Deal or no Deal
In 55 BC the Roman era of British history began when an army under the command of Julius Caesar landed in Kent. It was a brief foray, lasting just one month. A year later he returned in force with his fleet disgorging an army of 20,000 soldiers. He had been asked to return by Mandubracius, a prince of the Trinobantes tribe whose father had been killed by a rival Cassivellaunus and who sought Roman assistance.
Caesar soon led his troops inland but after his first battle against the Britons, word reached him that a storm had damaged many of his ships. The Roman legions returned to their landing site and set about repairing their vessels. But where was that place? Accepted history tells that in 54 BC Caesar landed in Deal, but construction of a new road in 2010 at Ebbsfleet on the Isle of Thanet, 15km north, unearthed a massive defensive ditch, constructed in the 1st century BC. Today the site is almost 1 km from the sea but 2,000 years ago it was much closer to the shore. Could this be Caesar’s coastal base? This intriguing idea formed the basis of ‘In the Footsteps of Caesar’, a major project by researchers from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Searching for Caesar's beach
The Leicester archaeologists carried out geophysical surveys at Ebbsfleet in 2015-16 followed by trial excavations in 2016-17. The excavations have shown that the defences were at least 500 m across: the ditch was five metres wide and two metres deep with a flat base and 45 degree sides –similar to defences constructed by Caesar’s troops in Gaul and Germany around the same time.
An Iron Age village had stood on the site but it seemed to have been abandoned when the defences were built. Artefacts found during the excavations include some human bones and several iron weapons including the tip of a Roman spear. So what were the Romans defending, and why?
Caesar wrote a short account of his invasions. In it he says that in 54 BC they landed at the place that they had learned the year before 'was the best place of disembarkation' and which had a 'sandy, open shore' and which was overlooked by high ground nearby. This description is a perfect match for Pegwell Bay next to Ebbsfleet. Its large, flat, beach was the ideal landing place for the 800 ships of Caesar's fleet. The whole army disembarked in a day and by the next morning most of it was marching inland leaving behind a force the size of a legion to protect the fleet.
The next day messengers from the coast brought to Caesar the news that the fleet had been damaged by a violent storm. In the high seas the ships had broken anchor, been smashed together, and thrown up onto the shore. Caesar brought the army back to the landing site and for 10 days and nights the men worked to repair the fleet and to protect it with strong defences before returning inland. The defences found at Ebbsfleet match Caesar’s description.
Romans go home
Within a month Caesar had accomplished his goal of defeating Cassivellaunus. As Caesar never intended to leave a garrison in Britain, the safety of the Trinobantes was guaranteed by taking hostages. Shortly afterwards, Caesar sailed back across the English Channel. Ten years later, not long after he had been declared dictator, he was assassinated in Rome on the Ides of March. The next Roman invasion of Britain wasn’t until 43AD when the army of Emperor Claudius began almost 400 years of continuous occupation.
Since the last full study of Caesar’s invasions more than 100 years ago, it has been accepted that the 54 BC landing was at Deal despite there being no firm evidence to support the idea. The Leicester excavations at Ebbsfleet strongly suggest that for the last century historians have been looking at the wrong beach…
The fieldwork for the ‘In the Footsteps of Caesar’ project was carried out by volunteers organised by the Community Archaeologists of Kent County Council working in partnership with the University of Leicester. The project was also supported by staff from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). The project’s findings formed part of the 2017 BBC4 series Digging for Britain.