Bryn Mawr Classical Review


T.W. Potter and Catherine Johns, Roman Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. 239. $35.00. ISBN 0-520-08168-4.


Reviewed by G.B. and A.S. Bailey, Falkirk, Scotland.

There has never been any shortage of literature on Roman Britain, and one might feel, as some non-Romanists do, that there is little more that can be said about this relatively short, well documented and researched period, which has generally proved much more productive of archaeological remains than either its predecessor or successor. However, a substantial number of archaeologists continue to devote a great deal of time to Roman sites and a great deal of fierce debate to both large issues and minutiae, so that both the body of evidence and the accepted views are constantly changing. In the midst of such a dynamic situation, an updated overview can always be of use.

Roman Britain has been very rationally organized on generally, though not rigidly, chronological lines, and deals with Britain before the Claudian conquest of AD 43 (ch.1); the organization of Roman Britain (ch.2, "Conquest and Occupation", covers military life, and ch.3, "Romanisation of Town and Country", covers civil settlements); the material culture (ch.4, "Architecture and Art", and ch.5, "Personal Possessions"); religion (ch.6, "Pagan Gods and Goddesses", which also looks briefly at Christianity) and finally the decline, or at any rate the end of the Roman period (ch.7, "The Fourth Century and Beyond").

Chapter 1 begins by examining briefly the few classical sources of information on pre-Roman Britain, which are, of course, both meagre and unreliable, as the authors acknowledge. It is interesting to see what the Mediterranean world thought of Britain in the Iron Age, but not of much use in this context. The archaeological evidence is considered next, beginning with the spectacular hillforts and rich cart burials, but also covering the less famous work that has revealed farmsteads, field systems and ordinary settlements. Environmental information is also taken into consideration, showing evidence of climatic change and resultant population shifts. The second half of the chapter is devoted to evidence of the gradual increase in contact with and influence of the Roman world, much of it from literary sources backed up by coinage and other material evidence. This chapter is valuable principally as setting the scene for the real development of Roman Britain.

The first great organized influx of "Romans" was of course military, and so chapter 2 very properly describes the conquest, and the organization of the Roman army in Britain, with a brief mention of the navy. It is, as the authors admit (p.38), only an outline historical framework, covering the major historically attested events and any archaeological confirmation of them, as well as the evidence from the various military establishments which have been excavated. It is a concise history of this aspect of Roman Britain, but certain generalizations should be viewed with caution. For example, as far as we are aware, equipment usually associated with auxiliaries, such as chain mail, has been found on legionary sites, but the reverse is not true: lorica segmentata has only been found associated with legionaries. (see p.42)

Chapter 3 covers the non-military areas: towns, "villas" or country estates and smaller settlements, and explores the question of how Romanized the native population became. It includes important information about the governmental organization, taxation, production and commerce. Full account is taken of the differences between regions, such as the remote and relatively poor land of the north and west, which also remained more heavily militarized, and the richer, more cosmopolitan and heavily populated south. Some attempt is made to glean information about land tenure and ownership, though little is available.

The architecture of Roman Britain, with its mixture of Classical and native traditions, is briefly examined in Chapter 4. The emphasis, as so often in architecture, is on large public buildings, which of course tend to survive better, but there is a consideration of domestic architecture led by the remarkably preserved facade from Meonstoke, Hampshire, with its elaborately patterned arrangement of brick, flint and plaster. Gardens, wall painting, mosaics and sculpture are briefly dealt with, and the chapter ends with the important question of just how much Roman imagery and material culture reached the British "man in the street". This leads naturally into Chapter 5, "Personal Possessions". This is a rich field, for Romano-British sites and hoards have produced an abundance of pottery and "small finds": coins, jewellery, precious and base metal utensils and vessels, tools, glass, even occasional objects in wood, fabric and leather. Two themes run side by side here: the "art history" of the objects, particularly the mingling of Roman and native traditions, and their archaeology, what information they give about the lives of their owners.

Chapter 6, "Pagan Gods and Goddesses", considers the religious beliefs and practices of Roman Britain, and more especially the mingling of Classical and Celtic deities. This must of necessity be a generalized outline, given the limited space available, and for the most part the authors alternate between explaining the different aspects of the two religions, such as the association of Roman Jupiter and Gaulish Tarans with the sky and thunder (p.165), and the material evidence of these beliefs. One notable omission caught our attention: there is no mention of "Arthur's O'on", a Roman temple just to the north of the Antonine Wall, which stood virtually intact until 1743, and was thoroughly documented and indeed "reproduced" as a dovecot in the Scottish Borders. Despite its brevity, this is a better than usual insight into the natures of both native and Roman religion.

The final chapter considers the end of Roman involvement in Britain, with a brief look at the early Anglo-Saxon period. Much evidence is produced which counters the idea of a complete collapse of "civilization" in Britain: contraction and change there certainly were, and there is no denying that some aspects of the material culture declined, but the picture is more of a return to native traditions which did not include spectacular theatres, baths etc. Still, the end of the Roman period is referred to as "dark days" (p.215). The Dark Ages, the authors remark, began earlier in Britain than elsewhere partly because Romanization had only a tenuous hold there (p.217). The implication that only the might of Rome could hold off the invading hordes seems somehow rather partisan, but in truth the withdrawal of Rome left a great vacuum, which there was not time for another power to fill.

This book has many virtues, but its main fault is that it falls between several stools. It is described on the jacket as offering the "general reader an up to date synthesis of this important period", but it is clearly written by and for those with some grounding in archaeology and classical civilization. Basic facts and terminology which are obvious to the authors are not explained, such as the definition of a hillfort, a description of a "Dressel amphora" or the meaning of "vexillation" or "apotropaic." The gazetteer, though well meant, is virtually useless compared with the many guides specifically produced for the visitor, some of which are mentioned here.

At the other end of the scale, Roman Britain is far too generalized for the professional Romano-British archaeologist, who is most likely to be concentrating on one particular specialization, a site or a single aspect of the culture. It could, however, be of use to someone whose field is only peripheral to Roman Britain and so need only a general acquaintance with it.

This book is likely to be of most value to a student, one with a basic archaeological groundwork but in need of more information on one particular culture. The "Further Reading" notes at the end of each chapter are an excellent source of more specific information, giving an up to date bibliography on each subject.

In itself Roman Britain is easy to read, pleasantly written and well organized. The authors have avoided the often murky waters of the various theoretical models, which are best approached in work devoted specifically to them, and concentrate on the available evidence. It is heartening to see the archaeological evidence taken so seriously, after decades of dependence on dubiously accurate historical sources. The authors are honest about the problems of time, money and space faced by archaeologists in Britain today, and about the differing conclusions which can be drawn, even between themselves. This book may not be suitable for all those interested in Roman Britain, but for those it does suit it should prove invaluable.