Conquering the Ocean: the Roman invasion of Britain

Review by Matthew Symonds.

Reconstructing Roman military campaigning in Britain poses a fascinating challenge. For some periods, a solid overview of events – from a Roman perspective, at least – is provided by Classical writers as renowned as Julius Caesar and Tacitus. At other times, whole decades can pass with military matters in Britain meriting barely a mention among the surviving ancient literary texts. This state of affairs is attributable to reasons ranging from the relevant accounts having been lost, all the way through to an absence of combat on which to report. Attempts to understand the true significance of such gaps – and, indeed, to plug them – require a heavy reliance on archaeological evidence and surviving inscriptions. As such, fashioning the ebb and flow of military progress in Britain into a satisfying narrative requires these different categories of evidence to be skilfully woven together. As the archaeological evidence and corpus of epigraphy continue to expand, while study of the ancient literature is shedding new light on the authors’ motives, this is no mean feat.

The latest authority to pick up the gauntlet and tackle this challenge is Richard Hingley, Professor of Roman Archaeology at Durham University, and a renowned specialist on many aspects of Roman Britain, including Hadrian’s Wall. His text focuses on the period from Caesar’s first invasion in 55 BC, through to Hadrian’s reign, with a final chapter continuing the story down to the end of Roman control, and an afterword mulling post-Roman perceptions of these events. Throughout, Hingley makes assured use of the available evidence, providing an incisive, up-to-date commentary on Roman campaigning, and also deftly negotiating the modern scholarly controversies associated with its interpretation. The text is an engaging and enjoyable read, with Hingley taking care to discuss both Romans and Britons, while scrupulously setting the warfare within its wider context to produce a rounded picture of events. A wealth of illustrations, especially those prepared by Christina Unwin, are a major asset.

It is always intriguing to see what stance scholars take on key debates surrounding the subject. On the question of where the Claudian landings occurred, Hingley is satisfied that the main disembarkation point lay in the Wantsum Channel. Some units were then ferried west, explaining the early military activity at Fishbourne. The Roman commander, Aulus Plautius, was seemingly also willing to split his forces during the initial advance inland, with the main thrust aimed at Colchester, while a secondary group headed north-west, perhaps towards Cirencester. Such a strategy suggests remarkable Roman confidence. Of course, things did not always go Rome’s way, and Hingley’s account of the Boudican revolt is a particular triumph. He nominates its final battle as one of the largest fought by Rome in Britain. It is a great shame that we still do not know whether the destruction of the Ninth Legion could be another contender for this title, but after decades of a broad scholarly consensus that the unit was withdrawn and annihilated elsewhere, Hingley notes that it could have been defeated in Britain.

Although it is always gratifying to see details about Roman campaigning being finessed or clarified, it might be wondered whether there is anything of real substance that can be added to such a well-worn subject. The title of the book, though, sets up an innovative thread that is followed all the way from Caesar’s invasions to Hadrian’s Wall. For the Romans, Ocean was a divine force that encircled the inhabited world and was the father of all water deities. As Britain lay within this realm, conquering the island amounted to subjugating Ocean himself. In this spirit, the power of the sea was evoked at key moments, including Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s campaigning in Scotland. The emphasis on Hadrian’s Wall running between ‘the two shores of Ocean’ can be seen in a similar light. Teasing out this dimension adds real freshness to the subject, delivering a highly successful volume that makes for essential reading.

Conquering the Ocean: the Roman invasion of Britain
Richard Hingley
Oxford University Press, £22.99
ISBN 978-0190937416