The Battle of the Tamesis Ford

The Battle of the Tamesis Ford
Author: Gareth C. Worth
First published May 2017 in Volume 12, Issue 6 of ‘Roman Transactions’

The ‘Tamesis Ford Letter’ was discovered among the notes of the late Professor Arthur J. Cline of the College of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester following his death at the age of 77 in 1998. Although undated, context places it between 1947 and 1953 when Professor Cline undertook several research trips to Orthodox monasteries in Turkey and Romania.

Professor Cline’s notebooks from this period contain numerous hand written copies of historical documents presumably located in monastery libraries. Few however are annotated with dates or locations, making determination of their origins virtually impossible. A number were referenced with full details in the Professor’s published work suggesting that he maintained some form of index, but searches of his papers have failed to uncover any such document.

The text, located in notebook seven of the Cline archive, exists in two forms, a classical Latin original and Professor Cline’s English translation. The Latin contains several lacunae speculatively filled in the English version. Both versions end suddenly suggesting that the original document was similarly truncated, or that Professor Cline was interrupted in his transcription.

The letter purports to be an eyewitness account of the battle between the forces of British Chief Cassivellaunus and Julius Caesar at a ford on the river Thames during the latter’s second invasion of Britain in 54 BCE. We have Caesar’s own, typically terse, account of this battle in book five of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, but the letter – while consistent with the Commentarii – includes far more detail, even featuring the war elephant otherwise first mentioned in works from the 2nd century CE. The Latin is typical for an educated Roman of the period, suggesting that the author (one Titus Magius) may have been an officer. No mention of him in other documents has been found, however this is hardly unexpected given the fragmentary nature of surviving records from the period.

If genuine, the letter is a remarkable and important new source of information on Caesar’s campaigns, and it is curious that Professor Cline never shared it with other researchers. It seems likely that the more unusual features of the account – including the use of quicksilver and a mysterious spear bought from the Temple of Saturn – led him to doubt its authenticity. It also cannot be ruled out that the letter is a work of fiction composed by the Professor himself, although it would be inappropriate to speculate for what purpose such a work would be intended.

Research on the origin of the letter continues. Even if the truth of the matter remains unresolved it is an intriguing document that raises questions about the accuracy of Caesar’s accounts of his campaigns, and the social structures and methods of warfare employed by the Britons of the first century BCE.

The Tamesis Ford Letter as translated from the Latin by Professor Arthur J. Cline c.1950

Letter to Lucius Magius Petronax in Rome from his brother Titus Magius in Britiania, a.d. XI Kal. Oct. DCC A.U.C. (19th September 54 BC)

Good health to you my brother. Be assured that your news was received with great joy by myself and my comrades and much wine has been consumed [to your honour]. You ask for an account of our assault on the ford and I am pleased to supply one thus.

We came upon the river called Tamesis from the south, the ford lying where its course turns from the north towards the west, the width being beyond the shot of a sling. The forces of the Britons with many horses and chariots were assembled on the far bank and saluted our [arrival] with a great tumult of taunting calls and many blasts upon bronze trumpets the sound of which was most discordant. Our enemy had placed many sharpened stakes beneath the waters of the ford but forewarned by the prisoners captured during our advance we did not charge the waters.

Caesar commanded forward two Centuria of the [second?] Legion and cavalry to shield them and they entered the waters until only their heads stood free, the waters of the ford being deep. At this came forth from the Britons a tall warrior clad in robes and breeches of fine patterned cloth and bearing a heavy ring of gold around his neck in the manner of the Gauls. He bore a shield of polished bronze set with red glass and a tall spear, and his clothes and arms with much gold were adorned. The Britons paid him much obeisance and many fell to the ground [at his feet]. The warrior strode forth and raised his spear over the waters and the river leapt upwards, rising as in spate, and [some] men of the Legion were washed from their feet and drowned.

I admit with shame that at the sight of this my heart quailed, as did that of many of my comrades who stepped back, [crying out in] agitation. Caesar commanded us to stand firm and sent forward the elephant named Magnus with archers upon its back and as it entered [the river] they emptied great vessels of Hispanian quicksilver and ordure into the waters. At the sight of this the Britons let forth a great cry of woe and the warrior cried out in a rage and ran into the river, and as his feet entered the waters they rose up in confusion as if struck by a storm, and several score Britons followed in his train.

Caesar ordered [the Centuria] from the ford and sent his personal guard to meet the Britons, and among them was borne a great spear of cold-forged iron, fully tall as a man and bound to a greenwood haft. It was said by many that this spear was bought across the sea from Rome at Caesar’s instruction and said some that it had first come from Dacia to the Temple of Saturn in the time of Aulus Postumius and any that touched [its metal?] would fall [to the ground] as if struck dead. The guard stood ready at the ford and met the charge of the warrior who in his fury outstripped his fellows, seeming as in flight to run across the water.

In a great rage the warrior cut down four men, but erelong was surrounded and disarmed by the press of the guards who swiftly pierced him with the great spear and dragged him up the bank. At this sight the Britons cried out and fell into a great confusion with many entering the ford but twice their number taking to their chariots [and fleeing].

Caesar ordered us forwards to meet the Britons and his guards fell upon the warrior, fixing his flesh to the ground with hastae of [cold-forged] iron. The strength of the warrior was indeed great for despite these grievous wounds he swooned not, loosing cries of agony with each piercing. Caesar himself then approached the warrior, drawing his sword and shouting much encouragement [to the men at] the ford. Then he struck with a single blow the warrior’s head [from his neck] and taking it by the hair held it aloft crying out “Thus for my boats!”.

The Britons, their champion slain, let forth a great and despairing groan and made to flee [back across the ford]. Many score fell to our slings and we swept forward calling upon the Salian Mars to destroy [our foes?]

Seniorem sit Senex?

So I was thinking, why not share some wild speculation about the Old Man – Genius Loci of the River Thames – in Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant/Rivers of London series?

Tiberius Claudius Verica, put on some pants!

The Old Man – AKA Father Thames – was originally a Romano-British priest named Tiberius Claudius Verica who made a deal with the River Thames while standing on the original bridge of Roman London. And when we say original bridge we mean original. When Peter pays a second visit to the memory of Roman London in Lies Sleeping he notes that the bridge stands on pontoons, making it the temporary one the Romans put up after their invasion in AD 43. They replaced it with a pile bridge around AD 50, so there’s maybe a period of 10 years when Verica could have made his deal.

His ‘sons’ on the other hand – the Genii Locorum of the Thames’ tributaries – clearly predate the Romans. Familial relationships between river gods are unnecessarily complicated, but both the old Beverly Brook and Tyburn are at the very least Celtic Britons. Assuming they updated with the times (which we certainly know Sir William of Tyburn did) they could conceivably date back to the first peopling of Britain way back in the paleolithic.

Whenever exactly Tyburn and Beverly (or should that be Beaver-Lea?) were adopted by their water courses, it certainly preceded the adoption of Verica. Which seems pretty odd. How is it that (comparatively) minor rivers would have their own deities, while the Thames didn’t?

One answer is obvious. It used to have a god, but then it didn’t. The Old Man is not the original Genius Loci of the Thames!

If someone killed your family then published THIS I imagine you’d piss off upriver as well…

We have seen several examples of rivers losing their gods then acquiring new ones. The most prominent is of course is the abandonment of the lower Thames by the Old Man after the Great Stink and the deaths of his sons in 1858. The tideway remained godless for a century until the adoption of Mamma Thames circa 1958. But there’s also the example of the Mosel, whose Genius Loci was murdered by the Ahnenerbe during World War II. A new goddess spontaneously appeared around 2010, seventy or so years later.

In 2013 During the events of Foxglove Summer Peter and Beverly were involved in the potential creation of a new Genius Loci for the River Lugg, the previous god having been killed by Welsh Methodists. While Methodism started spreading through Wales in the 1730s it doesn’t seem unreasonable to presume that attempts at river-murder would require some kind of organisational backing – the official Presbyterian Church of Wales being established in 1811 suggests the attack may have taken place after that date.

(Edit: A reread of Foxglove Summer has supplied the fact that the Lugg was done in during the Victorian era, which gives us a limit of 112 to 176 years before 2013)

So these examples give us rivers waiting for between 70 and 200 176 years to choose a new god.

If we apply this range to the date of Tiberius Claudius Verica’s elevation to Genius Loci we get a date for the death of the previous Father Thames somewhere between 130 and 20 BC. So the question is, what happened around the Thames in this period that could have killed a Genius Loci?

I’ll tell you what happened – three words – Gaius Julius Caesar!

Caesar’s first invasion of Britain in 55 BC was a bit of a fizzer. He turned up on the beach, made camp, lost a bunch of boats to unexpected high tides then turned around and went home. But the following year he came back and (despite further tidal problems) ended up chasing the Britons all the way to the Thames and parts beyond. He even sent a war elephant stomping into the river. We know that the Romans knew how to make gods (cf. Mr Punch), isn’t it possible they knew how to kill them too?

If we want to speculate further, perhaps it wasn’t tides that damaged Caesar’s boats? A ticked off Genius Loci in control of the Thames Estuary could do a lot of damage. And anyone – god or man – who struck at Julius Caesar usually came to regret it.

So in 45 BC Caesar’s legions killed the god of the Thames. Ninety-five years later the river chose a new god, a young Briton who’d seen which way the wind was blowing and hitched his chariot to the incoming Romans.

(Of course none of this explains why the Walbrook had no god 11 years later, but I can’t solve all these issues at once!)

Edit: I turned this into a story, because of course I did.

Where the Pink Flamingos Stand

I’ve really been getting into Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series of late. For those not in the know it’s a series of urban fantasy books about a rookie cop in London who finds himself apprenticed to the UK’s last operating wizard, who also happens to be an Inspector in charge of a department of the Metropolitan Police that they don’t like to talk about. They’re great reads with sharp, funny writing and plenty of geeky references to both popular nerd culture (book number three mentions Space Hulk for crying out loud!) and the history of London – both subjects dear to my heart.

I’ve read the first three so far. I actually enjoyed the first one (Rivers of London or, if you’re American and thus can’t be trusted with proper book titles Midnight Riot) so much that within ten minutes of finishing it I had purchased and was reading book two, Moon Over Soho (it helped that I was in the city at the time and hence only a few minutes walk from White Dwarf Books). On two occasions while reading the series I almost shouted out loud in a public place – the first when I figured out who the villain in Rivers of London was (a full two pages before his give away catchphrase I would like to point out ;)), and the second from sheer astonishment at Nightingale’s reminiscences about tiger hunting – which is pretty impressive for someone as reserved as my good self.

Prior to picking up Rivers of London I was chiefly familiar with Ben due to his work on Doctor Who, he being responsible for the classic McCoy era story Remembrance of the Daleks and its brilliant novelisation. I was already a fan simply because he included in that work a reference to the British Rocket Group, but he has now been elevated into the pantheon of my absolutely favourite authors. I’m very much looking forwards to reading the continuing adventures of PC Grant, but am taking a break before moving on to Broken Homes to minimise my risk of hyperthaumaturgical degradation.

Now, it’s inevitable that the title of book two in the Peter Grant series – Moon Over Soho – would not as intended remind me of jazz music, but of The Drew Carey Show. As such I’ve been wandering around the flat singing to myself…

Moon over Soho bring my love to me tonight!
Guide her to Lambeth, underneath your silvery light!
We’re going shopping! So don’t lose her in Wapping!
Moon over Soho, tonight!

(I cannot see any reason why someone would travel from Soho to Lambeth via Wapping, but when the Muse calls you gotta accept the charges).

After several weeks of such awfulness it occurred to me to do some poking around to try and find the source of Mr Carey’s first season ditty, and with very little trouble I tracked down the original, as broadcast on Cleveland area TV station WJW in what would appear to the early 70’s, but based on contextual clues can be no earlier than 1988…

I really like it. Singer/Songwriter Bob “Mad Dog” McGuire has a fine voice, and I enjoy the way his slightly tongue in cheek lyrics depict the North Coast of Ohio as a setting for romance equivalent to Hawaii or Capri. Well done Bob!

On top of his cut down opening theme performance Drew Carey actually recorded a full version of the song, giving it more of a swing…

Also, in an act of wonderful lunacy, 90’s Canadian white boy rapper Snow also did a version for the final season of The Drew Carey Show, which is one of those things that you need to hear to actually believe…

So yes. Read the PC Grant series, keep an eye out for anything involving Ben Aaronovitch and consider Lake County Ohio for your next romantic getaway!

PS: I wonder if Mr Aaronovitch is aware that a branch of the river Tyburn passes almost exactly underneath the Folly? This cannot bode well…