Caesar and Jersey

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This article by Charles Stevens was first published in the 1979 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

It has long been part of our Island creed that in Roman times Jersey was named Caesarea, after, if not actually by, the great Julius himself; and on the strength of this belief our first historians, Poingdestre (1682) and Falle (1694), gave their books on Jersey the title Caesarea.

César and Caesarean

An outwork of the Gorey Castle defences is named La Tour de Cesar. The prodigious Iron Age embankment at Rozel bears the rather coy name of La Petite Césarée. For generations the mysterious earthwork at Les Catiaux has been known as César. When in 1794 the States had a nameless foundling on their hands, they had her christened Sophie Césarée. In our own day a hotel, a cycling club and a lawn-tennis club have in good faith taken the name Caesarean. What is this all about? Have we a genuine claim to use Caesar's name in these ways? Who was Caesar?

In origin Caesar was a pet name bestowed by doting Roman matrons on male infants born with blue-grey eyes, or with a fine head of hair (nobody is quite sure which), and was adopted as a second barrel to their surname by the family Julius of Rome. When in 102 BC a son was born to them, his parents named him Gaius Julius, adding the cognomen Caesar. He had a career of exceptional distinction, being one of the outstanding military commanders of all time, and becoming in effect the first Emperor of Rome.

At the age of 57 he was murdered by political rivals at headquarters. His name, Caesar, was adopted as the equivalent of head-of-state by a long line of his successors, and has borne that very meaning in modern times in the titles of the Czar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany.

His finest hours were spent as a generalissimo pushing outward the boundaries of the Roman Empire in Europe. He kept a detailed diary of these campaigns, and once upon a time all schoolboys were set to translate this, because its Latin is so faultless. Scholars of late have claimed that he only told the truth when it suited him; but that is rather the way of scholars, and we must make the best of what we have.

Objective historian

I prefer to think that he was an objective historian, who did justice to his own performance without exaggerating it. It was because he planned his ventures with such thoroughness that they almost always succeeded, and won for him the reputation of invincibility. A man of this calibre is unlikely ever to have set foot in Jersey. He would not have had the time. But it is probable that he set eyes on Jersey from the French coast, and possible that he found a use for it in the furtherance of his strategy. What was that strategy?

In 58 BC Caesar took command in Gaul. By 51 he had added it to the Roman Empire. He had eight legions, not far short of 50,000 men, numbered VII to XIV, of which he considered X the best; VII was a fine corps also, and both X and VII were known as "Caesar's", in the same way that some British regiments are named "The Queen's Own".

In 57 he broke the power of the Belgae. In the winter of 57-56 legion X was hibernating in Belgium, and VII near Angers. Early in 56 he sent three other legions to deal with the Coriosolites (Corseul), the Venelli (Cotentin) and the Lexovii (Lisieux). His target this year was to crush his most formidable enemy in the area, the Veneti (Vannes); and for this task he chose his best general, Labienus, and his best men, including X and elements of VII.

They wintered near Lisieux and Alencon. He opened his compaigning season of 55 BC by launching all eight legions against two German tribes, and then turned to what was his greatest ambition of all, to go down to posterity as the conqueror of Britain.

In handling this project he displayed that quality which made him the great general he was. He left nothing to chance, trying out a major piece of strategy before putting it into effect. In the words of a recent television advertisement, he was "a man who did nothing by halves".

Few if any sea-borne invasions had come his way, and no amount of preparation was too great to ensure success. He first sent a trusted subordinate, Gaius Volusenus, in a warship to carry out a reconnaissance of likely landing places east and west of Dover. Then, late in August 55, he took VII and X with him on a trial trip to Britain. The first man ashore was the standard-bearer of X. Units of VII were ambushed while foraging for wheat in Kent. There was no decisive engagement. Britain remained unconquered, and Caesar withdrew to Gaul for the winter.

Some history books leave one with the impression that this was an invasion which missed fire. I believe, on the contrary, that it was a field exercise to train VII and X for the real invasion in the following year; and that in the course of it Caesar gained the experience he needed of tides more formidable than those of his native Mediterranean, and learned the importance of closer liaison with his cavalry, of bringing sufficient rations, and of a weapon new to him, the British war chariots.

Julius Caesar leads his troops through Gaul

Invasion force

Next year, 54 BC, Caesar landed his invasion force in Britain and conducted successful manoeuvres in Kent. The hill-fort of Bigbury near Canterbury was stormed by VII. He then crossed the Thames and captured the stronghold of Cassivelaunus near St Albans.

But the size of the island, and insurrection among the Gaulish tribes he had already overrun, made conquest of Britain that season quite impracticable, and Caesar withdrew for the second time, never to return.

It was not till 97 years later, in 43 AD, that the Claudian invasion made Britain, in part, a province of the Roman Empire.In this chronicle we see Caesar not only testing out a great maritime adventure a year in advance, but even sending personnel ahead to reconnoitre the practice invasion ground.

A man as meticulous as this might have carried his precautions yet a stage further, by detailing a task force from VII and X, whom he had already earmarked for Britain, to try their hand at putting men and horses ashore on one of the islands visible from the French coast, and of these Jersey was the most conspicuous.

He would first have sent over an officer to study the currents, rocks and beaches, and to ascertain the temper of the islanders; and a hint that he did just this may linger in "une legende qui ne repose sur aucune preuve historique. Un lieutenant de Cesar serait venu conquerir Jersey dans un bateau d'osier recouvert de cuir’’.

Do not suppose that such an officer made the whole passage in a leather-covered coracle, but he might well have travelled in a dinghy of this build between his warship and the beach. Of course, if you mention legends to a historian, he tends to give an indulgent smile and change the subject. But Poingdestre, wise man that he was, felt that legends "amongst many fabulous things, conteine many truths".

The only Roman artefacts found in Jersey are a few coins and a church pillar

Do not discard legends

In this matter I am Poingdestre's firm disciple. The historian who discards legends may be depriving himself of valuable information, a thing he can ill afford to do in areas where his own data are thin. One should not reject the whole oyster because one cannot at first sight recognise its pearl.

Let us suppose, then, that in 55 BC Caesar sent a task force drawn from legions VII and X to Jersey to experiment in sea-borne landings. Their stay would have been brief, a matter of weeks perhaps, and is most unlikely to have caused the islanders themselves to re-name their home - which at that time was probably called Andium, or the big island - after Caesar or his corps d'elite.

But it is possible that in the course of barrack-room reminiscence the legionaries cheerfully christened the island Caesarea, for it had been captured, had it not, for Caesar by men of Caesar's Own. We cannot know.

All we do know is that Caesar himself mentions neither Jersey nor Caesarea; and that the name Caesarea makes its first appearance in a Roman road-book of about 215AD, known as the Antonine Itinerary, which throws in for good measure a list of islands off the coasts of Britain and Gaul. There are fifteen of them, and they evidently read from north to south. The first three are the Orkneys, Arran and Wight.

The next seven, which appear to be the Channel Isles, include Andium and Caesarea. Andium, later modified to Angia or Augia, may be taken as Jersey. But so might Caesarea, because Jersey is the largest island in the group, and because the word Jersey is acceptable etymologically as a lazy way of saying Caesarea.

Poingdestre and Falle both believed that the original name of Jersey was Augia, that the Romans gave it the new name of Caesarea, but that Augia remained in use among the islanders. They may be right. After all, are not Albion, England and Britain three names for one island? I think we shall not be far out in assuming that by about 200 AD if not before, Jersey was being called Caesarea by the Romans, as a compliment either to Julius Caesar or to one of his successors.

No traces of buildings

Was this choice of name, then, our sole link with Rome? Balleine believed that the Romans never occupied Jersey in a military sense. Had they done so, he felt, they would have left traces of the massive buildings they erected in all conquered countries.

But Jersey has none of these. Our only building of unquestionably Roman date was the small Gallo-Roman shrine at the foot of the Pinnacle Rock, which may at some time have served as a guardroom for a signal post on the summit of the rock. Nor is there a vestige of Roman fortifications in the other islands, except for a small rectangular fort with corner bastions in Alderney.

The discovery of Roman coins and objects merely shows that such things were in use by the inhabitants, and are not evidence of a Roman garrison. I wonder if the reason why we have never found Roman remains is that we have not yet looked for them in the right places. There ought, for example, to be a Roman villa somewhere in the island, with an attractive portico resting on columns like that in St Lawrence's Church, with central heating, drainage, edge-to-edge mosaic flooring, and every modern convenience.

Such luxury residences were common, and did not have to be on the mainland. There is a fine villa, for instance, at Brading in the Isle of Wight. An even stronger argument for a Roman military presence is that from about 290AD the Channel seas became infested with Frankish, Saxon and other pirates, who were a menace to the occupying power.

To deal with them the Channel fleet, already in existence, was strengthened, and massive fortresses like Pevensey and Portchester were built to protect all harbours from the Wash to the Solent, and designed to work in cooperation with Roman naval patrols. The northern coast line of Gaul would have been similarly fortified.

Historians whom I have consulted find it inconceivable that at this time the Roman high command would have left Jersey undefended, an invitation to pirates to use it as a naval base against the Roman coastline near by.

Long afterwards Hitler saw this danger, and one of his earliest moves was to annex the islands and arm them to the teeth. We should therefore be looking for fortifications at harbours suitable to the movements of Roman war galleys.

Roman garrisons?

Bonne Nuit would have been a good choice, Gorey harbour another; and though Nicolle dismissed Caesar's Tower as mediaeval masonry, it may have been built on a site once occupied by Roman garrisons; indeed you could call the rock on which Gorey Castle stands a compulsive site for anyone interested in keeping track of enemy shipping, and keeping it away.

But these coastal defences, ostensibly impregnable, were unequal to the mounting barbarian pressures of the 4th century, and by about 370 AD pirates could land more or less where they chose. This was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. By 425 AD the final and complete withdrawal of Roman forces had taken place. But somewhere in Jersey there should lurk remains of the great efforts they made in their closing century to keep the pirates at bay.

From what precedes, it seems probable that at some stage during the long and violent history of the Roman Empire, shall we say between 58 BC and 425 AD, Jersey was sufficiently important to Rome to be named after one of its Caesars, and to have had extremely substantial buildings erected upon it; and that, though we have not yet found their traces, they may still be there awaiting discovery.

Sedeman and Diélament

The fortifications should date from 290 AD. The naming dates from 215 AD at latest, and might go back even further to the days of Julius Caesar himself. I sometimes wonder if two of our place names do not go back to those days also, Sedeman and Diélament.

Sedeman, where you will find the earthwork César mentioned in my first paragraph, first appears in 1382 as le Chastel¬-sedement, and thereafter as Cedeman, Sedman. Diélament also first appears in 1382, as Diexlament, and then Dielaman, Dielamen.

It has been suggested that Sedeman means an unoccupied place suitable for buildings or cultivation , and that Dielaman is a corruption of the name Guille fils Hamon. I find neither explanation convincing. But these two strange words correspond closely with the Latin adjectives septimana and decumana, for Septimana and Decumana castra (the camps of the VIIth and Xth legions).

It is true that no other Roman place name reflects the number of a legion, though several, such as Caerleon, record that a legion was once there. On the other hand, there are still places in France named after the number of a Roman milestone which stood near them, Septeme, for septimum miliarium, the 7th milestone; and Delmes, Diemoz, for (duo) decimum, the 12th.

And if these names, which look like cousins to Sedeman and Dielaman, could survive the vicissitudes of the Dark Ages, by which we mean the six centuries following the collapse of Rome, I suppose that similar names might survive in Jersey, which has a reputation for preserving traditions long after others have abandoned them; and that one day, by design or accident, the spade may tum up tangible proof that men of Caesar's Own had a happy summer outing in Jersey in 55 BC.

If no legionary number has survived elsewhere, it may simply be because milestones stay put, whereas legions were always on the move. But I would advise against voicing such a suggestion in the hearing of the learned. If you do, you may get that far-away look which they reserve for the eccentric.

For my part, I shall cling quietly to my fancy, for (if true) it would have so many attractive side-effects. It would solve the riddle of two of our most obstinate place names; it would put beyond reasonable doubt our right to the name Caesarea; it would underline our connection with the great Julius and, so to speak, make the legionaries of VII and X members of our family. We could scarcely object to adopting them. They were Caesar's best men.

The writer

Jerripedia editor Mike Bisson writes: Charles Stevens was a highly respected member of La Société Jersiaise, accorded its highest honour when he was elected a Membre d'Honneur in 1976. He died in 1979 and the above article, which had been in the Annual Bulletin editorial archives for 18 months, was published in his memory.

Accompanying the manuscript was a letter from Charles Stevens, which included the paragraph:

"I have written it for several reasons: (a) it has, I believe, a tale to tell. (b) it might serve as a stimulus to excavators in the future. (c) it tries to bring a sparkle into subjects which, in my view, are being made increasingly dull."

This note, and the phrase towards the end of the article "I cling quietly to my fancy", indicate that Stevens intended his article to be taken with the proverbial 'pinch of salt'.

But even though the article contains very little to support what its writer identifies as something 'which has long been part of our island creed', it has doubtless influenced those who, in subsequent works, have continued to propagate what others prefer to call the 'myth' that Jersey got its name from the Romans.

Indeed, an earlier article by Charles Stevens, published in the 1973 Annual Bulletin, suggests that Andium was the Roman Name for the island and that Jersey, which came much later, was of Norse origin, or possibly even named after Gervold, an envoy sent by Charlemagne to the island in the early 9th century. And earlier, still, in 1970, in the introduction to his Comprehensive list of Jersey surnames Stevens seemed to be in no doubt that Jersey, previously known as Andium, was renamed after Geirr, a Norseman:

"And at some time in the Dark Ages a Scandinavian pirate named Geirr became so important that Jersey, which by rights should still be called Andium, became Geirr’s Island."

In case the publication of this delightful article in Jerripedia should persuade readers that the Caesar link should be taken more seriously than the writer intended, it is worth reading further Jerripedia articles on the subject.

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