Often, we are asked where the name “Burn the Ships” comes from. To us, it’s a personal mantra; a statement about the willingness to put forth everything to achieve victory.
The act of burning one’s own ships is the physical manifestation of this idea; a tactic that military commanders throughout history have used to overcome the challenges that made everyone before them simply avoid the venture. Thus, we found ourselves - both as military commanders and entrepreneurs - inspired by the words, “Burn the Ships.”
With that, I want to share with you why this statement has meaning; the many stories that have made the firing of masts, hulls and sails into a bold ideology (and incredible ale). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of “Burn the Ships.”
The Solent, 296
Much of the known world is ruled by the mighty Roman Empire, which is now at the height of its power. Diocletian, who has recently emerged as the first sole Emperor in decades following the Crisis of the Third Century, controls a kingdom spanning from Spain to Mesopotamia, and Egypt to the island of Britain. In the wake of the empire’s near collapse from infighting, he comes to power knowing that political changes need to be made if the vast reaches of Rome are to remain united.
Thus, he makes a revolutionary decision once he takes the throne in 285: divide the empire.
Diocletian establishes a system of subordinate emperors, beginning with the appointment of fellow military officer Maximian to the position of Augustus (Senior Emperor) of the western territories, and later appoint two Caesar’s (Junior Emperors) in 293, while he remains the superior emperor over the entirety of the empire.
History would prove this division to be both a political and societal success, with the Roman Empire stabilizing economically and militarily. There are, however, obstacles to this new-found peace.
Carausius, a man of humble beginnings from modern-day Belgium, is a rising star within the Roman Navy. His ability to overwhelm enemies in battle gains him command over the Classis Britannia - a naval fleet charged with controlling the English Channel and removing pirate threats - in 286. Carausius, however, is found to be corrupt, having confiscated stolen treasures for his own personal gain. He even allows Frankish and Saxon pirates to continue their raids on coastal settlements before moving on them in order to enrich himself further. Upon discovery, Diocletian orders Maximian to have Carausius executed.
In response, Carausius cedes Britain and northern Gaul (Europe’s northern coastline) from the Roman Empire, and declares himself its emperor in 287. He is successful in building his military might, building additional naval vessels and growing his army with hired mercenaries, who were attracted by the promise of vast riches. This added military might combined with his tactical genius allows him to successfully defeat Maximian’s invasion attempts, which Carausius touts as a decisive military victory.
Carausius is beginning to legitimize his empire, quickly becoming known as the “Restorer of Britain” and “Spirit of Britain.” While these titles are mere propaganda produced by Carausius himself, it is undeniable that his grip on the northwest is growing. Yet, his new empire is built on oppression and the unjustified accumulation of riches, breeding corruption within his ranks.
It is seven long years before the Romans are able to begin retaking Carausius’ territory. They slowly liberate northern Gaul in 293 through tedious siege warfare. It is Allectus, Carausius’ right-hand man and whom he entrusted to maintain his empire’s treasury, who seizes the opportunity. He assassinates Carausius at one of their remaining mainland ports, assumes control over the empire and immediately concentrates their forces in and around Britain to prevent any further Roman advance.
While regaining the northern coast of Europe is a victory, it is a minor one at best; the rebellion still maintains a stronghold over Britain and its bountiful economy. Maximian and his newly appointed Caesar, Constantius Chlorus, once again draw plans to attempt an invasion of Britain. Yet, excuses of imperfect weather and the strong defenses of the island impede their progress. As such, their plans continually fall short against Allectus and his legions of brutal mercenaries.
Finally, in 296, after over three years of failed strategies, the two leaders bring in the lesser-known, yet creative, military mind of Julius Asclepiodotus to assist in reconquering the island.
Julius understands up front that while Allectus has a formidable army and navy at his disposal, they are driven only by shallow and selfish means; they lack the sheer determination, tenacity and motivation the Roman legions had become famous for in defeating other seemingly powerful militaries. He recommends a rapid invasion of Britain; an effort to strike one decisive blow against the enemy. He believes that once initially overwhelmed, they will not be able to muster the courage to remain unified against the Romans.
In essence, he knows that once engaged in a battle of wills, the rebels will not match up, regardless of tactical advantage.
Julius’ final plan calls for a dual naval force to cross the channel and approach Britain from the south, landing their army on the shores near what today are the towns of Southampton, Portsmouth and Chichester. The fleets would rendezvous in the Solent - a strait separating the mainland of Britain from the Isle of Wight.
The intent of splitting the fleet is to avoid Allectus’ navy, which will be heavily patrolling the waters around the Isle of Wight since the Solent Strait is key to Britain’s ports and thus, their economy. Julius emphasized that the main objective was to land on the mainland and commit the rebel’s main army; not get bogged down in petty naval skirmishes off the coast, nor costly sieges on the shoreline.
Julius’ superiors approve the plan: The primary fleet and army to be commanded by Caesar Constantius himself, while Julius would to lead the secondary force in support.
The day of the invasion arrives in June of 296. Yet, poor fortune plagues the Romans again as a heavy fog blankets the channel and entire southern coast of Britain. Once again, Constantius, finding it difficult to navigate, becomes wavered by the unfavorable conditions. He expresses his desire to call off the attack, but Julius refuses to turn back. He knows that while navigating the channel and strait could be risky, turning back would further weaken the resolve of their men, while strengthening that of the rebels. They had committed to action; returning without having liberated Britain was simply not an option.
Instead, he leverages the thick fog to his advantage, using it as suitable cover on his approach to the shoreline. While not entirely positive where he has landed, he successfully reaches the beaches of Britain without being seen by any of Allectus’ patrols.
Upon landing, Julius hastily rallies his men and orders them to march inland toward the rebel defenses. His commanders initially question the order, their men nervous and wary about continuing onward without the entirety of their force on-hand. They request they wait until Constantius and the main body reached the shore, or they re-embark into the Solent to attempt to reconnect with his fleet.
Bluntly, Julius responds with a second order: “Burn the Ships.”
When questioned again as to why they would destroy the single asset that would grant them solace back within the Roman Empire, Julius declared that the land they now stood upon was indeed the Roman Empire once more.
This was his message to his commanders and their men: they would not remain satisfied having taken the shore, nor would they embark once again to rendezvous with the larger fleet. By setting the ships ablaze, Allectus would become aware of their landing, forcing Julius’ men to drive forward and attack rather than sit and wait to be attacked.
Thus, Julius led his men inland, their fleet burning behind them.
Reinvigorated with a tenacity only Roman warriors could embody, Julius marched on Allectus’ defenses. Rumors amongst the rebels of the burning ships instill a level of fear that they had not yet experienced. Upon site of the rapidly advancing Roman legions, their will to fight quickly deteriorates. In the midst of the chaos, Allectus quickly finds himself in command of an empire in shambles. He attempts to escape north among his retreating forces, having stripped himself of his lavish clothing and decorations in hopes that he would not be identified if captured.
He would not be captured, however. Instead, Julius is able to quickly outmaneuver his retreating army, surrounding them on the field of battle. Worn, weary and defeated, the rebels succumb to an onslaught that sees every man cut down, including Allectus himself.
Constantius lands ashore in time to witness only the aftermath of Julius’ blitz across southern Britain. His army chases down the last remaining pockets of resistance before securing the island. The revolt has officially come to an end.
Records of Julius following his expeditionary conquest of Britain are lacking. While he is placed in charge of reestablishing Roman authority across the territory, it is Constantius who is credited with the liberation of Britain. History makes a mere footnote of Julius Asclepiodotus and his willingness to place all he had on the line to defeat the unjustly oppressive and heavily favored rebels.
Coming forward with a bold plan to defeat a rebel empire that had repelled Roman military elite for a decade, and subsequently having the audacity to drive onward in the wake of unforeseen obstacles, makes Julius Asclepiodotus a great figure in the Burn the Ships saga.
If something is important to you, you will find a way. If not - whether it be fog, miscommunication, or the idea that it is too much of a challenge - you will find your excuse. Drive on.