Reviewed by: Miles Russell
Author: Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard
Publisher: Thames & Hudson
Price (RRP): £18.95
Roman Britain has been extensively studied, countless books on the period being produced in the past decade alone. Surely, one might think, every last town and villa has been exhaustively recorded: what more could there be to say?
Quite a lot actually, as this book makes clear.
Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard approach the past as a story moulded by forceful personalities – individual tales woven from the lives of real people. Similar approaches have been taken before, but this work examines Britannia from all levels and classes, acknowledging how aspiration, ambition and passion contributed to the development of the province. It is history retold, not as fiction, but as ‘fact-ion’.
The trouble with history, of course, is that it is often his-story, the voice of women appearing only rarely. That this is true here is no fault of the authors, for Rome was an overtly patriarchal society, but it is perhaps unfortunate that the only major female characters to emerge are tribal queens Boudica and Cartimandua.
History is also frequently selective in what is precisely recalled, usually the lives of the great and the ‘good’, namely the kings, queens, resistance leaders, generals, emperors and governors. The ‘ordinary’ people, such as garrison commander wives like Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina, whose existence on Rome’s northernmost frontier may be reconstructed through their surviving letters, rarely get a look in.
It is a shame, then, that the absence of any tombstone analysis here consigns some of the more interesting ‘ordinary’ characters to oblivion.
Where, for example, is Regina, an Essex girl who, after being freed from slavery, married a Syrian merchant living in Northumbria? Where is Longinus, a Balkan boy who died far from home in Colchester?
The addition of such people, whose life stories are not, admittedly, known in much detail, would provide more balance, moving the book away from the more resolutely ‘heroic’ tale of military leaders.
That is not to detract from this work, however, for The Romans Who Shaped Britain is an engaging, thought-provoking and often entertaining read (I particularly like the suggestion that Caesar’s standard-bearer, the first Roman soldier to step upon the shore of Britain having leapt in full armour from a ship, may actually have been pushed!).
There is a veritable feast of colourful individuals in this new take on the distant past, some of whom, like Caesar or Constantine, are familiar; others, such as the wonderfully named Asclepiodotus and the (literally) backstabbing Allectus, perhaps less so.
By taking the personal approach, Moorhead and Stuttard succeed in telling a familiar tale from a very compelling standpoint. This is a lively history; a must for those who are bored by (or feel they know everything about) our Roman heritage.
Miles Russell is the co-author of UnRoman Britain (The History Press, 2010)
The Roman invasion of Britain is explored in our April 2012 edition