A Conversation for The Romans in Britain: A Brief History

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 1


Great entry!

There is an alternative reason for the Romans retreating out of Scotland when they had it for the taking (having crushed the flower of Jock manpower at Mons Graupius, somewhere near modern Aberdeen)

We know the general climate two thousand years ago was a lot more clement than it is now. For inastance, modern historians seem to rate the "comfort factor" of a posting to Hadrian's Wall by basing it on the modern Northumbrian climate, which is a huge fallacy that presupposes it's ALWAYS been this damp and cold and overcast up there.

This is wrong - the climate in the early AD was a lot more clement and warm than it is now. It still might not have been a barrel of laughs to serve on the Wall in January, but the spring and summer would have been warmer and dryer.

We know this because of something called the Vinipause.

This is the absolute line on the map, north of which grapes and grapevines do not grow.

In modern Britain, draw a line between roughly Lowestoft and Bristol. In practical terms this means you can just about grow grapes in Suffolk, but not in Norfolk, or in Somerset but not in Hereford. (In fact, most British viniculture is confined to areas south of London, eg Kent, Sussex, Hampshire)

This has not always been the case: archaeological and climactic history tells us that at the time of Agricola, the vinipause was far further North, allowing grapes to be successfully grown as far North as Durham.

(this points to a milder, warmer, climate)

Now what happens if the Romans move a substantial Army north of the vinipause, into modern-day Scotland? In a year or two of exploring, fighting, and creating semi-permanent camps, they discover, to their horror, that this country is so barren and primitive that you can plant grapevines, but they fail to flower or fruit? And you make this discovery when one of the essential staples of civilised Roman life - wine - is at least a week's march away down at Wallsend? And to supply your legion with wine means having to cut down on the amount of bread, weapons, spears, armour, prefabricated building sections, et c, that your supply train can carry?

And 6,000 legionnaires on a VERY tight wine ration are starting to growl with deprivation?

I would imagine you might call a halt to further Northern expansion and stay within at most two days of your wine supply (ie, the Antonine Wall)

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 2


That's very interesting AgProv, thank you. Is that your theory or something you've heard elsewhere?

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 3


Hi Elentari

In all honesty I have to say this is a theory I heard elsewhere.

Thinking back many years to when I was doing pre-selection training as an Army officer candidate, this came up in a classroom session about what the enlisted soldier can reasonably expect from his officers, and what an officer must not do lest his actions provoke mutiny or leave the enlisted man with no option other than to refuse to accept the order. (The British armed forces have a long record of disastrous mutiny in all three services - it's something the military heirarchy is paranoid about, lest it happen in the future)

The historical fact that wine was a staple of the Roman military diet was discussed. It was thought to be reasonable that the troops could live on half or quarter rations for a limited period of time if the need was great and the risks and deprivations ahared equally by all ranks: but to expect them to exist permanently on water or heavily watered wine would, in the time and the circumstances, have provoked the dreaded mutiny. (Especially if somehow the officers' finest Livernian Red were still getting through to them, and the men with plumes in their helmets were seen to be suffering no loss. This is no small thing: this was identified as a prime cause of mutiny the last time a Royal Navy ship's complement downed tools and refused orders. HMS Edinburgh Castle in 1945, incidentally: I remember that much! It's the textbook case on bad officering and appalling man-mangement)

If limited logistic space dictated supply of arms, equipment and basic foodstuffs (ie, a sort of millet/rice/barley kind of diet for porridge, gruel and basic rough bread, supplemented by local meat) took precedence, by about eighteen months of a low-wine diet the average Roman Legionnaire might be growling with resentment and his General might have no realistic choice other than to march them back South again...

Trying to think of who originated the "vinipause" theory as a limit to Roman expansion, it might have been Prof. John Keegan, who used to teach practical military history to Army officer hopefuls at Sandhurst.

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 4


Fascinating, thanks very much!

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 5


Glad to help!

Having had my mind jostled there, it occurs to me that HMS Edinburgh Castle (the last time the Royal Navy officially admits a ship's company mutinied and refused to accept orders from legitimate authority, ie the ship's captain and officers)might be a very interesting one to write up for the Guide!

If nothing else, anyone who thinks mutiny ended with the Bounty nearly 250 years ago would be interested that this was within living memory, in 1945, and that all three services refer to the Edinburgh Castle as the textbook case of how conscripted men can be driven to rebellion by appalling conditions and atrocious officering.

The Royal Air Force had its mutinies, too: squadrons promised a swift return to the UK in 1945, after the Japanese surrender, were not happy men when authority went back on its promise and tried to make them stay out in the Far East.

As for the Army... there are apochryphal stories that during the miners' strike in 1984, mrs Thatcher wanted to step up pressure on striking miners by supplementing police with Army back-up to maintain the civil peace - exactly the same rationale used to justify Army deployment in Northern Ireland. The rumour is that the commanding officer of one Welsh regiment, after soliciting informal opinion in his command, told his superiors that if they really wanted to send a regiment that recruited among coalminers and steelworkers, and was composed of the brothers and sons and cousins of coalminers and steelworkers, to police a picket line and to expect them to obey orders, then good luck to you, and how will you be coping with the expected refusal to obey orders?

This is probably the reason why (contrary to left-wing dogma)no soldiers were used on the picket lines, over and above a handgul of observers who were given police uniforms so as not to draw attentuion to themselves...

The vinipause and its importance to Roman expansionism

Post 6


That definitely sounds like a good idea for an entry to me!

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