An Imperial Possesion - Britain in the Roman Empire by David Mattingly

Book Review by caldrail

"Every telling of history is a product of its age"

The opening words by the author of An Imperial Possession - Britain in the Roman Empire underline what is perhaps the entire purpose of this book. David Mattingly makes it clear from the outset that the story of the Roman occupation has been studied and written before, many times.

The setting has been described, the characters outlined, and the plot established. Like an old favourite story by the fireside, the Roman occupation of Britain has become something familiar and comfortable. But is it correct?

Occasionally someone thinks about a story and perhaps realises that it may be a distorted version of the truth, that it isn't entirely objective, and that it relies too heavily on the mood of the time it was written. History can be like that. The scholars regarded as authorative sources often become intensely conservative, and those of lesser reputation might not wish to court controversy and hamper their careers or profits by upsetting the establishment.

In this particular case, the establishment is represented by the traditional view of Roman Britain as having been something the primitive illiterate natives should be grateful for, exemplified by television programs such as What The Romans Did For Us, which describes imperialist occupation as beneficial to the daily lives of the less sophisticated natives.

Thatís an emotive issue, for while many regard Senatus Populous Que Romanus as a high point of classical times, there are also those who support the case for the richness of the iron-age British culture as equally worthy and certainly less well documented. Those of a certain disposition might also see modern parallels in world affairs.

In this book, David Mattingly has made a concious decision to re-appraise Roman Britain. He sets out to redefine the setting, to throw away the pantomime backdrop, and to put the occupation into perspective. He relies on piecing together the various sources without resorting to sensationalist theories. His reasoning is based on evidence rather than any hangover from the past.

This is done for good reasons. Revisionism is something to be viewed with caution. For the conservative historian to put aside his well-loved tale and accept another there must be no doubt of where the evidence is leading. History has been written by the victors, and cast in their successors light.

This then is Mattingly's case for the prosecution of the traditional view of Roman Britain. He lays before you his evidence and instead of simply creating a new theory to confound and astonish, he sets out to show that the revision is indeed necessary. Don't doubt for one moment that he reaches his own conclusions.

The traditional view of Roman Britain is cast aside as a relic of our own imperial past experience, and the occupation reconstructed - almost literally - from the ground up with recent archaeology laid before the jury with a ruthless commonsense. He does this with a rational and reasonable argument, without recourse to passionate beliefs in wild theories.

It begs the question, is the traditional view of our Roman past a distortion, an ambiguous parallel to British imperialism of the 19th century? The jury is still out - but the prosecution has made a brilliant case.

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