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How our discovery of Julius Caesar’s first landing point in Britain could change history



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Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Andrew Fitzpatrick, University of Leicester

During the nine-year-long Battle for Gaul, Julius Caesar fought his way across northwest Europe. He invaded Britain twice; in 55BC, and again in 54BC. But while archaeologists have found evidence of the war in France, there has been very little discovered in Britain – until now.

At a site called Ebbsfleet, in northeast Kent, my colleagues from the University of Leicester and I finally uncovered the site where Julius Caesar’s fleet landed in 54BC. A series of surveys and excavations, spanning from 2015 to 2017, revealed a large enclosure, defended by a ditch five metres wide and two metres deep.

What a find: pilum tip from Ebbsfleet.
University of Leicester, Author provided

We dated the ditch all the way back to the first century BC, by examining the pottery and using radiocarbon dating techniques.

At the bottom of the ditch, we found the tip of an iron weapon, which was later identified as a Roman spear, or “pilum”. Similar weapons were discovered at the site of Alésia in France, where the decisive encounter in the Battle for Gaul took place. What’s more, the defensive ditches at Alésia are the same size and shape as those we discovered at Ebbsfleet.

In Caesar’s own words

Our dig was situated next to Pegwell Bay, a large, sandy beach with chalk cliffs at its northern end. This striking landscape also helps to confirm that we really have found the location of Caesar’s base. Most of what is known about Caesar’s voyage comes from his own written accounts, based on his annual reports to the Roman senate.

When the Roman fleet set sail from France, they intended to use the wind to help them cross the Channel to find a large, safe place to lay anchor and prepare for battle. But the wind dropped, and the fleet was carried too far northeast by the tide.

We came, we saw, we excavated.
University of Leicester., Author provided

At sunrise, Caesar saw Britain “left afar on the port side”. Only high land would have been visible from a small ship far out at sea. And the only such land in northeast Kent are the cliffs near Ebbsfleet. Caesar also describes how he left the ships riding at anchor next to a “sandy, open shore” – a perfect description of Pegwell Bay.

Given Caesar’s own words seem so clear, it’s surprising that Pegwell Bay has never been considered as a possible landing site before. Instead, Caesar was long thought to have landed at Walmer, 15 kilometres to the south. One reason might be that, until the Middle Ages, Thanet was an island.

The Isle of Thanet was separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. But no one knows how big the channel was 2,000 years ago; it could be that whatever disadvantages it presented were offset by the presence of a large and safe beach, where 800 ships could land and disembark 20,000 men and 2,000 horses in one day.

Peace by force

Despite the imposing size of Caesar’s fleet, it was long thought that his landing had little lasting impact on Britain. Caesar himself returned to France immediately after the two campaigns, without leaving a garrison. Yet the discovery of the landing site gives us cause to question this assumption.

Making history at Ebbsfleet.
Andrew Fitzpatrick/University of Leicester, Author provided

Historical sources, royal burials and ancient coins indicate that from about 20BC, the kings of southeast England had strong links to Rome. But historians have found it hard to explain how these alliances came into existence. The suggestion that they sprung from diplomatic ties forged by the emperor Augustus at that time has never been convincing.

But Caesar tells us that he reached a peace accord with the Britons in 54BC, even taking hostages from the ruling families to ensure the agreement was respected. Perhaps the alliances which came to light in the 20s BC were originally established by Caesar, a generation before emperor Augustus asserted his authority over the Roman Empire.

The close ties between Rome and the kings of southeast England assured emperor Claudius of a relatively easy military victory, when he first set out to conquer England in 43 AD. So it seems Caesar’s earlier conquest could have laid the foundations for the Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted more than 300 years.

The ConversationFor Caesar, the consequences of his invasions were clear. In his day, Britain lay beyond the known world. By crossing the ocean and conquering Britain, Caesar caused a sensation in his homeland. He was awarded the longest public thanksgiving in Rome, winning great acclaim and glory in the process. Mission accomplished.

Andrew Fitzpatrick, Research Associate, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Today in History – 28 April 1789


William Bligh: Mutiny on the Bounty

William Bligh was born on the 9th September 1754 to Francis and Jane Bligh in St Tudy, Cornwall. He was signed up for a career in the Royal Navy when aged 7 in 1761.

In 1776, Bligh was with Captain James Cook as Sailing Master on the Resolution for Cook’s third and final voyage during which Cook was killed. Following this Bligh served on various ships and saw military action at a number of locations including Gibraltar in 1782.

In 1787 Bligh was made commander of the Bounty. On this day in 1789, the mutiny on the Bounty took place. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian, Master’s Mate. Bligh and a large number of the crew were provided with a ship’s launch and a small amount of provisions and Bligh made for Timor (from near Tonga). The journey was completed in 47 days and covered a remarkable distance of 6 700km.

It is thought that the mutiny took place in order to escape from the hardline discipline of Bligh and to escape to the island pleasures of Tahiti. Evidence would suggest that Bligh was far more easy going than other captains, though the future ‘mutiny’ in Sydney (see below) would suggest otherwise. Bligh was treated well in the court-martial and was acquitted.

From the Bounty, Bligh served in various roles, including Governor of New South Wales from the 13th August 1806 to the 26th January 1808. His post ended with the Rum Rebellion, which essentially was an on land mutiny by the New South Wales Corps under Major George Johnston. He succeeded Philip Gidley King and was replaced by Lachlan Macquarie.

Bligh’s rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy continued until he was appointed Vice Admiral of the Blue in 1814, though he never again received an active command. He died on the 7th December 1817.

As an interesting side point, the current premier of Queensland (Anna Bligh) is a descendant of William Bligh.

 


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