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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Classical Review
Vol. 28 (1914), pp82‑84

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!

 p82  Portus Itius.
(Classical Review, December, 1913; March, 1914.)

In the March Classical Review Mr. Holmes dealt with five points:

1. Napoleon at Boulogne. My own reading of Desbrière does not convince me that the particular difficulty emphasised by Mr. Holmes was of itself quite so fatal to the Emperor's plans as he thinks. I do not wish to reaffirm the old view that the experiments of 1801‑5 proved Boulogne to be suitable for Caesar; I simply do not find the evidence as decisive as does Mr. Holmes. But in any case this evidence yields only probabilities, and rather slender probabilities. If there were difficulties in 1804, it does not at all follow that there were the same difficulties in B.C. 54, when the harbour was admittedly larger than Napoleon found it.

2. The number of ships. If, however, these probabilities are to be urged, it becomes worth while to insist that Caesar had to extract from the harbour not 800 but some 650 or even  p83 fewer ships. No ground exists for alleging that the other 150 or 200 trading ships all started from Boulogne or from any particular spot; for all I know, a few may have waited at Wissant. We are, then, entitled to urge that, if Caesar used Boulogne and if he found the room scanty, he would not have lessened it further by admitting eight or ten score trading ships. Those who argue against Boulogne on this head must reckon with 600‑650 ships.

3. The 'nautical opinion.' Mr. Holmes cited a 'nautical opinion' that even 800 ships might have been got out in reasonable time, and I mentioned it. Mr. Holmes demurs that I omitted an important condition, 'given sufficient depth and extent of water.' I did omit that condition, since it reduces the opinion to nonsense. Given sufficient depth and extent of water, the Imperator could steam up to Mr. Holmes's front door in London; but to say so would be to talk nonsense. I took the 'opinion' to be loosely worded, and to mean that the ships could be got out with a depth and extent of water which might reasonably be assumed. If it did not mean that, it meant nothing.

4. Medieval armies at Wissant. Everybody agrees that Wissant was much used in the Middle Ages. I still seek for proof that it was used by armies, and I add here (what I wrote in my December rough copy and cut out for brevity!) that, at least in this context, 3,000 men do not make an army. Of substantial forces at Wissant even Mr. Holmes can quote only one case, the Earl of Leicester's attack on England in 1173. This case has been twice adduced by him, in Ancient Britain (p580) and in his March article. In the former he argued that the story did not prove that a large force sailed from Wissant; now he argues that it does prove that; in neither place has he quoted the story aright. The most detailed and perhaps the best account of the expedition is given by the contemporary Ralph de Diceto. According to him the Earl sailed from Wissant (as Mr. Holmes says) plurima comitante caterva, landed at Walentona in Suffolk (Walton, near Felixstowe), sent his ships back in haste — presumably to bring up more troops collected by his continental backers — gained some local reinforcements, marched inland towards Leicester, and presently met and fought the royal forces. In this battle, says Diceto, he put his trust chiefly in 3,000 Flandrenses; they were almost annihilated, the Earl was captured, and the enterprise collapsed. Another contemporary account, rather scantier in detail and more rhetorical in phrase, by the unknown writer who used to be called Benedict, talks of an infinitus exercitus Flandrensium, of whether 10,000 fell. There are thus two versions, one that the Flandrenses numbered 3,000, the other that they were 'infinite' and more than 10,000 strong. Most people would prefer the first version. Mr. Holmes does not even mention it, nor does he mention two facts (material to the enquiry how many men sailed with the Earl from Wissant), the sending back of the ships, and the local reinforcements. Both of these might have increased the Earl's army a good deal; in view of them, it is doubtful whether he originally sailed from Wissant with a very large force.

Nor again is Mr. Holmes correct in calling Wissant 'a nest of pirates,' on the authority of Matthew Paris. Matthew does not say that. He says that the French coast-folk, including 'naucleri' of Calais and Wissant, interfered with the English fishing; the pirates come in another sentence. How indeed could Wissant have been a nest of pirates when it (so far as I can understand) was never a walled town? Mr. Holmes, in pleading the cause of Wissant, has accidentally slipped into a phrase which fits his case better than it fits his authorities.

5. Water-supply of Wissant. The figures given by Mr. Holmes are new and useful. Necessarily vague though they are as to total supply and as to summer supply, they seem to support my doubt whether there was watering for Caesar's forces at Wissant in midsummer. He had eight legions — say 35,000 men — and 4,000 Gaulish cavalry, and also his sailors. He must have had, too, a miscellaneous host of 'camp-followers,' both for his own men and for the Gaulish chiefs with him. I will not conjecture their number, but it must have been large, though I dare say that the latest estimate which I happen to have heard, another 40,000  p84 souls, may be too large. He had also many horses, both for the 4,000 Gauls and for his officers, and of course other beasts of burden. On any ordinary calculation, the supply mentioned by Mr. Holmes would not have sufficed for the animals alone, even if — as is impossible — not a drop had been wasted. Mr. Holmes observed (Ancient Britain, p583) that Caesar's forces could not possibly have been fed at Wissant, and M. Jullian has said the same. It seems allowable to add that they could not have been watered either.

I might add other arguments against Wissant. I might, for instance, quote with approval Mr. Holmes' remark (Ancient Britain, p569) that 'unless it can be proved . . . that there existed at Wissant a harbour large enough to accommodate Caesar's fleet, the claim of Wissant to be identified with Portus Itius cannot be admitted.' But my object here is simply to argue that, for reasons given, the case against Wissant is more decisive (while that against Boulogne is weaker) than Mr. Holmes at present thinks. I cannot help suspecting that his discovery of a supposed weakness in the case for Boulogne has led him to change his mind about certain matters which concern not Boulogne but Wissant. That is very human; Boulogne and Wissant are, in a sense and to some extent, running a race to decide this question. But it does not seem logical. The shipping of medieval Wissant and the food and water supply of the place are questions quite distinct from the Napoleonic attempt to embark at Boulogne. Each question must be settled on its merits, so far as it can be settled at least. In Ancient Britain (p579) Mr. Holmes wrote that 'it is possible to prove that the Portus Itius was not at Wissant.' No new probabilities about Boulogne will alter that.

F. H.

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