Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.06.02


Peter Salway, The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. xiii + 563; illus. 270+ b/w, 34 col.; numerous figs. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-822984-4.


Reviewed by Anthony A. Barrett, University of British Columbia.

Few illustrated histories can boast the distinguished pedigree of this one. In essence it is an adaptation of Salway's Roman Britain, published in 1981 as the first volume in the prestigious Oxford History of England series. Purists might be disturbed by the perception that Oxford University Press has become overtly market conscious and has chosen to exploit the enormous readership that popular books on Roman Britain sustain. They can be reassured -- the marriage of commerce and scholarship has not produced the monstrous offspring that might have been feared. The substance of the text remains essentially that of the earlier scholarly version, albeit shortened and updated. Moreover, the production standards are impressive, and the Press is to be congratulated on the superb quality of the plates, well over 300 of them, 34 in colour. The maps are plentiful and helpful (although a typographical error on page 94 places the Agricolan legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in the North Sea!). The only irritating concession to a mass audience is that occasionally the photographs are visually impressive rather than illuminating. It is difficult, for example, to justify on historical grounds taking up a whole page with the bust of Domitian (page 109), whose connections with Britain are at best tenuous. On the whole, however, the plates are highly appropriate and often illustrate unusual material otherwise inaccessible to the general reader.

The structure of the book is fairly conventional, a series of chapters progressing chronologically through the history of the island from the Iron Age to the decline of the fifth century, followed by a lengthy general section covering such topics as religion and economic life. What is immediately striking is the rate at which new evidence continues to accumulate. The military establishment at Carlisle has just recently been recognized as a legionary fortress, probably housing troops of Legio XX after the abandonment of Wroxeter. Also recently, the traditional notion that the forts of Hadrian's Wall were abandoned by the fifth century, a fundamental issue for this darkest period of British history, has been shown to be unwarranted. Sadly, the changes have, in some cases, contributed to a loss of colour and drama. It used to be thought that Legio IX disappeared without a trace and was therefore wiped out early in the second century -- a notion reinforced by centuries of ghostly visitations by Roman soldiers throughout Yorkshire. It is now known, from tile stamps in Nijmegen, that this legion survived and was moved, probably under Hadrian, from Britain to the lower Rhine, en route to service on the eastern frontier.

Salway is a historian rather than an archaeologist. This means that to some degree he stands apart from the contemporary Romano-British academic establishment, who tend to dismiss the literary sources as culturally tainted and to be used sparingly, if at all. Salway's emphasis will probably be an advantage for most North American readers, for whom the historical issues will be of more interest than the more archaeologically based discussions. Another strength of Salway is his appreciation of a great intellectual problem posed by the study of Roman Britain. The Roman occupation of the island can in some ways be said to have failed. At no stage was the Celtic tradition ever dislodged, and when the Roman presence came to an end in the fifth century this Celtic element survived and reasserted itself in many parts of the island. Thus the Romans might be seen as a temporary aberration. Salway's response to this difficulty is to see Britain not so much as an area of interest in its own right but as an integral part of a much greater phenomenon, the Roman empire. This is a welcome antidote to the essentially insular approach of the archaeologists, who tend to have a site or regional focus.

Ironically it is the very quality of Salway's work that prompts reservations. A deliberate decision has been made, either by the author or the Press, not to provide footnotes (nor are the numerous illustrations and plans numbered and listed). This format would cause no concern in a coffee-table picture book, or a basic primer that claims to give no more than an outline. But Salway's 563 page book is clearly neither of these. Unfortunately, there are few 'facts' in the history of Britain in the Roman period, and almost any assertion can be challenged. Thus a lengthy narrative that draws undocumented conclusions about controversial issues can be dangerous. A couple of isolated examples will illustrate this. Salway observes that after the recall of Calpurnius Agricola there was a threat of war in 169. Also, he reports that Pertinax put down military disturbances in Britain in the 180's. Both statements should be scrutinized closely, since they are based totally on the notoriously unreliable SHA, and are instances where the anti-source biases of the archaeologist are probably justified. But the unfootnoted text gives no clue to the source of the information, and results in the perverse situation that only the specialist who knows the source beforehand can use the book properly. Students, who might potentially benefit from a work of this quality, need at least a minimal access to the substance of the debate, which is precluded by this format. This makes the task of the reviewer particularly frustrating. The points of disagreement that follow are all based on 'raw text', without access to Salway's reasoning or evidence.

Perhaps because he is a historian rather than archaeologist Salway can, on occasion, be a little out of touch with the details of the archaeological sources. He calls the son of Cunobelinus 'Adminius', a form that appears thus in the literary tradition but which we now know from the numismatic evidence (OJA 1 [1982], 111-14, 243-6) to be in error for 'Amminus'. Moreover, the traditional view that there were 11 kings recorded on the victory arch erected over the Via Lata for Claudius' victory over the Britons in 43 (page 64) is pure speculation, since the actual number was recorded in a portion of the inscription now missing (Britannia 22 [1991], 13). Also, inevitably, some of Salway's historical judgements might be challenged. In his account of the early contacts between Rome and Britain he accepts the standard identification of the tribe that formed the main opposition in south-central England as the Catuvellauni. He may be right, but the reader should be cautioned. Ptolemy (2.3.21) provides the name Katueuchlanoi. Dio 60.2.2 does refer to a tribe in southern England as the Katuellani, but they seem to be located west of the required area. The name Catuvellauni is known only from two inscriptions, but both are from the north. One should also be wary of Salway's assertion (page 67) that Suetonius "makes it clear" that the realms of the allied princes were considered by Rome to be integral parts of the empire (membra partesque imperii). The source of Suetonius' claim (which one must know beforehand) is Augustus 48. But Suetonius' reference is to Augustus specifically, in a context stressing that emperor's distinctive way of treating client kings, with tact and diplomacy. The passage has no relevance to their legal and constitutional status; in fact, it implies that Augustus' attitude was exceptional.

On page 44 (and in the caption to the photograph on the opposite page) Salway claims that it was from the surrender of Adminius (sic) that Caligula conceived the idea of the expedition against Britain. This is surely impossible. Our main source, Suetonius, makes it quite clear that Caligula had already embarked on the campaign when the surrender took place and dispatched a message describing it to Rome (Suet. Cal. 44.2). Orosius (7.5.5) specifically describes Caligula receiving the surrender on the Channel coast. In any case the British expedition was preceded by a massive build-up of the legions in Germany, attested by both inscriptions and literary references, and the idea of the campaign must have preceded its execution by at least a year. Oddly enough, in his chronological scheme Salway shows 39/40 (the date of the actual campaign) for Adminius' surrender.

One might disagree about details (and footnotes might have undermined many of the disagreements), but taken as a whole Roman Britain is unarguably a superb piece of work, to be highly recommended for an intelligent reader disinclined to become immersed in controversies. Unfortunately, as Salway concedes, the fundamental question of the Roman occupation of Britain remains unanswered. Almost four centuries of occupation tied down substantial forces for its defence -- for long periods as much as a tenth of the Roman army -- and the return on the investment must been relatively modest. Why were the Romans there in the first place? Why did they stay?