I am often disappointed with Osprey's publications. Part of it is because of the rather limited format that authors have to comply with. It may also be because quality may be uneven (some good, some bad, some indifferent) and perhaps also because I may be expecting too much from them to begin with, and I am probably a bit fussy anyway. This one, however, is simply excellent because it has it all.
As another Osprey author mentioned in his review of this book on Amazon.co.uk, Duncan Campbell has used all of the sources available. He has discussed them and, however briefly, analysed them, showing for instance that Tacitus, although biased, is mostly preferable to Dio Cassius. He has also used all the other sources at his disposal (archaeology, numismatics, aerial photography etc...). Finally, he has also managed to present the main issues and areas of discussions that his subject has generated for decades. All this is done is a way that is neither pedantic, nor arrogant. It is done thoroughly and professionally, with the author taking great care to distinguish between what can be backed by sources from what are mere interpretations or speculations, however plausible they may seem. This certainly needed to be emphasized because, at least up to now, I do not think I have come across a book in this collection which could boast all of these qualities to such an extent, although, arguably, I have not (yet!) read all of them.
Some reviewers have claimed that the author was biased and at least implied that he told the story from the Roman point of view. One even went as far as to insinuate that this was an apology of Roman imperialism and that, since it was also an apology of Tacitus' father in law and since Tacitus had no military experience and was not on the spot, the whole story lacked credibility. I was surprised to read this because each of these points is thoroughly discussed and addressed by the author very convincingly, in my view
Given that the Caledonians left no written source, we only have the Roman view to go on anyway. However, this is a very interesting and terribly lucid Roman view, a view that does not exactly uphold the "politically correct" view that we could have expected. Can anyone imagine Caesar, Titus-Livius or Suetonius putting in the mouth of a "Barbarian" chieftain and warlord the indictment about the Romans "plundering, butchering, raping in the false name of empire (imperium), where they have created desolation, they call it peace?" Hardly. This in itself is extremely interesting. It is also for these kinds of glimpses into the Roman "psyche" that Tacitus can be so valuable. This statement probably reflects the Roman author's own point of view, and perhaps also that of Agricola. After years of hard campaigns and ruthless war, with Tacitus probably taking part in some of it, you do get the impression that they were getting sick and tired of killing and destroying. It does not make the Roman conquerors very much more sympathetic, of course, but it definitely makes them more human and it makes the whole story "look and feel" much more real.
Then we have the events themselves and here both the form and the substance are rather excellent. The author summarizes previous events since the initial invasion some 40 years before. He also provides the standard pieces of background information on the Roman army. These are perhaps briefer than usual, something that I appreciated if only because reading the same (or very similar) pages of context on the Roman army in each and every Osprey publication that examines one of their campaigns or one of the stages in its evolution can be somewhat repetitive and tedious. So here again, the author struck a nice balance in my view: just enough. Another very interesting piece was the author's tentative reconstitution (and acknowledged as tentative!) of the Roman battle order, the succession of campaigns and the analysis of their methodical advance. Here again, the author deserves praise, if only for having managed to summarize so much in a nevertheless clear and comprehensive way.
Last but one, we get to the battle. This is where they might be a few reservations, although there seems to be little doubt that it happened, that Agricola's plan was successful and that the Romans won hands down after a hard fight, despite allegations trying to pretend that the battle did not take place or trying to minimize it. I am a bit sceptical, but given the limitations of our information, I can go no further than that, about the "body count". Despite accusations of inflating the numbers, which simply cannot be substantiated, it is quite possible than the Caledonians lost some 10000 or about a third of their initial force. This is rather plausible when one remembers that they got themselves either trapped against the mountain or hunted down and massacred by the Roman cavalry once they had broken and were trying to flee. What is perhaps less convincing is the very low losses on the Roman side (360 killed) after what is portrayed as a long and hard fight.
There may however be a number of explanations to that. In addition to the Romans being armoured whereas the Caledonians were mostly not, this number could only include the fatalities on the battlefield and not count the wounded. These could be anything between three to five times as numerous and many Romans, given their heavy defensive equipment and the slashing swords of their enemies, would have been wounded rather than killed. Some of these may not have survived their wounds but at least they would have been taken care of so that those that could be treated were saved. The losing side, of course, did not have such an opportunity, which wounded Caledonians being mostly finished off by the victors. Besides, the Roman swordplay tactics and training would have implied that many Caledonians received gut wounds or wounds to the throat or neck which they would be very unlikely to survive.
Anyway, as so much with that battle (we are not even entirely certain of its location), all of this is also speculative, although it seems plausible and may go a long way to explain the huge discrepancy in the losses on each side.
Finally, there is the aftermath: all of this, the seven years of campaign, the marching, the fighting, the battle, the hardships, the bloodshed, the loss of life turned out to be almost for nothing because Domitian pulled troops out of Britain to fight on the Danube. As Campbell makes clear (and it is even clearer when you read Tacitus), Tacitus resented this and had little sympathy for Domitian partly because of this. His views are likely to have been shared by Agricola himself and probably also by most if not all of the Roman tribunes, prefects and legates that had taken part in these hard campaigns. All of this is easily understandable and this, in itself, may be a reason for Tacitus to write the history of the Agricola's campaigns. That way, at least, they would be remembered...