Common section

Chapter 18

AULUS, as I have already related, landed in Britain without meeting any opposition. He built a strong base camp at Richborough, which he garrisoned with veterans from each regiment, pulled up his transport on the shore, well out of the reach of storms, and began a cautious advance through Kent, taking the route followed by Julius on his second expedition – the route indeed that all the invaders of the island have naturally taken. At first he met with less resistance than Julius, because the passage of the Stour did not need to be forced. The King of East Kent, a vassal of Caractacus and Togodumnus, decided not to man the prepared positions there. His overlords had withdrawn their main army to Colchester when they heard that our invasion could not possibly take place that year, and his own forces were insufficient to defend the river successfully. He came to meet Aulus with tokens of peace and after an exchange of presents swore alliance and friendship with Rome. The King of East Sussex, which lies to the west of Kent, came into camp on the same errand a few days later. Between the Stour and the River Medway, the next natural barrier, Aulus encountered little serious resistance. But small parties of chariot-fighters disputed the frequent barriers of felled trees and thorn bushes that had been thrown across the track. Aulus’s advance-guard commander was now instructed not to force these barriers, but as soon as they were sighted to envelop them with cavalry detachments and capture the defenders. This slowed down progress, but no lives were wasted. Most of the Kentish men seemed to have retired into the Weald – thick forest-land from which it would be most difficult to dislodge them. But increasingly large forces of chariotry began to appear on the flanks of the advancing column, charging down on foraging parties and forcing them to fall back on the main body. Aulus was aware that the mood in which the Kentish men would finally emerge from the Weald, whether meekly to offer their submission or valiantly to cut off his retreat, depended on his success against the Catuvellaunians. However, his base camp was well defended.

When he came to the tidal reaches of the Medway, which Julius, in his second campaign, had forded without loss, he found the enemy assembled in great force behind positions that had been prepared some months before. Caractacus and Togodumnus were both present with all their tributary princes and an army of some 60,000 men. Aulus had no more than 35,000 effectives with him. The narrow ford across the river had been made practically impassable by a succession of deep wide channels cut across it parallel with the banks. The Britons were bivouacked in a careless fashion on the other side. The nearest ford upstream was a day’s march away and was reported by prisoners to be similarly fortified. Downstream there was no ford: the river, after debouching into the Thames estuary not far from this spot, spread out across impassable mud-flats. Aulus set his men to work at making the ford passable, filling in the channels with basketfuls of rubble. But it was clear that at thus rate two or three days would pass before he could attempt to cross. The enemy bank was defended by two strong stockades, and the Britons, who now harassed the workers with arrows and insults, were building a third one behind that. Twice a day a huge tide welled up into the river mouth – a commonplace in this part of the world, though never seen in the Mediterranean, except during storms – and hindered Aulus’s work greatly. But he was counting on the tide as his ally. At high tide, just before dawn on the third day, he sent the Batavian auxiliaries swimming across the motionless water. All Germans swim well, and the Batavians better than any. They swam across, 3,000 strong, with their weapons tied on their backs, and caught the Britons completely by surprise. However, instead of attacking the startled men at their camp-fires, they rushed to the horse-lines and began disabling the chariot-ponies, putting 2,000 or 3,000 of these out of action before their owners realized what was happening. They then established themselves at the enemy end of the ford behind the middle barricade, which had been designed to face the other way, and held it against strong British attacks while two battalions of the Ninth Regiment struggled across the river to their assistance, on blown-up wine-skins and improvised rafts and in captured British coracles. The struggle was a fierce one, and the British detachments posted higher up the stream, to prevent our men from crossing at any point there, came charging down to take part in the fight. Aulus saw what was happening, and detailed the Second under a certain Vespasian* to go upstream under cover of a forest and cross over at some now unguarded bend. Vespasian found the right place four or five miles upstream where the river narrowed somewhat and sent a man swimming over with a line. The line served to pull a rope across, which was made fast to a tree on either bank and then tautened. The Second were trained to this manoeuvre and were all across the river in an hour or two. Numerous ropes had to be used, because the distance was so great that to keep any one rope taut enough to hold the weight of more than twenty or thirty heavily armed men at a time was to risk it snapping. Once over, they hurried downstream, meeting none of the enemy as they went, and an hour later suddenly appeared on the enemy’s unprotected right flank. They locked shields, shouted, and burst right through to the stockade, killing hundreds of British tribesmen in a single charge. The Batavians and the men of the Ninth joined forces with the Second; and although greatly outnumbered, the combined forces drove the confused and disordered but still courageous enemy slowly backwards until they broke in undeniable rout. The river bank was clear of the British, and Aulus spent the rest of the day in hastily constructing a narrow brushwood causeway across the ford: at low tide this was anchored down firmly and the channels filled in. It was late that night, however, before the work was finished, and the whole army was not safely over – the rising tide interrupted their crossing – until next morning.

The Britons had rallied on the rising ground behind, and in the afternoon a pitched battle took place. The French infantry, who had taken no part in the previous day’s fighting, led the attack; but the defence was stubborn and a great column of chariotry suddenly broke across the centre from the left flank, cutting in just behind the leading French regiment, which was advancing in line and causing it heavy casualties with a quick volley of spears. When this column, which was led by Caractacus in person, reached the right flank it daringly wheeled round and cut in behind the second French regiment, which was moving up in support, and played the same game with them, driving away without loss. The French were unable to take the ridge, and Aulus, seeing that the British chariotry and cavalry were concentrated on his right flank, about to make a strong attack on the now disordered French, galloped a third of his own cavalry up to the threatened position with instructions to hold it at all costs. Off went the cavalry and Aulus threw the whole of his regular infantry after them, with the exception of the Second Regiment. Leaving the Second to support the French, should the British make a counter-attack, and moving Geta with some Batavian infantry and the remainder of the cavalry forward to the left flank, Aulus pushed home the attack on the right. The British chariotry could not check this advance, though our cavalry lost heavily before the leading regiment, the Fourteenth, came up to relieve them. Caractacus then wheeled his column round behind the ridge for an attack on our left flank.

Geta was the hero of the battle. He and his 700 cavalrymen stood up against a desperate charge of nearly 2,000 chariots; 500 of the same Batavians who had maimed the ponies during the dawn raid were mixed in with the cavalry and used their knives to good purpose again. But for them Geta would have been overwhelmed. Geta himself was unhorsed and nearly captured, but Caractacus finally withdrew, leaving 100 wrecked chariots behind him. By this time the pressure of the regular infantry on the right flank was being felt by the British. The French, too, were more than holding their own, and suddenly the cry went up that Togodumnus had been carried off the field, mortally wounded. The British were disheartened. Their lines wavered and broke, streaming towards our left flank, where they ran unexpectedly into Geta’s men advancing through a little wood. Geta charged, and when the battle was over 1,500 British corpses were found on that part of the field alone. The total British casualties in killed amounted to 4,000. Ours amounted to 900, of whom 700 were French; with about the same amount of seriously wounded. Among those who died of wounds was Bericus, the cause of the war, who had been fighting by Geta’s side and saved his life when he was unhorsed.

Aulus’s next important obstacle was the Thames, which Caractacus now held in much the same way as he had held the Medway. The defeated Britons retired behind it by taking a secret path across the mud-flats at its mouth when the tide was out. Our advance-guard tried to follow them, but got bogged and had to retire. The ensuing battle was almost a repetition of the previous one, the conditions being very similar. This time it was Crassus Frugi, the father of young Pompey, my son-in-law, who made the upstream crossing. He forced his way across the bridge at London, which was held by a company of young British noblemen sworn to fight to the last man. The Batavians again swam across the lower reaches of the river at high tide. The British defence was weaker on this occasion and their losses were again heavy. Ours were inconsiderable – 300 – and 2,000 prisoners were taken. London was captured, with rich booty. The victory was spoilt, however, by the loss of nearly 1,000 French and Batavians who incautiously pursued the beaten enemy into marshland and were swallowed up in a quaking bog.

Aulus was now across the Thames, but the enemy resistance suddenly stiffened with the arrival of reinforcements from the south, west, and centre of the island. Strong new chariot-contingents appeared. The death of Togodumnus proved a positive advantage to the Britons: the supreme command of the Catuvellaunian army was no longer divided, and Caractacus, who was an able leader and in great favour with the Druids, could make an impassioned plea to his allies and vassals to avenge his noble brother’s death. As the Roman losses had exceeded the stipulated maximum and the enemy’s resistance could not be claimed to have been broken, Aulus now wisely sent the agreed message back to me. It went to Boulogne by one of the ships which, as arranged, had now reached London from Richborough with a cargo of wine, blankets, and military stores. At Boulogne the first beacon was lighted and within a very short time the message had crossed the Alps and was hurrying on to Rome.

It was the day that I had finally found convincing proof of Myron’s fraud and forgeries. I had just had him flogged in the presence of all my other chief secretaries and then executed. I was tired out by a difficult and unpleasant day and had just settled down before supper to a friendly game of dice with Vitellius, when the eunuch Posides, my military secretary, came running in excitedly with the news: ‘Caesar, the beacon! You’re wanted in Britain.’

‘Britain?’ I exclaimed. I had the dice-cup in my hand, and mechanically shook it once more and threw down the dice before hurrying to the window of the room that faced north. ‘Show me!’ I said. It was a clear evening and in the direction that Posides pointed I could make out, even with my weak eyes, the little red point of light on the summit of Mount Soracte, thirty miles away. I returned to the table, where I found Vitellius beaming at me. ‘What do you think of that for an omen?’ he asked. ‘Here you have been making the lowest possible scores for the last half-hour and now suddenly you call out “Britain!” and throw Venus.’

Sure enough, the three dice were lying in a neat equilateral triangle and each showed a six! The odds against Venus are 216 to one, so I can be pardoned for feeling great elation. There is nothing like a really good omen for starting a campaign with, and you must understand that Venus was not only the patroness of the dice-cup but was the mother of Aeneas, and so my own ancestress through my grandmother Octavia, Augustus’s sister, and guardian of the fortunes of the Julian House, of which I was now the acknowledged head. I saw significance in the triangle too, for that is the shape of Britain on the maps.

Now that I come to think of it, I wonder whether it was Vitelius, not the Goddess, after all, who when my back was turned arranged those dice so nicely for me? I am one of the easiest people in the world to deceive: or at least that is the common verdict against me. If he did, he did well, for Venus sent me off on my conquests in the most exalted mood possible. I offered prayers to her that night (as also to Augustus and Mars) and promised her that if she helped me to victory I would do her whatever service she required of me. ‘One hand washes the other,’ I reminded her, ‘and I really expect you to do your best.’ It is a custom with us Claudians to address Venus with joking familiarity. She is supposed to enjoy it, as great-grandmothers, especially great-grand-mothers with a reputation for having been very gay in their youth, sometimes encourage favourite great-grandchildren to address them with as little courtesy as if they belonged to the same generation.

The next day I sailed from Ostia for Marseilles with my staff and 500 volunteers for the war. The wind was blowing pleasantly from the south and I preferred sea-travelling to the jolting of a carriage. I would be able to get some well-needed sleep. The whole City came down to the port to see us off, and everyone tried to outdo everyone else in his expressions of loyalty and in the warmth of his good wishes. Messalina threw her arms about my neck and wept. Little Germanicus wanted to come too. Vitellius promised the God Augustus to plate his temple doors with gold if I returned victorious.

We were a fleet of five fast-sailing, two-masted, square-rigged men-of-war, each with three banks of oars, and with the hulls well frapped around with strong ropes in case of stormy weather. We raised anchor an hour after dawn and stood out to sea. There was no time to waste, so I told the captain to put on all possible sail, which he did, both sails on each mast, and the sea being calm, we were soon driving along at a good ten knots. Late that afternoon we sighted the island of Planasia, near Elba, where my poor friend Postumus had been exiled, and I could make out the now deserted buildings where his guards had been quartered. We had come 120 miles, or about a third of the way. The breeze still held. My stomach was unaffected by the pitching of the vessel and I retired to the cabin for a good sleep. That night we rounded Corsica, but the breeze dropped about midnight, and we had to rely entirely on oars. I slept well. To shorten the story, the following day we ran into rough weather and made slow progress, the wind veering gradually round to the west-north-west.

The French coast was only sighted at dawn on the third day. The sea was now extraordinarily rough and the oars were often either buried in water up to the rowlocks or beating the empty air. Only two of our four sister-vessels were still in sight. We made for the protection of the shore and coasted along it, very slowly. We were now fifty miles west of Fréjus, a station of the fleet, and threading through the Hyères islands. By midday we should have reached Marseilles. As we passed Porquerolles, the largest and most westerly of the islands, separated at one point by only a mile of sea from the peninsula of Giens which juts out to meet it, the wind struck us with terrific force; and though the crew rowed like madmen we could make no headway at all and found ourselves slowly drifting on the rocks. We were within 100 yards of destruction when the gale momentarily slackened and we managed to pull clear. But a few minutes later we were in trouble again, and this time the danger was greater still. The last headland that we had to struggle past ended in a great black rock which the action of wind and waves had carved into a grinning Satyr-head. The water boiled and hissed at its chin, giving it as it were a white beard. The wind, blowing dead amidships, was rapidly forcing us into this monster’s jaws. ‘If he catches us, he’ll crack our bones and mangle our flesh,’ the captain assured me grimly. ‘Many a good ship has broken up on that black rock.’ I offered prayers for succour to every God in the Pantheon. I was told afterwards that the sailors who had overheard me swore that it was the most beautiful praying that they had ever heard in their lives and that it gave them new hope. Especially I prayed to Venus and begged her to persuade her Uncle Neptune to behave with more consideration, for the fate of Rome depended very largely on the survival of this vessel: she must please remind Neptune that I did not associate myself with my predecessor’s impious quarrel with him, and that on the contrary I had always held the God in the profoundest respect. The exhausted rowers strained and groaned and the rowing-master ran along the platforms with a rope-end in his hand, cursing and flogging fresh vigour into them. We scraped through somehow – I don’t know how – and when a gasp of joy went up that we were out of danger I promised the rowers twenty gold pieces each as soon as we landed.

I was glad that I had kept my head. It was the first time that I had experienced a storm at sea, and I had heard it said that some of the bravest men in the world break down when faced with the prospect of death by drowning. It had even been whispered that the God Augustus was a dreadful coward in a storm, and that only his sense of the dignity of his office kept him from screaming and tearing his hair. He certainly used often to quote the tag about how ‘Impious was the man who first spread sail, And braved the dangers of the frantic deep.’ He was most unlucky at sea, except in his sea-battles, and – speaking of impiety – once showed his deep resentment at the loss of a fleet in a sudden storm by forbidding the statue of Neptune to be carried as usual in a sacred procession around the Circus. After this he seldom put to sea without raising a storm and was all but shipwrecked on three or four occasions.

Our vessel was the first to reach Marseilles, and fortunately not a single one of the five was lost, though two were forced to turn back and run into Fréjus. The earth felt splendidly firm under my feet at Marseilles: I determined never again to travel by sea when I could possibly travel by land, and have not once departed from this resolution since.

As soon as I had heard that a successful landing had been made in Britain I had moved up my reserves to Boulogne and ordered Posides to have transports assembled there ready, together with whatever extra military stores might suggest themselves as likely to be needed for the campaign. At Marseilles twenty fast gigs were waiting for me and my staff – Posides had arranged this – and carried us, with constant relays of horses, up the Rhône valley from Avignon to Lyons, where we spent the second night, and then on north along the Saône, travelling eighty or ninety miles a day – which was the most that I could manage because of the continuous jolting, which racked my nerves and upset my digestion and gave me violent headaches. The third night, at Châlons, my physician Xenophon insisted on my resting the whole of the next day. I told him that I could not afford to waste a whole day; he answered that if I did not rest I could not expect to be of any use to the army in Britain when I did arrive. I raged at him and tried to override his opinion, but Xenophon insisted on reading this behaviour as a further sign of nervous exhaustion and told me that either he was my doctor or I was my own. In the latter case he would resign and resume his interrupted practice at Rome: in the former, he must ask me to do as he advised me, relax completely and submit to a thorough massage. So I apologized and pleaded that to be suddenly halted in my journey would cause me such nervous anxiety that my physical condition would not be improved by any amount of compensatory massage; and that to say ‘relax’ was no more practical advice in the circumstances than to tell a man whose clothes have caught fire that he must keep cool. In the end we arrived at a compromise: I would not continue my journey in a gig, but neither would I remain at Châlons. I would be carried in a light sedan on the shoulders of six well-trained chairmen and thus knock off at least thirty miles or so of the 500 that still lay before me. I would submit to as much massage as he pleased both before I started and after the day’s journey was over.

From Lyons it took me eight days to reach Boulogne by way of Troyes, Rheims, Soissons, and Amiens, for in the stage out of Rheims Xenophon forced me to use a sedan again. All this time I was not exactly idle. I was turning over in my mind my historical memories of great battles of the past – Julius’s battles, Hannibal’s battles, Alexander’s, and especially those of my father and brother in Germany – and wondering whether, when it came to the point, I should be able to apply all this detailed and extensive knowledge to any practical purpose. I congratulated myself that whenever it had been possible to draw a plan of any battle from the accounts handed down by eye-witnesses I had always done so; and had thoroughly mastered the general tactical principles involved in the use of a small force of disciplined fighters against a great army of semi-civilized tribesmen, and also the strategical principles involved in the successful occupation of their country when the battle had been won.

At Amiens, lying sleepless in the early morning, I began picturing the battle-field. The British infantry would probably be occupying a wooded ridge, with their cavalry and chariotry manoeuvring in the low ground in front. I would draw up my regular infantry in ordinary battle formation, on a two-regiment front, with the auxiliaries on either flank and the Guards in reserve. The elephants, which would be a complete novelty to the Britons, no such animal having ever been seen on that island – but here a most uncomfortable thought came to me. ‘Posides,’ I called, in an anxious voice.

‘Yes, Caesar,’ Posides answered, springing up from his pallet, half-asleep still.

‘The elephants are at Boulogne, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, Caesar.’

‘How long ago did I give you the order to move them up there from Lyons?’

‘When we heard news of the landing, Caesar; that would be on the seventh of August.’

‘And to-day is the twenty-seventh.’

‘Yes, Caesar.’

‘Then how in the world are we going to get those elephants over? We should have had special elephant transports built.’

‘The ship that brought the obelisk from Alexandria is at Boulogne.’

‘But I thought that it was still at Ostia.’

‘No, Caesar, at Boulogne.’

‘But if you sent it up there on the seventh it can’t possibly have arrived there yet. It can’t possibly be any nearer than the Bay of Biscay. It took three weeks to get to Rome from Egypt, you remember; in perfect sailing weather, too.’

But Posides was a really able minister. It appears that as soon as I had decided to put elephants among my reinforcements and sent them up to Lyons – in May, I think it was – he had considered the question of transport across the Channel and without saying a word to me had fitted up the obelisk-ship as an elephant-transport – it was the only ship big and strong enough for the purpose – and sent it up to Boulogne, where it had arrived six weeks later. If he had waited for my orders the elephants would have had to be left behind. The obelisk-ship deserves more than a passing mention. It was the largest vessel ever launched. It was no less than 200 feet long and broad in proportion, and its main timbers were of cedar. Caligula had built it in the first few months of his monarchy to bring from Egypt an eighty-foot red granite obelisk, together with four enormous stones which formed the pediment. The obelisk was originally from Heliopolis, but had been set up in Augustus’s temple at Alexandria a few years before. Caligula now wanted it set up in his own honour in the new Circus that he was building on the Vatican Hill. To understand what a monstrous sort of ship it was you must be told that its seventy-foot main mast was a silver fir eight feet in diameter at its base; and that among the ballast used to keep it steady when the obelisk and pediment were secured on deck were 120,000 pecks of Egyptian lentils – a gift for the people of Rome.

When I reached Boulogne I was delighted to find the troops in good spirits, the transports ready, and the sea calm. We embarked without delay, and our passage across the Channel was so pleasant and uneventful that on landing at Richborough I sacrificed to Venus and Neptune, thanking the latter for his unexpected favours and the former for her kindly intercession. The elephants gave no trouble. They were Indian elephants, not African. Indian elephants are about three times the size of African, and these were particularly fine ones which Caligula had bought for ceremonial use in his own religion: they had since been employed at the docks at Ostia moving timbers and stones under the direction of their Indian drivers. I found to my surprise that twelve camels had been added to the elephants. That was an idea of Posides’s.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!