Nic Fields, Britannia AD43 (Osprey, 2020)
We all know the Romans. They were the great conquerors who laid the foundations for western Europe over the course of five centuries and turned the Mediterranean into their lake. But why did the Romans invade Britain in 43CE and how did they do it? Nic Fields explores those questions in Britannia AD43, an Osprey survey book familiar to most military history students. Along the way, he illuminates the main debates that still linger over the events of that year and busts some long-held myths while engaging the reader with a fascinating story.
Fields begins with Julius Caesar’s reconnaissance of Britain in 55 and 54BCE followed by the Contact Period when trade and cultural interchange flourished, but otherwise Rome showed little interest in the island off the edge of the Empire despite the claims of conquest by Caligula in 40CE. That all changed when the notoriously unsuitable Claudius became Emperor the following year. He needed a military victory, Britain was a likely target, a pretext came up, and the Romans were soon planning an invasion and conquest.
Aulius Plautius Silvanus commanded the Roman invasion of Britain in 43CE. Fields introduces him, his legates, and his opposing general on the British side, Caratacus. They commanded very different armies, and the differences between the two is Fields’ next stop. The Roman army was professional in every way; disciplined, organized, and a proper state instrument of war. The British Celts were the opposite; warrior tribes, brave individually but brittle collectively if their initial ferocious charge failed. Their enigmatic use of chariots merits attention too, with their effectiveness open to question. Fields adds a section on the Roman navy that feels a bit forced, but his survey of Roman auxiliaries is very useful.
The strategies of the two sides could not have been more different. The Britons opted to draw the Romans into the country then confuse and disperse them with the hit-and-run tactics they used so successfully against Julius Caesar. These Romans were here to stay, however, and wanted to fight the Britons in a pitched battle and be done with it. Fields moves onto the campaign with a description of the assembled Roman forces, the landing and then the push inland. The Britons opposed them at the Medway River in an unusual two-day battle but could not hold and retired. They tried again at the Thames and lost again. This was in no small part to the tactically adept Batavi auxiliaries that Fields lingers on before introducing Claudius arriving in triumph on his elephant to accept the surrender of the southern tribes. The conquest was not over, however, and Plautius ordered Vespasianus to take the southwest, which he did but not without more hard fighting. Then the Roman advance north began while they consolidated their captured territories. Fields concludes with the question: was all this a Roman vanity project?
There are very few surprises in Osprey survey books like this. The format is familiar with a simple chapter structure and a mid-text break of artistic colour plates. Many maps, colour photographs of various locations, and archaeological discoveries also illuminate the narrative. The text skims the surface for the most part, and Fields engages briefly with the deeper mysteries that the incomplete and sometimes contradictory sources cast up. That is not a bad thing: this is an introductory survey after all. Fields is, however, too opinionated and flippant at times; for example, he disparages Julius Caesar, and Caligula getting “whacked” jars. Putting that to the side, Britannia AD43 engages and entertains its audience very well. For those not already well-versed in the period, they will probably want to read more based on Fields’ book, using his very useful bibliography as a starting point, and that for me makes Britannia AD43 a success.