British journalist Charlotte Higgins (It’s All Greek To Me) was always fascinated by the classical world, but that fascination didn’t extend to Roman Britain. She thought of Britain as an unglamorous outpost on the edge of the Roman Empire–an opinion shared by most Romans of the time-. A visit to Hadrian’s Wall changed her mind. Under Another Sky: Journeys In Roman Britain is the story of her search to understand Rome’s 360-year occupation of Britain and its influence on the British sense of history and identity
Higgins travels across Britain in an unreliable camper van in search of traces of ancient Rome. She walks the tourist-friendly Hadrian Wall and tracks down the remains of Londinium through modern London with the help of a map published by the Museum of London. She visits small museums, major museums, and a tourist trap called Iceni Village. She interviews archaeologists, museum curators, farmers turned innkeepers near Hadrian’s Wall, and a full-time Roman centurion who appears at museum events and school programs. She considers the unexpected cache of Roman “postcards” known as the Vindolanda writing tablets, an influential eighteenth-century forgery of a Roman text, and re-imaginings of Roman Britain by later generations of British antiquarians, poets, military engineers and composers, including Benajmin Britten’s soulful Roman Wall Blues, composed for a radio play by W. H. Auden.
Under Another Sky weaves together Britain’s history and contemporary landscape into a complex and fascinating whole that is part travelogue, part history, and wholly charming.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.