This Osprey little volume on the coastal defences of Roman Britain is a summary which is mostly inspired from Andrew Pearson's book ("The Roman Shore Forts", Coastal Defence of Southern Britain", 2002) and this is something that is clearly and perfectly acknowledged. While it does not pretend to be original - few Osprey publications are and can afford to be, given their limited format - it certainly has a lot of value as a concise summary of the Saxon Shore forts, supplemented with maps, photos, illustrations and plates. Also added are a brief historical overview and a discussion of the function of these defences, something which, much to my (admittedly naïve!) surprise, seems to have become controversial among historians.
I will not go through the eleven forts mentioned in this volume. Most of them are in relatively good condition, although one (Walton castle) has been entirely swept away by the sea and there are no remains above the ground for two others, partly because these remains have been incorporated in houses and churches in the respective neighbourhoods. What is interesting and worth mentioning in this review, however, are what their all have in common and their differences. The common element is their locations: there are all in areas protected from the open sea and strategically placed so as to control traffic. The main differences relate to their styles. Although they seem to have been mostly built within 50 or 60 years, at most, there are at least two different styles and an intermediate one showing the evolution in Roman priorities and needs.
The first section (Britannia) is the historical outline and it is mostly a good little summary (as far as I can tell, at least!), except for the last two pages. There seems to be a typo at the bottom of page 16: it is the Vandals who, together with the Suevi and the Alans overran Gaul and entered Iberia, NOT the Visigoths, which, as the very next sentence makes clear, were attacking Italy with Alaric and were coming from Illyria. More problematic (in my view at least) is the claim that Emperor Honorius, through the imperial "rescript" he allegedly wrote to the Romano-British civitates which had just expelled the administrators of the "usurper" Constantinus III (407-411), was, effectively, granting them independence from Rome." This statement seems to somewhat stretch the evidence. First of all, one needs to assume that Gildas' statement is correct: there really was such as rescript and it really referred to Britain, and not to Bruttium. On balance, the later seems much more likely because one fails to see why Gildas would have bothered mentioning such a document if it was irrelevant to Britannia. Having accepted these assumptions, the text essentially tells the civitates of Britain (what would probably be translated as municipalities, to seek to their own defence, in other words, to fend for themselves. This, however much one may want to interpret it, does NOT equate to "granting them independence from Rome".
Opposing the Romano-Britons who chose to defend themselves, to the Romano-Gauls, who preferred to higher barbarian defenders, is at best an over-simplification. At worst, it is rather misleading. Both continued previous imperial military policies that had been hiring mercenary war bands of barbarians for decades and adding them to regular troops. Both continued to hire barbarians which they added to their own (dwindling?) forces made of a mix between remnants of regular Roman forces, militias and landlords' guards. These barbarians were used as auxiliaries as their predecessors had been.
Another fascinating piece is the discussion about the purposes of these forts, with some denying their role as defences and bases against sea-borne piracy and emphasising instead the economic role of these forts and of the ports that often went with them. Although it seems difficult to negate their defensive and military role, they may also have had an economic role and may also have served as military depots, especially when a good part of Britain exports' were government-driven and directed towards the Rhine to meet the army's needs.
This is a good little book worth four stars, despite the glitches mentioned above.