Between 58 and 50 BC, Julius Caesar, founder of the Roman Empire, had been gradually conquering land across Europe, sending his troops across France, Belgium and Germany before reaching the Channel. The army’s discovery and invasion of Britain was considered an incredible triumph, as the Empire had now breached the boundaries of the world as the Romans knew it.
Caesar is believed to have invaded Britain on two separate occasions, first in 55 BC and again a year later. It is this second landing which archaeologists now believe took place at Pegwell Bay, a picturesque location in the village of Ebbsfleet on Kent’s Isle of Thanet peninsula. The spot had never previously been considered an option for the Roman’s landing, since Thanet during the Iron Age was an island.
Researchers now say the Wantsum Channel, which used to separate the area from mainland Britain, may not have been as difficult to traverse for the Romans as it was once believed. Stone Age Britons, after all, were able to cross the body of water with relative ease, suggesting the sophisticated engineering of Caesar’s army would have been even better equipped for the task.
The main evidence to suggest Caesar chose Pegwell Bay as his entry point to Britain is the remains of a huge Roman encampment found by archaeologists at Ebbsfleet. Though the site is half a mile inland, it is thought to have been a wide, flat site near the beach during the Iron Age, not dissimilar to the landing site Caesar described in his book The Gallic Wars.
The site is 50 acres in size, and would have had enough space for the 800 ships, 2,000 horses and at least 20,000 soldiers led by Caesar to invade the newly discovered islands of Britain. According to researchers at the University of Leicester, iron weaponry and pottery fragments dating back to the 1st century BC (the same period when Caesar came to Britain) are further proof this was where the Romans first set up camp. A Roman javelin discovered at the site, a defensive ditch resembling the ones Caesar’s army dug in France and bones bearing evidence of wounds sustained in battle lend yet more weight to the theory.
Archaeologists were alerted to the potential interest of the site when work began on the construction of a new road in Thanet. It was during these excavations that the ditch and, later, the bones and weapons began to be discovered. It seems more than likely this was the spot where Romans first touched British soil, though the Empire didn’t officially conquer Britain for another eleven years, when Emperor Claudius began another invasion in 43 AD.
The landing has been described by researchers at the University of Leicester as the beginning of Rome’s 400-year occupation of Britain, where the Empire also conquered parts of Scotland and Wales.