Ancient Celtic Warriors: Caesar invades Britain



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Part Seven


CELTIC WARRIORS: Caesar Invades Britain

On a clear day in the middle of the 1st century BC, British Celts could stand on the Chalk Cliffs of Dover and see the flickering lights of the Roman Empire that had conquered their Gallic brothers. Refugees spoke of the sparkling iron and bronze armor of the legionaries and the great digging and excavation of fortifications. Some Britons advised helping their continental comrades and shipped supplies and warriors across the Channel. The Druids were apparently the driving force behind this assistance, and Caesar would never forgive them. In order to end this alliance, Caesar gathered a fleet together and in 54 BC, he crossed the Channel and landed in southeast England.

Caesar's landing was unopposed, but the Celts watched the hundreds of ships and thousands of men with caution. Riding inland, Caesar encountered a group of Celts in chariots and on horseback. A skirmish followed in which Caesar's troops stormed a hill fort using their shields in the classic 'tortoise shell' manner to force their way over the ramparts. All the time, word was passing through the tribes of southeast England that the invader must be opposed. The warlord they chose to unite under was CASSIVELLAUNUS, the first Briton to be named in written history. Cassivellaunus was a chieftain of the Catuvellauni who were, ironically, themselves recent invaders of Britain, having been originally part of the Belgic peoples in northern France before moving across the Channel to settle north of London. This reality must be fully appreciated as the Celts themselves made great play, and still do, of being the original inhabitants of Britain. But they had in fact replaced the true aboriginal inhabitants of Britain in invasions probably just as ruthless as those of the Romans and later peoples.

Cassivellaunus, Briton Warlord
[Cassivellaunus, British Warlord]
Cassivellaunus fought a guerilla war against the Romans, harassing with his cavalry and charioteers and forcing them to hide behind their entrenched camps. With overconfidence possessed of the Britons, the Romans savaged them in a pitched battle, and Caesar advanced to the Thames. The Romans were now entering the territory of Cassivellaunus. Wooden stakes had been sunk into the riverbed and Celtic warriors waited on the other side, but Caesar sent his men into the river, and even though only their heads just showed above the water, they managed to struggle across and drive the retreating Celts back into their homeland. It was now that Cassivellaunus's alliance began to weaken. The nearby tribe of the Trinovantes made a treaty with Caesar in return for Roman's help against the Catuvellauni. They even told Caesar the layout of the great chieftain’s hill fort.

Pulling the majority of his troops together, Caesar launched a massive attack that overwhelmed the hill fort and its defenders, but Cassivellaunus was nowhere to be found. Instead, the Celtic warlord had ordered an attack by the tribes of Kent, nearest to the Roman landing, to cut off Caesar's line of communication and supplies. Caesar was forced back to his base camp on the coast. No great damage was inflicted, but it seems to have brought both sides to their senses and, according to Caesar, Cassivellaunus offered terms for peace, submitted hostages and tribute money, and allowed Caesar to return to Gaul. Caesar certainly puts the best face on these events, but then the only account of the events is his. It seems likely, therefore, that Cassivellaunus had clearly put pressure on Caesar's advance, compelling him to return to his base camp and abandon Britain. In this light, the Celtic warlord had won a great victory, forcing the Romans out of Britain - for now.

Early British Celts are described in similar terms as those on mainland Europe. But they had one distinctive feature: they painted their bodies with a blue dye. The purpose of the design remains a mystery but is probably religious or mystical in nature. Some suggest that certain symbols painted on the body were thought to be a form of magical armor. Others simply ascribe it to decoration. One of the earliest names for the British Celts was the 'Pretani', a word perhaps relating to the practice of painting themselves. No one is certain. However, the obvious similarity of the word to 'Brittani' seems apparent. Later the word would come to represent the whole of the landmass that makes up modern Scotland, England and Wales.


Next, in Part 8 of Ancient Celtic Warriors:
  • Celtic Warfare - the Celtic Head-Hunters...

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