Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge
Our next explorer is Julius Cæsar. As Alexander the Great had combined the conqueror with the explorer, so now history repeats itself, and we find the Roman Cæsar not only conquering, but exploring. It was Cæsar who first dispelled the mist that lay over the country about the French Seine, the German Rhine, the English Thames—Cæsar who gives us the first graphic account of crossing the English Channel from France to England. Pytheas had hinted at the fog-bound lands of the north—Cæsar brought them into the light of day.
Since the days of Alexander the centre of Empire had shifted from Greece to Rome, and Rome was now conquering and annexing land, as Persia had done in the olden days. Hence it was that Julius Cæsar was in the year 58 B.C. appointed Governor of a new province recently brought under Roman sway, stretching from the Alps to the Garonne and northward to the Lake of Geneva, which at this time marked the frontier of the Roman Empire. Cæsar made no secret of his intentions to subdue the tribes to the north of his province and bring all Gaul under the dominion of Rome. His appointment carried with it the command of four legions, including some twenty thousand soldiers. His chance soon came, and we find Cæsar, with all the ability of a great commander, pushing forward with his army into the very heart of France one hundred and fifty miles beyond the Roman frontier.
On the banks of the river Saône he defeated a large body of Celtic people who were migrating from Switzerland to make their homes in the warmer and roomier plains at the foot of the Pyrenees.
While the defeated Celts returned to their chilly homes among the mountains, victorious Cæsar resolved to push on at the head of his army toward the Rhine, where some German tribes under a "ferocious headstrong savage" threatened to overrun the country. After marching through utterly unknown country for three days, he heard that fresh swarms of invaders had crossed the Rhine, intending to occupy the more fertile tracts on the French side. They were making for the town we now call Besançon—then, as now, strongly fortified, and nearly surrounded by the river Doubs. By forced marches night and day, Cæsar hastened to the town and took it before the arrival of the invaders.
Accounts of the German tribes even now approaching were brought in by native traders and Gaulish chiefs, until the Roman soldiers were seized with alarm. Yes, said the traders, these Germans were "men of huge stature, incredible valour, and practised skill in wars; many a time they had themselves come across them, and had not been able to look them in the face or meet the glare of their piercing eyes."
The Romans felt they were in an unknown land, about to fight against an unknown foe. Violent panic seized them, "completely paralysing every one's judgment, and nerve." Some could not restrain their tears; others shut themselves up in their tents and bemoaned their fate. "All over the camp men were making their wills," until Cæsar spoke, and the panic ceased. Seven days' march brought them to the plain of Alsace, some fifty miles from the Rhine. A battle was fought with the German tribes, and "the enemy all turned tail and did not cease their flight until they reached the Rhine." Some swam across, some found boats, many were killed by the Romans in hot pursuit.
For the first time Romans beheld the German Rhine—that great river that was to form a barrier for so long between them and the tribes beyond. But Cæsar's exploration was not to end here. The following year found him advancing against the Belgæ—tribes living between the Rhine and the Seine. In one brilliant campaign he subdued the whole of north-eastern Gaul from the Seine to the Rhine. Leaving Roman soldiers in the newly conquered country, he returned to his province, and was some eight hundred miles away when he heard that a general rebellion was breaking out in that part we now know as Brittany. He at once ordered ships to be built on the Loire, "which flows into the ocean," oarsmen to be trained, seamen and pilots assembled.
The spring of 56 B.C. found Cæsar at the seat of war. His ships were ready on the Loire. But the navy of the Veneti was strong. They were a sea-going folk, who knew their own low rocky coast, intersected by shallow inlets of the sea; they knew their tides and their winds. Their flat-bottomed boats were suitable to shallows and ebbing tides. Bows and stern stood high out of the water to resist heavy seas and severe gales; the hulls were built of oak. Leather was used for sails to withstand the violent ocean storms. The long Roman galleys were no match for these, and things would have gone badly had not Cæsar devised a plan for cutting the enemy's rigging with hooks "sharpened at the end and fixed to long poles. With these, the Romans cut the rigging of the enemy's ships forming the fleet of Brittany; the sails fell and the ships were rendered useless. One after another they were easily captured, and at sunset the victory lay with the Romans.
The whole of Gaul, from the Rhine to the Pyrenees, seemed now subdued. Cæsar had conquered as he explored, and the skill of his well-disciplined army triumphed everywhere over the untrained courage of the barbarian tribes.
Still, the German tribes were giving trouble about the country of the Rhine, and in the words of the famous Commentaries, "Cæsar was determined to cross the Rhine, but he hardly thought it safe to cross in boats. Therefore, although the construction of a bridge presented great difficulties on account of the breadth, swiftness; and depth of the stream, he nevertheless thought it best to make the attempt or else not cross at all." Indeed, he wanted to impress the wild German people on the other side with a sense of the vast power of the Roman Empire. The barbarian tribes beyond must, indeed, have been impressed with the skill of the Roman soldier. For in ten days the bridge was completed: timber had been hewn from the forest, brought to the banks of the Rhine, worked into shape, piles driven into the bed of the river, beams laid across. And Cæsar led his army in triumph to the other side. They stood for the first time in the land of the Germans, near the modern town of Coblenz, and after eighteen days on the farther side, they returned to Gaul, destroying the bridge behind them.
Cæsar had now a fresh adventure in view. He was going to make his way to Britain. The summer of 55 B.C. was passing, and "in these parts, the whole of Gaul having a northerly trend, winter sets in early," wrote Cæsar afterwards. There would be no time to conquer, but he could visit the island, find out for himself what the people were like, learn about harbours and landing-places, "for of all this the Greeks knew practically nothing. No one, indeed, readily undertakes the voyage to Britain except traders, and even they know nothing of it except the coast."
Cæsar summoned all the traders he could collect and inquired the size of the island, what tribes dwelt there, their names, their customs, and the shortest sea passage. Then he sent for the ships which had vanquished the fleet of Brittany the previous year; he also assembled some eighty merchant ships on the northern coast of Gaul, probably not very far from Calais.
It was near the end of August, when soon after midnight the wind served and he set sail. A vision of the great Roman—determined, resolute—rises before us as, standing on the deck of the galley, he looks out on to the dark waters of the unknown sea bound for the coast of England. After a slow passage the little fleet arrived under the steep white cliffs of the southern coast about nine o'clock next morning. Armed forces of barbarians stood on the heights above Dover, and, finding it impossible to land, Cæsar gave orders to sail some seven miles farther along the coast, where they ran the ships aground not far from Deal.
But the visit of the Romans to Britain on this occasion lasted but three days, for a violent storm scattered the ships with the horses on board.
"The same night," says Cæsar, "it happened to be full moon, which generally causes very high tides in the ocean, a fact of which our men were not aware."
Indeed, we may well believe that a night of full moon and an unusually high tide would be a mystery to those children of the Mediterranean. Their ships had been beached and were lying high and dry when the rapidly rising tide overwhelmed them. Cables were broken, anchors lost, panic ensued.
But Cæsar's glory lay in overcoming obstacles, and it is well known how he got his troops and ships safely back across the Channel, and how preparations were hurried on in Gaul for a second invasion of Britain. This is not the place for the story of his campaign. He was the first to raise the curtain on the mysterious islands discovered by Pytheas.
"Far to the west, in the ocean wide,
Beyond the realm of Gaul, a land there lies,
Sea-girt it lies, where giants dwelt of old."
Cæsar's remarks on this newfound land are interesting for us to-day. He tells us of "a river called the Thames, about eight miles from the sea." "The interior of Britain," he says, "is inhabited by a people who, according to tradition, are aboriginal. The population is immense; homesteads closely resembling those of the Gauls are met with at every turn, and cattle are very numerous. Gold coins are in use, or iron bars of fixed weight. Hares, fowls, and geese they think it wrong to taste; but they keep them for pastime or amusement. The climate is more equable than in Gaul, the cold being less severe. The island is triangular in shape, one side being opposite Gaul. One corner of this side, by Kent—the landing-place for almost all ships from Gaul—has an easterly, and the lower one a westerly, aspect. The extent of this side is about five hundred miles. The second trends off towards Spain. Off the coast here is Ireland, which is considered only half as large as Britain. Half-way across is an island called 'Man,' and several smaller islands also are believed to be situated opposite this coast, in which there is continuous night for thirty days. The length of this side is eight hundred miles. Thus the whole island is two thousand miles in circumference. The people of the interior do not, for the most part, cultivate grain, but live on milk and flesh-meat, and clothe themselves with skins. All Britons, without exception, stain themselves with woad, which produces a bluish tint. They wear their hair long."
Cæsar crossed the Thames. "The river can only be forded at one spot," he tells us, "and there with difficulty." Farther he did not go. And so this is all that was known of Britain for many a long year to come.