The Roman Invasion of Britain

By Graham Webster.

I liked the first half much better than the second half. I ended up at two stars on goodreads. He spends a lot of time in the second half of the book talking about where various roads/routes and forts may have been located 2000 years ago, and unless you actually happen to live near one of the areas described you’re probably going to get bored at some point; he just keeps going and going about those roads and that little pottery shard which may indicate that perhaps there was a fort nearby, etc. I got bored towards the end, and I do not bore easily. The first half had some quite interesting stuff though.

In general the book could be easier to navigate and it was downright infuriating a few times; there were a lot of placenames I didn’t know (I didn’t grow up in Sussex), and I was thinking to myself while reading this: Why the hell not present a map with that kind of stuff at the beginning to make the book easier to read for people who happen not to have grown up in Eastern Essex (…or wherever)? I should note that there were plenty of maps in the book, with depictions of where various different types of coins have been found and where military routes and forts are assumed to have been located, among other things – so it’s probably not that the idea did not occur to him. But for some reason the author decided that the first 15 maps in the book (or whatever, I didn’t count) should contain close to zero information about place-names, etc. You could probably add placenames to the maps included by deducing where all those places he’s talking about must be located given the locations of the dots on the early maps (each dot representing a coin which has been found at that location), but the first map with a significant number of place-names was on page 117; much, much too late. I at one point gave up figuring out precisely where one of the places he talks about in the book was, because pretty much the only google hits I got from looking up the term were quotes from the book; wikipedia had no clue where it was. Later on I realized where it was, but that kind of stuff just can’t happen – I thought up some not very nice terms which I might have been tempted to use to describe the author while I was confused about these things, and I don’t often finish books which start making me think along those lines.

I did finish it though, and it actually isn’t as bad as I might have made it out to be – there was good stuff as well. I’ve previously read some stuff about the European bronze age, and some stuff about the history of the Roman Empire – from more than one angle – but although Robin Lane Fox did talk a bit about this stuff in his book this was definitely a topic about which I did not know much and about which I wanted to know more. And I did learn quite a bit although it’s not a very exciting book. The book is not just about the Romans; a substantial number of pages are devoted to telling you about the British people inhabiting the islands at the time of the invasion (and before), and about the various tribal leaders and their relationships with each others and with Rome. Some cultural (e.g. the Romans didn’t like the Druids, and the feeling was mutual) and economic (some parts of South England were for various reasons trading much more with Rome than were other parts, see also below) factors of importance are covered. Great emphasis is often placed on the problems confronted by the archaeologist when he’s to decide what can and cannot be deduced from the evidence at hand, and although there’s a lot of speculation in the book (given so limited evidence there arguably has to be in a book like this, for it to be at all readable) it’s clear where the evidence ends and the speculation starts.

I should perhaps emphasize that my relatively low rating of the book has nothing to do with it being ‘poorly documented’ or ‘unscientific’. It’s a solid piece of work, almost surely based on the best evidence available at the time of publication. Nope, it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s rather that the author somehow manages to make this exciting stuff quite boring, and he also managed to make me borderline angry at him while I was reading his book because of the things he chose not to include in his work. At the time where he was talking about the 28th route on his map, I really didn’t give a crap whether there was a fort near Baldock or not. You need to be more autistic than I am to find that stuff interesting.

A few quotes from the book below – I’ve added links to wiki articles to provide context where I assumed context was needed:

“Taking a broad view of the country, one could say that the most backward peoples were living in the hill country of the north and west, while the most sophisticated, in terms of social organization and knowledge of the crafts, especially in metallurgy, occupied the lowlands of the south and east, and in those parts nearest the Continent dwelt the very latest newcomers.
But such statements should be treated with caution” […]

“The first Iron Age culture to make inroads in Britain is known as the Hallstatt […] So great had been the influx of new settlers, that there are signs of land hunger and a struggle for possession. This is seen in the growth of defended enclosures in strong positions, the first hill-forts. […] it would seem that by c. 700 BC the newcomers had spread across Britain, taking possession of lands and setting up their hill-forts to protect themselves from others coming along in their wake or, of course, against the people whose lands had been taken over. […] the distribution of the Hallstatt type of defences and artefacts was confined to the south and east of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Humber, apart from settlements in east Yorkshire. This important geological division was to remain, […] a cultural divide in the organization of the Province of Roman Britain. […] the people of Britain, at the time of the Roman conquest, were an amalgam of those who had been here for thousands of years and of the spasmodic succession of migrants more recently from Europe seeking refuge and lands for settlement. The most important ethnic groups which came to dominate much of Britain were the Celts. These peoples originated in central Europe in the valleys of the Upper Danube and Rhine.” […]

“The most important effect of Caesar’s appearance on the British scene was to divide the south-eastern tribes into pro- and anti-Roman groups. Those who had suffered defeat, i.e. the tribes on the north bank of the Thames and in Kent were forced to pay an annual tribute which sustained a festering hatred of Rome. Those who benefited, the Trinovantes, the Catuvellauni if, as logic demands, are the people of the Verulamion and Braughing areas and their allies, would have been rewarded by political alliances and access to trade with Rome […] As far as Rome was concerned, south-eastern Britain had been conquered and treaty relationships had been established with a powerful group of tribes. The next stage would have been to allow the effects of trade and cultural contacts to prepare the way for full occupation with all the apparatus of government and law.” [But then the Romans had trouble with Gallic tribes, and then there was a civil war.] “The 97 years between the two Roman invasions can thus be divided into two parts; the first, when Rome was preoccupied by her own internal troubles and when there are no historical references to Britain; the second, when Augustus began to consider the problems of his Empire, and Britain was placed on the diplomatic agenda and references begin to appear. One has to rely heavily on the archaeological evidence to supply the missing parts in the story of these changes.” […] One can reasonably assume that a trading connection had been well established by c. 10 BC following the wine route. Fine Roman wines needed fine vessels to grace the tables of the richer Britons […] we know now that the trade extended far beyond this range of goods. A rescue excavation at Skeleton Green, not far from Braughing, has produced a large assemblage of pottery, which included nearly a hundred vessels from the well-known factory at modern Arezzo, halfway between Florence and Perugia.” […] very little imported wine reached Kent, nor is there evidence of any imported metalwares or pottery […] The pottery from the Kent cemeteries seems to bear out the evidence, or lack of it, in the absence of early amphorae and the very small quantity of fine metalware, all of which points to the lands south of the Thames being in a cultural backwater.” […]

“The legions were the main fighting force of the army. Although the number varied there were usually about 30 stationed along the frontiers at any one time. […] A legion consisted of ten cohorts, each divided into six centuries of 80 men (i.e. each cohort had 480 men) except the first cohort, which consisted of five double centuries (160×5=800 men), and could be used as an independent tactical unit. […] When Caesar invaded Britain for the second time in 54 BC there is little doubt that he intended a conquest of the south-east. He brought with him five legions and 2000 horses, which represented an army of about 27,000. But this assumes that his legions were up to full strength, although on another occasion, when Caesar hastened to the relief of the beleaguered Cicero, he gives the number of his force of two legions and some cavalry as 7000.[11] The army of Claudius would certainly have been up to strength and fitness. For such an important enterprise, all units would have retired their elderly and unfit, replacing them with younger men in the customary manner. The army, assembled on the Gallic coast, consisted of four legions, some 20,000 crack troops and, unlike Caesar’s army, as many auxiliaries, so the total, excluding the fleet, could have been as many as 40,000.” […]

“One has to appreciate that the stirrup had not yet reached Europe and fighting on a horse required quite a different technique to that of later periods after its introduction. The horse in classical times and earlier, was controlled with the knees and the bit, there was no solid fixed seat and the rider could not stand up to wield his sword or throw his spear; nor could cavalry be used as shock troops in a charge. Nevertheless, there was no lack of skill and fighting ability, much of which depended on the mobility of the rider on the horse. It also meant that there was a much closer relationship between the horseman and the foot-soldier. […] The functions of auxiliary cavalry varied. When the legions were on the march, they acted as a screen at the front and sides, clearing the ground and woods of any enemy lurking there, chasing off small parties and giving warning of any large body advancing or lying in wait. In a set battle they were stationed on the flanks protecting the legions in the centre from sudden attack from the sides and from the rear, but their most important contribution came when the legions broke the enemy line and their warriors began to retreat and to turn and run. This was the moment when the horsemen rode in from the flanks to cut them down from behind” […]

“the Roman invasion was precipitated by the sudden change in the political climate in south-east Britain. The rise of the anti-Roman forces, following the death of Cunobeline, totally changed the balance of power; Rome had now either to abandon any hope of maintaining useful political and trading relationships, or seize the country by force of arms. It could not have been difficult for Claudius and his advisors to reach a decision.”

“[Crassus] came from a long and distinguished line[49] although Seneca considered him stupid enough to be an emperor”

“[The Battle of the Medway] was one of the greatest and most significant battles fought on British soil signalling not merely a great victory for Rome, but the conquest of lowland Britain. Plautius must have realized that the Province was now virtually his, and all that remained were mopping-up operations and a great deal of talking and argument with the tribal leaders to bring them over to Rome. […] it is worth observing that no archaeological trace has ever been found of this momentous event. There is a myth in the minds of many people that battles leave behind masses of skeletons, a debris of armaments and weapons.[20] This remarkable notion is a complete illusion, since all the valuable equipment would have been carefully collected after the fighting, and the bodies removed for proper burial. One could expect ditches of Roman camps, but they have yet to be found.[21] The only possible piece of evidence is a hoard of 34 gold coins found at Bredgar in 1958[22]. The latest of these are four coins — issues of Claudius minted in 41 and 42. The site of this find is on the Downs but almost 11 miles, a day’s march, due east of the Medway, so it could hardly have been buried immediately before the battle, but must have been at a stopping point in the advance. An officer may have buried his savings before being despatched to deal with a minor incident and never returned to collect it[23].”


November 8, 2013 - Posted by | Archaeology, Books

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