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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 27 (1913), pp258‑260

The text is in the public domain:
F. J. Haverfield died in 1919.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p258 Portus Itius.

In August the journalist discusses the habits of the salmon, the domestic servant, and the South Eastern Railway. In August, chance led me to one of the hopeless problems of scholarship. It has been discussed since the eleventh century, and the discussions have been summed up by Mr. Holmes in his three great volumes. Mr. Holmes' methods light up very clearly the errors of his predecessors, but in his own solutions he has been somewhat kaleidoscopic. In 1899 he started both of Caesar's voyages from Wissant, in 1907 from Boulogne, and in 1909 he allotted one voyage to each place; finally, in 1911, he assigned the first voyage to Boulogne and left the second voyage doubtful, with 'a balance of probability greatly in favour of Boulogne.' I have, myself, persistently believed in Boulogne, ever since — some years before his first book — I visited the neighbourhood and nibbled at the literature of the problem. I wish here only to emphasise two points, but it is necessary to sum up the question in order to show the positions in it which these points occupy.

The evidence is twofold. We have, first, the statement of Caesar that (1) on his first voyage (55 B.C.) he used, not quite intentionally, two harbours, plainly in the Pas de Calais, and (2) on his second (54 B.C.) he used Portus Itius which somehow (he does not say how) he had learnt to be the best harbour. Strabo adds that for his first p259voyage Caesar used τὸ Ἴτιον as his ναύσταθμον — by which he seems to mean that the district or neighbourhood called Itium was his base and not to allude to any definite harbour. It is not now possible to discover from these brief sentences what harbours of the Pas de Calais are here meant, nor whether Caesar used the same or different harbours on his two voyages. No one has even suggested any quite satisfactory reason why Caesar did not bother to name the harbours of 55 B.C. and did give a name — though only a generic name, perhaps invented by himself — for the port used in 54 B.C. He must have been swayed by some of those small passing preferences which affect the most equable of writers and of men.

The geography or topography of the Itian district can help us more. The facts well known. They are those which I summed up shortly in the E. H. R. XVIII.334, which Mr. Holmes subsequently set out at length, and which M. Jullian has also well and briefly sketched. Boulogne, at the mouth of the Liane, has always been a roomy, sheltered, and popular harbour, which in old days was longer and broader than at present and reasonably deep. It is, indeed, the one harbour along that coast (except the comparatively modern creation, Calais), and in view of dominant winds and currents, it is especially suited for voyages to Kent.

Mr. Holmes now accepts Boulogne for 55 B.C., but in the third act of his 'drama of solutions,' suggests that in 54 B.C. Caesar could not have got all his 800 ships out of Boulogne harbour in one tide. Napoleon, he urges, met just this difficulty when experimenting with troops and boats gathered for the invasion of England in 1804. I am not convinced. The question appears to me to be not whether the harbour was large enough in 54 B.C. for Caesar's purpose — we know far too little to hope to prove or disprove that — but whether we have reason to believe that Caesar did use this harbour then. If so, it must have been large enough.

But even if Mr. Holmes' test be accepted, there are perhaps some flaws in his reasoning. In the first place, I cannot but think that he has overrated Napoleon's difficulties. Secondly, we have no proof that Caesar's fleet was 800 strong in 54 B.C. What Caesar himself says is, that he ordered many new boats to be built for his second voyage, that (apparently in May) he found nearly 600 transports and 28 warships practically ready and ordered them to concentrate on Portus Itius; that of these, 60 ships did not arrive (so that his net total was about 560); and that when he at last set out and reached Britain, on some midday in July, the whole armada, including ships which he had kept over from 55 B.C., and ships of private owners (quas sui quisque commodi causa fecerat) exceeded 800. As the whole fleet of 55 B.C. included barely 100 ships, Caesar's warships and transports in 54 B.C. can hardly have exceeded 660. The rest were the 'numerous small craft, constructed by rich officers who desired to make the voyage in comfort, by merchants who had dealings with the troops, or by adventurers' (Holmes, Ancient Britain, p331). I am not quite sure, by the way, about the rich officers; commodi, I imagine, means here, as often, not comfort but gain, and the first clause in Mr. Holmes' sentence might be deleted. In any case, these 250 private ships, wherever they were, can hardly been allowed to interfere with Caesar's plans. If he could not have got them out of the harbour, he would have left them there. Taking these facts, together with a nautical opinion cited by Mr. Holmes (Conquest of Gaul, ed. 2, 1911, p438) that even 800 ships could have been got out in the available time, I feel that Mr. Holmes' last argument against Boulogne is really special pleading.

As to Wissant, Mr. Stuart Jones (E. H. R. XXVII) thinks that Mr. Holmes 'has shown that the case for Wissant is the more probable.' I doubt it. Without repeating what I wrote in 1903 and what others — Mr. Holmes, for one — have said better and more fully, I may lay stress on one point. The sand dunes of Wissant provide neither a harbour for 6‑800 ships, nor a camping-ground for 40,000 men unexpectedly held up, as Caesar tells us, by bad weather for p260over twenty-five days. There is not water in the place for anything like that army, especially at midsummer, and it is known that this is no new feature of Wissant; in the Middle Ages we have several references to the ariditas loci. No doubt the sea-passage from Wissant to Kent is shorter than that from Boulogne — roughly 24 as against 32 Roman miles; therefore it was used from about A.D. 950‑1350 by men in a hurry, by merchants, by small bodies of passengers. But sailing authorities declare that it is not so good or easy a crossing, and no case is recorded where it has been used by even a small army. Of Wissant, then, we seem to know enough to assert that the evidence is dead against its use by Caesar in 54.

F. H.
[F. J. Haverfield]

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