When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C. to 54 B.C., even though his campaign resulted in an eventual retreat, he had still done something very significant. This was about reaching a land beyond what was familiar to the Roman Empire, crossing the seas and making the first steps onto the unknown British soil. His achievement was much celebrated among ancient Romans.
Nevertheless, not everything is clear about this first visit of the Romans to Britain. Previous studies, conducted over a century ago, were inconclusive in answering crucial questions about when and where it took place.
Following two years of research and excavation activities in 2016 and 2017, academics from the University of Leicester believe they have resolved some of the mysteries, such as where Caesar’s fleet anchored upon arrival and where his army set up their first camps.
This episode of “first contact” most likely unfolded in the county of Kent, in southeast England. The fleet supposedly reached Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet, which is the northeast point of the county. Dr. Andrew Fitzpatrick from the University of Leicester explains: “Thanet has never been considered as a possible landing site before because it was separated from the mainland until the Middle Ages.”
He reports that it is not clear how big the channel that separated the island from the mainland was, although it seems it would have been easy for the invaders to cross: “The Wantsum Channel was clearly not a significant barrier to people of Thanet during the Iron Age and it certainly would not have been a major challenge to the engineering capabilities of the Roman army.”
Much of the archaeological findings in the area match what Caesar noted in his accounts of the military campaign. Some of the first hints that his writings give are the distinctness of the site as seen from the sea; his testimony of a “large and open bay,” as well as the existence of somewhat higher grounds, where his armies had promptly raised a fort.
Artifacts unearthed in the nearby town of Ebbsfleet add further clarity. A survey of the area was prompted when a ditch approximately 16 feet wide, dated to the 1st century B.C., was uncovered during road construction in the area. It serves as further evidence that this site had indeed been a Roman garrison at one point in the past.
From what archaeologists report, the ditch is reminiscent of Roman defenses found in other areas, particularly France’s Alesia, where, only two years after his effort to invade Britain, Caesar led crucial battles against the Gallic tribes. It is believed that the Ebbsfleet ditch was created as a section of a bigger fort which would have protected Roman ships anchored down on the beach. Nevertheless, from this point in Kent, the Romans did not progress much further inland at this time.
Dr. Fitzpatrick explains that Caesar probably set sail toward Britain from some point in between Boulogne and Calais in France. He says that Caesar mentions his fleet had seen Britain at sunrise far off on the left. “As they set sails opposite the cliffs of Dover, Caesar can only be describing the white chalk cliffs around Ramsgate which were being illuminated by the rising sun,” he says.
Caesar also noted in his accounts that his fleet survived a powerful storm, after which the ships anchored “at an even and open shore.” Such a description is compatible with how Pegwell Bay looks, and as Fitzpatrick clarifies, today this bay makes for the largest one “on the east Kent coast and is open and flat.”
The bay would have made a good spot to accommodate a fleet of some 800 ships. Caesar’s account tells that when he and his troops arrived, they were met by Britons who had gathered to confront them. However, upon realizing the number of the guests, they withdrew to higher ground, which easily matches with Thanet.
Of course, these were only short campaigns, and Caesar did not leave behind a force strong enough to occupy more significant areas of southeastern England, but it was still an important moment. As Professor Colin Haselgrove, a lead person in the survey, remarks, it is probable that treaties negotiated among Romans and other rulers around the time Caesar embarked towards Britain helped in the conquest of the island a century later.
Haselgrove says, at that point, “the conquest of south-east England seems to have been rapid, probably because the kings in the region were already allied to Rome.” Indeed, Emperor Claudius arrived in 43 A.D. with the intent of long-term occupation of Britain, one which progressed well and endured for nearly four centuries.
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The recent survey was sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust and is also set to be featured in the BBC Four television series Digging for Britain.