Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere

Book Review by Pertinax

I have previously commented that this work is a beautiful 'coffee table' presentation. This might seem to imply that it is rather facile and sleek, without weight of content. This is certainly not the case, what we have here is a glossily presented but well researched work . The author is no lightweight dilettante as anyone familiar with his work on Hadrian's Wall will be aware. What has happened here is a coming together of considered scholarship, excellent slick prose and beautiful presentation. If you wish to be introduced painlessly to Roman Britain in its Imperial context then this is as good a starting point as can be imagined. De la Bedoyere is a considered logician in his approach to the interpretation of sources be they physical or written.

The initial chapters illustrate how Britain came to be the 'prestige' invasion project of G J Caesar and the proving ground for ambitious soldiery. How did Britain come to be drawn into Rome's orbit? Because the Tribal elites were drawn to her trade goods like moths to a flame, and whilst even if staunchly anti-roman started to acculturate the roman notions of statehood, dignitas, moral authority of the classically educated and literate. The notion of 'Britain' as an idea of statehood was never of any remote interest to the competing Tribal leaders when Caesar touched down in 55 BC, when Rome departed the idea of national identity was at the core of Romano-British thinking. The fluidity of Tribal identity in these early times is remarkable, possibly lasting in some cases for the life of a particular King. All through the early stages of the 1st Century AD and the steady conquest of the land Rome had two powerful strategic tools at her call, firstly the mobility and technological superiority of her fighting arms and secondly the total inability of the British Tribes to cease internecine squabbling.

As I have written elsewhere the Brigantes were delighted to become clients of a massively powerful Imperium, all the ambitions they had for tribal dominance and cultural advancement were measured against a Roman model. Once Rome had a physical presence in Britain the acculturation of the locals proceeded apace by willing trade contact, even prior to the invasion Roman merchants were present in Britain. The author shows the progress of trade across the tribal map and warns us not to assume that the southern tribes were wealthier or more sophisticated or cultured because their wealth was visible in goods and coins, as he points out the North was wealthy in grain and cattle -two things that leave little impression on the archaeological record.

The Army as the dynamic of acculturation and economic change by its presence is an interesting theme developed here, along with the impact of the built frontiers in relation to the agricultural hinterlands.

Britain became the potential proving ground for ambitious men (with loyal troops) given to casting covetous eyes toward the Imperial purple. A developed theme is the need for frontier troops to be kept tough and combat ready but not too numerous as to pose a threat to central authority, this isn't just in the Brittanic context but rather Britain in relation to Gallic and Belgic territories. Caraussis is the most obvious example drawn on but he is certainly not unique, I would also mention that he appears as a 'restorer of Augustan dignity' in the context of the whole of the Tetrarchy, not as a fledgling British patriot (not as Nelson/ John Duke of Marlborough rather an Augustinian saviour of all citizens).

Britain is also the irritating theatre for grumbling guerilla wars interspersed with long periods of tedious policing of tribal raiding, Rome's biggest difficulty being the economic pointlesness of holding modern day Scotland versus a need to keep grumbling dissent in check. The Ordovices and Silures disposed of in Flavian times illustrate the difficulty, namely those tribes with no predominantly material based culture were alienated from Rome as a cultural force and had no qualms about fighting her-though in this instance they were eliminated. The Maetae of the far North proved particularly irritating to Septimus Severus who it is claimed was worn out by trying to bring them to any sort of genocidal efficient set piece confrontation.

The diagrams, photos and minor illustrations are of the best in this work all of the text I have mentioned is punctuated by them in an informative manner.

We have useful contextual notes to accompany the known history, so road making, the role of the baths, industrial production and food provision are examined both as mundane realities and as dynamic instruments of acculturation. The theme throughout these various physical manifestations of Empire is the constantly surprising sophistication of every thing touched by Rome's hand. This will not be a great surprise to UNRV members but I suggest the lost glory of Roman Britain deserves deeper and steadier scholarship to show its huge historical weight in determining the character of the modern country.

Salway: "Roman Britain" is still the heavyweight champion for the scholar seeking meticulously researched historical detail of event driven history. This book is both glossily accessible as a 'dip in' bedtime read or as a steady sit down, quality, introductory work with thoughtful re interpretation of the conventional wisdom. If you need to have a decent medium weight reference because Britain is not your main interest or you wish to make a good start in looking at Roman issues in Britain get this book, if you want to look at definitive illustrations I have rarely seen better. The Author's style is easy on the eye and brain.

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