Top positive review
Imperial Governor and Roman General
on 5 January 2017
This is – once again - the story of the Boadicean revolt, but an older and rather original version of it since this book was first published in 1968. The story is told by Aulus Plautus himself who was legate and propraetor in Britannia that is the military governor-general at the time of the insurrection.
This first person narrative allows the author to draw in an impressive way the (fictional but very plausible) character of a Roman commander in chief and aristocratic Senator at the time of Nero.
Aulus Plautus is a talented, proud, active and arrogant commander who is well aware of his worth and intends to see it recognised by all, starting with the Prince himself. He is also a very human character and the embodiment of Roman virtues but one that has a temper and who strives to remain calm and cold headed. He is determined, hard-working, though and experienced with high standards that he applies without flinching to himself and requires from his subordinates. Finally, he is an ambitious governor and general, a “safe pair of hands” who dreams of glory and of finalising the conquest of Roman Britain, and of modern Wales and Brigantia in particular, therefore succeeding where several of his predecessors have failed.
Essentially, he is a military man and a Senator whose model is one Julius Caesar, and the Republican warlords more generally, at a time when it could be rather just as unhealthy – if not more - for an Imperial military governor to be too successful and it would be so incompetent that it became disastrous. In fact, through his character’s eyes, George Shipway shows rather well what the two main and unforgivable sins of a governor or a procurator were. Rather than brilliance or simply competence and rather than honesty, these were sedition or rebellion against the Emperor and cowardice in the face of the enemy or dereliction of duty. Corruption and oppression, as shown by the behaviour of the Procurator who contributed to push the Icenians into rebellion but also by the vindictive attitude of Aulus Plautus himself in exacting retribution from the defeated rebels, only became problems when they got out of hand and fostered rebellion, destruction and loss of imperial revenues on a large scale.
In a rather fascinating way, the author also shows how Aulus Plautus’ initial complex and skilful plans were derailed through a mixture of personal ambition and stubbornness (his) and imperial politics and court infighting back in Rome on which he had no control whatsoever. An interesting feature is to show that as a competent general and military governor, he was aware of growing unrest in Eastern Britain. He was also aware of the political context and how this could generate a rebellion because of imperial policy - the growing need to exact more revenue from this expensive conquest and balance the books – and personal interests of Roman traders, bankers and some Senators (starting with Seneca himself) who had made large loans and heavily invested in Britain.
Another interesting feature is the way in which Aulus Plautus reacts to the growing strain and pressure as the signs of the rebellion build up and the increasingly bad news from the disrupted East trickles back to him in the West. The character streaks displayed are relentlessness and maybe even stubbornness with the general refusing to become distracted and influenced into abandoning his campaign, but also increasing vindictiveness as his carefully laid out plans collapse one after the other. While his campaign and victory over Boadicea’s rebellion were both masterful and decisive, George Shipway also shows that it was a close run thing especially given how the Roman general was let down by the commanding officer of Second Augusta.
Plautus’ ruthlessness, steadfastness and his ability to use his limited forces to maximum effect allowed him to snatch a crushing victory out of the jaws of defeat but while the Province remained Roman, it was largely destroyed. Since the Prince had tasked him to make it prosperous and increase its revenues, the imperial governor’s performance, while militarily brilliant, could be painted as less than fully successful, explaining Aulus Plautus’ growing bitterness but also his hatred and desire to exact maximum retribution against the Britons, retribution that went as far as extermination before he was recalled. Skilfully, the author describes a Governor whose Roman aristocratic prejudices - he cannot entirely hide how much he despises the Britons and gets to hate them after the rebellion, without being entirely conscious of it.
Characterisation of Roman officers is indeed the strongest point of this book. It goes well beyond just Aulus Plautus with the characters of the though and reliable Valens, legate of the 14th Gemina Legion and risen from the ranks, the hedonistic, decadent Mamilianus, the aristocratic apparently indolent Legate of the 20th Valeria and the brilliant but hot headed and rash Cerialis, Legate of the 9th Hispana. Also featuring in the book are Frontinus the tribune and military engineer, and a young senatorial tribune called Agricola who would become the father in law of a certain Tacitus.
Cerialis, Frontinus and Agricola were historical characters who did serve under Aulus Plautus. All three would succeed him as imperial governors of Britain and contribute to its conquest, with Cerialis finally having the opportunity to conquer Brigantia, Frontinus to build on a large scale and Agricola to attempt the conquest of modern Scotland.
Interestingly, the reader never gets to meet any of the insurgents, not even the Iceni Queen, since the story is solely told by Aulus Plautus and solely seen through his eyes. This is also one of the main attractions of this superb read and it almost felt like reading the Imperial Governors memoirs. Five stars, despite some minor technical glitches, such as the controversial size of Roman Legions which does not seem to have had a theoretical strength of 5600 apiece.