ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 40, December 1998


Roman conquest

From Dr W S Hanson

Sir: The article in your September issue entitled `Togidubnus and the Roman liberation' by Martin Henig has prompted a flurry of critical responses (Letters, November). But it is unreasonable to dismiss Dr Henig's views as entirely imaginative or without foundation.

I entirely endorse the main thrust of his argument that the conquest of southeastern England was achieved as much by winning over the hearts and minds of the indigenous population as it was by military force. Three strands of evidence support this interpretation of events.

Firstly, despite Brian Philp's protestations, it remains true that compared to the North and West of Britain, there are very few Roman forts in South-East England as a whole and hardly any in the core central areas to which Dr Henig alludes, despite decades of aerial reconnaissance in an area well suited to this technique of site discovery. Few would now accept Graham Webster's interpretation of the likely pattern of Roman military dispositions as put forward in his Roman Invasion of Britain, where he depicts the whole of the South-East as covered by a network of forts and roads. Those military sites that we do know relate either to the very early phases of the invasion or subsequent retrenchment after the rebellion of Boudica.

Secondly, Roman trade and diplomatic contacts with the South-East in the half century before the invasion of Claudius were extensive, exemplified in, for example, the increasing number of Dressel 1B wine amphorae and other Mediterranean imports recovered largely from graves, the clear Roman influence on late pre-Roman Iron Age coin types, and the surprising frequency with which exiled British kings feature in Roman sources as suppliants to the emperor (Tincommius, Dubnovellaunus, Adminius, and finally Verica). Thus much of the area was well familiar with Rome and her material culture and was already regarded as within the Roman sphere of influence long before the invasion of AD43.

Finally, after the conquest large swathes of the South and East remained in the control of indigenous pro-Roman leaders, the so-called `client' kings Prasutagus of the Iceni and Togidubnus (or Cogidubnus) of the Regni. In sum, once the immediate opposition to the army of invasion had been overcome, the South-East was rapidly assimilated and required only the minimum of military control.

It is only when he extends the principle to include the North and West of Britain that Dr Henig enters into speculation without evidential support. Here I must concur with the main points raised in the letters from both Stan Wolfson and James Stewart. Indeed, I would be the first to agree that Tacitus's account should be read with caution and due allowance made for bias (see my Agricola and the conquest of the north), but that is not the same as suggesting that this eminent Roman historian published an account that was entirely fictitious.

Battle sites are notoriously difficult to identify archaeologically. The failure to identify the site of Mons Graupius does not mean it was an invention of Agricola. Nor, incidentally, was the battle necessarily fought in the Highlands, for the Grampians are named after the battle site, not vice versa.

The conquest of the far North was never brought to a successful completion and northern England was dominated by a military presence for the rest of its occupation. Some indication of the importance placed upon military control is provided by the legionary dispositions. Britain seems to have required the presence of three legions for most of its occupation, while the whole of North Africa required only one.

The effort and expenditure lavished on the development of elaborate and heavily garrisoned frontiers would make no sense unless some sustained level of opposition was anticipated. None of this is commensurate with Dr Henig's view that the whole of the military conquest of Britain was a sham.

Yours sincerely,
University of Glasgow
5 November

From Mr Graham Robertson

Sir: As soon as conventional perception is challenged, the brickbats arrive - but Martin Henig's article was designed to make his readers think.

The history of our islands is peppered with `turning-point' battles for which there is no real evidence. Mons Graupius stands alongside High Cross (mentioned by Stan Wolfson in his letter), Mount Badon, Bruanburgh and others. Scholars have to ask whether the battle occurred or whether the battle-stories are legend covering up some other reason for history's change of course. I agree with Henig that Mons Graupius did not take place - a clear reading of Tacitus's Agricola suggests he cribbed his report from Sallust!

History is full of holes. Acting the Devil's Advocate is a long-standing ploy of good scholarship, and Henig has certainly given us plenty to chew on. As an undergraduate I was lectured that Mons Graupius is Auchinhove/Pass of Grange, but after 30 years of teaching I don't believe that any more. Repetition of the same arguments has convinced me that there is something else to Tacitus's Agricola than just an encomium of his father-in-law; what that something else might be, I am still working on.

Yours faithfully,
6 November

Petrol stations

From Mr Richard Webber

Sir: A 1930s petrol station survives near me at Banwell, near Weston-super-Mare (`Buildings designed to advertise fuel', October). I have photographs of the garage in its early years, originally with three hand pumps selling Shell at 1/6d per gallon, Shell-Mex at 1/4d per gallon, and National Benzole at 1/6d per gallon. Later two further pumps were added, selling Cleveland Diesel and Ethyl both at 1/6d.

Sadly, all these hand pumps were obsolete by 1933, and were substituted by electric pumps. During World War II, four of the five pumps were commandeered by the military and by the nearby Oldmixen and Aerojet factories. Each morning military personnel from the army unit at Banwell Castle, and employees from the factories came to get their petrol. The fifth pump provided `Pool' petrol for local people. Any profits produced by the sale of petrol had to be shared with other local garages which were made to close for the duration of the war.

Esso Petroleum Company took over the garage in 1955 but regrettably closed it in 1980, as the company was endeavouring to cut their costs by no longer supplying petrol in small amounts to their garages. The storage tanks at Knightcott were not large enough to take the extra petrol required to make deliveries viable. The pumps were subsequently removed, but the property survives.

Yours faithfully,
15 October

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