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Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain

Reviewed by Capt. Richard Dick, USN (Ret.) 

Dr. Richard Hingley’s new book provides a fresh assessment of the Roman conquest of Britain from Julius Caesar’s first raid in 55 B.C. through the building of Hadrian’s Wall (roughly along the current border between England and Scotland) to about 130 A.D. Hingley also adds a higher-level overview of Rome’s short-lived efforts under Emperors Antoninus Pius and Septimius Severus to push the border of Roman Britain to the edge of the Scottish Highlands and to establish a network of client chieftains even further north. 

The book assesses the factors that led to the initial attack and subsequent invasion, as well as Rome’s seemingly inexorable northward and westward expansion across what is now Great Britain. These included Julius Caesar’s stated intention to cut the lines of assistance from Celtic tribes in Britain to Celts resisting the Romans in Gaul. He also notes that Roman hopes for significant booty from the island were largely disappointed, except for mineral deposits (e.g., tin) and a steady supply of captives for Rome’s voracious slave markets. According to Hingley, another motivator for Caesar and especially for later Roman emperors was the conquest of what Romans perceived as a savage land beyond the limits of the known inhabited world, a land in the realm of the divinity Oceanus, the world sea beyond the Mediterranean. Such a conquest or expansion brought considerable prestige to an emperor new to the throne and anxious to enhance his standing among Roman elites. The author sees this as a major driver in the expeditions of Claudius in 43 A.D. and Vespasian, starting in 71 A.D. and including the initial invasion of Scotland. This led to the construction of the first northern line of fortifications, later formalized into a frontier wall under Hadrian early in the second century A.D.

Like any work of history, Conquering the Ocean will not serve all its possible readers equally well. Naval history buffs and naval historians will find little in Hingley’s book, aside from useful brief discussions of the Roman Navy’s role in the conquest. Similarly, the author provides only enough information on Roman armies (organization, weapons, tactics, etc.) for the reader to follow the narrative. On the other hand, the author has studied and written about Hadrian’s Wall extensively and he effectively incorporates many of his findings into this book. He also provides in-depth discussions of the impetus for the initial invasion and subsequent expansion, as well as attempts by several of the British tribes to resist or revolt, including Boudica’s initially successful uprising in 60 A.D. Additionally, Hingley explores how Rome took advantage of the disunity among the small kingdoms in Britain to facilitate Roman expansion. 

Professor Hingley is very knowledgeable about the archaeology of the Iron Age and Roman Britain. He incorporates the results of recent and ongoing archaeological work into the historical narrative without getting the non-expert reader bogged down in the details of pottery, jewelry, cemeteries, etc. Overall, Conquering the Ocean is an excellent investment for readers looking for an accessible and engaging overview of the Roman conquest of Britain.  

Dr. Richard Hingley is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Durham. A specialist in Iron Age and Roman archaeology and history in Britain, he has published extensively, including Londinium: A Biography, on Roman London from the invasion to the departure of the last Roman troops from Britain in the fifth century A.D. 

Captain Dick is a retired submariner and also served for over 29 years in the defense intelligence community. 

Conquering the Ocean: The Roman Invasion of Britain. By Richard Hingley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022). 

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