation of the Jews, and to receive before long as his reward the Empire of Rome. By this gate I lead you forth, worthy successors as you are of those who conquered with him, to a service not less honourable, and certain to receive no less distinguished a reward. Let my name, which recommended me to your favour, and this place, already famous as the starting-point of victorious armies, be accepted as omens of success. Comrades, follow me on a march which has for its end nothing less than the Capitol of Rome."

He then took his seat in a boat manned with a picked crew, and, amidst shouts of applause from the assembled soldiers and spectators, was rowed to the ship, one of the few war galleys of recent construction that were to be found in the fleet. Then began the embarkation of the troops.

It was a singular scene. The news had spread with the greatest rapidity through the whole countryside, and the native population had crowded to witness the departure. Every point from which the sight could be seen was occupied by spectators. Even the slopes of Portsdown were thickly dotted by them. Nearer the camp the emotion and excitement were intense. A regiment that marches out of a town in which it has been in garrison for a year or two leaves many sad hearts behind it; even so brief a space is long enough for the binding of many ties. But the legions had been almost permanent residents in Britain, and they were bound to its people by bonds many and close. And this people was not, it must be remembered, the self-restrained English race, so chary of sighs and groans, and so much ashamed of tears, but a race of excitable Celts, always ready to express all, and even more, than they felt. Wives, children, kinsfolk, friends were now to be left behind, and probably left for ever—for who could believe that the legions, whose departure had been threatened so long, could ever come back?

Legions leave britain


The embarkation went on. Some of the lighters could be brought close to the shore, and were boarded by gangways. To others of heavier burden the men had to be carried in boats. A strong guard had been posted to keep the place of embarkation clear. But the guard was powerless, or perhaps unwilling—for who could deal harshly with women and children so situated?—to check the rush of the excited crowd. Some of the women threw themselves on their departing husbands and lovers, clasped them round their necks, or hung to their knees. Others sat on the shore rocking themselves to and fro, or frozen by the extremity of their grief into stillness; some uttered shrill cries; others were sunk in a speechless despair. Nor were there wanting scenes of a less harrowing kind. Not a few of the departing soldiers were breaking other obligations besides those of the heart. Creditors were to be seen clinging to debtors whom they saw vanishing out of their sight. The Jew trader from the village outside the camp seemed to be in despair. Probably he had secured himself fairly well against the consequences of an event which he must have been shrewd enough to foresee; but to judge from the bitterness and frequency of his appeals he was hopelessly ruined. He swore by the patriarchs and prophets that he had always carried on his business at a loss, and that if his debts were not now settled in full he should be reduced to beggary. The tavern-keepers were also busy, running to and fro, getting, or trying to get, payment of scores from customers whom they had trusted. There were others who had something to sell, some provisions for the voyage, a cloak, or a mantle, and offered it as a bargain—not, however, without a margin of profit—to dear friends with whom they were not likely to have dealings again. Other noisy claimants for attention were young Britons who wanted to enlist. For days past these had been flocking into the camp, and now that their last chance was about to disappear, they became importunate in the extreme. The numbers of the legions could have been almost doubled from these candidates for service.

Slowly, as ship after ship received its complement of men, the turmoil on the shore lessened, and about sunset the embarkation was completed. The weather was beautifully calm, a light wind blowing from the land during the day, and even this falling as the light declined. When the moon rose—the time of the full had been chosen for the embarkation—the sea was almost calm. Then, amidst a great cry of "Farewell," from the shore, the fleet slowly moved down the harbour. All night, making the most of the favourable weather, it pursued its way along the coast, being joined as it went by other detachments. At the Portus Lemanus it found the fleet which carried the garrisons of the eastern stations ready to start, and the whole made its way without hindrance across the Channel to Bononia, having as prosperous a voyage as had the legions which more than four hundred and fifty years before Cæsar had brought to the island.