20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Where the world and nature end...'
The campaign of Julius Agricola in northern Britain early in the reign of Domitian, which culminated with the battle of Mons Graupius, is better attested than a great many other ancient military actions, but there are still controversies in its interpretation. While Tacitus' biography of Agricola provides a lengthy description of both campaign and battle, his aim was not...
Published on 16 Aug 2010 by N. Ross
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Objective assessment
Whilst I have always had a passing interest in Mons Graupius I would not claim to be an expert. However I have read a couple of books on it and have tried to make sense of the campaign in a historical context. I am always very wary of extremes of view on Amazon, ranging from 5 stars to 1. In my view this book deserves neither.
It is well written and easy to...
Published on 31 Jan 2011 by W. Bartlett
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Where the world and nature end...',
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)The campaign of Julius Agricola in northern Britain early in the reign of Domitian, which culminated with the battle of Mons Graupius, is better attested than a great many other ancient military actions, but there are still controversies in its interpretation. While Tacitus' biography of Agricola provides a lengthy description of both campaign and battle, his aim was not a straightforward recounting of the facts, but rather a glorification of his protagonist. The exact location of the battle, and its exact date, have been a matter of scholarly debate for decades. More recently, this ambiguity has led some historians to doubt the most basic elements of the account, and suggest that Graupius was rather more a skirmish than the epic battle Tacitus describes, or even that it never happened at all.
Given the restricted format of the Osprey series, Duncan Campbell has very wisely decided to take Tacitus more or less at his word. Combining a close and scholarly reading of the Agricola text with archeological and epigraphic findings, supporting details from ancient authors and recent reconstructions, Campbell has composed an admirably concise and comprehensive narrative of the campaign. A brief summary is provided of military and political activities in Britain prior to Agricola's arrival, and a more detailed examination of the probable size and composition of the available Roman forces. Information on Agricola's Caledonian opponents is, of course, rather more sparse, but the book manages a creditable eight page investigation of the available evidence, supported by quotations from other Roman and Greek authors. The account of the campaign itself, following Tacitus, is broken down into seasons, and each successive stage described and illustrated with maps and plans. A survey of the final battle comprises the second half of the book, and is suitably dramatised with three double-page paintings and two elevations.
Campbell demonstrates a keen appreciation of the difficulties of analysing the Agricola text, and does not hesitate to question some of the more rhetorical of Tacitus's claims - on the numbers of Caledonian dead in the battle, for example. Impressively, given his limited format, he also engages with some of the controversies of interpretation. Digressions on the disputed reading of the only surviving copy of the Agricola (the 9th century Codex Aesinus) provide an illuminating scholarly background while never breaking the momentum or concision of the main narrative. Stan Wolfson's recent emendation of the manuscript's latin is used in several places - at one point clarifying the action of the battle itself, while at another banishing the mysterious 'Boresti' (long thought to be an otherwise-unknown northern tribe) to the abyss of textual corruption. Taking a rather two-fisted approach to source reading, Campbell blasts a number of recent theories that contradict his reconstructions as 'preposterous' and 'absurd' - this may surprise those accustomed to a more tentative appraisal, and annoy those whose favourite theories are gunned down in the process, but it does lend the book a bracing sense of authority not at odds with its subject. Campbell's notion that British war chariots had scythed axles is perhaps more difficult to digest - literary evidence is provided (Pomponius Mela, principally), but is also contradicted by comparable sources. A matter for debate, perhaps, rather than outright assertion, but this is the sole example of dramatic appeal outweighing strict historical veracity.
With the author's obvious understanding of, and enthusiasm for the subject, the only downside to this book is its size. There is sometimes a sense of compression in the interest of brevity. Even with this limitation, however, it must stand as the best current interpretation of the campaign, and hopefully one which Duncan Campbell might enlarge upon at a later date.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Objective assessment,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)Whilst I have always had a passing interest in Mons Graupius I would not claim to be an expert. However I have read a couple of books on it and have tried to make sense of the campaign in a historical context. I am always very wary of extremes of view on Amazon, ranging from 5 stars to 1. In my view this book deserves neither.
It is well written and easy to follow and, as one expects from Osprey, nicely illustrated. However, I think it takes too much for granted in terms of historical evidence (or lack of). We are of course stuck with a limited range of sources and Tacitus was certanly not unbiased. Therefore we need to be careful in terms of taking his numbers and "facts" at face value. We simply do not know how fierce the battle was as there is no archeological evidence to back this up and little in terms of literary source either.
Perhaps the greatest problem I had with the book was its unquestioning acceptance that Bennachie was the site of the battle. That it coud have been I accept as a possibility but others have argued strongly for other sites (e.g. Fraser and others argue for the Gask ridge in Perthshire) and these do not merit a mention in the book.
The problem I have with it all is it presents as historical fact (or at least probability) something that is not proven and this makes for questionable objectivity when other alternatives are not presented. The danger is that the uninitiated accept at face value something which should be questioned. I admire the attempt to write a battle history on a battle for which there is so little corroborating evidence but I would certainly have liked more recognition of some of the weaknesses in the evidence base.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Academic but absorbing,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)This is a thorough examination of all the sources relating to the Romans' attempt to conquer what is now Scotland in the late AD 70s and early AD 80s. Campbell is not content to rely on literary sources (principally the 'Agricola' of Tacitus, who may have served in Britain in AD 77-79), but also epigraphy (inscriptions on stone and other materials, and writing tablets from Carlisle and Vindolanda), numismatic (coins), and the results of recent archaeological excavations in the north of England and Scotland. The overall result is rather more scholarly than the average popular Osprey treatment, especially in the sections dealing with the likely composition of the auxiliary regiments in Agricola's army or the general's likely routes of advance as suggested by the positions of camps in the landscape, but it remains very readable.
This is no one-sided, pro-Roman book. Campbell provides as detailed an examination of 'Celtic' and British military practices as the sources (literary and archaeological) will allow, and he offers some interesting observations regarding chariot warfare, which had its last hurrah at Mons Graupius. Campbell clearly admires the Caledones, 'the last of the free'.
Campbell concludes that Bennachie is the most likely site for the battle of Mons Graupius, which he accepts was a clear-cut Roman victory. However, when it comes to the scale of the victory, he is dismissive of the 10,000 enemy casualties reported by Tacitus. He emphasises the Roman habit of inflating the numbers of the enemy dead to increase the importance of a victory. In fact, Campbell's appraisal of the Roman literary sources is critical throughout.
Finally, Campbell's book is an interesting reminder of how the Romans were adept at conquering large chunks of Scotland but, because of military events elsewhere in the empire which resulted in the withdrawal of troops from Britain, were incapable of effecting lasting consolidation.
The book includes three excellent double-page artworks by Seán Ó'Brógáin showing 1. the battlefield from the perspective of the Romans; 2. the hand-to-hand combat between the Roman auxiliaries and the Caledones swordsmen; 3. the pursuit of the Caledones by the Roman cavalry. As usual, Ó'Brógáin manages to combine detail with drama and convincing action. There are also two 'bird's eye view' maps of the battlefield and several campaign maps illustrating Agricola's advance.
The other illustrative material is of a good standard, with many photos of manuscripts of the 'Agricola', the inscriptions, coins and writing tablets discussed in the text, figured gravestones of Roman auxiliaries (including the recently discovered tombstone of the cavalryman Insus, who grasps the severed head of one of his enemies), and various landscape shots relating to the Roman campaigns, including of course the battlefield at Bennachie. There is also an interesting selection of excavation shots, including the British chariot burial from Newbridge (Edinburgh). However, I am puzzled by the decision of the publisher to reproduce some fantastic objects at very small size, for example the Deskford carnyx (perhaps a ritual deposit connected with Mons Graupius) or the splendid Mortonhall scabbard (from a British sword contemporary with Mons Graupius), while a ropey Victorian etching depicting Calcagus' harangue receives almost a full page.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the very best Osprey Campaigns,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)I am often disappointed with Osprey's publications. Part of it is because of the rather limited format that authors have to comply. It may also be because quality may be uneven (some good, some bad, some indifferent) and perhaps also because I may be expecting too much from them to begin with, and I am probably a bit fussy anyway. This one, however, is simply excellent because it has it all.
As another Osprey author mentioned in his review of this book on Amazon.co.uk, Duncan Campbell has used all of the sources available. He has discussed them and, however briefly, analysed them, showing for instance that Tacitus, although biased, is mostly preferable to Dio Cassius. He has also used all the other sources at his disposal (archaeology, numismatics, aerial photography etc...). Finally, he has also managed to present the main issues and areas of discussions that his subject has generated for decades. All this is done is a way that is neither pedantic, nor arrogant. It is done thoroughly and professionally, with the author taking great care to distinguish between what can be backed by sources from what are mere interpretations or speculations, however plausible they may seem. This certainly needed to be emphasized because, at least up to now, I do not think I have come across a book in this collection which could boast all of these qualities to such an extent, although, arguably, I have not (yet!) read all of them.
Some reviewers have claimed that the author was biased and at least implied that he told the story from the Roman point of view. One even went as far as to insinuate that this was an apology of Roman imperialism and that, since it was also an apology of Tacitus' father in law and since Tacitus had no military experience and was not on the spot, the whole story lacked credibility. I was surprised to read this because each of these points is thoroughly discussed and addressed by the author very convincingly, in my view
Given that the Caledonians left no written source, we only have the Roman view to go on anyway. However, this is a very interesting and terribly lucid Roman view, a view that does not exactly uphold the "politically correct" view that we could have expected. Can anyone imagine Caesar, Titus-Livius or Suetonius putting in the mouth of a "Barbarian" chieftain and warlord the indictment about the Romans "plundering, butchering, raping in the false name of empire (imperium), where they have created desolation, they call it peace?" Hardly. This in itself is extremely interesting. It is also for these kinds of glimpses into the Roman "psyche" that Tacitus can be so valuable. This statement probably reflects the Roman author's own point of view, and perhaps also that of Agricola. After years of hard campaigns and ruthless war, with Tacitus probably taking part in some of it, you do get the impression that they were getting sick and tired of killing and destroying. It does not make the Roman conquerors very much more sympathetic, of course, but it definitely makes them more human and it makes the whole story "look and feel" much more real.
Then we have the events themselves and here both the form and the substance are rather excellent. The author summarizes previous events since the initial invasion some 40 years before. He also provides the standard pieces of background information on the Roman army. These are perhaps briefer than usual, something that I appreciated if only because reading the same (or very similar) pages of context on the Roman army in each and every Osprey publication that examines one of their campaigns or one of the stages in its evolution can be somewhat repetitive and tedious. So here again, the author struck a nice balance in my view: just enough. Another very interesting piece was the author's tentative reconstitution (and acknowledged as tentative!) of the Roman battle order, the succession of campaigns and the analysis of their methodical advance. Here again, the author deserves praise, if only for having managed to summarize so much in a nevertheless clear and comprehensive way.
Last but one, we get to the battle. This is where they might be a few reservations, although there seems to be little doubt that it happened, that Agricola's plan was successful and that the Romans won hands down after a hard fight, despite allegations trying to pretend that the battle did not take place or trying to minimize it. I am a bit sceptical, but given the limitations of our information, I can go no further than that, about the "body count". Despite accusations of inflating the numbers, which simply cannot be substantiated, it is quite possible than the Caledonians lost some 10000 or about a third of their initial force. This is rather plausible when one remembers that they got themselves either trapped against the mountain or hunted down and massacred by the Roman cavalry once they had broken and were trying to flee. What is perhaps less convincing is the very low losses on the Roman side (360 killed) after what is portrayed as a long and hard fight.
There may however be a number of explanations to that. In addition to the Romans being armoured whereas the Caledonians were mostly not, this number could only include the fatalities on the battlefield and not count the wounded. These could be anything between three to five times as numerous and many Romans, given their heavy defensive equipment and the slashing swords of their enemies, would have been wounded rather than killed. Some of these may not have survived their wounds but at least they would have been taken care of so that those that could be treated were saved. The losing side, of course, did not have such an opportunity, which wounded Caledonians being mostly finished off by the victors. Besides, the Roman swordplay tactics and training would have implied that many Caledonians received gut wounds or wounds to the throat or neck which they would be very unlikely to survive.
Anyway, as so much with that battle (we are not even entirely certain of its location), all of this is also speculative, although it seems plausible and may go a long way to explain the huge discrepancy in the losses on each side.
Finally, there is the aftermath: all of this, the seven years of campaign, the marching, the fighting, the battle, the hardships, the bloodshed, the loss of life turned out to be almost for nothing because Domitian pulled troops out of Britain to fight on the Danube. As Campbell makes clear (and it is even clearer when you read Tacitus), Tacitus resented this and had little sympathy for Domitian partly because of this. His views are likely to have been shared by Agricola himself and probably also by most if not all of the Roman tribunes, prefects and legates that had taken part in these hard campaigns. All of this is easily understandable and this, in itself, may be a reason for Tacitus to write the history of the Agricola's campaigns. That way, at least, they would be remembered...
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for the average history enthusiast,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)My expertise in this field is very limited having only a bachelor degree in political and military history, though my review is meant for the average reader and history enthusiast.
The first thing that strikes me when reading Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) is the structure of the book is extremely boring, and forces you to skim countless sentences as the descriptions and facts are written in a fashion of a gradeschool factbook you find at your local library.
I read other reviews saying they could feel the author enthusiasm for this subject, I got no such feeling and felt I was reading a plain review of historical accounts with no interesting facts I didn't already know.
The only reason I give this book 2 stars instead of 1 is that the facts are good and illustrations give good immersion.
If you are looking to write a term paper on the subject, then its a good enough book.
But If you are looking for an fascinating book to give you more appreciation of this important historical battle, or a book to read on the plane, bus or before bed that would give you the satisfaction of a great read then don't buy this book, you will be disapointed.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars well produced but has some significant flaws,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)I found this a well produced book with excellent photographs, diagrams, and artists' reconstructions. It also gives a good account of the background and main events. However, the author says that the location of the battle at Bennachie is "generally accepted" when in fact this is not generally accepted at all, as a brief scan of both popular and academic sources on the internet will demonstrate. He also doesn't even reference James Fraser's extensive recent book about Mons Graupius in the bibliography, perhaps because it presents a contrary view about the location. This lack of objectivity and accuracy spoiled the book for me. It would have been possible in one paragraph at the beginning of the book simply to acknowledge the differences of opinion about location and say that the rest of the book presents a plausible case for one leading candidate, and that anyway the description of the actual battle details remain largely valid for wherever the location is eventually agreed. This would have been a small addition to the text but a large addition to its credibility.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars mons graupius,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)A wonderful product and all of osprey, magnificent illustrations, though few, easy and entertaining reading.
An excellent work and all to which we are accustomed to the publisher.
0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars HISTORYTHIS BOOK IS REALLY GOOD IT,
This review is from: Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) (Paperback)THIS IS A VERY GOOD READ IT MUST BE DIFFICULT TO TRY AND EMULATE TIME SO FAR AWAY BUT THE AUTHOR HAS DONE A TREMENDOUS JOB
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Mons Graupius AD 83 (Campaign) by Duncan B Campbell (Paperback - 10 July 2010)