UnRoman Britain by Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock

Book Review by Melvadius

In this book Russell and Laycock set out to 'expose the myths' about Roman Britain being a ‘land full of togas, towns and baths with Britons happily going about their Roman lives’ and to a great extent this is what they have achieved.

In doing this they bring together a wealth of recent works which have highlighted a much higher degree of continuity of pre-Roman practices than had previously been realised in Britain. In fact the discussions extend to other northern areas of the empire even after the Western empire collapsed.

On one level the book is extremely well written with 256 pages containing; ten main chapters, 204 illustrations, 277 notes and an extensive bibliography stretching to 12 pages. However I have several issues with this book not least the fact that neither illustrations nor discussions elsewhere in the book are referred to in any way accurately from within the text. Some references in the index are incorrect while, possibly linked to the lack of internal accurate referencing, there are several noticeable instances where information is repeated or later references are much more extensive than initial mentions of topics.

A case in point regarding the indexing issue is the well know story of Regina, the British freedwomen, commemorated on a tombstone by her former Palmyran master, Barates. In the index; Regina is listed incorrectly as being mentioned on four pages but correctly relating to two illustrations while Barates is correctly listed against three pages but incorrectly against only one illustration.

Many of the illustrations are located in relatively close proximity to where they are discussed in the text but this is not always the case; for example the male ‘gorgon’ image of Medusa on the pediment at Aquae Sulis is discussed on page 73 but not illustrated until page 85 when the pediment is again mentioned.

A real issue I have is the wide variation in the quality of referencing in this book; several times a statement was made to the effect that this (or that) is shown by archaeology only for me to hunt in vain for any relevant references. Chapter five is extremely bad in this respect; with only two individual sites and one ancient text referenced as part of a major discussion of archaeological evidence effectively spanning the entirety of Roman Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall. This chapter gives the impression that neither author had finished off their referencing when the book went to press in comparison chapter seven amongst others has very good archaeological referencing.

In the section above I have indicated how I repeatedly found myself frustrated with relatively easily resolved issues which I feel detract from this book. In large part this is because at heart this really is a very good overview of current theories about the extent of Romanization which occurred in Britain. It points up how pervasive ideas of rebellion along pre-existing tribal lines may have been an endemic issue recurring numerous times in Britain, particularly towards the end of the Roman occupation.

I only noticed a couple of obvious typographical errors but I just wish that a bit more editing work and possibly discussion between the authors had occurred to ensure that the referencing and duplication issues had been sorted out first.

These issues apart it is well written and to a great extent ideas and theories are developed and expanded into consideration of differences and similarities which occurred between Britain and mainland Europe. It speculates on how the different developments and extent or lack of Romanization may have played a significant part in British post-Roman developments such as the apparent rapid decline in Roman lifestyles.

For anyone used to the ‘standard’ view of a ‘fully’ Romanized Britain with everyone happy to wear a toga - despite the weather - this book will come as a shock while in many instances pointing to where more can be read on relevant topics. Even for anyone who is already aware of the idea of "continuity" in Iron Age practices into the Roman period and beyond there is much to be recommended, particularly with the final five chapters.

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