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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
English Historical Review
Vol. 24 (1909), pp114‑116

The text is in the public domain:
H. Stuart Jones died in 1939.

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!


Ancient Britain and the Invasions of Julius Caesar. By T. Rice Holmes. (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1907.)

The readers of Mr. Holmes's Caesar's Conquest of Gaul — and they include all who have made a serious study of Caesar's general­ship — will open this book with the sure expectation of finding an acute, vigorous, and learned treatment of that episode in the Gallic war which especially concerns Englishmen. They will not be disappointed; but they will also find much that they had not been led to expect. For just as Mr. Holmes found himself obliged, in his earlier work, to treat the ethnography of ancient Gaul in detail, so in the present volume he has very properly included an account of the inhabitants of our island at the time when Caesar landed on its shores; but in order to compile such an account he has thought it necessary to trace the history of Britain and its human (or semi-human) inhabitants back to glacial and even pre-glacial times, and for this it would be difficult to forgive him had he not succeeded in holding his readers' attention by his admirable presentation of the ascertained facts and current theories and his vigorous onslaughts on the specialists whose opinions differ from his own. Such a series of pictures as are here sketched no prehistoric archaeologist has hitherto attempted to draw for the reading public, which, we hope, will be duly grateful to Mr. Holmes. At the same time this is not the part of the book to which the scientific historian will turn in search of original matter; and little need be said of it here. Mr. Holmes could scarcely expect to advance the study of geology (it can hardly be said that he is abreast of all the relevant literature on the ice age, e.g. Obermaier's studies in Pyrenaean geology) nor to say the last word on totemism; and his remarks on prehistoric custom are not always impeccable in taste or logic, as when he writes (p128):

Infants have so often been found buried along with women that one can only conclude that infanticide was as prevalent in ancient as in modern Britain. Only the children were slain because their mothers could no longer nurse them, not because they desired to rid themselves of trouble.

We turn to that portion of the book which is really of first-rate importance, namely, the study of Caesar's invasions of Britain in the light of all the available evidence. The industry which has gone to the making of these chapters and excursus in enormous; Mr. Holmes has without doubt laboured more abundantly than all the historians who have gone before him, and has redeemed English scholar­ship from the reproach of half-heartedness. That the conclusions which he has drawn from his studies are final and irrefragable he has no doubt whatever. As to the place of Caesar's landing, for instance, a question which Mommsen and many English scholars of eminence have pronounced insoluble, he writes at the opening of his argument (p596) —

The indications which Caesar gives are sufficient to enable any attentive reader to determine the place where he landed with such certainty that every doubt shall be removed — if he know how to use them;

and he concludes (after summarising his deductions from the evidence) with these words:

That some will still for a time dispute these conclusions is likely enough, but not those whose judgments count. For them the problem is solved.

These are brave words; and the forecast given by Mr. Holmes may possibly be justified. Nevertheless 'those whose judgments count' have read Caesar's Conquest of Gaul; and they remember that Mr. Holmes there concluded his discussion on the identification of the Portus Itius by writing as follows:

If the identity of the Portus Itius with Wissant cannot be proved in the same sense as the identity of Alesia with Mont Auxois, I am confident that it will sooner or later be generally accepted as morally certain.

They will turn to the essay on the same subject which fills forty-two pages of the present volume with closely reasoned arguments in favour of the view rejected by Mr. Holmes in 1899, and ask whether such liberty of prophesying may not come perilously near to licence. Mr. Holmes does not, it is true, conceal his change of opinion, though he does not emphasise it. On p579 he says:

I myself once argued that the Portus Itius was at Wissant. But my knowledge was then imperfect. It is not possible to prove that the Portus Itius was at Wissant; it is possible to prove that it was not.

And again on p590:

This was the reply which I made myself [to one of the arguments against the identification of the Portus Itius with Boulogne] on another occasion. But the reply was sophistical.

In face of these passages (even though some research is needed for their discovery) no one can accuse Mr. Holmes of disingenuousness, though it may fairly be urged that one who has experienced in his own person the results of human fallibility should have been more lenient to open-mindedness in other scholars. To deride Sir John Rhys's changes of opinion, as Mr. Holmes does on so many occasions with evident delight, is a breach of taste which it is the more difficult to pardon when we read the above-quoted passages. Still, this manifestations of the odium archaeologicum are of less importance than the attempt to force conviction on the student by strength of asseveration; and it is to be hoped that the reader will not surrender to force majeure without subjecting the argument to close examination. To us it seems that Mr. Holmes has erected a fabric of hypotheses some of which are in the highest degree probable — almost demonstrable — whilst others are decidedly open to doubt. Now this, in so difficult a question, is a very considerable achievement; and we can only regret that Mr. Holmes has claimed an equal finality for all parts of his construction. That on his first voyage to Britain Caesar used Boulogne and Ambleteuse as his ports of departure is a conclusion which we hope to see adopted by all competent authorities: in reviewing Mr. Holmes's earlier book in this Review, XVIII.334 ff., Professor Haverfield pointed out certain considerations in its favour, and it is here supported by a full and weighty discussion of the evidence. And, again, it is hardly possible to escape the conclusion drawn by Mr. Holmes as to Caesar's place of landing in Britain, namely, that it is to be sought on the east coast of Kent, not far  p116 from Deal Castle. But is it so certain that Caesar's starting-point was the same on both expeditions, or that in 55 B.C. he used the Portus Itius at all? If it is not so then the Portus Itius may be Wissant after all. Now Mr. Holmes has a section (p556) entitled 'Caesar sailed from the Portus Itius on both his Expeditions'; but in this he confines himself to a review of the opinions held by previous writers, ending with the statement that he will 'prove, in the course of his discussion, that on his first as on his second expedition Caesar sailed from the Portus Itius.' No direct proof of this proposition is however attempted, and it is very far from demonstrable. The Portus Itius is not mentioned by Caesar in his account of the first expedition: in B. G. V.2 he writes, Omnes ad portum Itium convenire iubet, quo ex portu commodissimum in Britanniam traiectum esse cognoverat. What is meant by the closing words of this sentence? It is natural to read them in the light of the similar expression used in V.8 of his landing-place on the second voyage, qua optimum esse egressum superiore aestate cognoverat. Now Mr. Holmes repeatedly asserts that Caesar's intention on the first voyage was to land in Dover harbour; but that, as this was frustrated by the opposition prepared for him, he continued his voyage to the east coast of Kent. He 'ascertained,' that is to say (cognoverat), that the point selected by him for his landing was not the most convenient; what more likely, then, that he likewise 'ascertained' that the most convenient port of departure for the east coast (Dover being out of the question) was not Boulogne, but the Portus Itius? These considerations may not be decisive in favour of the view that the Portus Itius was not Caesar's port of departure in B.C. 55: but they should at least give us pause before we accept Mr. Holmes's assertion as an unquestionable dogma.​a With some such reservation as this we may congratulate Mr. Holmes on having brought a difficult historical problem nearer to its solution than any previous writer. His labours have indeed borne much fruit; and if we have selected for discussion a case in which the results attained seem to lack certainty this only throws into relief the fact that most of his conclusions compel our assent.

H. Stuart Jones.

Thayer's Note: The following item is from a later issue of the English Historical Review of the same year; from the "Short Notices", Vol. 24, No. 95 (July 1909), p604:

Mr. T. Rice Holmes has laid students of Caesar under a further obligation by the publication of a sound and vigorous rendering of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War (London: Macmillan, 1908). Without being slavishly literal — e.g.orbis is translated by 'square' (p123) and the needful explanation is given in a footnote — the translation is accurate; and in cases of doubtful reading the notes indicate the text which Mr. Holmes follows. We are fully in agreement with the suggestion made in the preface (p. ix) that the Commentaries should be prescribed as a set book in military examinations: and it only remains to quote the footnote on p127, which must be read in connexion with the notice in this Review, ante, pp115 f.:

The Itian harbour (Portus Itius) was either at Boulogne or Wissant. I argued in favour of the latter, but inconclusively, in Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, pp433‑443 . . . In Ancient Britain, pp552‑595, I again approached the question with fuller knowledge, proved that Caesar's starting-point in 55 B.C. was Boulogne, and concluded that he would not in the following year have abandoned a port which was in all respects the most convenient that he could have select days for Wissant. . . . Before the publication of the book, however, (but when it was too late to make any alteration), I saw that although Boulogne was in almost all respects the more convenient port, it had one grave disadvantage: Caesar's fleet, which was almost eight times as numerous as that of the preceding year, would hardly have been able to get out of the harbour in one tide; and it would, for various reasons, have been hazardous to keep ships anchored outside in the roadstead. From Wissant, on the other hand, the whole fleet could have started simultaneously.

H. S. J.

Thayer's Note:

a Prof. Jones was on target here: for half a dozen papers on the subject over the decade that followed, see the Portus Itius page linked in the navigation bar below. The question is still unsolved in the 21c.

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