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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > December 2015 > Need to Know

Need to Know

1 FIRST CONTACT

Whose original idea was it to cross the Channel, and why did they?

TAKE ONE Caesar’s troops arrive on the coast of Britain, for the first time, in 55 BC
ALAMY X2, GETTY X2, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1

With a shout that was almost inaudible over the roar of the approaching enemy, the Eagle Bearer of the 10th Legion leapt from the prow of his ship and into the churning waves below. Surfacing almost immediately, he started forward, choking and struggling on through the swell to the shore where a mass of fierce, blue-tattooed warriors was waiting. Spurred into life by his actions, the first line of Roman legionaries quickly followed, falling headlong into the surf and marching on towards almost certain death. It was late summer 55 BC and Britain was about to emerge kicking and screaming onto the pages of history.

The isles of Britain had seemed an obvious target for the Roman general Julius Caesar who, by 55 BC had subjugated the tribes of Gaul (France) and led his troops across the Rhine River into Germany. No Roman army had ever crossed the mysterious ‘ocean’ at the very edge of the civilised world, and Caesar was nothing if not a daring glory-seeker.

Truth be told, neither of his expeditions to Britain, in 55 and 54 BC, were a great success, at least in military and economic terms. During the first invasion, Caesar found himself trapped on the beaches of Kent, hemmed in on all sides by the enemy. He could only watch helplessly as reinforcements were scattered by a storm at sea and his own transport vessels were dashed to pieces on the shore. Luckily for the Roman, the Britons sued for peace, allowing the invaders to retreat in hastily repaired ships.

Within a year, Caesar was back. He hoped to defeat the Britons in open battle and capture a British town. He achieved both of these, but at a great cost of lives. At the end of the campaign, the General left for Gaul taking hostages, promises of protection money (termed ‘tribute’) and assurances that those who had submitted to him would enjoy enhanced trade status and power as client kingdoms of Rome, providing the Empire with a degree of security along its northern barbarian frontier.

GAIUS JULIUS CAESAR

CAESAR (c100-44BC)

Julius Caesar was an ambitious politician. In c58 BC, he took command of Roman territory in southern Gaul (France), which he used as a springboard for conquest. His seven-year campaign across Gaul killed over a million civilians, while perhaps a million more were taken as slaves, all in the name of self-promotion. War brought profit and status; Caesar badly needed both.

PIRATE LIFE At the age of 25, while still a private citizen, Caesar was captured by pirates. He charmed his captors, having them raise his ransom (he thought they’d undervalued him) and joked about how he would later punish them. Once free, he had them all crucified.

THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Of all the ancient cities of the Mediterranean, Rome was the great survivor. Spending much of its early life under attack by one rival state or another, Rome learned how to fight and stay alive. Having disposed of its ruling monarchy in 509 BC, the city viewed itself as unique for being a republic, governed by a senate who spoke and acted (at least in theory) on behalf of the people.

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About History Revealed

The Roman occupation of Britain changed the course of our history – building cities, roads and great walls, pacifying tribes and creating a unified economy. But how and why did they come to invade, and why did their mission ultimately fail? PLUS The Black Death: The terror of medieval Europe Stalin: the brutal regime of Britain’s WWII ally Prohibition: when America was dying for a drink Coco Chanel: the ultimate rags to riches story The 10 wealthiest people ever The King and Mrs Simpson: Edward VIII’s abdication The Wright Brothers Boston Tea Party The Cold War Death on the Lusitania And much, much more!
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