6/4/08 - britain's cannibals

In today's excerpt - in 55 B.C., ever anxious to dazzle his fellow Romans, Julius Caesar invades Britain:

"Set within the icy waters of the Channel coast waited the fabulous island of Britain. It was as drenched in mystery as in rain and fog. Back in Rome people doubted whether it existed at all. Even traders and merchants, Caesar's usual sources of information, could provide only the sketchiest of details. Their reluctance to travel widely through the island was hardly surprising. It was well known that the barbarians became more savage the farther north one traveled indulging in any number of unspeakable habits, such as cannibalism, and even—repellently— the drinking of milk. To teach them respect for the name of the Republic would be an achievement of Homeric proportions. For Caesar, who never let anyone forget that he could trace his ancestry back to the time of the Trojan War, the temptation was irresistible. ...

"Waiting for invaders on the Kentish cliffs was a scene straight out of legend: warriors careering up and down in chariots, just as Hector and Achilles had done on the plain of Troy. To add to the exotic nature of it all, the Britons wore peculiar facial hair and were painted blue. So taken back were the legionaries that they stood cowering in their transport boats until finally a standard-bearer, clutching his eagle to him, plunged into the waves alone and started wading toward the shore. His comrades, shamed into action, piled into the water after him. After some messy fighting a beachhead was established. Some more battles were fought, some villages burned, and some hostages taken. Then, with bad weather closing in, Caesar had his men pack up and sail back to Gaul. ...

"Nothing remotely concrete had been achieved but in Rome the news that an army of the Republic had crossed both the Rhine and the Ocean (Channel) caused a sensation. ... Rome was agog for news. In their impact on a waiting public, Caesar's expeditions to Britain have been aptly compared to the moon landings: 'they were an imagination-defying epic, an achievement at once technological and straight out of an adventure story.' Few doubted that the entire island would soon be forced to bow to the Republic's supremacy. Only Cato was immune to the war fever. He shook his head and warned somberly of the anger of the gods.

"And sure enough Caesar had indeed pushed too far too fast. As he crossed the Thames in search of the frustratingly elusive Britons, his agents brought him ominous news: the harvest in Gaul had failed; rebellion was threatening; Caesar was needed back in person immediately. ... Caesar decided to cut his losses. A face-saving treaty was patched up with local chieftains. The dream of reaching the end of the world had to be put on hold. Although he disguised the painful truth as well as he could from his fellow citizens, Caesar had over-reached himself."


Tom Holland


Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic


First Anchor Books Edition, March 2005


Copyright 2003 by Tom Holland


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