The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère

Book Review by Alex Johnston

Sunday morning. I’m ensconced in my office and writing a review of The Real Lives of Roman Britain, by Guy de la Bédoyère. I’m staring at the Beavis and Butthead stuffed dolls hanging on one wall, and the Fijian Tiki war mask hanging on another. There’s a Roman Gladiator action figure sitting (standing?) on a shelf (still in the original box!) What would these artifacts tell future generations about me, an otherwise unknown representative of the usual man of my time? That I was a puerile adolescent? Adjectively correct, but I will be eligible for Social Security payments later this year. That I was a fierce aboriginal warrior? Please! Just reading the news makes me want to go hide under the covers. That I wrote historical novellas about the late Roman republic? Bingo – score one for the archaeologists!

The above illustrates the challenge of the task that the author has assumed: reconstructing, based on the archaeological record, the lives of the ordinary and not-so ordinary folk who inhabited Roman Britain during the first few centuries of the Common Era. Is there any Romano-British artifact that he has not cataloged in this amazing, not overly-long book? Okay, we’re talking a couple of thousand years ago, give or take, and possessions were simpler in those days, but even then Britain was part of a global trading economy, albeit one occurring on a “smaller” globe. And there was mobility among nations, what with soldiers shacking up with local girls and the like. Mr. de la Bédoyère calls out these challenges again and again. A gold ring was found bearing the name of one Tiberius Claudius Catuarus. Possession of such a ring meant that he was a member of the Roman equestrian aristocracy, right? From the author: “However, although this is distinctly possible, it is a lot to read into a ring and we should be careful. Whatever the rules about such privileges, the Roman world was prone to ignoring them.” As brilliant “proof” of his statement, he references just such a transgression in Petronius’ Satyricon, probably written at about the same time as when Tiberius Claudius Catuarus was putting on his bling.

What about the case of the slave woman Fortunata? After questioning the appropriateness of her name, given her status, the author tells of the receipt found recording her sale. She must have been a babe, having sold for double the annual salary of a legionary soldier. The receipt lists the seller, Albicianus, and the sum of money paid. There is a barely legible “leg-“ between those two entries. Does that mean that the seller was a legionary, connected to the fort that stood nearby to where the receipt was found? Or that the word fragment “leg-“ was all that was left of the full word legitime, meaning that “the price was the ‘due’ or ‘appropriate’ one.” Who knows? Ambiguities like these keep classicists arguing and employed.

The author scrupulously distinguishes between fact and speculation. And speculation abounds – the record is old and in many cases damaged, and anyway, as he points out, who in any age follows the rules entirely? This doesn’t deter our dogged author – he squeezes stories from the actual facts until they scream, milking them for all they’re worth, and his speculations are both plausible and interesting.

Mr. de la Bédoyère shoots historical artifacts at us, machine-gun style, and then comments on them. That’s the format of the book. And, as mentioned above, much if not most of that commentary is speculative. How the hell do you make a story out of that? Well, you throw in a delicious tale about a catfight between the wife of a leading Caledonian and an upper-class Roman matron concerning the marriage customs of their respective cultures. You tell the story of the old man who dies and is buried, apparently as a Christian, but with the words “To the Holy God…” inscribed on his tombstone, followed by a name that is not even remotely Jesus. You throw in some zombie wannabees and some buried treasure. Provide fantastic commentary on the lead curse tablet that calls for a miscreant to be denied urinating, defecating, speaking, sleeping, staying awake and, in closing, to be denied good health (which punishment, the author deadpans, seems unnecessarily superfluous). You provide fascinating details about the mystery cults that were all the rage among the military in the area.

And finally, you tell what was to me the most entertaining story in the book – that of the “Aldgate-Pulborough Potter,” perhaps the most incompetent potter to ever throw a pot. From the book: “His wares were so triumphantly awful that the only possible explanation for their dispersal into the market at all is that they were bought as curiosities.” Don’t you just love it?

In the introduction to the book, the author states: “This is not a ‘history of Roman Britain’. There are plenty of those, and therefore I make no apology for doing no more here than briefly summarizing or alluding to the comings and goings of emperors, governors and legions.” No apology necessary, Mr. de la Bédoyère. Your commentaries on the Boudican War, tribal politics, architecture, religion, the Imperial crisis of the third century and much, much more provide a rich historical backdrop for the stories of the lives of the ordinary people who are the real stars of your book.

Great read, and my hat is off to you, sir! As for me, I’m sticking to writing fiction. Gap in the record? Well, just make something up, silly. I mean, duh!

Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.

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Union Jack Roman Britain for the UK