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Chapter 17

MY study of Julius Caesar’s commentaries on his two British campaigns made it clear to me that unless conditions had changed considerably since his day it was possible to beat the Britons in any engagement by only a slight modification of our fighting tactics. Considerable forces, however, would have to be employed. It is a great mistake to start a campaign with only a couple of regiments, get them badly knocked about in attempting the work of four, and then send home for reinforcements, thereby giving the enemy a breathing space. It is best to start with as imposing a force as can be commanded and to strike as hard as possible.

The British infantry are armed with broadswords and small leather bucklers. Man for man, they are the equals and even the superiors of the Romans, but their fighting value decreases with their numbers, as ours increases. In the clash of a battle a company of British warriors has no chance against an equal force of disciplined Romans. The Roman javelin, short stabbing sword, and long shield with its flanges for interlocking with neighbour shields, make an ideal equipment at close quarters. British arms are designed for single combat, but need plenty of space for manoeuvre. If the press of battle is too close to allow one to swing the broadsword handily and if the locking of enemy shields prevents one from dealing lateral strokes with it, it is of little use; and the small buckler is insufficient protection against javelin-thrusts.

British noblemen fight from chariots like the Greek heroes at Troy, and like the early Latin chieftains. The chariot has now, of course, disappeared from civilized warfare and only remains as an emblem of high military rank or of victory. This is because cavalry has taken the place of chariotry, the breed of horses having greatly improved. In Britain there are few horses suitable for mounting cavalry. British chariots are drawn by small strong ponies, highly trained. They can be pulled up sharp even when travelling downhill at a good speed and turned right-about in a flash. Each chariot is a fighting-unit in itself. The driver and commander is the nobleman, who has two fighters with him in the chariot, and two or more runners, armed with knives, who keep up with the ponies. The fighters often run along the pole and stand balanced on the cross-piece. The runners try to hamstring the ponies of opposing chariots. A column of chariots driven at full speed will usually break an infantry line by dashing straight at it. But if the line seems disposed to stand its ground, the chariot column will wheel right past it, the fighting men raining down spears as they go by, and then turn in behind and launch another volley from the rear. When this manoeuvre has been repeated several times the charioteers withdraw to a safe place, and the fighting men, dismounting and now joined by infantry supports, lead these to a final attack. Should this attack fail, the chariots are once more manned and are ready to fight a rearguard action. The British chariot combines indeed, as Julius remarked, the celerity of cavalry with the stability of infantry. Naturally, enveloping tactics are much favoured by chariot squadrons. Naturally, too, the British suffer from the common fault of undisciplined fighting men – they will always go for plunder before destroying the main body of the enemy. I had to evolve some new tactical plan for dealing with the British chariotry: Julius’s French cavalry had been unable to hold them in check – perhaps he should have borrowed an idea from the enemy and used them in conjunction with light-armed infantry. But I could count on winning every infantry engagement.

I decided that the largest force that the Empire could spare for the expedition would be four regular infantry regiments and four regiments of auxiliaries, together with 1,000 cavalry. After consultation with my army commanders I withdrew three regiments from the Rhine – namely, the Second, Twentieth, and Fourteenth – and one from the Danube, the Ninth. I entrusted the command of the expedition to Galba, with Geta as his Master of Horse, and planned it for the middle of April. But there was considerable delay in getting the transports built, and when these were ready Galba fell ill and I decided to wait for his recovery; by the middle of June he was still very feeble and I had regretfully to decide against waiting any longer. I gave his command to a veteran who had the reputation of being the cleverest tactician and one of the bravest men in the army, Aulus Plautius, a distant connexion of my first wife, Urgulanilla. He was a man in the late fifties and had been Consul fourteen years previously: old soldiers remembered him as a popular commander of the Fourteenth under my brother. He went to Mainz to take command of the regiments detailed for the expedition. The delay caused by Galba’s illness was the more unwelcome because news of the coming invasion, which had been kept a close secret until April, had now been carried over the Channel, and Caractacus and Togodumnus were busily preparing defensive positions. The Ninth Regiment had reached Lyons from the Danube some time before and two regiments of French auxiliaries and one of Swiss had long been under arms there too. I sent Aulus the order to march the Rhine regiments up to Boulogne, picking up a regiment of Batavian auxiliaries on his way – the Batavians are a German tribe living on an island at the mouth of the Rhine – and cross the Channel in the transports which he would find waiting there. The Lyons forces would arrive at Boulogne simultaneously. An unexpected difficulty arose. The Rhine regiments could not be persuaded to start. They said quite openly that they were very well off where they were and regarded the expedition to Britain as a dangerous and useless undertaking. They said that the Rhine defences would be seriously weakened by their removal – though I had brought the garrison there up to strength by brigading large forces of French auxiliaries with the remaining regiments, and by forming an entirely new regiment, the Twenty-second – and that the invasion of Britain was against the wishes of the God Augustus, who had permanently fixed the strategic boundaries of the Empire at the Rhine and Channel.

I was at Lyons myself by this time – the middle of July – and would have gone to the Rhine in person to persuade the men to do their duty, but signs of unrest were showing themselves in the Ninth regiment too, and among the French, so I sent Narcissus, who was with me, there as my representative. It was really a foolish thing to do, but my fool’s luck gave it a happy ending. I had not quite realized how unpopular Narcissus was. It was commonly believed that I took his advice on every point and that he led me by the nose. Narcissus on his arrival at the Mainz camp greeted Aulus in rather an off hand way and asked him to parade the men before the Tribunal platform. When this was done he mounted it, puffed out his chest, and began the following speech: ‘In the name of our Emperor, Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Men, you have been ordered to march to Boulogne, there to embark for an invasion of Britain. You have grumbled and made difficulties. This is very wrong. It is a breach of your oath to the Emperor. If the Emperor orders an expedition you are expected to obey and not to argue. I have come here to recall you to your senses. …’

Narcissus was not speaking like a messenger but as though he were Emperor himself. Naturally this had an irritating effect on the men. There were shouts of ‘Get down from that Tribunal, you Greek valet’, and ‘We don’t want to hear what you have to say.’

But Narcissus had a very good opinion of himself and embarked upon floods of reproachful oratory. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I am only a Greek, and only a freedman, but it seems that I know my duty better than you Roman citizens.’

Suddenly someone shouted out, ‘Io Saturnalia’ and all the irritation vanished in a great roar of laughter. ‘Io Saturnalia’ is the cry that goes up on our All Fools’ Festival, which is celebrated annually in honour of the God Saturn. During the festival everything is topsy-turvy. Everyone has licence to say and do just as he likes. Slaves wear their masters’ clothes and order them about as though they were slaves. The noble is abased and the base is ennobled. Everyone now took up the cry ‘Io Saturnalia, Io Saturnalia! The Freedman is Emperor to-day.’ Ranks were broken and an absurd riot of jokes and horseplay started, in which first the captains, then one or two senior officers, and finally Aulus Plautius himself strategically joined. Aulus dressed up as a woman of the camp and bustled round with a kitchen cleaver. Four or five sergeants climbed up on the Tribunal and pretended to be rivals for Narcissus’s love. Narcissus was bewildered and burst into tears. Aulus rushed to his rescue, swinging his cleaver. ‘You vile men,’ he screamed in falsetto, ‘leave my poor husband alone! He’s a worthy, respectable man! ‘He drove them off the platform and embraced Narcissus, whispering in his ear as he did so: ‘Leave this to me, Narcissus. They’re like a lot of children. Humour them now and afterwards you can do anything you like with them!’ He dragged Narcissus forward by the hand and said: ‘My poor husband isn’t quite himself, you see – he’s not accustomed to Camp wine and your rough ways. But he’ll be all right after a night in bed with me, won’t you, my poppet?’ He took Narcissus by the ear. ‘Now listen to me, husband! This Mainz is a tough place. It’s where mice nibble iron, and cocks blow the reveillez with little silver trumpets, and wasps carry javelins slung round their waists.’

Narcissus pretended to be frightened – and he was frightened. But they soon forgot all about him. There were other games to play. When the fun was beginning to slacken, Aulus resumed his general’s cloak and called for a trumpeter and told him to blow the Attention. In a minute or two order was restored and he held up his hand for silence and made a speech:

‘Men, we’ve had our All Fools’ Day fun and we’ve enjoyed it, and now the trumpet has ended it. So let’s get back to work and discipline again. To-morrow I shall take the auspices, and if they are favourable you must be prepared to strike camp. We have to go to Boulogne, whether we like it or not. It’s our duty. And from Boulogne we have to go to Britain, whether we like it or not. It’s our duty. And when we get there we are going to fight a big battle, whether we like it or not. It’s our duty. And the Britons are going to get the worst beating of their lives, whether they like it or not. It’s their bad luck. Long live the Emperor!’ That speech saved the situation and there was no further trouble. Narcissus was able to leave the camp without further loss of dignity.

Ten days later, on August the first, my birthday, the expeditionary force sailed. Aulus had agreed with me that it would be best to send over the troops in three divisions, at intervals of two or three hours, because the landing of one division would concentrate all the British forces at that point, and the others could sail up the coast to some undefended spot and land unopposed. But as it happened not even the first division met with any resistance on landing, because the news had reached Britain that the Rhine troops had refused to march, and besides it was thought to be too late in the season now for us to attempt anything that year. The only event worthy of note in the crossing was the sudden wind that sprang up land drove the first division back on to the second; but a lucky portent then occurred, a flash of light travelling from the east across to the west, which was the direction in which they were sailing; so everyone who was not incapacitated by sea-sickness took heart again, and the landing was made in a victorious mood. Aulus’s task was to occupy the whole southern part of their land, drawing his strategical frontier from the River Severn on the west to the great bay, the Wash, on the east: thus including the whole of the former dominions of Cymbeline in a new Roman province. He was, however, to permit any tribes who voluntarily offered their submission to Rome the usual privileges of subject allies. Since it was a war of conquest and not a mere punitive expedition, the greatest magnanimity must be shown the conquered – consistent only with their not mistaking it for weakness. Property must not be needlessly destroyed, nor women ravished, nor children and old people killed. He was to tell his men: ‘The Emperor wants prisoners, not corpses. And since you are to be permanently stationed in this country his advice is to do as little damage to it in the process as possible. Wise birds do not foul their own nests; not even nests captured from other birds.’

His main objective was Colchester, the Catuvellaunian capital city. When it was captured, the Icenians of the east coast would no doubt come to him there to offer him their alliance, and he could build a strong base for the conquest of the centre and southwest of the island. I told him that should his losses amount to more than a couple of thousand killed or disabled before the enemy’s main resistance was crushed, or should there appear to be any doubt as to the issue of the campaign before winter set in, he was to send me a message at once, and I would come to his help with my reserves. The message would be relayed across France and Italy by bonfire signal, and if the bonfire-men kept their eyes open I ought to receive the news at Rome a few hours after the message left Boulogne. The reserves that I would bring up would include eight battalions of Guards, the entire Guards cavalry, four companies of Nubian spearmen, and three companies of Balearic slingers. They would be quartered at Lyons in readiness.

I had intended to remain at Lyons with these reserves, but was forced to return to Rome. Vitellius, who was acting as my understudy, wrote that he found the work incredibly difficult, that he was already two months behindhand in his judicial work, and that he had reason to suspect that my legal secretary, Myron, was not as honest as we had both supposed. There was another most unwelcome letter that reached me from Marsus at the same time and made me feel that I ought not to be away from Rome a day longer than I could help. Marsus’s letter ran as follows:

The Governor of Syria, Vibius Marsus, has the honour to greet the Emperor on the occasion of his approaching birthday and report that the province is prosperous, contented, orderly, and loyal. At the same time he confesses himself somewhat disquieted by a recent incident at the town of Tiberias, on the Lake of Galilee, and begs the Emperor to approve the measures that he has taken in dealing with it.

An unofficial report reached headquarters at Antioch that King Herod Agrippa had invited to a secret meeting the following neighbouring potentates – Antiochus, King of Commagene, Sampsigeramus, King of Osroëne, Cotys, King of Lesser Armenia, Polemo, King of Pontus and Cilicia, Sohemus, King of Iturea, Herod Pollio, King of Chalcis. If the news of this meeting leaked out, the explanation was to be that it was a commemoration of King Herod Agrippa’s marriage to his Queen Cypros exactly twenty years before. No invitation to any such banquet was sent me as your representative, though the decencies clearly required it: let me repeat that the only information that reached me about this extraordinary assemblage of potentates came from unofficial, not to say underground, sources. Sohemus of Iturea was ill, but sent his chamberlain to represent him. The other kings all obeyed King Herod’s summons. Those whose route would naturally have led them by way of Antioch (namely, all those mentioned above except King Herod Pollio and King Sohemus) and who, on a visit to Galilee, should certainly have turned aside to pay their compliments to me as your representative, chose to follow a roundabout route, travelling incognito and for the most part at night. It was only through the vigilance of certain of my agents in the Syrian desert east of Chalcis that I learned that they were already on their way.

I immediately proceeded to Tiberias myself, at all speed, accompanied by my two daughters and my chief staff-officers, hoping to take the gathering by surprise. King Herod Agrippa, however, must have been informed of my approach. He came driving out from Tiberias in his royal carriage to welcome me. We met at a point seven furlongs from the city. He had not come alone, but was escorted by his five royal visitors, the last of whom, the King of Pontus, had only that moment arrived. King Herod did not appear in the least abashed, but climbed out of his coach and came hurrying to greet me in the warmest manner imaginable. He exclaimed how delighted he was that I had managed to come after all, after making no reply to his two letters of invitation, and remarked that this was indeed an extraordinary event – seven Eastern rulers meeting at the seventh furlong-stone. He would have the stone replaced by a marble pillar of commemoration with our names and titles engraved on it in letters of gold. I was bound to reply politely and accept his story that he had sent me two invitations, and even swear that as soon as I discovered the enemy who had intercepted the letters – which had not reached me – I would punish him with the utmost rigour of the law. The other kings had also dismounted, and an exchange of civilities began between us. The King of Commagene, whom I used to know at Rome, suggested that perhaps King Herod’s invitation had been, somewhat officiously, withheld from me by one of my servants out of consideration for my feelings. I asked him what he meant and he replied that the recent death of my wife might be too fresh in my memory to make an invitation to someone’s else’s wedding anniversary altogether a pleasing one. I replied that my wife had been dead these four years, and he said, sighing: ‘As long ago as all that? It seems like yesterday that I last saw her. A very lovely woman.’ I then asked the King of Pontus point-blank why he had not stopped at Antioch to greet me. He told me without a blush that he had counted on seeing me at the banquet and that he had taken a more easterly route because of the advice of a soothsayer.

It was impossible to shake the self-possession of any of the six of them, so we all drove into Tiberias together through a cheering mob. The wedding banquet, the most lavish that I have ever attended, was served a few hours later. Meanwhile I sent one of my staff-officers to each of the kings to tell him privately that if he wished to keep the friendship of Rome he would be advised to return to his own country as soon as politeness to our host permitted, and meanwhile not to take part in any secret conference with his royal neighbours. To be brief, the banquet ended at a late hour and the guests made their excuses and left on the following day: no conference took place. I was the last to leave, and the King and I parted with the usual compliments. However, on my return to Antioch I found an unsigned letter awaiting me. It ran: ‘You have insulted my guests and you must accept the consequences: I am now your enemy.’ I assume it to be a message from King Herod Agrippa.

My compliments to the most virtuous and beautiful Lady Valeria Messalina, your wife.

The more I studied this report, the less I liked it. It looked as though Herod, taking advantage of my preoccupation with Britain, and the presence there of so large an army – which might easily need further reinforcements – was planning a general rising in the East, for which his fortification of Jerusalem had been the prelude. I grew extremely anxious, but there was nothing that I could do except pray for a speedy victory in Britain and let Herod know that Marcus was keeping me in touch with Near Eastern affairs. I wrote to him at once, giving exaggeratedly cheerful news of the British expedition – for at the time of writing Aulus had not yet been able to get into touch with any considerable force of the enemy, who were adopting the same tactics that their forefathers had employed against Julius in his march through Kent – and saying, quite untruly, that since the expedition was only intended as a punitive one I expected the regiments back across the Channel in a couple of months.

This was the first lie that I had ever told Herod, and since I merely committed it to paper without the embarrassment of telling it verbally, I managed to make him believe it. I wrote:

… And are you able to tell me anything definite, Brigand, about this prophesied Eastern Ruler who is destined after his death to become the greatest God that has ever appeared on earth? I am continually coming across references to him. There was one in court the other day. A Jew was accused of creating a disturbance in the City. He was alleged to have shaken his fist at a priest of Mars and exclaimed: ‘When the Ruler manifests himself, that will be the end of men like you. Your temples will be razed to the ground and you’ll be buried in the ruins, you dog! And the time is not far off now.’ Under cross-examination he denied having said anything of the sort, and as the evidence was conflicting I did no more than banish him – if you can call it banishment to send a Jew back to Judaea. Well, Caligula believed himself to be this prophesied Ruler and in certain respects the prophecy, as it was reported to me, did indeed seem to point to him. My grandmother Livia had also been misled, by something that the astrologer Thrasyllus said about the year of her death corresponding with that of this prophesied person, into believing that it was she who was meant. She did not realize that it was a God and not a Goddess who was prophesied, nor that his first manifestation should be at Jerusalem – Caligula was there as a child – though later he should reign at Rome. Is there anything written about him in the Jewish sacred writings? If so, precisely what? I understand that your learned relative Philo is an expert in such matters. I was talking the matter over with Messalina the other day and she asked me whether anyone had inherited this peculiar obsession from my now deified grandmother Livia Augusta and from my crazy nephew Caligula. I told her, ‘I haven’t, I swear, in spite of the divinity that Herod Agrippa is always trying to curse me with’. But what about you yourself, my old Brigand? Perhaps you are really the person meant? No, on second thoughts you certainly are not, in spite of your connexion with Jerusalem. The prophesied Ruler is specified as a man of extreme holiness. Besides, Thrasyllus was quite positive as to the year of his death, the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign, which was the year Livia was to die – and did actually die. Thrasyllus never to my knowledge made a mistake in dates. So you have lost your chance. But, on the other hand, if Thrasyllus was right, why have we not yet heard about this dead King? Caligula knew a part of the prophecy, which was that this King was to die forsaken by his friends and that afterwards they would drink his blood. Curiously enough, that was fulfilled in his case: Bubo, one of the assassins, you remember, had sworn to kill him and drink his blood in revenge, and did dabble his fingers in the wound he had made and then lick them dry, the madman. But Caligula died nine years too late to agree with the prophecy. I should be very grateful if you would tell me what you know about all this. Perhaps there are two or three prophecies that have got mixed up together? Or perhaps Caligula was misinformed as to the particulars? He was told of the prophecy by the poisoner Martina, the one who was concerned in my poor brother Germanicus’s murder at Antioch. But I hear that it has long been current in Egypt, as a pronouncement of the oracle of Jupiter Ammon.

Why I wrote in this way was that I now knew that Herod did really fancy himself to be this prophesied Ruler. I had been told all about it by Herodias and Antipas, whom I had visited in their place of banishment during my stay in France. I could not allow them to return to Judaea, though I knew now that they had not been guilty of plotting against Caligula, but I allowed them to leave Lyons and gave them a fair-sized estate at Cadiz in Spain, where the climate was more like the one to which they were accustomed. They showed me an indiscreet letter from Herodias’s daughter Salome, now married to her first cousin, Herod Pollio’s son.

Herod Agrippa is growing more and more religious every day. He tells his old friends that he is only playing at being a strict Jew for political reasons, and that he still secretly worships the Roman Gods. But I know now that this is only pretence. He is extraordinarily conscientious in his observances. The Alabarch’s son, Tiberius Alexander, who has abandoned the Jewish faith, much to the shame and grief of his excellent family, tells me that while he was staying at Jerusalem the other day he took Herod aside and whispered: ‘I hear you have an Arabian cook who really understands how to stuff and roast a midnight sucking-pig. Would you be good enough to invite me in some night? It is impossible to get really eatable food in Jerusalem.’ Herod went scarlet and stammered that his cook was ill! The truth is that he dismissed this cook long ago. Tiberius Alexander has another queer story about Herod. You have heard of that farcical occasion when he visited Alexandria with a bodyguard of two soldiers whom he had kidnapped to prevent them from serving a warrant on him, and borrowed money from the Alabarch? It appears that the Alabaren afterwards went to Philo, that learned brother of his who tries to reconcile Greek philosophy with Jewish scripture, and said, ‘I have probably been a fool, brother Philo, but I have lent Herod Agrippa a large sum of money on rather doubtful security. In return he has promised to protect our interests at Rome, and has sworn before Almighty God to cherish and protect His people, so far as in him lies, and to obey His Law.’ Philo asked: ‘From where did this Herod Agrippa suddenly appear? I thought that he was at Antioch.’ The Alabarch said: ‘From Edom: wearing a purple cloak – Bozrah purple – and stepping like a king. I cannot help believing that in spite of his former follies and vicissitudes he is destined to play a great part in our national history. He is a man of outstanding talent. And now that he has definitely pledged himself …’ Philo suddenly grew very serious and began to quote the prophet Isaiah: ‘Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? … I have trodden the wine-press alone; and of the people there was none with me. But the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my Redeemed is come.’ Philo has long been convinced that the Messiah is at hand. He has written several volumes on that head. He builds his argument on the text in Numbers about the Star out of Jacob, and reconciles it with a number of others in the Prophets. He’s quite crazy, poor man. And now that Herod has become so powerful and has kept his promise about observing the Law so faithfully and done the Alexandrian Jews so many services, Philo is really convinced that Herod is the Messiah. What finally decided him was the discovery that Herod’s family, though an Edo-mite one, is descended from a son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the Captivity. (This Zedekiah managed to smuggle his newly-born son out of the city and get him safe to friends in Edom before Nebuchadnezzar captured the place.) Herod seems to have been persuaded by Philo that he really is the Messiah and that he is destined not to redeem the Jews from the yoke of the foreigner, but to combine all the Children of Shem together in a great spiritual Empire under the rule of the Lord of Hosts: this is the only possible explanation for his recent political activities which, I must confess, make me feel extremely nervous for the future. Indeed, there seems to be altogether too much religion in the air. It’s a bad sign. It reminds me of what you said when we had that mystical idiot John the Baptist beheaded – ‘Religious fanaticism is the most dangerous form of insanity.’

I have said too much, I think, but I can trust you, my dear mother, not to let the story go any farther. Burn this when you have read it.

There was no more news from Marsus and I did not get an answer from Herod himself before I sailed for Britain – for, a fortnight after landing, Aulus was indeed obliged to send for me. But I reckoned that Herod would read between the lines of my letter that I suspected him, though I was careful not to mention Marsus in it, or the wedding celebrations at Tiberias; and that he would be very careful about his next step. I also strengthened the garrison at Alexandria and told Marsus to call up all Greek levies in Syria and give them an intensive drilling: letting the rumour go about that a Parthian invasion was expected. He was to do this as if on his own initiative, and not to tell anyone that the orders came from me.

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