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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 28 (1914), pp45‑47

The text is in the public domain:
T. Rice Holmes died in 1933.

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!

p45 F. H. on PORTUS ITIUS.

F. H. perhaps expects me to say something in reply or in assent to his article on Portus Itius. My view is there is that 'the case for Boulogne cannot be regarded as absolutely proved, because, if there is only one real objection, that objection may not safely be ignored.' I am absolutely certain that Caesar sailed from Boulogne in 55 B.C.: to suppose that he sailed from any other port involves nautical impossibilities.1 I am not certain that he sailed from Boulogne in 54; for he then had 800 ships instead of 100. When a well-known bookmaker laid 200 to 1 against Aboyeur on the night before last year's Derby, the balance of probability was greatly in favour of his winning the bet. But he lost.

F. H. says that he wishes 'only to emphasize two points.' As I am not sure which they are, and he seems to me to emphasize four or five, I will notice them all.

'The question,' says F. H., 'appears to me to be not whether the harbour [of Boulogne] was large enough for Caesar's purpose — we know far too little 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.' We want something more than 'reason to believe.' One does not say 'We have reason to believe that Lutecia stood upon the site of Paris': that it did so is beyond dispute. If we can demonstrate that Caesar did use this harbour in 54 B.C., we need not insist that it must have been large enough. But unless we can demonstrate that he could not have used Wissant, we cannot demonstrate that he did use Boulogne. Whether F. H. can do that remains to be seen.

'I cannot but think,' says F. H., 'that he [Holmes] has overrated Napoleon's difficulties.' No. If the officers who were in charge of Napoleon's fleet overrated them, so did I; but not otherwise. All that I did was to report the relevant facts as they are stated in volumes III and IV of Captain Desbrière's authoritative work — Projets et tentatives de débarquement aux îles britanniques; and anyone who refers to the pages from which I quoted can control my statements.

'We have no proof,' continues F. H., 'that Caesar's fleet was 800 strong in 54 B.C.' Nobody ever said that his fleet, properly so called, was 800 strong; but we have proof that what F. H. calls 'the whole armada' was. As F. H. observes, 'What Caesar himself says is that . . . when he at last set out and reached Britain . . . 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.' F. H. then says with perfect truth that 'Caesar's war-ships and transports in 54 B.C. can hardly have exceeded 660.' But he adds that 'these 250 [150?] private ships, wherever they were, can hardly have 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.' Certainly; and if he could not have got the 660 ships out of the harbour, he would have left them there. But since the private ships as well as the 660 ships were visible off the British coast, he did not leave them there. Does F. H. mean to suggest that the 'private ships' did not sail from Portus Itius at all, but from Ambleteuse? That is perhaps conceivable: but nobody else, as far as I remember, has made the suggestion; and surely Caesar's narrative implies that war-ships, transports, p46and private ships all sailed from Portus Itius.

F. H. then tells me that I have cited 'a nautical opinion . . . (Conquest of Gaul, ed. 2, 1911, p438) that even 800 ships could have been got out in the available time.' That is true (except that F. H. ought to have said 'within two hours'); but it is not the whole truth. The 'nautical opinion' was that 'given sufficient depth and extent of water the feat might have been accomplished.' But that is the very condition which is uncertain; and anyone who reads the footnote in which the opinion was quoted will see how much that is important F. H. has left out.

F. H. then turns to Wissant. 'The sand dunes of Wissant,' he says, 'provide neither a harbour for 6‑800 ships, nor a camping-ground for 40,000 men. . . . There is not water in the place for anything like that army, especially in 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 . . . is shorter than that from Boulogne; 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.'

There was camping-ground at Wissant if sufficient water was forthcoming; and as this is the most important point, I will reserve it to the last. It is true that there is no harbour now; but in mediaeval documents Wissant is frequently called a portus; and since it was not only used constantly in the Middle Ages, but was also a nest of pirates who harassed the Cinque Ports,2 it must have provided some accommodation for ships. Moreover, the ships which Caesar built for the expedition of 54 B.C. were so constructed that they could easily be hauled up on shore. The sudden decay of the port may have been due partly to the Hundred Years' War, partly to vast irruptions of blown sand.3 Is F. H. quite sure that no case is recorded where Wissant was used even by a small army? Not to mention the milites non parvi numeri,4 who accompanied Edward the Confessor's brother to Dover, John of Hainaut led an army of 2,000 men in 1327 to assist Edward III against the Scots;5 and it is certain that a large army sailed from Wissant in 1173. According to Benedict of Peterborough,6 Robert, Earl of Leicester, cum exercitu transfretare in Angliam festinavit, landed in Suffolk cum infinito exercitu Flandrensium, and was defeated soon afterwards with the loss of 10,000 men. According to Ralph de Diceto,7 the earl sailed on this expedition from Wissant (venit apud Witsant, ubi . . . plurima comitante caterva, navem ascendit). The number, 10,000, may be exaggerated, and infinito exercitu may be a rhetorical expression; but the two texts are evidence that a large army sailed from Wissant. No doubt the shortness of the passage was one reason for its popularity; but during those four centuries Wissant was used as a port much more often than Boulogne,8 and among the 'small bodies of passengers' were important personages, who were apparently in no hurry — for instance, tam Abbates quam Monachi plusquam centum, praeterea militarium virorum et negotiatorum plurima multitudo,9 Henry II,10 Lewis VII,11 p47envoys of Edward III, Philippa of Hainaut, whom he was about to marry, and envoys of Philip VI.12 Why did all these people deliberately prefer Wissant to Boulogne, which was only twelve miles off? And in those four centuries how many cases are reported where Boulogne was used by an army?

It remains only to consider F. H.'s assertion that 'there is not water in the place for anything like' an army of 40,000 men. The infinitus exercitus wanted water: so did the army of Edward III in 1346;13 and if springs can supply an army for one day, they can supply it for twenty-five. There are three small rivulets at Wissant, but I do not know how many men they would have supplied. As to springs I have received the following information from the President of the Administrative Council of Wissant: 'Il y a entr'autres trois sources extrèmementº abondantes. La plus rapprochée de la mer est celle qui se trouve sur la "Motte du Vent", que j'ai marquée d'un crayon rouge sur le plan inclus. Actuellement cette source débite une eau d'une extrème limpidité avec un débit de 80 M314 d'eau [80,000 litres] par jour. A environ 2½ km. de Wissant se trouve le village d'Herlen ; là se trouve une source beaucoup plus abondante encore. Un ruisseau en amène l'eau à la plage après avoir alimenté sur sa route le moulin Quenu. Le débit de cette source est de deux à trois cents M3 [200,000-300,000 litres] par jour. Il y a encore à St. Po (3 km. de Wissant) des sources qui alimentent la propriété de la Mine d'Or et le moulin de Sombres ; ces eaux vont ensuite se déverser à la mer.'

I would say no more if F. H. did not 'feel' that my 'last argument against Boulogne' — the argument by which I endeavoured to show that the identity of Portus Itius with Boulogne cannot be regarded as absolutely proved — 'is really special pleading.' 'Special pleading,' when the expression is not used in its technical sense, means 'the specious, but unsound, argumentation of one whose aim is victory, and not truth.' If F. H. considers my argument (undesignedly) specious, but unsound, or merely unsound, I take the criticism in good part. But to suggest that my aim is victory, and not truth, is not what I should have expected from him. There is one fact which alone disposes of the imputation of special pleading. The article on Portus Itius in Ancient Britain was well received. Several critics who had studied the question regarded it as conclusive — amongst others Dr. Meusel, who has read every line of the book and of both editions of Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. But when I had consulted Captain Desbrière's volumes, the conviction was forced upon me that it was not conclusive — that, in the present state of our knowledge, to work out the argument for Boulogne to demonstration was impossible. If my aim had been victory, and not truth, I would have said nothing; and nobody would have any the wiser. Therefore I have no fear that what F. H. feels will be felt by the readers of the Classical Review.

T. Rice Holmes.


The Author's Notes:

1 Ancient Britain, pp558, 581‑3, 613, etc.

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2 Matthaei Parisiensis Chronica Maiora, ed. H. R. Luard, IV.238‑9.

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3 Information about the harbour, such as it was, the sand dunes, and the period of their formation will be found in my books.

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4 M. Bouquet, Recueil des hist. des Gaules. XI.40C.

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5 Oeuvres de Froissart, — Chroniques, II.109 (ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove).

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6 Gesta regis Henrici secundi Benedicti abbatis, ed. W. Stubbs, I.60.

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7 Radulfi de Diceto . . . opera hist., ed. W. Stubbs, I.377. In Ancient Britain, p580, I remarked that 'Benedict does not say that the army set sail from Wissant.' This is true, but irrelevant; for Benedict says that the earl landed cum infinito exercitu; and Ralph says that he sailed from Wissant.

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8 In the index of Benedict's work Wissant is mentioned in connexion with thirteen voyages, Boulogne with none; in the index of Hoveden's Wissant with eight, Boulogne with none; in the index of Matthew's Wissant with three, Boulogne with one.

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9 M. Bouquet, XI.133C.

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10 Chronica . . . Rogeri de Houedene, ed. W. Stubbs, II.302, 317.

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11 Ib., p192.

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12 Oeuvres de Froissart, II.191, 194, 227, 232.

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13 Oeuvres de Froissart, V.81‑2.

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14 '80 M3' means 80 cubic metres. One cubic metre contains 1,000 litres, or about 222 gallons.


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