Frontiers of the Roman Empire: the Roman frontiers in Wales 

Review by Al McCluskey

The Roman Frontiers in Wales is one of the latest tranche of publications in the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ series. Co-authored by David Breeze and Peter Guest, this neat, informative, and accessible volume brings a frequently overlooked aspect of Roman Britain into the limelight, placing it into the wider context of Britain and the Roman Empire. 

Unsurprisingly, it follows the proven multilingual – English and Welsh in this instance – format for the series. The first section describes the history and extent of the Roman Empire, and the role of the frontiers in their various forms as they developed. This includes an overview of the armies and civilian populations on the frontiers, and of the archaeological efforts subsequently to reanimate their stories through excavation and research. Furthermore, it highlights the efforts made since 1987 to develop the frontiers as a common World Heritage Site. In this way it is hoped that, by developing collaborative frameworks between archaeologists and administrators, each participating country can develop and enhance their own ways to protect and improve our collective understanding of these complex systems. 

To that end, the second section focuses in on Wales in detail both to describe the sites and to place them in their historical context. For those unfamiliar with Roman Wales, it provides an excellent overview of the antiquarian research from the 12th century up to the modern excavations at Caerleon in 2011. This situates the work of key figures, such as John Edward Lee, Mortimer Wheeler, Victor Erle Nash-Williams, Michael Jarrett, Barry Burnham, Jeff Davies, and George Boon, and their excavations at iconic sites such as Gelligaer, Caernarfon, and Caersws, alongside the principal texts such as The Roman Frontier in Wales, first published in 1954, with its 3rd edition produced in 2010.  

The core thesis of this volume is that the Roman frontier in Wales was unique, representing a relatively short military campaign of pacification in contrast to the longer-lived linear frontiers such as Hadrian’s Wall or those along the Rhine and Danube. The background provides a brief description of the indigenous tribes of Iron Age Wales and their culture, highlighting their differences from the societies to the east. The Roman Conquest of Wales between AD 47 and 120 is very well described, with the idea that there were three distinct periods of conflict (AD 47-52, AD 57-60, and AD 73-77) followed by a period of ‘occupation in depth’ up to AD 120 being particularly useful. This is argued to have effectively pacified the country prior to the bulk of the army departing to establish the Hadrianic frontier further north. A useful set of maps to illustrate the Roman military deployments in this campaign is included, and these really help orientate the reader in time and space. 

The later history of Roman Wales from AD 120 to 410 is covered in a shorter final section. It highlights the thinning out of the Roman garrison, initially consolidating in the north-west and central regions of the country, before the development of an increasingly coastal posture in the 4th century. The book concludes with a brief description of the transition to the early medieval period in Wales, and some recommended sites to visit. 

This is an intriguing book. Although the ‘occupation in depth’ thesis does give pause for thought, it begs as many questions as it provides answers, as it relies on a slightly artificial separation of the Roman frontier in Wales from those elsewhere in Britain. More importantly, it assumes a separation from Ireland, which seems difficult to reconcile with the persistent military occupation of Caernarfon from AD 70 until 410. 

But this is just a quibble. The book is excellently written and lavishly illustrated, which allows the authors to provide the reader with an accessible introduction to one of the less well-known Roman frontiers. As such, it is the book to buy for the newcomer to this forgotten frontier. 

David J Breeze and Peter Guest 
Archaeopress, £14.99, Open Access eBook
ISBN 978-1803272917