Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain

Peter Salway

Rating: 4 Stars


This was quite an endeavor. I thoroughly enjoy all things British (until James VI/I has to go an die), so this was a no-brainer for me to pick up, despite its age (my edition published in 1993, but the first edition came out in 1981). This is 500+ pages of everything you would ever want to know about Roman Britain and everything we could possibly know up to that point. Of course there have been further discoveries made in the last 22 years, but this one is still very, very comprehensive.

I have always had good luck with the Oxford University Press books. I've never met one that I couldn't read quickly. This brick, however, presented my first challenge. Part of the reason for the slow-going is that I am far more interested in Roman Britain than Ancient Rome, and the two are naturally very connected, seeing as how you couldn't have the one I am interested in without the one I am less interested in. But so many things happening all over the Roman Empire had a direct impact on Roman Britain, primarily in regards to the Roman army and taking soldiers off the island when needed to quell outbreaks elsewhere - which directly led to the fall of Roman control.

Another reason for my slow-going could also be partly due to the fact that the writing was kind of dry at times. It just was not very exciting or inciting me to turn the pages very quickly - except for the photographs and maps. There are a plethora of both included (this being the 'illustrated' history and all) and I often found many of those to be more interesting than the writing itself. I don't think this is totally the fault of the author, as this is a huge section of time to take on, especially for a time period where we don't have a lot of contemporary accounts. We have the accounts by Roman citizens living on the Continent and in Rome itself, but far fewer from those living on the island of Britain.

This leads to my last sort-of disappointment. While the focus was of course Roman Britain and how it functioned as property of the Roman Empire, I was looking for more attention paid to the indigenous population. As always, Boudica gets her (well-deserved) moment in the sun, even if the facts are at best fleeting. (As an aside, how can one not admire this warrior queen who avenged her daughters in such a awesomely powerful way? It makes her later defeat that much more tragic. I tell Eleanor all the time she is lucky I discovered Eleanor of Aquitaine before I discovered this mighty Iceni queen, or her name might have been VERY VERY different!) I would have liked to see more focus on the people who the Romans conquered, and how profoundly their lives were changed.

Over all, this is a highly comprehensive look at the island of Britain during its time as part of the Roman Empire. There are several helpful maps, floor plans, and photographs. Highly recommended for those with a deep interested in the subject, though it might be a bit overwhelming for those with no background knowledge or just a passing interest.

As always, here are a few photos in connection with my own contact with Roman Britain - Mom and I at the Roman baths at Bath in 2009:

Looking down from the balcony into the main bath. The spring is in the upper right corner (Bath, 2009)

Standing my the spring, lower left, looking out to the main bath (Bath, 2009)

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