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4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly good introduction and overview, 25 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Rome's Northern Frontier AD, 70-235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall (Fortress) (Paperback)
Although I am no expert on Roman fortifications beyond Hadrian's Wall, I found this little Osprey booklet to be a rather good and well-structured introduction and overview. The first part lays down the context: the subjugation of the Brigantes by Cerialis, followed by the northern campaigns of Agricola, Roman Governor of Britannia (AD 77 to AD 84). We know rather more than usual about these thanks to the work of Tacitus, Agricola's son-in-law. Despite his hard-won successes and victories, Agricola's campaigns were stopped. The Caledones and the most northern tribes were not subdued and the northern part of Scotland was not conquered with the Emperor Domitian decided instead to pull out troops and redeploy them to fight Germanic tribes.

Accordingly, the second section presents the Gask Ridge, the first set of semi-temporary fortifications, explains its role and details its main features, including descriptions of the main forts and of the observation points (termed "fortlets" in the book) that were part of it. Then starts the third section and the Antonine conquest whereby an Emperor newly arrived on the throne and in need of a token military victory to "legitimise" his rule expanded Roman rule north of the Tyne-Solway. Starting this section is a concise but accurate and well-placed piece on the Roman Imperial ideology of victory and how essential it was for each Emperor to be seen as "ever victorious". Then comes the piece on consolidation and the origins of the Antonine Wall, which was built once Antoninus Pius had made his point and could present himself as victorious.

The last section is about the building of the Wall itself, its role, its very limited timespan with troops between pulled back to Hadrian's Wall after a couple of decades, and an assessment of whether it was a success or a failure. Also included are descriptions of some of its components, in particular the description of one of its forts, once again backed up by rather good plates showing the various features of the Wall. Then you get the various usual items that are standard in the fortress series: the sites today, a glossary and a short but diversified little bibliography for those which may be looking for more.

I did have one problem however: the book did not clearly explain (or perhaps I did not clearly understand) why the Romans pulled back from the Antonine Wall to Hadrian's Wall, which was both much longer and needed about 50% more troops so as to be adequately garrisoned. Clearly, saving manpower does not seem to have been the main issue, despite the author mentioning that as the years went by, the Roman Army was increasingly stretched and short of manpower. Once the Romans pulled back, the fortifications beyond Hadrian's Wall, although temporarily re-occupied at times (under Septimius Severus, for instance), never became the main line. One explanation, perhaps, relates to the Romans' lines of communications between York (Eburacum), the headquarters of the 6th Legion. These would have been significantly longer when the frontier was the Antonine Wall. A related explanation is that the land in between (most of the Lowlands) may have populated by tribes which, despite being "allies" of Rome (including the Votadini) may not always have been as "friendly" as suggested. The implication would then be that the Roman lines of communications could become very vulnerable and easy to cut if one of these tribes revolted, possibly in conjunction with an attack coming from the North. Simply put, the garrisons on the Antonine Wall could find themselves stranded. Unfortunately, none of this is really explained, or discussed, and this is perhaps the element which is missing from what is otherwise a rather good and very interesting little volume. Four stars.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Nov 2013 16:38:04 GMT
I've had a quick look at the first few pages of your reviews. You clearly know a lot of history, and are still leaning. As you've guessed, I haven't done many reviews in that area, and apart from this book, the rest is mostly royalty, but I am moving slowly in your direction. As such, your reviews will help to guide me. In particular, I've been to Hadrian's Wall and I'll eventually be looking to learn more, although I might look for something a bit more detailed.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Nov 2013 17:21:43 GMT
Last edited by the author on 21 Nov 2013 18:19:51 GMT
JPS says:
Let's put it that way: history is my hobby (and has been for almost 40 years since I was a young teenager!) just like music happens to be yours, maybe for as long. The least that can be expected from either of us is that, overtime, we might have learned a few things in our respective areas of choice. I'm not even pretending to sound modest: it's a rather obvious fact and there is little merit involved in it.

Yes, perfectly correct: I'm still learning, every day, and every day a bit more, and I expect this to go on for as long as possible :-). Anyway, given the (current) size of my little library and the number of books I tend to order per year (it's getting to be a bit of an addiction!), I expect to be rather busy over the next years and add another couple thousand reviews on history and historical fiction - mostly stuff between 1500 BC and 1500 AD (give or take a couple of hundred years on each side). I also "do" science fiction and "heroïc fantasy" every now and again, because they are also good fun to read and not too "heavy going" - ideal for travelling, for instance, and I happen to travel quite a bit for my work...


PS: As for this little book, it's a rather nice overview and starting point for someone who knows little about the Antonine Wall (as opposed to Hadrian's Wall, which most have at least heard about) and the fortifications beyong it. Anyway, given the size of the format, you can hardly expect more from these little Osprey volumes. As you may see for yourself, you do need to be careful when selecting them because while some are good, others are poor quality and sometimes even awfully sloopy...

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Nov 2013 18:06:04 GMT
Last edited by the author on 6 Nov 2013 13:22:26 GMT
JPS says:
Sorry: kept on and on and forgot to mention two things. First, thanks for your vote - much appreciated. Second, if you have a preferred period and topic in history, feel free to let me know: maybe I can help and, if this is the case, I would be more than happy to do so.
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