It is clear that British Iron Age warriors were seen as a considerable fighting force by Caesar and subsequent generals.
It should be stressed from the beginning that there probably never was a typical Iron Age British warrior. Iron Age studies increasingly point to substantial differences in the material culture and, therefore, we assume in the everyday life of the people inhabiting Iron Age Britain. Thus so far four to six different cultural groupings have been identified in Scotland, and at least two significantly different archaeological groups in Wales, while in England nearly a dozen different groups are known, who can be differentiated by their use (or not) of pottery, their settlement types, their burial rites, their use (or not) of coinage, as well as their art styles. We assume that for the most part they spoke a language derived from the same language family as Welsh and Irish, but whether even in this respect the use of the term ‘Celtic’ is justified is still debatable. They also differ in their range of contacts with the Continent or the rest of the British Isles, particularly Ireland. During the Late Iron Age the British ‘cultures’ also appear to have been in a state of rapid development; the world of the Early Iron Age is different from the world Caesar encountered, and for the southern British tribes, things changed before and after Caesar’s campaigns.
This is not the place for a complete review of the Iron Age cultures in Britain between 100BC and 60AD, and readers are advised to turn to the more general introductions on the topic for further information. What is worth mentioning here is our understanding of Celtic warfare and the result of the Caesarian campaigns on the southern tribes of Roman Britain.
Strikingly, at the time of Caesar’s conquest, only the central southern zone of England was still employing hill forts, as well as some parts of Wales. Much has been made of these large southern hill forts being statements of power and/or influence, but they also document a substantial level of military sophistication, especially in the defences. In addition, Cunliffe (1995, 94) has demonstrated that the few Iron Age graves known in this area have clear indications of wounds inflicted by sharp objects, such as long swords. Throughout Southern Britain weapons as well as substantial amounts of horse harness are found in graves and other sacrificial contexts. It seems, therefore, likely that the possession of weapons (and by implication the ability to use them) was part of the self-definition of at least the elite of British tribes. The weapons most commonly encountered are swords, spears and shields as well as possibly slingshot (which can be hard to differentiate from plain small sized pebbles). Cunliffe suggested that some of the high quality of the weaponry, as well as the levels of injury encountered may be linked to periods of warfare or at least raiding, although historical records suggest that in many periods of British history the two are a continuum rather than two distinct phenomena. By drawing on the evidence on the Continent (mainly preserved by the writing of the Romans and Greeks that encountered them), central and western Europe was dominated by power structures that encouraged individuals to be powerful/successful warlords, whose campaigns allowed them to maintain a warband, which was paid/rewarded out of the booty gained. It is possible that the same model applied in Britain. Cunliffe draws attention that from c.120BC onwards the increased trading in slaves with the Continent may have encouraged further raiding as a way of obtaining slaves as exportable wealth.
It is in this context interesting to note that the area with the most militaristic features, central southern England also appears to be the area with the strongest trade links to the Continent in pre-Caesarian times. Slave trading communities in other parts of the world (e.g. Africa and also parts of North America) frequently display similar features, as the source of their wealth can only be obtained at the price of the higher than usual military force, frequently coupled with substantial investment in defensive features to prevent revenge attacks or hostile takeovers. This analogy, however, while offering an interesting theory is not currently provable from either the historical or the archaeological record for Iron Age Britain.
On the basis of these general ideas suggested by the archaeology, the depiction of the engagements with the British tribes and their fighting technique as described by Caesar are clearly of importance.
This description of the British tribes needs to be taken with some caution. Due to the history of research in this area we understand the Iron Age of central southern England better than the Iron Age of Kent or to a lesser extent the same period north of the Thames, so there are still some question marks as to whether Cunliffe’s insights as described above are necessarily relevant to the area Caesar was passing through. In addition to the normal danger of misinterpreting features in a hitherto unfamiliar culture, the Romans had very clear prejudices of what they were likely to encounter north of the Alps and how these people lived.
One of these is the theory that the further away you are from Civilization, i.e. Rome, the more likely you are to encounter strange habits. Some of these are stories that can already be found in Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century BC. Some of these preconceptions are that at the far end of the world live people with their faces on their chests or only one eye. Luckily for our account, the Romans did not believe Britain to be this far removed from Civilization. Caesar was, however, quite prepared to credit people in Britain with sharing wives between different men and expected the Britons not to be able to farm by working fields (i.e. agriculture in the narrow sense) and thus to live on meat and flesh and to clothe themselves in skins, at least further inland than Kent and Cassivelaunus’ area north of the Thames, where the opposite was clearly observable, the latter is possibly the reason why Kent is compared to Gaul. (BG V, 14).
Other details, however, cannot be explained by reference to these stereotypes, such as woad and the fact that all Britons are clean-shaven except on their head and upper lip. The problem for the modern reader (and possibly for the ancient Roman too) is to separate the two strands of prejudice/tall story and observed fact in Caesar’s account. This is particularly true of the British fighting techniques. The fighting skills of the Gauls, of which the British were apparently considered a subset by Caesar, were proverbial. Rome had had a series of very bad military experiences on the hands of the Gauls, such as the sack of Rome by Brennus in 387BC and the battles for northern Italy leading up to the eventual Roman victory at Telamon in 225BC, both of which had left Rome’s communal psyche with nightmares. It, therefore, did not need stressing that the Britons were expected to be equally fierce fighters, although the prejudice ran that they were very aggressive but not very sophisticated in their strategies. However, Caesar provided a series of observations that suggest he came to judge the fighting abilities of the British during the two campaigns very differently. While in the first campaign the British are portrayed as an homogenous group acting together; towards the end of the second campaign, Caesar had begun to differentiate between tribes that appeared to have different agendas (e.g. the Trinovantes vs Cassivelaunus or the Cantii with their multiple subkings). This suggests that Caesar was becoming increasingly aware of the complex political situation that he had literally walked into.
Caesar describes three separate kinds of British forces: infantry, cavalry and charioteers (essedarii). During the second season he describes the general fighting technique that the British used as the army being deployed into small widely spaced groups. This would theoretically offer a good counterweight to the closed ranks of the legions, who might be induced to follow and break up their closed formation (one of Rome’s best assets when fighting) to engage the enemy.
Concurrently the British cavalry appears to have focused on drawing out parts of the Roman forces in pursuit, before turning on them. The essedarii or charioteers were clearly the unit that caught Caesar’s attention, probably because they were so different from any other form of unit he had encountered to date. He describes them in detail during his first season in Britain (BG IV, 33):
First of all they drive in all directions and throw missiles and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise the wheels generate they throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose the chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry; and by daily use and practice they become so accomplished that they are ready to gallop their teams down the steepest of slopes without loss of control, to check and turn them in a moment, to run along the pole, stand on the yoke, and then, quick as lightning, to dart back into the chariot. (trans. H.J. Edwards).
This very vivid description might explain why the essedarii eventually became part of the teams of the Roman gladiatorial combat: the colourful account clearly fired the imagination of Caesar’s readers in this respect. And Caesar’s statement that Cassivelaunus could command 4000 of these charioteers was clearly meant to inspire awe in his readers, especially as Caesar was still victorious.
In many ways what is even more inspiring than their armament and battlefield tactics is the clearly successful strategy and diplomatic solutions employed by the British during the two summers. Even with Caesar controlling the narrative, unlike earlier encounters in Gaul, the impression remains that Caesar in Britain very quickly lost the initiative and rarely managed to reacquire it. In 55BC the British were clearly anticipating the landing and were ready and waiting for Caesar, having correctly predicted the likely landing site. The British reaction to the storm damage and their successful attacks on the foragers suggests that the British forces were clearly keeping a very close eye on Caesar during his stay, exploiting Caesar’s lack of cavalry as much as possible and penning him into a small corner of Kent.
The situation during the second campaign is even more impressive. Instead of meeting Caesar on the beach this time, they prepared a defensive position further inland and let Caesar come to them. When Caesar returned to campaigning after the repairs of the second storm damage, the British appear to have been more than ready for him. Not only have they managed to organize an alliance involving at least two, perhaps more tribes (the Cantii and Cassivelaunus’ tribe, which is never actually named), but they are also able to have an overall commander of some experience (judging by his track record of having killed the king of the Trinovantes) to set against Caesar.
What is, however, more striking is the overall level of command and control. During his march to the Thames, Caesar wrote that the Britons had detachments posted along the way to cover each other in turn and provide mutual reinforcements; they also accompanied Caesar along the route and attacked the foraging parties. When Caesar reached the Thames he found the ford blocked with obstacles.
This suggests a considerable amount of foresight and planning on the part of the British. Assuming that, as in the medieval period, more than one ford existed allowing the crossing of the Thames, it can only be assumed that Caesar’s route must have been predictable. We have seen earlier that to a certain extent this is so due to the geography, but the resulting corridor is quite wide and to deploy detachments might suggest that Caesar more or less found himself herded towards a particular ford.
On the far side of the ford Cassivelaunus’ decision to withdraw livestock and population from the Roman path sounds like an early version of scorched earth tactics used by the Russians during Napoleon’s withdrawal from Moscow. The stratagem clearly had some success, as Caesar’s comments concerning the confinement of the looting parties to the immediate areas surrounding the legions’ march still betrays, 2000 years later, the frustration felt by the commander. The whole campaign appears to have been designed by somebody who was aware that he had little to gain from a head-on confrontation with the Romans. Instead we see a guerrilla campaign using the British superior knowledge of terrain and the advantages of their mobile units (cavalry and chariots), while we hear little about their infantry.
The most daring manoeuvre is, however, the attack on the main Roman supply base by the Kentish kings as orchestrated by Cassivelaunus. Potentially this could have destroyed Caesar’s supply chain as well as his escape route. And while it would be easy to suggest that the British warriors were not very likely to succeed in this, it needs to be pointed out that manoeuvres like this are often designed to deflect or disarm an attack elsewhere, in this case the intention may have been to get Caesar to stop taking his advance any further into Cassivelaunus’ territory. If Rice Holmes (1907) is right, then Caesar’s presence back with the ships at the beginning of August might suggest that this objective at least may have been achieved.
It could be argued that these may have been quite sophisticated stratagems, but that in the end they did not work. Cassivelaunus still lost a stronghold and had to sue for peace. But it is the only one mentioned and the fact that Cassivelaunus was still able to negotiate might suggest that this was not the only power base in his territory. And if viewed from the British side, the fact that Caesar did not come back in the coming years meant that their aims were more successful than those of the Romans (who on this occasion failed to find out where the silver and gold of the island came from).
Whatever view you take on the success of these manoeuvres during the second campaign, there is too much evidence of generalship, of design and planning. The intelligence is too good, too much effort is expended to set traps such as the one at the Thames or the small hill fort on the first night, to suggest that the British warriors of Caesar’s period were either unsophisticated or inferior to the Roman army. Caesar’s inability to continue his campaigning in Britain allowed both sides to claim a victory; one for scaring off an enemy, the other for beating the opposition in battle and receiving tribute.