MAY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 5
ALSO THIS MONTH
Most of us in England dutifully learned at school that Julius Caesar landed here in 55 B.C., strolled around a bit, came back the next year, then gave up and left Britain alone. The Emperor Claudius, who -- I am astonished to see from the bust pictured in John Peddie's book -- didn't look a bit like Derek Jacobi, decided that Britain would provide the easy conquest of a province he badly wanted for popularity reasons, and sent a force over in 43 A.D. So much I knew, but some questions remained. Why did Caesar come? Why did he knock off after two years of relatively half-hearted campaigning? How did the Romans win relatively easily in 43?
John Peddie, an ex-regular soldier, maintains a dogged determination to get to the bottom of these and other questions in his Conquest: The Roman Invasion of Britain. His writing is rather terse, rather like a military report in fact, but he has an inquisitive mind, a good military knowledge of tactics and strategy, and a lot of friends whose favors he is ready to call in. For example, he persuaded the Commandant of the Royal School of Military Engineering to calculate the man-hours needed to build a Roman road over various kinds of terrain, as a result of which he tells us that 569,782 man-hours would be needed to build 119.45 kilometers of road linking Richborough (where the Romans were first based) with the ford across the Thames at Westminster. This force would have peaked at 1056 men, and would have taken 69 days.
From a Victorian staff manual he calculates how many mules would have been needed and how much fodder they would have needed to bring with them. To this reviewer's mind, this rather squashed the schoolboy idea of a few boatloads of Romans landing on a beach and looking around for a bite to eat now and again. The Roman commander, Aulus Plautius, had been planning for the best part of two years. He brought between 40,000 and 50,000 men, whose grain needs alone would have required 650 pack mules each day, not to mention the 5,500 riding horses the cavalry had. By any standards it was an immense logistical problem, and one which previously had completely escaped me.
This is no doubt partly because quartermaster stores have not yet had a good book written about them, to the best of my knowledge. (By all means prove me wrong; I'd love to read one.) The field hospital has M*A*S*H, but at no time in that book does anyone remark what a great job the army did keeping the commissary stocked while fighting a war as well. Someone remarked in my hearing years ago, only half jokingly, that a lot of America's expertise in the fast-food industry was gained in Vietnam; it isn't what they were there for, but it's good to know something worthwhile came out of it.
Given the difficulty I had organizing a barbecue for five recently, it's hardly surprising that one reader at least sat with his jaw open for much of the book. But don't get the idea that Conquest is merely a collection of statistics. Peddie examines the routes, the strategy of the commanders, and the reasons for some of their moves. I knew that the Romans had Batavian commandos rather like the Navy Seals who were prodigious swimmers -- try swimming the Menai strait from North Wales to Anglesey with your sword and shield strapped to your back and you'll know what I mean -- but I didn't know that one Roman legion specialized in barge boat construction and use, or that another commonly worked with the navy rather like present-day Marines.
If you go to Hadrian's Wall, where the Romans paused before going further North, there are some fascinating graffiti to be seen. Mostly these remark on how unexciting life as a legionary on the Empire's northern frontier was, and how they were sick to the back teeth with rain. One simply records what one legionary would like to do to his centurion and questions his parentage; but it is these little things that make the Roman army come alive for me. They were, it seems, like us. Peddie reminds us that the similarities between armies are not just individual, but on the army scale as well.
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.