From the Archives: Reading My Way Through Roman Britain, Pt. 1

The places I hang out on line are having a lot of fun theses days with the question of how often men think about the Roman Empire. The answer apparently being, a lot.  (Really?) I have no idea who started it, or why.  But it’s a natural for history nerds being nerdy.  It has spawned fun memes, and lots of playful silliness at a time when some of us need that.

I don’t have an answer.  (And I haven’t asked My Own True Love the question.) But for those of you who are interested in thinking about the Roman Empire for at least a short while, I’m re-running this series that I orginally posted in 2015.  With any luck, by the time the series has run its course I will have finished these endless revisions and we can go back to thinking about women journalists, Nazi Germany, fascism in general, and whatever else grabs my history nerd attention.


"Hadrian's wall at Greenhead Lough", with thanks to Velella and Creative Commons

“Hadrian’s wall at Greenhead Lough”, with thanks to Velella and Creative Commons

Thanks to the luck of the book-review draw, I recently ended up reading two books on Roman Britain back-to-back.* The two books are very different. Guy de la Bédoyère’s The Real Lives of Roman Britain is an attempt to look at the period of Roman occupation in terms of individual human experience–a frustrating endeavor because there is surprisingly little evidence. Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys In Roman Britain is a more personal attempt to understand the Roman occupation and its continuing influence on Britain’s sense of history and identity–think VW bus and hiking Hadrian’s Wall.** Both were fascinating; taken together they gave me a rich picture of a period I mistakenly thought I knew something about.

My reviews of both books will appear in coming posts. In the meantime, here are some of the things that surprised me:

  • Rome controlled Britain for 360 years, assuming a floating definition of control. That’s almost twice as long as Britain ruled India.
  • Britain was a hotbed of revolt against Rome for most of those 360 years. I knew about Boudica, the female ruler who led an uprising against the Romans in 61 CE.*** And because I knew about Boudica I was vaguely aware that the Druid stronghold at Mona (modern Anglesey) was believed to harbor dangerous rebels. But I knew nothing about, for example, the Gallic Empire, a short-lived break-away regime founded by Marcus Cassianus Latinus Postumus *** in 259 CE in Britain’s northwestern-provinces. Postumus and his successors borrowed all the attributes of a “real” Roman emperor, including coins minted in their names, consulships, assassinations and usurpations.
  • I knew that the pre-Roman Britons left no written history. That what we know about them comes from Roman accounts and archaeological finds. (Some of which are pretty spectacular.) I didn’t realize that what we know about the experience of the Romans themselves in Britain is also based on relatively limited evidence. For instance, the primary source for Julius Caesar’s not particularly successful invasions of Britain in 55 and 54 BCE are Caesar’s own accounts, which are certainly contemporary but by no means unbiased.

There’s a lot to learn out there.

* Usually this happens in response to a major historical anniversary, but unless I’m missing something this time it was just because.

**And yes, I am now thinking about hiking along Hadrian’s Wall.

***Thank you, Antonia Fraser

****Which does, in fact, mean posthumous. The name was given to a man born after his father’s death.  Who knew?

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