Friday, 8 October 2021

Roman Conquests, Britain - Dr Simon Elliott

One of my birthday presents this year was this new book by Dr Simon Elliot recounting the narrative of the incomplete Roman conquest of Britain from Julius Caesar's initial 'reconnaissance in force' in 55-54 BC through the campaigns of expansion and pacification that followed the Claudian invasion of 43 AD.

I was looking for such a book as this, which would bring my understanding of the Roman invasion and occupation of my home island up to date, and to accompany my planned exploration of some of the key sites in the UK on my 'bucket list' and to perhaps include others after reading it.

As I've mentioned in previous reviews of ancient history book titles, I always approach them with a certain caution in that from previous experience one is never sure that the read is going to offer much new in its insights or end up just being a rehash of previous sources of which the primary ones become fewer and fewer the further back you go, that mixed with a generous portion of so called 'educated guesswork and speculation' that seems to constitute a lot of the discourse in this area until archaeological finds come along and upset the apple cart.

The cover on this book, beautifully illustrated by Dominic Allen and published by Pen and Sword, boldly states on the back of the dust jacket;

'Offers a clear narrative and analysis of the Roman conquest from Julius Caesar's failed incursions (55 and 54 BC) to the Claudian Invasion (43 AD) and the subsequent campaigns of expansion and (never completed) pacification.'

'Analyses the weapons, equipment, organisation, leadership, tactics and strategies of both the Romans and their British foes, and how each attempted to adapt.'

'Draws on the very latest historical research and archaeological finds.'

'Well illustrated with colour photos and colour artworks.

Dr Elliot is described as;

'an award winning and best selling historian, archaeologist, author, broadcaster, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent, Trustee of the Council of British Archaeology, Ambassador for the Museum of London Archaeology, Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels and President of the Society of Ancients....'

I have to say I enjoyed the read and it does pretty much what it says on the cover and, given my earlier points about limited source material, gave me a solid understanding of the key periods illustrating well the unique aspects of Britain in the Roman Empire; for example, how long it took the invaders to occupy and pacify the territory they took from the Claudian invasion in 43 AD to Agricola's campaign in the north that culminated in the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD, a period of forty painfully slow years of expansion compared with Julius Caesar only taking eight years to conquer the far larger territory of Gaul.

The process of the Roman invasion and gradual occupation of Britain is well illustrated in this map

The progress of this 'stop-start' occupation is explained well and I certainly came away with a very good understanding of the the critical factors that enabled the Romans to make the progress they did against an enemy that, in the main, chose not to meet them in open battle but resorted to guerrilla tactics designed to wear down their opponents and attack their supply lines.

This campaign winning factor was the creation of the Roman fleet or 'Classis Britannica' that was able to take full advantage of Roman command at sea by dominating the British coast and riverine routes in support of Roman advances, never too far away from their support to rapidly move troops, bring up supplies and land scouting forces ahead of the main thrusts, that kept the enemy off balance and in retreat until forced to make a stand and suffer the likely consequences.

How kids of my generation had the Roman invasion of Britain illustrated in the children's magazines of the time 'Look and Learn' and 'Tell me Why'.

The challenges of pacification are also well discussed and the evidence that supports the known and suspected uprisings that kept the Romans occupied behind their forward line often as much as before it, with archaeology on key Roman military structures showing evidence of ditches dug forward and behind in these periods of unrest, only for the rearward defences to be removed later along with the threat that caused their construction.

After reading this book, my urge to get on and finish my Romano-Dacian collection is reignited, which must say something of what a good read I found it to be.

As an example and with a personal particular interest in the Principate era and the Trajanic-Hadrianic time of the occupation I found the chapter covering the always dangerous period of change from one emperor to the next very interesting, covering the relatively peaceful time of Trajan as he focussed his efforts on Dacia and later Parthia dying in Syria and with Hadrian at his side.

Elliot references the Historia Augusta for this period when it states that;

'the Britons couldn't be kept under control  . .'

and quotes the Roman rhetorician Marcus Cornelius Fronto writing to his former pupil, Marcus Aurelius in the AD 160's, stating that the heavy casualties suffered by the Romans in the Rome-Parthian War at that time were comparable to those suffered at the beginning of Hadrian's reign.

Among the evidence he puts forward to support the ferocity of this British uprising includes the funerary monument to Titus Anneus, a centurion of the I Tungrorum auxiliary cohort in the vexillation fort of Vindolanda referencing him being killed ' . . . in the war.', together with one of the recently excavated tablets, specifically number 164 remarking on the ' . . . nasty little Britons. [Brittunculi]'

He goes on to state that the troubling level of the insurgency, which he quotes Moorhead and Stuttard as describing it 'threatening the very survival of the province', and required the creation of a special task force, with a tombstone to Titus Pontius Sabinus, Primus Pilus (Senior Centurion) Legio III Augusta, recording his being seconded by the Emperor Hadrian to command an emergency task force called the 'expeditio Britannica.' which included vexillations from three legions, based in Germania Inferior  (legio VIII Augusta, legio XXII Primigenia and legio VII Gemina); which if troops were also drawn from his own legion may have amounted to an expeditionary force of some 4,000 men, supported by auxiliaries as mentioned on an altar in Maryport, Cumbria to Marcus Maenius Agrippa commander of cohors I Hispanorum, an auxiliary cavalry regiment attached to the expeditionem britannicam by Hadrian.

York (Eboracum) and Chester (Deva Victrix) figure large in the later attempts
at Roman pacification of Britain, both of which I visited
and looked at the evidence of their Roman past
JJ's Wargames - The Yorkshire Museum, York
JJ's Wargames - Deva Vicitrix, Roman Chester, Part One

Elliot speculates as to who might have been causing the trouble, with the Brigantes, only recently pacified, put forward as prime candidates, with the raising of auxiliary troops from this region of northern England for service overseas a likely reason for revolt, but trouble north of the border, later to be consolidated with the construction of 'Hadrian's Wall', was always a threat and cannot also be discounted and it seems likely that the trouble may have overwhelmed the local garrisons which may explain the disappearance of legio IX Hispana, and the intervention of Centurions Sabinus and Agrippa.

For any wargamer interested in the Roman period of ancient history and in the British occupation, all this detail of suspected uprisings and revolts is glorious stuff to feed any thoughts and ideas for modelling a collection to recreate these potential clashes and I found my imagination running riot with ideas as I read Elliot's accounts of what is thought was going on in these islands at specific periods of that occupation.

The campaign that should have completed the final occupation of Britain and led to the invasion of Ireland in time, but never fulfilled after Agricola was recalled to Rome

Intermixed with the narrative is a generous inclusion of the latest archaeological finds that support the conclusions and the evidence on the ground illustrating Roman activity at any given time given the level of construction that followed and preceded Roman activity from roads and town construction to marching camps and military impedimenta left in their wake.

There is a lot in this book and the journey through the various periods, and the many emperors and Roman commanders, might be mind blowing to the casual reader with only a partial knowledge of Roman history, and I would recommend a listen to Mike Duncan's old podcast 'A History of Rome' for a good grounding in the places and people involved in its long-long history and which will make all the names covered in this book much more familiar.

That said I thoroughly enjoyed the read and, as I read to inform and inspire my hobby, came away with lots of ideas and inspiration and would recommend it to similarly inclined pursuers of our hobby.

The last 'really big' Roman resurgence campaign was led by Septimius Severus in what would be described today as a campaign of 'shock and awe' and stabilised the north for another ten years after its conclusion.

There is however one gripe I have with the book, and it's a familiar one, but an example that stands out in my mind as a classic transgressor. You would think that a book covering the Roman invasion and incomplete occupation of mainland Britain would have included at least one map, perhaps just to illustrate some of the key places mentioned.

As a reader who is native to these isles and who has travelled among them quite extensively even I found reference to certain obscure towns in and around the northern border of England and Scotland new to me and my heart goes out to readers who are not familiar with the layout of Britain, but who have a strong interest and desire to know more.

The Romans would go on and on developing their defences in Britain in the face of continual uprisings and invasions illustrated by the octagonal tower in York, built in the later occupation.

Even putting this post together required me to source the excellent colour map from Wikipedia seen above to illustrate the extent of Roman military operations covered in this title from the Claudian invasion in 43 AD to the Agricola invasion of Scotland in 77 AD and a similar map included in this title would have been very much appreciated.

As the President of the Society of Ancients and a wargamer himself, if his collection of Severan Roman figures included as part of the collection of colour plates is to be considered as illustrative, I would have thought the inclusion of at least a few maps would have been a high priority given the bane of the hobby this part of our reading often includes, and I feel a bit like Nelson calling for more frigates and the want of them, please, please, please, Pen & Sword and other publishers, will you start to put this omission right and get appropriate maps included in your titles.

Rant over on that particular irritation and back to the book contents and the final conclusion to this book that draws on a theme I made in my last book review looking at the Two Battles of Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807 and drawing the comparison of government led misappreciation of the threat a potential enemy presented with that conflict and the later Invasion of Iraq in 2003 and indeed Churchill's decision to bombard the French fleet in Mirs-el-Kabir in 1940, both with distinct similarities to this previous conflict with Denmark.

In his conclusion to the decision by Romano-British elites to expel Roman tax collectors in the 5th century, effectively detaching themselves from an overstretched empire, quoting Zosimus;

'The barbarians caused such suffering among the inhabitants of Britain . . . that they revolted from the Roman Empire. They no longer recognised Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. So the Britons armed themselves and took many risks to ensure their own safety and keep their town free from barbarian attacks.'

He goes on to liken this to the first 'British Brexit' and the defining characteristic of the Roman occupation that underpins Britain's very distinctive relationship with the rest of Europe, part of it but separate and that as well as the roads, towns and borders that separate the home nations of Britain being a left over aspect of the incomplete Roman occupation, the fact that English is as much a German based language as it is Latin has also come to define these islands in relation to its European neighbours and illustrates how we are still living with the consequences of our Roman past today.

A very interesting and thought provoking comparison to modern times, with not exactly the same circumstances but certainly with a similar rhyme, to quote Mark Twain.

Roman Conquests Britain by Simon Elliott is 229 pages which includes the following:

List of Tables 
1. The Legions of the Roman Principate
2. Known Auxiliary Cohorts and Alae of the mid-late 2nd century AD
3. Regional Fleets of the Roman Principate

14 Black and White Plates, 16 Colour Plates

Chapter 1: The Roman Military in the Republic and Empire
Chapter 2: Britain in the Late Iron Age
Chapter 3: Julius Caesar and Britain
Chapter 4: The Claudian Invasion of Britain
Chapter 5: Early Conquest Campaigns AD 43 - AD 61
Chapter 6: Later Conquest Campaigns AD 62 - AD 193
Chapter 7: Septimius Severus in Scotland
Chapter 8: Later Campaigns in the Far North

Timeline of Roman Britain
List of References and Bibliography

The book is hardback and published by Pen & Sword and has a cover price of £19.99 but a quick glance on the net shows the title selling from £14.50 to £15.00.

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