Saturday 21 September 2013

Celts and Romans Again

The mysteries of Roman Britain, or at least, Britain in the Roman Empire are manifold. Possibly the most mysterious of them are, roughly speaking, the beginning of Roman Britain, and its end. How did the Romans come to be in Britain in the first place, and how did they end up leaving.

To focus on the first of these areas, that is the beginning of Roman Britain, is to try to understand a one sided story, for the sources of Roman history are, of course Roman. While Caesar, Tacitus, Seutonius and Dio Cassius mention Britain, it is from the perspective of Rome. The Britons are mute.

We therefore do have an account of how Britain came to be part of the Roman Empire, but it is a Roman account. Roughly speaking, Caesar invaded twice in 55 and 54 BC to punish the Britons for aiding the Gauls against him. He gave them a reasonably good thrashing and ensured that they behaved themselves for the next hundred years or so.

In 43 AD, to secure himself on the throne and, possibly to outdo the deified Caesar, Claudius authorised an invasion, which defeated the assorted British tribes, crossed the Medway and Thames and then, the commander having summoned the Emperor for the coup de grace, took Colchester and received the submission of the Britons.

Thereafter, the Romans simply gradually pushed out across the country, albeit with a few hiccoughs such as Boudicca’s rebellion and a wobble wherein the whole of the country was taken by Agricola and then the legions were withdrawn to the line of Hadrian’s Wall.

This, then is the established narrative of the beginnings of Roman Britain. However, I have just finished a book, ‘Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain’, by Miles Russell (Amberley, 2010) which casts doubt on this, which Russell calls Established Fact.

There is, I think, little doubt that the Romans did in fact turn up in 43 AD, but practically nothing else, as Russell notes, is really known. The landing of the Romans at Richborough is assumed, not proven. The location of the battles at The Medway and Thames are inferred from dubious (much later) narratives, and so on. There is also substantial archaeological evidence that Roman forts were established in Britain before 43 AD.  None of these issues usually disturb the basis of the invasion narrative.

Those of you with decent memories will realise that Russell has a track record here. He was the co-author of ‘Un-Roman Britain’, which I mentioned here a while ago, which sought to overturn the applecart on the Romanisation of the country. In that work, a chapter or so was devoted to the establishment of Roman Britain. This is the book sized version of that.

As I understand it (and it is a complex story, with large gaps), Caesar invaded to aggrandise Caesar by taking his armies to the end of the world. He was beaten, more or less, by the guerrilla tactics of the Britons and managed to extricate himself because the Britons were politically disunited and did not want to have a successful war leader, who might then conquer the other tribes. Agreements were made, however with pro-Roman tribes, who then benefitted from this status to trade with the Continent and also from some sort of protection from Rome.

It is a matter of record that both Augustus and Caligula contemplated the invasion of Britain, but the questions arise as to why they did so and, finally, why they did not actually invade. Russell suggests that this was due to internal British dynastic policies; as the pro-Roman leaders die off, tensions arise between their heirs, and some may take an anti-Roman stance. As Briton (or at least, the south coast) is effectively the northern frontier of the Empire, Roman policy would be to ensure the client status of, at least, those states (to use an anachronous term) along the coast within reasonable pirate sailing of the southern shore.

This politicking and sabre-rattling thus accounts for both the movements of troops under Augustus and Caligula and the evidence of Roman forts in Britain. Rome was simply keeping an eye on its interests in the client kingdoms.

For the invasion, Russell suggests that possibly the initial force was much smaller than previously thought, about 5500 men, and that it landed at pro-Roman Chichester (or thereabouts), and that the battle of the Medway was fought on the Arun in Sussex. He also suggests that this was a Roman intervention in favour of the pro-Roman faction, and that the bulk of the fighting was done by British. For example, the river, which Dio Cassius reports being crossed by Keltoi was, in fact, crossed by British allies of the Romans and not, as is usually suggested, by Batavian auxiliaries.

I think the overall point Russell is trying to make is that the history and archaeology of Roman Britain is too splintered and biased to support the overall narrative that we usually follow. While he does not explicitly reject the established narrative, he shows, fairly convincingly, that it does rely on a given reading of the evidence. Other readings are equally viable, insofar as they accord with the evidence. Indeed, he argues that his version might accord better with the archaeological evidence and with the known attitude of the Empire to its clients beyond the border.

There are a few downsides to the book. Firstly, there is no proper bibliography, which makes finding the references difficult. Secondly, it is written in a consciously abrasive style. He describes Caesar’s legionaries as ‘heavily armed psychopaths’ (p. 33), and Caesar himself as ‘…nothing more than an opportunistic bully, a callous tyrant and one of the greatest mass murderers in history.’ (p. 35) While he is understandably trying to make a point about Caesar and his men, upturning the classical scholarship of centuries which has relied on Caesar’s description of himself as being accurate, it is hardly likely to endear his argument, whatever its merits, to his audience.

Finally, I think that what Russell has achieved is to question the basic narrative of Roman Britain’s origins. The anomalies he weaves into his narrative have been sitting on the shelf waiting for answers for a number of years, and he manages to include them. Whether or not his narrative is more nearly correct is not for me to say; I am not an archaeologist. But, as a wargamer, I have to say that he provides some intriguing alternatives to the normal Battle of the Medway which is about all you can say about the Roman invasion of Britain.


  1. This shows how out of touch I am. I thought the intervention in inter-tribal squabbles in favour of established pro-Romans group with well established trade links was the accepted story line since the 80's but I can't think now of any particular source where I get that impression.

    The same goes for Caesar's rather unsuccessful first expedition which is pretty clearly a strategic defeat even in his own words though he puts a brave face on it, hardly news.

    As for locations of battlefields, I think we often fall victim to a perceived need to cloak supposition as fact.

    Mind you, I don't live there and societies everywhere do like to adopt popular views of history which don't always keep up.

    1. I think that we like things to be definite, sorted out and pinned down.

      Plus the fact that, perhaps, a bit of nationalism about Britain never being properly invaded since 1066 or so (not true) and the wooden walls of the navy and Channel keeping out invaders.

      Nice myth, but I think that until the advent of railways, sea was the easiest and safest mode of transport.

      As I mention to Chris below, other models for Roman intervention throw up all sorts of wargame scenarios. All it needs is a bit of imagination.

  2. In fairness, Caesar was an opportunistic bully and a callous tyrant by his own admission too, if you take what he wrote at face value. They were Roman virtues where 'barbarians' were concerned. As to mass murder, well we only have his word for that too.

    As Ross says, I think the intervention theory is pretty universally accepted but the traditional view is taking a long time to die, in the public perception at least.

    But definitely intriguing possibilities. Think of all the scenarios which could be lifted straight out of 18th/19th century India (where again most of the recording was one-sided) and transplanted to Britannia.

    1. I think the debate has switched to the 'what sort of intervention?' question. I think Russell's point is that the Romans were much more engaged in southern England before AD 43 than expected, and that the invasion in AD 43 was not so out of character as is sometimes represented.

      I think Don Featherstone's solo wargaming suggests parallels between NW Frontier of India and Britannia somewhere. Probably just as much fun, too.

  3. This is good. If I ever manage to build some Big Battle DBA armies, I can include some Ancient British allies on the Roman side with more confidence.

    Thanks for posting, Keith.

    1. Excellent. Exactly what I thought when reading the book.


    2. And vice versa, Roman allies in British armies. And I understand there were Romans 'helping out' Irish kings, even though they never invaded.

    3. Initially, Russell seems to think a small contingent of Romans helping out the client kingdoms, then in 43 AD a bit more including legionaries.

      Of course, the cohorts bailed Cartimandua out a couple of times as well.

      Ireland is more tricky, the standard historiography says the Romans were not there, some archaeology suggests that they were. Probably we're looking at supported client kingdoms again. But the scale of interaction is massively unclear.

    4. Ha! Massively unclear = bags of opportunity for wargaming scenarios! No-one can say you're wrong.

    5. But do remember what 1066 And All That has to say about the origins of the Picts and Scots.

      As to the opportunities it makes me wonder why we try to establish out orders of battle down to the last gaiter and rifle sling. Why nt just make it up?

    6. You mean, make up your Celtic army list as opposed to relying on Tacitus or Caesar to make it up for you?

    7. Now, now. That would be naughty. We know that Tacitus and Caesar were well informed and unbiased, don't we. They tell us so themselves!

      My own feeling is that a Celtic army list should read:
      Blokes with spears (lots)
      Poor blokes with slings, arrows and javelins (lots)
      Rich blokes with horses (some)
      Very rich blokes with chariots (a few)

      After that, it is pretty well guesswork....

    8. Couldn't have put it better myself!