Did Alfred the Great invent the story of Caesar invading Britain?

Apparently so, according to this Danish site (Aug 16, 2017, written by Ben Hamilton):

Caesar conquering Britain a 9th century invention by Alfred the Great: Saxon king fabricated 54 BC invasion to replace Viking-friendly heir and protect England from the Danes

He came … He saw … but He tampered

As you do.

This story is by a certain “Rebecca Huston, a former National Geographic Channel producer and American screenwriter who after ten years of original research and analysis” concludes that “by doctoring a Latin version of one of the ancient world’s most famous writings, and altering several Old English manuscripts, he was able to convince his council of nobles that his son Edward was the rightful heir to his throne, not his nephew Æthelwold, a Saxon susceptible to alliances with the Danes. And the astonishing upshot of this discovery is that Julius Caesar neither invaded nor conquered Britain in 54 BC.”

It continues:

Along with the collected letters of Cicero, the memoirs written by Caesar while he was conquering France and other areas of central Europe in the fifth decade of the first century BC is believed by many to be one of the few manuscripts to have survived the period.  But there is a very good chance that Caesar’s ‘Commentaries’ did not survive, and that ‘Bellum Gallicum’ (BG), the title it is known as today, was the work of other writers. Historians are wrong to treat it as gospel and to suppose this was the true voice of Caesar. But many do, and therefore they duly accept that he invaded Britain.

The basis for this?  That the earliest manuscript of the BG is 9th century, “coinciding with Alfred’s life”; that Caesar “lapses” into first person in the BG; “120 examples of Alfred’s idiosyncratic writing style”; 40 references to Alfred himself (which a forger would naturally introduce into his work); and so on.

But curiously I can’t find any other source for this story.  Nor can I find any sign of a Rebecca Huston, associated with National Geographic.  Which is more than odd, all by itself.

A glance at Texts and Transmissions reveals that the Bellum Gallicum is transmitted by two families of manuscripts, both with a 9th century exemplar.  The first was written at Fleury in the second half of the century, the other at Corbie in the 3rd quarter of the century.  The first family contains mainly the BG; the other contains all the commentaries.  Neither manuscript is British or associated with Britain, as far as I can see.

As for the other evidence, I must defer to specialists.  But I have long since grown wary of such claims.  Sifting fernseed seems to be bad for the eyes, in altogether too many cases.

Fascinating to see a claim like this, where there seems no discernible motive.  Or is it simply a silly-season invention by a journalist?

UPDATE (28/8/17): After writing this, I dropped an email to Ben Hamilton at the Copenhagen Post, who replied very promptly and helpfully, and made clear that the story is genuine.  He gave this link at IMDB for Rebecca Huston.  I have since also received some emails from Rebecca Huston.  It will be interesting to look further into this one.


9 thoughts on “Did Alfred the Great invent the story of Caesar invading Britain?

  1. Suetonius, life of Julius Caesar, 1913 Loeb tr.:

    He invaded the Britons too, a people unknown before, vanquished them, and exacted moneys and hostages. Amid all these successes he met with adverse fortune but three times in all: in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm;…
    They say that he was led to invade Britain by the hope of getting pearls, and that in comparing their size he sometimes weighed them with his own hand…
    he did not cross to Britain without making personal inquiries about the harbours, the course, and the approach to the island.

    The “personal inquiries” in that last pericope is – acc. the editor – held to be a reference to Gallic Wars 4.21, To gain such knowledge before he made the venture, Caesar thought Gaius Volusenus a proper person to send on in advance with a ship of war. His orders were to spy out everything and to return to him at once.

  2. Add Strabo 4.5.3, Livy (Periochae 105), Orosius 6.8.2 and God knows how many others who more or less coincide with Caesar’s account. But one would have to read Huston’s actual research instead of this article to see what exactly her claims are and how she explains all the evidence on the contrary. That is, if it’s ever published and is not mysteriously suppressed by Alfred’s descendants. If no Rebecca Huston ever appears it would be proof that she was onto something big.

  3. I vaguely recalled Cicero having something, and it is in his Letters Ad familiares. This from the Penguin translation, vol. 2. There are a number of letters referring to the campaign. Here are a couple:

    From p.312.

    How pleased I was to get your letter from Britain! I dreaded the
    Ocean and the island coast. Not that I make light of what is to
    come, but there is more to hope than to fear, and my suspense is
    more a matter of anticipation than of anxiety. You evidently
    have some splendid literary material – the places, the natural
    phenomena and scenes, the customs, the peoples you fight, and,
    last but not least, the Commander-in-Chief! I shall be glad to
    help you, as you ask, in any way you wish, and I shall send you
    the verses you ask for (an owl to Athens!).


    Caesar dispatched a letter to me from Britain on the Kalends
    of September which I received on 27 September, giving a good
    enough account of the British campaign. He says that, in case I
    might wonder why I got no letter from you, you were not with
    him when he got to the coast. I have not replied, not even to
    congratulate him, because of his bereavement.

    But I think there must be at least another somewhere, because I can remember him referring to the lack of value in Britain; no gold, and only slaves who aren’t likely to be educated or any good for anything. Perhaps that is in the Letters to Atticus?

    I don’t seem to have as much Cicero on my hard disk as I should. Hmm!

  4. To be fair, Caesar never *conquered* Britain, but all sources—and there are quite a lot—point to the fact that he was there, that he invaded the country, but he obviously had bigger fish to fry on the continent. What seems to be debated is whether he actually took his elephants with him. At least one ancient source says he did. (Don’t remember which one, though.) There’s also a funny passage, where, after stepping foot on British soil, the first thing he did, to the astonishment of his soldiers, was to stay on the beach and search the water for pearls as a gift to M. Brutus’ mother, allegedly his mistress. Hard to believe that much later forgers would add this kind of an anecdote. Due to the somewhat anti-Caesarian nature it would rather be an anecdote that a *contemporary* ancient writer would forge.

  5. Polyaenus, Stratagems 8.23.5 is the source on Caesar & Britain & elephant, but I couldn’t find the pearl story; there’s mention of it in Suetonius, but not in detail. So the beach anecdote might be a false memory. (?)

  6. As a(n amateur) redaction-critic I was more interested in the textual state of the Bellum. The Loeb editors believed that Suetonius had access to that part of Caesar’s memoir.

    In particular, thank you Mr Pearse for the Cicero quote (I haven’t read enough Cicero). This tells us that Caesar himself had claimed to have set foot across the Channel, before the Bellum was published. So if the Bellum is a forgery, it is most likely a forgery from Claudius’s time and based on records from Caesar’s family. Which would make it, at worst, a Claudian-era edition of Caesar’s own record.

    At a certain point, skepticism seems less like a necessary corrective to ossified consensus and more like a disingenuous academic game.

  7. Rubbish. IF the only source today for Caesar’s invasion of Britain were English monasteries of the 9th century, there might be some reason to accept this hypothesis. But Caesar’s writing were being copied all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, dating back to Caesar’s own time. Other ancient sources also site his raid into Britain. Our modern versions aren’t not based upon English copies. So of course this is utter rubbish.

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