BMCR 2023.09.21

Conquering the ocean: the Roman invasion of Britain

, Conquering the ocean: the Roman invasion of Britain. Ancient warfare and civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xiii, 312. ISBN 9780190937416



In this captivating and compact book, Hingley reconstructs the various ideological and historical moments of the Roman conquest and securing of Britain between Caesar’s invasion and 410 CE. The book opens with an lexical introduction where the author’s use of names, labels and concepts is assessed against the evidence provided by the reception of classical literature.

Once the scene is set, Hingley starts his narrative with the Caesarian invasion of Britain, reconstructed through the De Bello Gallico and the evidence provided by archaeological data, used to reconstruct the Late Iron Age south-British milieu. A chapter called “Emperors and Kings” continues in discussing the political structuring of the south British landscape at the beginning of the first century CE. Through the pivotal help of numismatic evidence, the figures of Tincomarus, Tasciovanus, Epillus, Cunobelinus and Verica emerge from the shadows of classical literature. These “kings” are compared to the “emperors” Augustus, Tiberius and most of all Caligula, whose ill-fated attempt of 40 CE closes the chapter. The introductory part of the book ends with this chapter, leaving room for the first attempt to subdue Britain, “Subduing the Ocean”. The account of the Claudian invasion, mainly drawn from Tacitus and Suetonius, moves from the landing of Aulus Plautius and Vespasian’s legions in Kent to the triumphal entrance of the emperor. The main motif of the book is outlined in the closing part of the chapter when the oceanic ideology behind Claudius’ invasion is shown through the description of the emperor’s triumphal arch in Rome. The invasion of Britain is not just presented as an extension of Rome’s pomerium beyond the frontiers of the known world, but also as a celebration of Claudius’ mastery of waters, also evident in his aqueduct programme in Rome and the Ostia and Lake Fucino engineering enterprises.

The fourth chapter is entirely dedicated to the Boudiccan revolt. Before discussing the uprising, the author takes a moment to describe the embryonic urbanization of Britain before 60 CE as the rebellion sprouts from the building of Claudius’ temple in Camulodunum. Mainly relying on Tacitus, the rebellion is compared to the Teutoburg forest disaster (pp. 116-117). While focusing mainly on insular events, this chapter opens and closes in Rome, where Nero is depicted considering a withdrawal from Britain (Suetonius) and blamed by Boudicca for his femininity (Cassius Dio). This device is useful in asserting the importance of the British enterprises for the image of Rome’s emperors, a theme frequently stressed by Hingley.

The fifth chapter begins by describing the British landscape during the turmoil that followed Nero’s death in 68 CE. More specifically, it is the legions’ fate that provides the fil rouge to the narration that shifts from Rome/Bedriacum to the northern frontier of Britannia. After briefly discussing the submission of the Brigantes and Frontinus’ conquest of Wales (70s), the author moves to the core of the chapter: Agricola’s campaigns in the north. This “assertive expression of Roman power” (p. 149) is depicted with the information provided by Tacitus’ Agricola and the analysis of Roman forts’ remains north of the border. Fort distribution and Agricola’s movements are accurately arrested in fig. 5.7 (p. 150). The narrative culminates with the victory at Mons Graupius and a two-page consideratiof on the reception of Agricola’s victory both in Tacitus and epigraphic witnesses from military tombstones scattered across Roman Europe. As in the third chapter, the narrative closes with the description of the monumental victory arch built in Richborough (Kent), in the very place where the enterprise started in 54 BC.

The sixth chapter focuses on the convoluted aftermath of Agricola’s near-conquest of Caledonia. First, Domitian’s withdrawal from Scotland is placed within the wider context of the first Dacian wars (85-89 CE). The physical symbols of the withdrawal are individuated in the demolition of the most impressive forts discussed earlier, Inchtuthil and Elginhaugh. Then the book moves towards the description of Roman Britain’s most impressive fort, Vindolanda. The brief survey of Vindolanda “letters” allows the author to conclude that “Roman military control of the conquered lands could evidently be maintained with fewer soldiers than the physical distribution of forts might have suggested” (p. 180). The chapter closes with a discussion of life in and purpose of the northern-frontier forts, with an interesting focus on the impact of these settlements on the surrounding Iron Age communities, whose social syncretism is perfectly described by the case of “sacred waters” (pp. 194-196).

In the seventh chapter, called “Emperor of the Ocean”, the quintessential landmark of Roman Britain is finally presented: Hadrian’s Wall. The core of the chapter is represented by the reconstruction of the various phases of building of the Wall, showing Hingley’s unmatched knowledge of the topic. Sticking to the narrative framework of the book, the description focuses on the ideological subjugation of the waters, Oceanus and the river Tyne. These “conquests” are celebrated through the epigraphic medium and the engineering expertise of the Romans who channelled running water along the vallum, as in the case of Benwell fort (Newcastle) which is ideologically connected to Claudius’ celebration of victory on the Ocean outlined in chapter III.

The closing chapter recapitulates the “Later History of the Roman Northern Frontier”. The first event described is the large-scale invasion of southern Scotland conducted by Lollius Urbicus on behalf of emperor Antoninus Pius in 139-142 CE in order to provide the background for the construction of Antonine Wall. After a few pages of discussion on Antonine Wall’s configuration, the author spends the chapter’s most interesting points describing the construction of communities around the border (“The People of Hadrian’s Wall,” pp. 239-244). The chapter proceeds towards its natural end via Severan campaigns in Scotland, Constantius Chlorus’ and Theodosian fourth-century reorganization of the province and the last century of Roman rule.

The book closes with an afterword which begins with an evocative piece of Byronic poetry. Focusing on the reinvention of the imperialistic image of the Romans throughout modern British history up to the ironic interpretations offered by Sellar and Yeatman and by Monty Python, the afterword discloses the author’s ideological stance. Hingley’s position is perfectly revealed by his final remarks where he states that “[the] tales of conquering Ocean are aimed to communicate the futility of such imperialistic acts and the death and enslavement they occasion” (p. 260).

This monograph presents itself as a rich overview of Roman conquest of Britain, where literary sources are harmoniously integrated within the framework provided by the latest archaeological discoveries. The conquest of the Ocean leitmotif makes the aquatic element an immanent presence throughout the book which helps the reader to keep the focus on the ideological reasons behind military conquest. Nevertheless, the importance of Britain for the emperors in Rome is sometimes overstated, as in the case of the parodic end of Caligula’s invasion of Britain which the author interprets as the decisive cause for the emperor’s fall (pp. 64-65). It is doubtful that the conquest of Britain was a “political burden” for the Julio-Claudians in the same vein as, say, the Dacian question in the years between Domitian and Trajan.

Conquering the Ocean is evidently aimed at a larger public and this represents both its major pro (given its completeness) and con. Sometimes, in fact, the author inexplicably does not delve into further details – such as when he states that Hadrian’s reign marked a “change in perception” from the previous Julio-Claudian years towards Britannia (p. 201). Despite the assertion’s corroboration by means of the comparison between the Aphrodisias inscription and Hadrian’s coinage, the eight-line discussion leaves the reader waiting for more in-depth argument exploring this ideological shift. The same degree of generalization can be observed when the author states that Britons abroad did not choose to remember their civitas but only a Roman-crafted “British identity”. While this assertion is useful in underlining (rightly) the fact that “the concept of Britannia was a Roman creation” (p. 204) it is far from true that insular civitates are not remembered on Continental inscriptions, as indicated by the fifth-century clarissima femina civis Dumnonia (sic) from Salona (C. Diehl, Inscriptiones, n. 185, 1925, p. 46).

These are clearly minor faults in a wide-ranging book that will surely provide valuable knowledge both to the historian of Roman Britain and the enthusiast reader who will enjoy its captivating narration. The reading is eased by the presence of two appendices dedicated respectively to chronology and placenames. The latter is presented as a table with modern and ancient names with their original meaning, their purpose and their modern visitable remains. The book has an essential bibliographic apparatus, useful to those who want to expand on the hints offered by the author on the Roman history of Britain. Hingley’s book represents a precious assertion of the ideological background and outcomes of military conquest in Imperial times, with an evocative stress on the impact of Roman invasion on the insular Iron Age social structure.