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Julius Caesar invaded Britain via Kent

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have uncovered new evidence to suggest that Julius Caesar began his 54 BCE invasion of Britain from north-east Kent.

A new road was due to be built in the area, at the hamlet of Ebbsfleet, but preliminary excavations uncovered what was suspected to be a Roman defensive ditch. This prompted the university’s project, and the team have since been studying the area.
The site includes a 4-5-metre-wide, 2-metre-deep ditch, and artefacts such as pottery and iron weapons. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of the pottery suggests the site was used in the 1st century BCE, in line with the dates of Caesar’s invasion.

 

View of the entrance to the defended site at Ebbsfleet during the University of Leicester’s excavation in September 2017. © University of Leicester

 

This discovery also matches with accounts from Caesar himself about the invasion. Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, a research associate from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History explains: “Sailing from somewhere between Boulogne and Calais, Caesar says that at sunrise they saw Britain far away on the left hand side. As they set sail opposite the cliffs of Dover, Caesar can only be describing the white chalk cliffs around Ramsgate which were being illuminated by the rising sun.

“Caesar describes how the ships were left at anchor at an even and open shore and how they were damaged by a great storm. This description is consistent with Pegwell Bay, which today is the largest bay on the east Kent coast and is open and flat. The bay is big enough for the whole Roman army to have landed in the single day that Caesar describes. The 800 ships, even if they landed in waves, would still have needed a landing front 1-2 km wide.

“Caesar also describes how the Britons had assembled to oppose the landing but, taken aback by the size of the fleet, they concealed themselves on the higher ground. This is consistent with the higher ground of the Isle of Thanet around Ramsgate.

“These three clues about the topography of the landing site; the presence of cliffs, the existence of a large open bay, and the presence of higher ground nearby, are consistent with the 54 BC landing having been in Pegwell Bay.”

 

Caesar had remarked on the area’s visibility from the sea, a large open bay and higher ground nearby. © University of Leicester, courtesy of Dean Barkley

 

The archaeologists suggest that the site was home to a fort built to protect Caesar’s fleet which landed at a beach nearby, and could cover and area of 20 hectares or more. The site is currently around 900 metres inland, but at the time of the invasion it was much closer to the coast.

Dr Fitzpatrick continues  “The site at Ebbsfleet  lies on a peninsula that projects from the south-eastern tip of the Isle of Thanet. Thanet has never been considered as a possible landing site before because it was separated from the mainland until the Middle Ages.

“However, it is not known how big the Channel that separated it from the mainland (the Wantsum Channel) was. The Wantsum Channel was clearly not a significant barrier to people of Thanet during the Iron Age and it certainly would not have been a major challenge to the engineering capabilities of the Roman army.”

 

View of the University of Leicester excavations at Ebbsfleet in 2016 showing Pegwell Bay and the cliffs at Ramsgate. © University of Leicester

 

The team have challenged the belief that Caesar’s invasions were complete failures. In Rome they were seen as triumph, and had an impact on future invasions. Professor Colin Haselgrove from the University of Leicester, and the principal investigator for the project, explains: “It seems likely that the treaties set up by Caesar formed the basis for alliances between Rome and British royal families. This eventually resulted in the leading rulers of south-east England becoming client kings of Rome. Almost 100 years after Caesar, in AD 43 the emperor Claudius invaded Britain. The conquest of south-east England seems to have been rapid, probably because the kings in this region were already allied to Rome.

“This was the beginning of the permanent Roman occupation of Britain, which included Wales and some of Scotland, and lasted for almost 400 years, suggesting that Claudius later exploited Caesar’s legacy.”

 


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