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Roman Britain

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Emperor Constantine in York, England Emperor Constantine in York, England

What exactly is Roman Britain? This is a question author Charlotte Higgins tackles head on, and the answer may surprise you.


Britannia Romana: the very phrase 'Roman Britain' in uncomfortable, a hybrid open to all kinds of awkward questions. Historians and archaeologists still intensely debate whether these islands became in any meaningful sense 'Romanized'. She notes that the answer you would have received to this question has shifted. “The historical pendulum has swung, and the history of the Romans in Britain looks rather different from a post-colonial purview. The study of Roman Britain has become more political over the past fifty years.”


She says that earlier historians showed sympathy for the Romans, which caused them “to underplay the true nature of the Roman encounter with Britain, which, in truth, was one of exploitation, violence and resistance.”


Despite the earlier admiration of Roman Britain, the fact remains that when the Houses of Parliament were being built early in Queen Victoria's reign, “not a single fresco depicting Britain's Roman period was executed.” In the centre of government, it is as if London was never part of the Roman Empire. Quite astonishing really.


The book is not, however, a scholarly tome that gets bogged down in these scholarly debates. It is actually a delightful travel encounter between Higgins and the remnants of Roman archaeological sites in England, Wales and Scotland. The tone is neatly set in the Introduction, which includes a picture of the 1974 VW camper van she used to make the trek in 2010 and 2011.


Higgins studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, and is now the chief arts writer for The Guardian newspaper in London.


The book has no colour illustrations, but it does offer useful maps of such cities as Colchester, London and York. The London map, for example, shows the location of today's Nicholson & Griffin barbershop. The only thing that can be seen of the Forum of London is in its basement. Here is Higgins' amusing encounter with the shop.


“When I visited, the place was deserted but for a group of cheerful hairdressers folding towels. One of them was on the phone discussing hair dye. Another moved a few handbags so that I could sidle up to a glazed wall, through which I squinted to see one of the pier bases of the old basilica. It was hard to make anything of it: it was as if a cathedral had been reduced to a garden wall.”


This snippet is what the book is like: quirky, personal, and intensely intriguing. A delightful read, and highly recommended for anyone, including professional scientists, who have an interest in British and Roman history.



Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (282 pages) is $27.95 from Overlook Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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