Episode 13: The End of the World and Beyond: Caesar’s Invasions of Germania and Britannia
In our last episode I talked about the two-year long brutal war that Caesar waged against the Belgae. During that war some tribes were driven to utter ruin. It’s worth considering here why Caesar would do that before we talk about its ramifications. I think we’re all used to the idea that the farther back in history you go the more brutal people were. Given the atrocities of WW2 and even of our own time I’m not sure that is the case, but it is true that ancient peoples did engage in a lot of rampant destruction and even outright genocide. As I reflect on Caesar’s actions towards the Belgae it’s hard not to think of him as some sort of monster that massacred anyone in his path. But then I decided to play devil’s advocate, or in this case, Caesar’s advocate. What if Caesar slaughtered the Belgae in order to save as many lives as possible? Now, stay with me for a second. Caesar couldn’t very well go about committing genocide against Celtica, at least not yet. Celtica still had a sizeable population, it was a vast area and it was only beginning to divide between pro-Roman and pro-Gallic independence. Caesar couldn’t just burn oppidum after oppidum in Gaul for fear that may unite the Gauls against him and his still-forming army. But the Belgae are another story. Belgica had a smaller population and was condensed in a smaller area. By brutally suppressing the Belgae, Caesar could send a clear message to the more populous Gauls of Celtica to stay in line. Now, I’m not saying Caesar killed Belgae out of the goodness of his heart. If Caesar had twenty legions instead of his eventual eight he may well have burned Celtica to the ground. But Caesar was a brilliant general and he understood that he couldn’t subdue all of Celtica by force, but he could do it by fear. Belgica was just the unfortunate tool he used to accomplish this goal.
By early 55 BCE, Belgica had been well-ravished. By all accounts this had the intended effect, as Celtica and Belgica were quiet, at least for a time. But with Belgica depleted of warriors this opened up northern Gaul to German invasion. All along the Rhine were lesser German tribes that were constantly harassed by the large and powerful Suebi tribe. Seeing that Belgica was weak German tribes called the Usipetes and Tenchtheri crossed over into northern Gaul.
According to Caesar, these Germans were hardy, wearing only animal skins despite the cold. They subsisted mainly on hunting, with light agriculture. Their farmers were also warriors and men traded professions with their kinsmen as some tilled and others fought. So they were not professional fighters, but they were experienced. In the cold north, horses are fewer in number. Those horsemen use the horses to arrive at a battle and leap from their horses to fight, while the horses are trained to stay in place should the warriors need to retreat. These Germans, much like the Belgae, also forbid the importation of wine, so you know Rome is going to come into conflict with them eventually.
The Usipetes and Tenchtheri ambushed the Menapii tribe of Belgica in what is the modern-day southern Netherlands, and conquered a sizeable territory. When Caesar heard of this he feared that this new German invasion would lead to another Gallic-German alliance against Rome, such as the Cimbri invasion fifty years earlier. Before Caesar could march out the Gauls sent ambassadors to the Germans offering them cattle if they left. This show of weakness only emboldened the Germans who advanced south.
Eventually the tribes came close enough to Caesar’s armies that they sent an ambassador who offered Caesar friendship while warning him not to provoke them. Caesar refused the offer and wanted to resettle them along the Rhine alongside the Ubii as part of a plan to combine the forces of these three Germanic tribes to fight against the Suebi. The Germans were dismayed and refused the offer. In response Caesar prepared for war. He advanced his camp until he was 12 Roman miles from the Germans even as the German cavalry was busy raiding nearby lands. The ambassadors begged him not to provoke a fight and continue negotiating which Caesar suspected was a ploy to allow their marauding cavalry to rejoin the main force.
Luck seemed to follow Caesar wherever he went and this was no exception. As the Roman cavalry was out scouting they were attacked by a band Germans soldiers, probably out foraging. The hardy Germans were surprisingly adept at foot-to-cavalry combat and stabbed Roman horses in order to fell them and the riders, driving them back to the main Roman force. Upon hearing this a number of German tribal leaders marched to Caesar’s camp to try and settle the issue. They claimed that soldiers were surprised and that the Germans didn’t want to fight Caesar. Caesar claimed this was all treachery, seized the leaders and prepared to fight the main German body before their cavalry returned.
The main German host thought that negotiations were taking place, and many were relaxing with their women and children when suddenly a Roman army appeared. What made it even worse for them is that they were divided by tribe and without their leaders couldn’t decide whether to attack or flee. The resulting chaos meant the Romans slaughtered the men, and Caesar sent his cavalry to chase down the women and children.
Caesar recounts, always in third person: “The Germans when, upon hearing a noise behind them, [they looked and] saw that their families were being slain, throwing away their arms and abandoning their standards, fled out of the camp, and when they had arrived at the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine, the survivors despairing of further escape…threw themselves into the river and there perished, overcome by fear, fatigue, and the violence of the stream.”
This was a fantastic victory for Caesar but he knew it was only temporary. Caesar had poked a sleeping giant. It was clear that Germania knew that Belgica, if not Celtica entire, was open to invasion due to their reduced numbers. Caesar had managed to repulse two weaker tribes. But if the Suebi crossed over with hundreds of thousands? This had the potential to push the Romans out of Celtica, and perhaps far worse if a Germano-Gallic alliance was made. This spurred Caesar to launch one of his greatest feats ever: to invade Germania. Before Caesar no known Roman had ever set foot upon Germania. Germania may as well have been the end of the world, as it was a harsh, cold land filled with wild beasts unseen by Mediterranean peoples, evergreen trees in place of the seasonal fruit-bearing ones, and of course it was filled with untold numbers of Germans, who probably didn’t look much different from bears, with their long hair, beards and thick animal skins. If Celtica was the devil Rome knew, Germania was a dread they couldn’t imagine.
For a man like Caesar, invading Germania was the perfect way to grow his legend. He was already the man who had conquered Rome’s lifelong rival; now he would march to the end of the world. But Caesar wasn’t just going to cross over into Germania; he was going to do it in the most imposing style he could imagine; with Roman engineering. As Spring approached Caesar marched his legions to the Rhine river. Seeing this, the Ubii Germans on the other side offered Caesar ships in exchange for help fighting the Suebi. But Caesar refused, knowing that if his battalions went over one by one they could easily be ambushed by enemy Germans hiding in the thick woods. Instead he ordered his engineers to construct a marvel.
Where Caesar stood the Rhine River was 1,000 feet across, 10 meters deep and had speedy currents. His engineers used massive pile drivers to push 30 foot tall stakes into the river diagonally, then connected them at the top for extra strength. Beams connected the stakes horizontally, then more beams crossed these and finally a bundle of sticks was laid on top of this. In just ten days, Caesar’s troops had created a 1,000 foot long bridge capable of sustaining the weight of 4,000 soldiers at once. Sure enough as the Romans crossed there were Germans waiting for them. They no doubt expected Caesar’s troops to come by boat and wanted to pick them off. But seeing 4,000 men march in formation across the bridge made those Germans flee. This sight alone was no doubt something that struck terror into any German that saw it. While the Germans were ferocious they were not as technologically advanced as the Romans or their Gallic cousins. They lived in villages, not oppidums or cities. Large works of engineering were beyond them. The fact that Caesar in only ten days had created a bridge, defying nature and the powerful river deity that divided the German world from the Celtic world, was a sign that the Roman gods were powerful and could no longer be held back by the river. Just the sight of 4,000 Roman soldiers, their armor glistening in the sun, marching across the bridge, must have left those Germans awestruck as they wondered if anyone would believe them when they reported what they had seen.
Caesar’s gambit paid off in dividends as the Germans fled before him, gathering into one large horde. This let Caesar march into Germania for 18 days, burning and pillaging German villages, minus the Ubii who allied with Rome. When Caesar learned the Germans were consolidating in one massive horde and holding up in the east, waiting for the Romans to attack, Caesar decided his work was done. He marched his army back over the bridge and destroyed it, leaving the Germans to rebuild their destroyed villages and salvage whatever crops were left as they tried to fight off starvation. The message had been sent: Rome knew no bounds and there was nowhere the Germans could retreat to that Caesar wouldn’t hunt them down.
Caesar’s German gambit was an incredible feat in terms of both military strategy and propaganda. Militarily, he scared his foes in Germania and solidified alliances, notably with the Ubii, across the Rhine. Just as the Germans could make alliances with Gauls, Caesar showed he could make alliances with German tribes and turn them against each other. This masterstroke meant that the Germans were reluctant to try another invasion of Gaul. In terms of propaganda, Caesar was fast eclipsing his rival Pompey in Rome. Pompey had been a hero of the Third Mithradatic War, defeating its legendary Greco-phile, poison-drinking king Mithradates VI. In doing so, Pompey expanded Roman territory east across Anatolia, Syria and Judea. But that was 9 years ago, and Pompey’s career afterwards was suppressing the numerous revolts in those territories, most notably in Judea. While Pompey was putting down revolts, Caesar had marched to the end of the world.
But Caesar was never content to rest on his laurels. Now that he had marched to the end of the world, he decided to march past it. He was going to invade Britannia. Strategically this made sense; the Celts of Britannia were tied to the Celts in Gaul through kinship and trade. They occasionally fought with them, sheltered fugitives from Caesar’s wars and supplied their cousins with weapons. Gaul could never be pacified as long as Germania and Britannia were left to cause trouble. With Germania in check, Caesar decided Britannia was next.
While this makes logical sense to those of us in the present, it is hard to stress just how insane this must have sounded to many Roman soldiers. According to Roman mythology there was an encircling ocean around the world, embodied by the primordial titan Oceanus. According to Homer, Oceanus divided the world between the living and the dead. What we now call the English Channel was once thought to be part of this encircling ocean, and anything beyond it would be the land of the dead. It’s hard to say how widespread this belief was amongst Caesar’s soldiers. Probably not all of them were very pious, and since the 4th century BCE at least, the Mediterranean world became aware of Britannia. But among those Romans who didn’t think Britannia was the land of the dead, it was at least a completely uncharted island, off of any map and beyond religious explanation.
If Caesar hadn’t been their leader I doubt many would have went. But Caesar had formerly been the high priest of Rome and as a general he was quickly becoming a superhuman figure. Despite their superstitions, his soldiers marched into Belgica, near modern-day Calais, and prepared to sail. Before Caesar and his armies left, he sent the Belgian king Commius to Britannia to persuade his fellow Celts not to fight the Romans. But upon arrival Commius was restrained by the Britons who viewed him as a traitor. Other tribes of Briton were afraid and sent hostages to Caesar which he accepted. Then Caesar sailed for Britannia. As his forces neared the island a number of Britons watched and waited from the cliffsides of a beach, causing Caesar to reroute his forces to another.
According to Caesar, “the barbarians, upon perceiving the design of the Romans, sent forward their cavalry and charioteers, a class of warriors endeavored to prevent our men landing. In this was the greatest difficulty because our ships, on account of their great size, could be stationed only in deep water; and our soldiers, in places unknown to them oppressed with a large and heavy weight of armor, had at the same time to leap from the ships, stand amid the waves, and encounter the enemy; whereas they, either on dry ground, or advancing a little way into the water could confidently throw their weapons and spur on their horses, which were accustomed to this kind of service. Dismayed by these circumstances and altogether untrained in this mode of battle, our men did not all exert the same vigor and eagerness which they had been wont to exert in engagements on dry ground.”
Caesar continues, of course in third person: “When Caesar observed this, he ordered the ships of war to be withdrawn a little from the transport vessels, and to be propelled by their oars, and be stationed toward the open flank of the enemy, and the enemy to be driven away, with slings, arrows, and engines…the barbarians being startled by the form of our ships and the motions of our oars and the nature of our engines, which was strange to them, stopped, and shortly after retreated a little. While our men were hesitating over [whether they should advance to the shore], he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the commonwealth and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he leaped from the ship and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy. Then our men, exhorting one another that so great a disgrace should not be incurred, all leaped from the ship. When those in the nearest vessels saw them, they speedily followed and approached the enemy.”
I love this last passage because it is such pure propaganda. The Roman standard bearer stands on the edge of a ship. Gives an eloquent, dare I say poetic, speech, despite probably being an illiterate, lifelong killer, and extols his fellow Romans to do their patriotic duty and uphold the values of Roman society even in foreign land. I cannot help but imagine more than a few Romans rolling their eyes at this when the passage was read aloud in town squares.
However eloquent the Romans were, they struggled to adapt to fighting on the beaches and were suffering heavy casualties before reinforcements came, which eventually repulsed the Britons. As Caesar’s army disembarked, ambassadors were sent to Caesar with hostages and Commius was returned.
Caesar’s legendary luck started to run dry in this land beyond the edge of the world. A storm kept the Romans in the harbor and destroyed many of the ships, leaving the Romans without the necessary tools to repair them. Furthermore, they hadn’t prepared food for a long period as they figured they would be back in Gaul.
The British chiefs, who had been so terrified of the Romans before this, saw the Romans stranded and hungry and decided to renew the war in order to scare off future invasions. As days passed and no new ambassadors or hostages arrived Caesar knew the Britons were preparing to fight. Soon, two Roman cohorts near the beach were ambushed as Britons jumped out of the woods and assaulted them with their war chariots and a barrage of spears. The Roman cohorts managed to hold off this assault until Caesar relieved the men and retreated. More storms kept the Romans in port, but they likewise delayed the British from assembling against the Romans. When the storms abated the Britons attacked the Romans on the beach, but by now the Romans were accustomed to fighting them and repulsed their forces.
Here I cannot help but laugh just a little as I imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier in Caesar’s army after five years, versus when he first started his invasion of Gaul. For centuries Romans accustomed themselves to a Mediterranean style of warfare. Whether fighting Carthaginians, Greeks the Pontic peoples, Roman soldiers arrayed themselves in battle formations against their opponents, who were also arrayed in a rough line, and they engaged each other. This was the general style of fighting in the Mediterranean World for the past half millenia. But in the Atlantic World with its thick forests and untamed marshes, formations were harder to develop. Sure, many larger tribes in Celtica had developed large armies that knew some formation, but even these were accustomed to loose formation as they travelled through thick woods. Thus, individual fighting was more common. Unless a disciplined tribe was marching through open terrain the Celts or Germans would run through the woods at their opponents weapons bared, screaming murderous fury.
Just imagine, you’re a Roman soldier, used to seeing all the terrain around you. Open rolling hills, giving way to plains with little tree coverage. Now imagine you’ve been drafted to join Caesar and march into Celtica. You try to stick with your buddies, Avitus, Sabinus and Garius. But then you’re sent to forage in the woods. Now you’ve gotten away from your friends. You see shadowy figures in the distance and you don’t know if they’re other Romans foraging, friendly Gauls, enemies or your own wild imagination. Then one of the figures runs towards you. As it nears you see a man, half a foot taller than you, wielding a sword, screaming, looking to murder you. How terrifying must that have been the first time? I’m sure it even terrified the Romans the second and third times. But Caesar has been fighting the Celts and Germans for five years. For five years the Romans have had Celts jump out of the woods at them. After five years I’m pretty sure when a wild-eyed Celt jumped out at them the Roman response was, “oh yay, this again.”
This was certainly what happened in Britannia. The Britons thought their sudden fury could overwhelm the Romans, but by now they were so used to these tactics that the Britons were pushed back with relative ease. Seeing the Romans’ strength, the nearby tribes sued for peace. In response, Caesar demanded double the hostages he had originally asked for. Once he had these he sailed back to Gaul with what ships he had. Upon returning the Morini, seeing a small Roman host, attacked them. But then the greater Roman host appeared and the Morini were driven back. Caeser ended the year by ravaging the Morini and Menapii lands for their treachery, cutting down their grain, burning their houses, taking hostages and selling them into slavery. With that another year was over, and Caesar showed that there was no boundary he couldn’t or wouldn’t cross, in his quest for eternal glory.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.