Book Corner: Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott

The Roman Conquests series seeks to explain when and how the Romans were able to conquer a vast empire stretching from the foothills of the Scottish Highlands to the Sahara Desert, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. How did their armies adapt to and overcome the challenges of widely varied enemies and terrain? In this volume, Dr Simon Elliott draws on the latest research and archaeological evidence to present a new narrative of the conquest (never completed) of Britain. From Julius Caesar’s initial incursions in 55 and 54 BC, through the Claudian invasion of 43 AD and the campaigns of expansion and pacification thereafter, he analyses the Roman army in action. The weapons, equipment, organization, leadership, strategy and tactics of the legions and their British foes are described and analysed. The ferocity of the resistance was such that the island was never wholly subdued and required a disproportionate military presence for the duration of its time as a Roman province.

Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott is a fascinating study of the Roman campaigns in Britain, from the time of the first forays by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC to the final departure of the legions in the 4th century AD. 400 years of conquest.

I have to confess, I hadn’t read much on Roman history until a holiday on Hadrian’s Wall – at Corbridge – about 8 year ago. Standing on a 2,000 year old High Street in the middle of a Roman town has a way of drawing you in. Since then, I have spent many enjoyable hours reading up on Roman history, particularly in relation to Britain.

Simon Elliott’s Roman Conquests: Britain concentrates on the military aspects of Roman invasion and occupation, and the reactions and rebellions of the various British tribes they wanted to subjugate. With that in mind, the book is an in-depth study of Roman military might and tactics. However, it goes much further, using the evidence of tombstones, archaeology and contemporary sources to give the reader a picture of what it was like to be a Roman – or and Briton – during the 400 years that the Romans held sway over the land at the farthest reaches of its empire.

Caesar made his decision to carry out a second expedition to Britain before the end of 55BC, giving orders to his legates to start building a bespoke fleet of ships more appropriate for a large invasion than those used in his first incursion. He then headed back to Cisalpine Gaul to winter in his usual quarters there.

Early in the new Year, after a brief visit to his other province of Illyricum, he returned to the territory of the Morini where he gathered his entire army of eight legions again, together with 4,000 Gallic allied cavalry. This time we learn the name of the chosen port of embarkation for Britain, Portus Itius. Grainge usefully sets out the various candidate sites in the region, all to the south of modern Calais with its short journey across Oceanus to Britain. The most northerly is Wissant near Cap Gris Nez, while the most southerly is the later major port site at Boulogne (the future headquarters of the Classis Britannica regional fleet). The latter seems the most likely given the fine harbourage there in the estuary of the River Liane.

When Caesar arrived he was pleased with the work of his legates and their shipbuilders, with 600 specially built vessels ready for service. These, based on designs of the Veneti, featured lower freeboards than his earlier Mediterranean designs to enable easier disembarkation, banks of oars as well as a large sail to give good manoeuvrability in shallow waters, and wider beams to carry bulkier loads. To these he added 200 locally chartered transports, over 80 Roman transport ships that had survived the previous year’s incursion, and his 28 remaining war galleys.

Simon Elliott gives a pacy narrative, detailing the various attempts to conquer Britain, and the massive effort needed – in men and resources – to hold on to it. Not that it was ever fully subjugated – the tribes in the far reaches of Scotland made sure of that. Replete with detail, from weapons and personnel to military strategy, Roman Conquests: Britain covers every aspect of the various Roman invasions of Britain, and the men who led them, from Julius Caesar to Agricola and the numerous generals assigned to control the island.

Roman Conquests: Britain highlights what a massive undertaking it was to invade, conquer and subjugate Britain – both in men, money, time and resources. Simon Elliott provides invaluable analysis of the large-scale campaigns and their varying degrees of success, and of the men who led them. However, he does not forget the tribes who opposed them, providing fair assessments of the Boudiccan revolt, the Brigantes’ rebellions and the reasons behind abandoning the newly-built Antonine Wall in favour of the more secure Hadrian’s Wall.

Simon Elliott highlights what we do know about the Roman campaigns in Britain, but clearly identifies how much we do not know. Roman Conquests: Britain is an investigative journey into the first centuries AD, using the evidence we have to explain the possible scenarios and pointing out the information that is still lacking. It is a jigsaw puzzle in which the author pulls together the pieces we have available to give the reader and overall picture of events. Roman Conquests: Britain is a detailed, fascinating look into the conquest of Britain by the massive Roman war machine. Impressive research combines with an engaging narrative to make this an eminently readable book.

A must for anyone with interest in Roman Britain.

Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott is now available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon UK.

About the author:

Dr Simon Elliott is an award winning and best selling archaeologist, historian and broadcaster with a PhD in Classics and Archaeology from the University of Kent where he is now an Honorary Research Fellow. He has an MA in Archaeology from UCL and an MA in War Studies from KCL. Simon is widely published with numerous works in print on various themes relating to the ancient world, with a particular focus on the Roman military, and he makes frequent appearances on TV as a Roman expert. Simon lectures widely to universities, local history societies and archaeological groups, is co-Director of a Roman villa excavation, a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology and an Ambassador for Museum of London Archaeology. He is also a Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels and President of the Society of Ancients.


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Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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