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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

(Vol. XV)
Itius Portus

Itius Portus, the name given by Caesar to the chief harbour which he used when embarking for his second expedition to Britain in 54 B.C. (De bello Gallico, V.2). It was certainly near the uplands round Cape Grisnez (Promuntorium Itium), but the exact site has been violently disputed ever since the renaissance of learning. Many critics have assumed that Caesar used the same port for his first expedition, but the name does not appear at all in that connexion (B. G. IV.21‑23). This fact, coupled with other considerations, makes it probable that the two expeditions started from different places. It is generally agreed that the first embarked at Boulogne. The same view was widely held about the second, but T. Rice Holmes in an article in the Classical Review (May 1909) gave strong reasons for preferring Wissant, 4 m. east of Grisnez. The chief reason is that Caesar, having found he could not set sail from the small harbour of Boulogne with even 80 ships simultaneously, decided that he must take another point for the sailing of the "more than 800" ships of the second expedition. Holmes argues that, allowing for change in the foreshore since Caesar's time, 800 specially built ships could have been hauled above the highest spring-tide level, and afterwards launched simultaneously at Wissant, which would therefore have been "commodissimus" (V.2) or opposed to "brevissimus traiectus" (IV.21).

See T. R. Holmes in Classical Review (May 1909),​a in which he partially revises the conclusions at which he arrived in his Ancient Britain (1907), pp552‑594; that the first expedition started from Boulogne is accepted, e.g. by H. Stuart Jones, in English Historical Review (1909), XXIV.115; other authorities in Holmes's article.​b

Thayer's Notes:

a Holmes's 1909 paper responds to objections raised by F. J. Haverfield in a review of his book Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, EHR 18:332‑336 (1903).

b Following Holmes's article of 1909, optimistically titled "Last Words on Portus Itius", a flurry of argument and counter-argument continued on in the Classical Journal after the Britannica was published; I've put the entire sequence of papers online:

• Mar 1912: T. Rice Holmes, "An Explanation" (CR 26:70)

• Dec 1913: F. H. (Francis Haverfield), "Portus Itius" (CR 27:258‑260)

• Mar 1914: T. Rice Holmes, "F. H. on Portus Itius" (CR 28:45‑47)

• May 1914: F. H., "Portus Itius" (CR 28:82‑84)

• Sep 1914: T. Rice Holmes, "Portus Itius" (CR 28:193‑196)

• May 1918: "Portus Itius", a little note by E. E. Genner (CR 32:70)

As can be seen, at the end of the exchange, there was no resolution. Edith Wightman, in a 1944 review of Étude archéologique de la partie orientale de cité des Morins (civitas Morinorum) by Roland Delmaire, summarizes well what is still today the situation:

". . . there is a discussion of the location of Caesar's notorious portus Itius, with the conclusion that Boulogne is the likeliest candidate. In effect, this problem is barely answerable on present evidence: the relevant portions of Caesar and Strabo can (pace Delmaire) be read in more than one way, and decision is influenced either by the apparent inevitability of Boulogne (despite the lack of Iron Age remains) or by the reasonably good evidence for an established pre-Roman route (la Leulène) terminating at Sangatte."

One more century has been added to the "violent dispute", and the identification of the site remains an open question. In addition to the runner‑up Wissant (see for example Franck Dufossé, 2002 with further sources and links to yet other identifications), and the favorite Boulogne — already endowed though it be with two Roman names, Gesoriacum and Bononia — Calais, Sangatte, and Ambleteuse have all been proposed, not to mention Isques on tenuous philological grounds and several outliers such as the bay of Isigny; as well as a coastal lagoon in the area of what is now Dunkirk, for which heads‑up I'm indebted to Anthony Durham: "Deux ports romains du Pas‑de-Calais, Portus Itius et Portus Aepatiacus" (CRAI 88.372 ff., 1944).

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Page updated: 10 Mar 21