Assess the value of the various kinds of information we possess to reconstruct Roman military strategy in Britain between AD 43 and AD 70.
The following essay will argue that secondary or written sources of information offer the best opportunity to reconstruct Roman strategy in Britain between AD 43 and AD 70. It will out line the general Roman effort in Britain and will then set out to analyze the value of the various sources of information available. It will conclude that secondary or written accounts of the period give the most vital insight into Roman strategy because Roman military efforts were intertwined with political offensives. Only an effective awareness of the political landscape of Britain at the time can, therefore, lead to an effective reconstruction of Roman military strategy.
Roman military strategy during the period under question is complex and diverse. The general strategy of the Roman Empire is debatable, but it clearly involved the expansion and strengthening of the Empire. Luttwak (1979) makes the argument that general Roman strategy was a complex mixture of military and political maneuvers designed to secure Rome against external aggression whilst preserving her economic interests. Luttwak argues that Roman strategy was to “provide security for the civilization without prejudicing the validity of its economic base” Luttwak (79:1).
The decision to attempt to conquer Britain in AD 43 is opaque but appears to fit within the Romans’ general strategic desire to conquer new territory “In AD 43 the Conquest of Britain was begun” (87/48) Sunderland Frere.Britain had of course been invaded a century or so before by the Roman emperor Julius Cesar. This military effort had ended with the eventual withdrawal of Roman forces with no attempt to carry out a long-term occupation. The second Roman invasion of Britain began in 43 AD under the emperor Claudius. The Romans, under the command of Aulus Plautius, began a slow campaign of conquest. Crossing in three principal divisions, the Romans quickly ran into heavy resistance, but after two days of fighting broke out and began to move into the interior. At this point the Roman force split into two. One force went west into Wales and the other went north. The Roman efforts were not targeted at the British in general but targeted at specific areas or resistance, whilst constructing client kingdoms and forming alliances with various tribes. The Romans fought a vicious campaign against the native population and had effectively subdued Britain by AD 70.
Roman military strategy must be understood within the context of a campaign designed to conquer a geographical area but which in reality became a long, drawn out war against a variety of tribal groups.
There are two principal sources of information that can be used to reconstruct Roman military strategy. These are, broadly speaking, primary sources such as archaeological finds or surviving architecture, for example Hadrian’s wall, and secondary sources such as written accounts either by contemporary chroniclers or by later historians. In order to establish the relative strengths of each type of information it will be necessary to compare the level of insight afforded by each source.
There is a vast amount of primary archaeological evidence, principally from Roman military sites such as forts or military roads that can be used to reconstruct Roman strategy. These sites and the archaeological finds provide a great deal of information.
Indeed Todd (04) effectively recreates a significant part of the Roman campaign in Wales by using archaeological information such as the location of Roman forts and structures to fill in the gaps in the written historical account “the last forty years have seen a considerable increase in the archeological information available for this period in Wales, mainly in the form of newly discovered forts” Todd (04/60). Indeed, archaeological finds all over Britain, have helped archaeologists and historians to piece together maneuvers, battles and overall strategic direction in the absence of written records.
The great wealth of Roman archaeological finds, which are connected to Roman military strategy have contributed in detail to our understanding of the subject.
Excavations of Roman roads have given us a plethora of details regarding Roman logistic strategies. Roth (99) argues that the construction of a logistical network was the keystone of Roman warfare.” Logistics played a vital role in the creation and maintenance of the Roman Empire” Roth (99/330). Without such road links, the Romans could not have sustained their armies in the field. Excavations of Roman logistic networks have proven invaluable to historians in understanding Roman military strategies of the period. Indeed Colin and Shotter (04) illustrate the construction of a vast infrastructure to support the Roman occupation.
Archaeological finds also illustrate the Romans’ anthropological awareness in their British military campaign. Fields (05) details a variety of Roman fortifications that illustrate not only the architectural and tactical arrangements of Roman military fortifications, but also the Roman practice of building fortifications along tribal boundaries.
There are a host of written accounts that deal with the period, but the most detailed and most significant is Tacitus’s account, “The Annals” (89). It describes the Roman campaigns in detail, lays out the campaigns through Roman eyes and details every major Roman battle and strategic move. It is these Roman accounts that provide the best single insight into the Roman military strategy for the conquest of Britain between 43 and 79 AD. There are other accounts, however, that provide a background that can help to inform, for example, Roman tactical and strategic military manuals and accounts of Roman military practice. Indeed, any attempt to understand and reconstruct Roman military strategy must first begin with an assessment of Roman texts on the subject.
Written accounts also offer an insight into the strategic environment that the Romans operated in. Archaeological discoveries can give a very detailed account of the physical environment such as where a battle took place or the location of a fortress. However, they do not give much information as to the strategic considerations that Roman commanders dealt with. This may include the strength of a given enemy, his maneuvers, the perceived strategy and the strength of a potential adversity. This type of information is required by historians not only to see what happened but also to understand why Roman strategy was formulated in the way it was. Indeed, in order to reconstruct Roman strategy it is necessary to understand how Rome operated, including her standard practices and her modes and methods of military operations. This cannot be achieved without a thorough investigation of secondary, written sources.
It must be acknowledged, however, that the military strategy used by Roman forces in the conquest of Britain in the period between AD 43 and AD 70 is deeply complex and often goes beyond the purely military. Indeed, Roman military advances during the period contain as many political maneuvers as tactical maneuvers on the battlefield. Roman military strategy is, therefore, inseparable from the political alliances the Romans made with British tribes and a variety of devious political maneuvers designed to deter and weaken resistance to the Roman occupation. Most of the accounts of these political/military initiatives come from written accounts, primarily of Roman origin. These accounts are central to the understanding of Roman military strategy, which cannot be explained simply by looking at archaeological evidence.
Evidence of the Roman military plan to conquer and occupy Britain in this period, cannot be found in archaeological investigation alone, whether in the excavation of Roman forts, communication links or battle sites. A true insight into Roman military strategy can only be discovered by a detailed study of contemporary texts and secondary sources, which describe the political battlefield and the order of battle. Roman military strategy is, therefore, concentrated around the political super structure of first century Britain and the ability to understand that structure is necessary in order to appreciate Roman strategy.
However, although it can be argued that secondary accounts offer the best opportunity to reconstruct Roman strategy, it must be stated that a combination of both primary and secondary information is necessary to gain a complete picture of events. Todd’s (04) reconstruction of the Welsh campaigns shows the value of combining secondary source information with primary archaeological exploration. Any serious study of Roman Britain should address both sources.
To conclude, the Roman conquest of Britain has been outlined along with ideas of general Roman strategy, including the notion that the Romans practiced a kind of hybrid political/military doctrine. Additionally, this essay has argued that two principal areas of information can be established that provide a picture of Roman military strategy. It has been argued that primary or archaeological information provides a large amount of information, which informs us about Roman military strategy. However, it has also been argued that secondary sources, such as the writings of Tacitus (89) give the most effective account of Roman strategy. Finally, the essay has argued that whilst primary sources are extremely useful, the written accounts of the period are the most valuable source of information because they enable historians to reconstruct the British political structure of the time, which was central to the Roman hybrid political/military strategy.