Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

George Bush and the Invasion of Britain

A leader with no military experience launches a foreign war based on dodgy (or fabricated) intelligence. His technologically advanced army crushes the opposition and a government of exiles is brought in. The Commander-in-Chief himself announces ‘Mission Accomplished’ with a mock battle but four years later his army is locked in fierce guerrilla fighting as the soldiers battle former allies.

No, it’s not the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the Roman invasion of Britain in 43CE. It seems that the twenty centuries that separates the gladius from the guided missile haven’t really changed the nature of war and conquest.

The parallels came to me whilst reading John Peddie’s The Roman Conquest of Britain. The book was written in 1987, so it is now within my price range. Peddie had served in the Burma campaign in the Second World War, and he used this experience to fill in the gaps left by the historians and archaeologists. The result is not a definitive version of what happened, but certainly a best guess.

It’s strange to think, but the British/Indian Army in Burma in 1942 found itself in a very similar position to the Roman Army in Britain 1901 years earlier. They were an infantry army facing a lightly equipped but more mobile foe who was also on foot, and relied primarily on boats for transport backed up by animals. As they advanced, they were confronted with the problem of a large and alien civilian population to control.

The Romans though had the easier time on the battlefield. Once they’d pinned down the lightly equipped Celts on the Medway the legionaries made mincemeat of their opponents. Peddie is fairly convinced that that would have been that for organised British resistance, and so he’s fairly sceptical about what happened next.

The invasion had been launched by the Emperor Claudius. A man of no military experience at all, who indeed had been regarded as somewhat mentally retarded for most of his life, he suddenly found himself in charge of the mightiest war machine in the ancient world.

Great admirer though I am of both Robert Graves and Derek Jacobi, we should put aside the notion of Claudius being a frustrated liberal: during his reign more people were executed for treason or died in the arena than under his infamous predecessor Caligula. True, he was on the throne for longer and probably did face a large number of plots and revolts, but that doesn’t get away from the disturbing fact that here was a man who evidently knew that blood oiled the Roman wheels of power and wanted to make sure the machinery of office was well lubricated.

Gladiatorial games were all very well, but what the Roman public really wanted was war. The excuse was that Druids of Mass Destruction were hiding in Britain and threatening to arm Gaulish terrorists. They also had a chap called Adminius who claimed to be the rightful chief of the powerful Trinovantes tribe. In fact Gaul, Asterix cartoons aside, was always one of the most peaceful roman provinces, a condition of tranquillity no doubt brought on by the million odd citizens slaughtered by Julius Caesar, and Adminius appears to have had more friends on the banks of the Tiberis than the Thames. However they seemed good enough excuses at the time and so Claudius invaded.

Roman Generals knew their stuff in those days and Claudius’s man, Aulus Plautius, appears to have delivered the goods. However Roman Emperors were supposed to do their dirty work in person, so Claudius had to come to Britain. Fearful of plots at home he was away from Rome for the minimum time he could get away with, which was six months even with Roman roads. This left him just 16 days in Britain. Although in the country for only slightly longer than the average American tourist, Roman historians record that he duly delivered a great victory over the Britons at Colchester, helped in part by the 1st century equivalent of the Abrams tank - the war elephant.

Peddie takes all this with a very large pinch of salt. It is inconceivable that the Roman and British forces stood and stared at each other for three months whilst they waited for Claudius to arrive, and only the very best of luck would allow even the most brilliant general to bring to battle a foe in just 16 days. Equally no Celtic Chieftain worth his woad would make a stand against Roman war elephants in a place like Colchester. That the Battle of Colchester, it seems, was fought entirely for the benefit of the Roman chroniclers, all of whom were either still in Rome or safely ‘embedded’ with the Roman military.

Claudius returned in triumph, but that was not the end of the story. Although the Romans had landed in Britain in overwhelming force, and had the active support of most of the Atrebates, they had only fought the tribes of the extreme south-east, relying on the acquiescence of those further north. Resistance appears to have tailed off after the first victory and although the Trinovantes chief Caractacus led a successful guerrilla campaign, he was eventually betrayed by the Brigantes tribe and sent to Roman as a prisoner. He appears to have been fairly defiant in the face of imminent execution and so Claudius, perhaps thinking that sending such a feisty foe to his death would only create a martyr, pardoned him.

Superficially all seemed to be going well for the men in skirts, and Plautius returned home in triumph.

However a study of the military archaeology of the time paints a different picture. The Romans appeared to have deployed themselves across the conquered territory in about 130 small forts. This means that about half of the 40,000 Roman soldiers who invaded were now tied down in small garrisons apparently battling 'Druidist remnants'. Roman Generals weren’t fools and they would surely have only done this is if they were facing a hostile population that could not be trusted unless a cohort of infantry was parked at the end their street. Roman soldiers didn’t go off to war expecting to be home by Saturnalia, but clearly this was shaping up for a long and difficult occupation. There was a precedent in Gaul. Caesar claimed to have wrapped up the campaign when he defeated Vercingetorix at Alesia, but as he crossed the Rubicon on his way to Rome he left behind him an army that was just beginning six years of bloody tribal conflict.

In Britain it was four years before the storm finally broke. The powerful Iceni tribe in what is now Norfolk had so far sat out the war, content to see their old enemies the Trinovantes laid low. However it was soon clear that Rome was after subjects, not allies, and so when the new governor threatened to disarm them, they rose in revolt. That governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, had also run into trouble trying to push the borders of Roman Britain into what is now Wales, and Rome’s legions had actually had to retreat and abandon some of the border forts. He died five years later “worn out with care” as the historian Tacitus rather poetically puts it.

Claudius didn’t fair much better and the popularity boost from his British adventure soon evaporated. He eventually left office when his wife poisoned him. He had become a god, but was deeply unpopular and regarded as a brutal and debauched leader. Romans were particularly scandalised by his drinking (in pubs with the proles) and his sexual antics (ladies only - no boys).

Britannia did eventually become a reasonably settled province, but it certainly wasn’t easy. In 60CE Boudicca torched London, Colchester and St Albans and wiped out half a legion of troops. In 69CE the puppet state of Brigantia in the northeast revolted and although the Romans appear to have rescued their ally Queen Cartimandua, popular feeling appears to have favoured her rebellious husband and so the Romans evacuated and left him to it.

Wales seems to have been a running sore and although the Romans seem to have been largely content with just securing the border with a series of forts, the garrisoning of which must have been amongst the least enviable postings in the Empire. However they did invaded Anglesey in an attempt to wipe out those religious fanatics the Druids. The first time they tried this the Brigantes revolted and the second time the Iceni, so either the ancient Brits were great opportunists or the Druids were actually quite popular, despite the Roman propaganda about human sacrifice. Roman Legions also invaded, and then retreated from Scotland. It did get better, but in 260CE Britain was part of the independent Gallic Empire and in 286CE it was actually independent under a chap called Carausius.

That the Romans did eventually manage to pacify this rebellious little island in the end said more about their ability to use soft power than brute force. After Boudicca’s revolt the Romans seem to have given up ‘shock and awe’ and gone over to ‘hearts and minds’. The Rome was often as not more of a franchise than an empire, and friendly local chiefs were given villas and allowed to carry ruling their own people as Romanised Celts. Despite this, Roman troops never actually left and right up until the end Britannia continued to require more than 10% of the Roman Army as garrison. If you include National Guard and Reserves, the US has about the same percentage of its army deployed in Iraq today.

All of which goes to show that there’s nothing new under the sun, and it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that military history isn’t just a series of Decisive Battles and that even the Romans, who literally wrote the book on empire building, could get bogged down fighting interminable insurgencies. Are there any further comparisons to be drawn between Claudius and Bush though? The former advocated public flatulence whilst the latter is famous for his verbal gaffes, but Claudius is also regarded by modern historians as an able administrator who cemented Roman Known World dominance. Bush is almost certain to be remembered as the man who took a global superpower and almost drove it into the sand.

Finally Claudius was succeeded by a man who initially appeared to be a great leader, but who went mad in office and fiddled the capital city burnt down. Dubya hopefully won’t be….

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