Caesar's first invasion of Britain: Caesar's boat is pulled to the shore while his soldiers fight the resisting indigenous warriors. Lithograph by W. Linnell after E. Armitage.

First Hard Evidence for Julius Caesar's Invasion of Britain Discovered

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The first evidence for Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain has been discovered by archaeologists from the University of Leicester.

Based on new evidence, the team suggests that the first landing of Julius Caesar's fleet in Britain took place in 54BC at Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet, the north-east point of Kent.

Prospective Locations

This location matches Caesar's own account of his landing in 54 BC, with three clues about the topography of the landing site being consistent with him having landed in Pegwell Bay: its visibility from the sea, the existence of a large open bay, and the presence of higher ground nearby.

The project has involved surveys of hillforts that may have been attacked by Caesar, studies in museums of objects that may have been made or buried at the time of the invasions, such as coin hoards, and excavations in Kent.

The University of Leicester project, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, was prompted by the discovery of a large defensive ditch in archaeological excavations before a new road was built. The shape of the ditch at Ebbsfleet, a hamlet in Thanet, is very similar to some of the Roman defences at Alésia in France, where the decisive battle in the Gallic War took place in 52 BC.

The site, at Ebbsfleet, on the Isle of Thanet in north-east Kent overlooking Pegwell Bay, is now 900 meters (2950 ft) inland but at the time of Caesar's invasions it was closer to the coast. The ditch is 4-5 meters (13-16.5 ft)( wide and 2 meters (6.5 ft) deep and is dated by pottery and radiocarbon dates to the 1st century BC.

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

View of the University of Leicester excavations at Ebbsfleet in 2016 showing Pegwell Bay and the cliffs at Ramsgate (Image: University of Leicester  )

Ebbsfleet’s Candidacy

The size, shape, date of the defences at Ebbsfleet and the presence of iron weapons including a Roman pilum (javelin) all suggest that the site was once a Roman base of 1st century BC date.

The archaeological team suggest the site may be up to 20 hectares in size and it is thought that the main purpose of the fort was to protect the ships of Caesar's fleet that had been drawn up on to the nearby beach.

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, Research Associate from the University of Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: "The site at Ebbsfleet lies on a peninsular 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."

Lidar model of topography of Thanet showing Ebbsfleet. (Image: Courtesy of University of Leicester)

Lidar model of topography of Thanet showing Ebbsfleet. (Image: Courtesy of University of Leicester)

Caesar’s Account

Caesar's own account of his landing in 54 BC is consistent with the landing site identified by the team.

Dr Fitzpatrick explained: "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.

Ancient Britons oppose the Roman landings

Ancient Britons oppose the Roman landings. ( Public Domain )

"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.

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