Tanatosi (Italian Edition)

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The men, small shame to them, hesitated, and did not spring overboard with the desired alacrity. Caesar's galleys, however, were of lighter draught, and with them he made a demonstration on the right flank the latus apertum of ancient warfare, the shield being on every man's left arm of the British; who, under a severe fire of slings, arrows, and catapults, drew back, though only a little, to take up a new formation, and their fire, in turn, was for the moment silenced.


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And that moment was seized for a gallant feat of arms which shows how every rank of Caesar's army was animated by Caesar's spirit. As with them, the staff which bore the Eagle of the Legion also bore inscriptions commemorating the honours and victories the legion had won, and to lose it to the foe was an even greater disgrace than with us. For a Roman legion was a much larger unit than a modern regiment, and corresponded rather to a Division; indeed, in the completeness of its separate organization, it might almost be called an [91] Army Corps. Six thousand was its normal force in infantry, and it had its own squadrons of cavalry attached, its own engineer corps, its own baggage train, and its own artillery of catapults and balistae.

Caesar himself would seem to have been the first to see how great an incentive such divisional sentiment might prove, and to have done all he could to encourage it.

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He had singled out one particular legion, the Tenth, as his own special favourite, and made its soldiers feel themselves the objects of his special regard. And this it was which now saved the day for him. The colour-sergeant of that legion, seeing the momentary opening given by the flanking movement of the galleys, after a solemn prayer that this might be well for his legion, plunged into the sea, ensign in hand. As every bather knows, it is not an absolutely straightforward matter for even an unencumbered man to [92] effect a landing upon a shingle beach, if ever so little swell is on.

And the Roman soldier had to keep his footing, and use his arms moreover for fighting, with some half-hundredweight of accoutrements about him. To form rank was, of course, out of the question. The men forced their way onward, singly and in little groups, often having to stand back to back in rallying-squares, as soon as they came within hand-stroke of the enemy.

For the British cavalry and chariots dashed into the water to meet them, making full use of the advantage which horsemen have under such circumstances, able to ply the full swing of their arms unembarrassed by the waves, not lifted off their feet or rolled over by the swell, and delivering their blows from above on foes already in difficulties.

And on their side, they copied the flanking movement of the Romans, and wheeled round a detachment to fire upon the latus apertum of such invaders as succeeded in reaching shallower water. It was not decided till he sent in the boats of his galleys, and any other light craft he had, to mingle with the combatants.

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These [93] could doubtless get right alongside the British chariots; and now the advantage of position came to be the other way. A troop of irregular horsemen up to their girths in water is no match for a boat's crew of disciplined infantry. Moreover the tide was flowing, [83] and driving the Britons back moment by moment. For a while they yet resisted bravely, but discipline had the last word. Yard by yard the Romans won their way, till at length they set foot ashore, formed up on the beach in that open order [84] which made the unique strength of the Legions, and delivered their irresistible charge.

The Britons did not wait for the shock. Their infantry was, probably, already in retreat, covered by the cavalry and chariots, who now in their turn gave rein to their ponies and retired at a gallop. Had he but cavalry, this retreat might have been turned into a rout. But his eighteen transports had failed to arrive, and his drenched and exhausted infantry were in no case for effective pursuit of a foe so superior in mobility.

Moreover the sun must have been now fast sinking, and all speed had to be made to get the camp fortified [94] before nightfall. But the Roman soldier was an adept at entrenching himself. A rampart was hastily thrown up, the galleys beached at the top of the tide and run up high and dry beyond the reach of the surf, the transports swung to their anchors where the ebb would not leave them grounded, the quarters of the various cohorts assigned them, the sentries and patrols duly set; and under the summer moon, these first of the Roman invaders lay down for their first night on British soil.

That his landing had been opposed, was, they declared, no fault of theirs; it was all the witlessness of their ignorant followers, who had insisted on fighting. Would he overlook it? Yes; Caesar was ready to show this clemency; but, after conduct so very like treachery, considering their embassy to him in Gaul, he must insist on hostages, and plenty of them. A few were accordingly sent in, and the rest promised in a few days, being the quota due from more distant clans. The British forces were disbanded; indeed, as it was harvest time, they could scarcely have been kept embodied anyhow; and a great gathering of chieftains [95] was held at which it was resolved that all alike should acknowledge the suzerainty of Rome.

But whatever it was, before the resolution could be carried into effect an unlooked-for accident changed the whole situation. The eighteen cavalry transports were thus enabled to leave Ambleteuse harbour, and were seen approaching before a gentle breeze.

The wind, however, continued to back against the sun, and, as usual, to freshen in doing so. Thus, before they could make the land, it was blowing hard from the eastward, and there was nothing for them but to bear up. Some succeeded in getting back to the shelter of the Gallic shore, others scudded before the gale and got carried far to the west, probably rounding-to under the lee of Beachy Head, where they anchored. For this, however, there was far too much sea running.

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Wave after wave dashed over the bows, they were in imminent danger of swamping, and, when the tide turned at nightfall, they got under weigh and shaped the best course they could to the southern shore of the Channel. His mariners had strangely forgotten that with the full moon the spring tides would come on; a phenomenon which had been long ago remarked by Pytheas, [85] and with which they themselves must have been perfectly familiar on the Gallic coast.

And this tide was not only a spring, but was driven by a gale blowing straight on shore. Thus the sleeping soldiers were aroused by the spray dashing over them, and awoke to find the breakers pounding into their galleys on the beach; while, of the transports, some dragged their anchors and were driven on shore to become total wrecks, some cut their cables, and beat, as best they might, out to sea, and all, when the tide and wind alike went down, were found next morning in wretched plight.

Not an anchor or cable, says Caesar, was left amongst them, so that it was impossible for them to keep their station off the shore by the camp. They were merely on a reconnaissance, without any supply of provisions, without even their usual baggage; perhaps without tents, certainly without any means of repairing the damage to the fleet. Get back to Gaul for the winter they must under pain of starvation, and where were the ships to take them?

Instead of the submission they were arranging, the Council of the Chiefs resolved to make the most of the [97] opportunity, and teach the world by a great example that Britain was not a safe place to invade. Nor need this cost many British lives.

They had only to refuse the Romans food; what little could be got by foraging would soon be exhausted; then would come the winter, and the starving invaders would fall an easy prey. The annihilation of the entire expedition would damp Roman ambitions against Britain for many a long day.

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A solemn oath bound one and all to this plan, and every chief secretly began to levy his clansmen afresh. His only chance was to strain every nerve to get his ships refitted; and by breaking up those most damaged, and ordering what materials were available from the Continent, he did in a week or two succeed in rendering some sixty out of his eighty vessels just seaworthy.

He had, in fact, been guilty of a serious military blunder in going with a mere flying column into Britain as he had gone into Germany. The Channel was not the Rhine, and ships were exposed to risks from which his bridge had been entirely exempt.

Nothing but a crushing defeat would cut him off from retiring by that; but the Ocean was not to be so bridled. With regard to the crops nearest the camp, the legionaries spared them the trouble of reaping, by commandeering the corn themselves, the area of their operations having, of course, to be continually extended. Harvesters numbered by the thousand make quick work; and in a day or two the whole district was cleared, either by Roman or Briton.

Caesar's scouts could only bring him word of one unreaped field, bordered by thick woodland, a mile or two from the camp, and hidden from it by a low swell of the ground. Vine, in his able monograph 'Caesar in Kent,' thinks that the spot may still be identified, on the way between Deal and Dover, where, by this time, a considerable British force was once more gathered.

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So entirely was the whole country on the patriot side, that no suspicion of all this reached the Romans, and still less did they dream that the unreaped corn-field was an elaborate trap, and that the woodlands beside it were filled, or ready for filling, by masses of the enemy. The Seventh legion, which was that day on duty, sent out a strong fatigue party to seize the prize; who, on reaching the field, grounded shields and spears, took off, probably, their helmets and tunics, and set to work at cutting down the corn, presumably with their swords.

Seeing at once that something was amiss, he hastily bade the two cohorts about a [99] thousand men of the guard to set off with him instantly, while the other legion, the Tenth, was to relieve them, and follow with all the rest of their force as speedily as possible. Pushing on with all celerity, he soon could tell by the shouts of his soldiers and the yells of the enemy that his men were hard pressed; and, on crowning the ridge, saw the remnant of the legion huddled together in a half-armed mass, with the British chariots sweeping round them, each chariot-crew [86] as it came up springing down to deliver a destructive volley of missiles, then on board and away to replenish their magazine and charge in once more.

Their driving was like that of the best field artillery of our day; no ground could stop them; up and down slopes, between and over obstacles, they kept their horses absolutely in hand; and, out of sheer bravado, would now and again exhibit such feats of trick-driving as to run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, while at full speed.

Such skill, as he truly observed, could not have been acquired without constant drill, both of men and horses; and his military genius grasped at once the immense advantages given by these tactics, combining "the mobility of cavalry with the stability of infantry. Such devices were in use amongst the Persians, and figure at Cunaxa and Arbela. But there the chariots were themselves projectiles, as it were, to break the hostile ranks; and even for this purpose the scythes proved quite ineffective, while they must have made the whole equipment exceedingly unhandy.

In the 'De Re Militari' an illustrated treatise of the 5th century A. But the scythes always have chains attached, to pull them up out of the way in ordinary manoeuvres.

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The Britons of this date, whose chariots were only to bring their crews up to the foe and carry them off again, had, we may be sure, no such cumbrous and awkward arrangement. The Seventh, surprised and demoralized, were on the point of breaking, when his appearance on the ridge caused the assailants to draw back. The Tenth came up and formed; their comrades, possibly regaining some of their arms, rallied behind them, and the Britons did not venture to press their advantage home. But neither did Caesar feel in any case to retaliate the attack [ alienum esse tempus arbitratus ], and led his troops back with all convenient speed.

The Britons, we may well believe, represented the affair as a [] glorious victory for the patriot arms. Caesar was compelled to fight, the legions were drawn up with their backs to the rampart, that the hostile cavalry might not take them in rear, and, after a long hand-to-hand struggle, the Roman charge once more proved irresistible. The Britons turned their backs and fled; this time cut up, in their retreat, by a small body of thirty Gallic horsemen whom Commius had brought over as his escort, and who had shared his captivity and release.

So weak a force could, of course, inflict no serious loss upon the enemy, but, before returning to the camp, they made a destructive raid through the neighbouring farms and villages, "wasting all with fire and sword far and wide. They were now required to furnish twice as many hostages as before; but Caesar could not wait to receive them. They must be sent after him to the Continent. His position had become utterly [] untenable; the equinoctial gales might any day begin; and he was only too glad to find wind and weather serve that very night for his re-embarkation.

Under cover of the darkness he huddled his troops on board; and next morning the triumphant Britons beheld the invaders' fleet far on their flight across the Narrow Seas.