BMCR 2008.03.17

Roman Frontiers in Britain. Classical World Series

, Roman frontiers in Britain. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2007. 103 pages : illustrations, maps, plans ; 22 cm.. ISBN 185399698X. £11.99.

Judging by the number of publications that seem to be appearing recently, Roman frontier studies are a hot topic in current archaeological circles. In 2006 I reviewed a study of Rome’s expansion into northern Scotland in the first through third centuries which indicated that the Gask Ridge frontier system, rather than the German Limes frontier, is now considered the prototype Roman frontier. (See D.J. Woolliscroft and B. Hoffman, Rome’s First Frontier: The Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland, BMCR 2006.11.17.) Another book on Roman frontiers in Britain has recently been published by David Breeze, and this review will not only examine its relative merits but will also compare and contrast its content with that of Woolliscroft and Hoffman 2006.

First of all, while these two books are related by their content, their audiences and approach to the topic are very different. Woolliscroft and Hoffman produced a detailed, scholarly work examining all of the Gask Ridge frontier system in northern Scotland from an archaeological perspective, providing extensive maps and illustrations of all surviving evidence, along with some reconstructions and arguments: reasons why the Romans chose to build certain fortifications and towers at certain locations, as well as hypotheses concerning why and when they may have abandoned this line of defense. The Breeze book, while it has also been written to contain the most scholarly, up-to-date information regarding Roman frontiers in Britain, is a more general book on the entire Roman occupation of Britain, including but not limited to the Gask Ridge frontier system. The Breeze book is much smaller, both in length (103 pages to Woolliscroft and Hoffmann’s 254 pages) and in construction (the Breeze book is published in the pocketbook format, so that it can be slipped into a pocket). Both the Breeze and Woolliscroft books contain maps, illustrations, and reconstructions. The Breeze book, however, is meant to be a more general, comprehensive guide to the Roman frontier system in Britain, while the Woolliscroft and Hoffman volume is concerned only with Rome’s occupation of northern Scotland.

Despite the relative slimness and tightly-packed content of Breeze’s book, it is perhaps the most complete presentation of the Roman occupation of Britain in 100 pages that I have ever encountered. Many books provide information related to the various military and defensive fortifications the Romans built in Britain, such as Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, as well as constructions in other areas of Roman occupation. This book does a wonderful job of tying all of this information together in a concise yet scholarly manner. It is not written as a tourist book, but could be used as one; it could also be used as a required text for a college history class or a supplement for a continuing education offering. In short, its best use is probably as an introductory text to the Roman occupation of Britain, as its concise yet general presentation provides a full background of information related to this topic.

One of the concerns I had when examining Breeze’s book was whether the information contained in Woolliscroft and Hoffmann had been consulted and used. Sure enough, the bibliography does list this reference, and Breeze does spend considerable time explaining current research related to the Gask Ridge. The preface provides a short history of Rome’s influence in both the ancient and medieval worlds, as well as on current thought and films. In Chapter 1, Breeze discusses the sources that have helped inform modern scholars on Rome’s history and influence. There are short sections on literary sources, inscriptions and sculpture, writing tablets, coins, Roman monuments in Britain, antiquarians, archaeology, evidence by analogy, and the opinions of modern scholars. In the conclusion to this chapter, the author indicates that less than 5% of the Roman frontier system in Britain has been excavated and that many questions still remain to be answered. The author ends the chapter with a list of questions, some of which he hopes to provide with speculative answers as the book progresses.

In Chapter 2, the author provides information related to the Roman army: how it was organized and its the various officers, legions, and auxiliaries; he also provides details regarding the numbers of men serving in Britain in the second and third centuries and offers some discussion of the Roman naval fleet.. Next, he describes the Roman fort, detailing the various buildings and their functions, as well as the numbers of soldiers stationed at such a fort.

Chapter 3 examines Roman Britain before the construction of the walls. It is here that Breeze incorporates the recent research of Woolliscroft and Hoffmann, discussing the Forth-Clyde line in northern Scotland, even producing a very similar map of Roman Scotland in the first century as is provided in the Woolliscroft book. A subsection of this chapter describes the Roman campaign and fort construction north of the Forth and includes much of the archaeological evidence given in Woolliscroft. Finally, the author shows that this frontier was abandoned between 86 and 103 A.D.

Chapter 4 discusses Hadrian’s Wall. Breeze describes some of the interesting features of the wall, namely that the western part was built of turf while the eastern part was built with stone. Scholars are not quite sure why this happened. Perhaps the threat from the north on the western part of the wall was more immediate, or there wasn’t enough stone in the western part of the country. Breeze then discusses the first plan for the wall and its three main features: a barrier of stone or turf fronted by a ditch; a gate every mile protected by a fortlet called a milecastle; and two towers in between every milecastle, also called turrets. The author then describes some of the conjectured functions of the wall, including control of barbarian invasion, defense of the province, and observation and communication. The revised plan for the wall consisted of three major changes: twelve forts were constructed; the construction of a great earthwork called the Vallum ditch reduced the number of crossing points through the frontier from the original 80 or more to about 14; and the width of the stone wall was reduced, perhaps due to a lack of skilled builders and more urgent demands. Short discussions of the craftsmen and their surviving inscriptions, of the timetable of building for the wall, and of decision-making regarding construction end the chapter.

Chapter 5 moves to the Antonine Wall, which was built during the second century A.D. and was only half the length of Hadrian’s Wall. A number of hypotheses as to why it was built have emerged, the most likely being that the emperor Antoninus needed some type of successful military operation in order to prove to the Roman Senate that he was fit to lead. Using the central valley of Scotland as a strategic advantage, as well as the shortest line across Britain, the Antonine Wall was constructed in stages. The first stage comprised a wall of turf fronted by a wide and deep ditch, along with a road that ran alongside the wall. The second stage included the addition of ten more forts, especially along the western half, and the placing of annexes next to the forts. When it was finished, the forts along the Antonine Wall were spaced much more closely together — 3.5 km between them — than the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, which were 12 km apart. The forts along the Antonine Wall were also directly linked to the barrier line, whereas the forts of Hadrian’s Wall were often independent of the wall. And since the Antonine Wall was roughly half the length of Hadrian’s Wall, there were proportionally twice as many men defending the northern frontier. The author provides a number of theories regarding why the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 160 A.D.

As the Roman soldiers fell back to Hadrian’s Wall, they had to repair a number of the forts and milecastles. A road was constructed along the frontier, and a number of bridges were rebuilt. Breeze then examines some of the issues related to warfare in northern Britain, including tribal incursions, surviving written and archaeological evidence, and other sources. Moving into the third century, little evidence related to Hadrian’s Wall survives, except that much rebuilding and repair took place. By the fourth century, the surviving evidence indicates that the Picts and the Scots were becoming more aggressive and troublesome. A few Roman emperors visited Britain during this time, including Constantine, who was in York on campaign when he was declared emperor in 306. Some of the forts along the wall were destroyed during this time, and archaeological evidence indicates that they were destroyed by fire. The fifth century saw the gradual Roman withdrawal from Britain in around 407-411, probably because money stopped coming from Rome to pay the soldiers and they abandoned their posts.

Once the historical and archaeological substance of the Roman frontier in Britain has been explained, the author provides a chapter on life on the frontier. Sections examine recruitment, pay, training, daily life, supply, records, promotion, the commanding officer, maintenance, official religion, health, retirement, the civil settlement, and relationships between the fort and the civil settlement. The last chapter is a short summary and conclusion on the effect that the Roman occupation, the Gask Frontier, and the two walls had on ancient and medieval Britain. There are some appendices listing sites to visit at each wall, a selected list of Roman emperors, some suggestions for further study and reading, and a short index.

To summarize: this book provides a succinct yet scholarly examination of all of the Roman frontiers in Britain. Given its compactness of size as well as its thoroughness, the it would definitely be a great resource to take along when exploring either Hadrian’s or the Antonine Wall.