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Roman Britain: A New History by Guy de la Bedoyere

Book Review by Favonius Cornelius

The late Roman Empire if anything, can be characterized by a pattern of gradual destabilization by the erosion of the old established ideals, be they governmental form, religion or cultural infrastructure. It can also be characterized by rebellion, that infernal rash which would spring up and confound the Caesars in nearly every corner of the Empire at one time or another.

One particular area which tended to attract rebellion was the far flung province of Britannia, and Guy de la Bedoyere sets out to uncover the roots and reasons for this phenomenon in his book Defying Rome, the Rebels of Roman Briton.

As befitting a scholar of history, Bedoyere does so in a logically systematic way, going into detail on each rebellionís origins via the words of the ancient historians, also with what we can prove from archaeology, filling in the blank spaces of our knowledge with a realpolitik sensibility, all brought to you in a very readable and witty writing style. The book lacks in painstaking detail on any one subject, but does quite well in summarizing and explaining in a long range historical perspective the causes behind and results of rebellions in Britannia. Bedoyere tells us the story of Britannia, a hard provincial land accustomed to defeat and the heavy hand of law, a land where no rebellion goes unpunished nor gains any substantial success.

The book opens with the true beginnings of Britonís written history: the invasions of Julius Caesar and the entry of Britannia into the Roman consciousness as something more than just a mythical isle. These first few chapters on Cassivellaunus, Caratacus, Budica, and Venutius focus on the early native rebellions to the invading Roman war machine and itís early administration of the land. Their stories highlight the characteristics which seeded the foundations of future rebellions: unjust treatment, isolation, heavy military occupation.

During these years of the Julio-Claudian Roman Dynasty, Romeís only enemies in much of its new empire were the subject peoples it had recently conquered. Britannia was a perfect example of this, such a story of heroic defiance of tyranny and insurmountable odds, but as with most native confrontations of Roman strength, these rebellions burnt themselves out as quickly as they had began.

The year of the four emperors opened an altogether new epic in the history of the Romans when it was proven to the world that an emperor need not be made in Rome. This was one of the most potent threats to the life of the empire, the ambitions of generals across such far flung lands. This realization had a slow start though, for after the victory of Vespasian the empire experienced itís golden age. During this time the only unrest in Britannia came from the far north in Caledonia, the land which experienced Roman domination only for a scant few years before the classic difficulties of worth and terrain caused Hadrian to build his wall in northern Britannia and set the pieces for this hideout for rebels. Half the book is dedicated to these times, these seeds planted which form the constant rebellion known in later years beginning with the era of the soldier emperors.

Bedoyereís accounting of the later rebels such as Clodius Albinus, Postumus, Carausius, Alectus, Magnentius, Magnus Maximus, and Constantine III makes for the most interesting portion of the book, for the simple fact that little is known of these times and so the mystery of speculation is quite open. He does not venture too far into guess work however, and uses the available archaeological and historical evidence as a firm backbone for his accounting of these men.

With each case study, you get a greater feeling for what it must have been like to live in that microcosm which was Britannia: the isolation from the Roman world, the lack of recognition, the fatigue of a large and bored military force constantly confronting the northern Caledonians or insurrection from within. Each would-be emperor molded according to his vision and times these fundamental reoccurring British themes to stake his claim for the purple.

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Book Review of Roman Britain: A New History - Related Topic: Roman Britain


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