Saturday 21 May 2022

The Roman Invasion of Britain

 We all know the narrative, do we not? Julius Caesar invaded, beat the locals and then went home again, twice. Then, after this reconnaissance in force (and a few civil wars in Rome) the Romans came back under Claudius and stayed, defeating the ungrateful locals who rebelled from time to time, including Boudicca who, in spite of being a heroic woman, was still not a Roman and hence wrong, because she did not grasp all the advantages of Roman civilisation.

Anyway, after bringing the benefits of being Roman to these shores, the country settled down to building stuff in civilised stone to permit later archaeologists to speculate them, and also constructed a wall to keep the even less civilised inhabitants of the far north out. Eventually, of course, as is the way with most civilisations except our own, the Roman Empire collapsed, the legions left to defend the metropolis, and Britain entered the Dark Ages.

Well, it is not that simple, as you probably already know. Every aspect of the above ‘normative’ narrative has been questioned, one way or another. This does not, naturally, mean that it is still not propagated, most histories of Roman Britain at the more popular end of the market spin a tale like that, one way or another.

As you may surmise, I have been reading again:

Hoffmann, B. (2013). The Roman Invasion of Britain: Archaeology versus History. Pen and Sword.

This is an interesting book, although not without caveats. The main one is that it is more tending towards an academic tome, and sometimes the assumptions that the reader knows the locations of the sites of importance and the texts is a bit overwhelming. I suppose there are so many that a location map for everything would be difficult, but I did struggle a bit. Perhaps I should have broken out my trusty OS Roman Britain maps.

Be that as it may, Hoffmann is very interesting about what, exactly we know about Roman Britain, how it came into existence, how it survived and declined. I suppose she takes a more empiricist or reductionist stance: we know very little. By what she calls a ‘journalistic’ standard of evidence, we can essentially say that Julius Caesar came twice and went home again, for example. Precisely what happened while he was here, or why he went home again is largely unknown to us, unless we are rather credulous about Caesar’s own account.

And so it goes on. We know a little bit about the Claudian invasion, but not much, including such important details as where they landed. As Hoffmann point out (she is an archaeologist) archaeology cannot really help, here. We can identify Fishbourne and Richborough as early Roman ports, but not which was first, or even if one of them was first.

At the other end of the time zone, we can identify forts of the Saxon Shore. What we cannot do is deduce whether they were build as a defensive system or were an ad hoc response to various threats and defensive needs constructed at different times, and only came to have a commander later. Archaeology cannot tells us and the chronicles which could cover it do not say.

We are thus left with a bunch of plausible scenarios, stories we can tell about how Roman Britain came and went. Deciding which is the most likely and which the least is a tricky business to say the least. While evidence is being (literally) uncovered all the time, fitting bits of pot into a chronology is difficult and even then the stones might not tell us very much.

Are these conclusions as controversial as the blurb on the book claims? Probably not so much to anyone who has read a bit about the ancient world and Roman Britain, as I have. Nevertheless it is interesting and does stimulate the wargaming taste buds. As my loyal reader might recall I have, following the man himself ‘re-fought’ Caesar’s first British campaign. Julius lost. Hoffmann’s conclusion about the actions is pretty well the same, expressing scepticism about Caesar’s claims and noting some confusion about the chronology and geography of the campaigns anyway. She ends the chapter on Caesar’s activities by quoting Lucan: Caesar Territa Quaesitis ostendit terga Britannis (Pharsalia (5.572)). ‘Caesar came looking for the British and then terrified, turned tail’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement, more along the lines of ‘He came, he saw, he scarpered’.

I suppose a recurrent theme in the book is that of the Roman historians, who tended to be based in southern Europe and have their eyes on Rome, if not residing there. Their reliability regarding activities in and the geography of Britain, not to mention other far flung reaches of the Empire, are bound to be a bit dodgy. In a couple of paragraphs Hoffmann pretty well dismantles the Elizabethan and Victorian obsession with Boudicca. Tactius’ account became widely available in Britain in 1591. Hoffmann notes that it permitted some flattering comparisons for a female monarch menaced by a continental power. Similarly, the Victorians identified Boudicca as a wronged wife and mother, a heroine fighting for British liberty and justice, and certainly better than Queen Cartimandua who surrendered Caractatus to the Romans.

The point is that, probably, Tacitus was using his character of Boudicca more to speak about his own attitudes to women in power, particularly the mothers, sisters and wives of assorted Roman emperors. The revolt of the Iceni is visible in the archaeological record in Colchester and London. Tacitus also notes the destruction of Verulamium, but there is no archaeological evidence. Silchester, however, does yield such evidence, but is not noted by the historians. Boudicca seems to have headed west, not north.

As you might have noted, there is a lot in the book, which is of modest size for what is essentially, notwithstanding the title, a concise history of Roman Britain. I cannot cover it all here – the comments on the end of Roman Britain and the comparative uselessness of the Notitia Dignitatum are also interesting. Perhaps another time.


  1. Excellent post. Another book that I must put on the list. It's always interesting to see the contrast between the classical historian's view, and what we now increasingly see as 'the truth'. One advantage of the internet era is that people have become less accepting of what history actually is, and what we accept in terms of viewpoint.
    Of course, my mind is wandering forward from early Roman Britain to the latter period, and the rise of Artemis / Arthur. We'll probably never understand the validity or otherwise of the fascinating sub-Roman period.

    1. Thank you, but apologies for adding to your book list... Hoffman does cover the end of Roman Britain as well, but as she points out, less is known about that than the beginning, and not much is known about the latter.
      Sub-Roman Britain has always had interest for me, and is on my list, probably after the Punic Wars, Wars of the Sun King and Normans. I think a simple campaign of inter-tribal rivalries and external raiders would suit the bill, small forces and the possibility of the Romans returning. Could be fascinating.