Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.08.69 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.69

Stanley Ireland, Roman Britain: A Sourcebook. Third edition. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2008.  Pp. xvi, 284; 3 maps.  ISBN 978-0-415-47178-7.  $42.95; £22.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (

This is a collection of 643 individual extracts from the literary, epigraphic and numismatic sources that relate to Roman Britain from Julius Caesar's visit in 55 BC (no. 23) to the rescript of Honorius in AD 410 (no. 289), all translated into English. The items themselves are linked by the author's concise commentary (though, despite a change of typeface, it is not always easy to see where one ends and another begins), and thirteen pages of end-notes are intended to provide further elucidation of complex items. The bibliography, running to five pages, seems somewhat outdated,1 but the book is firmly aimed at "the growing number of students who approach the history of Roman Britain through the medium of English" (vii) and is not intended to be at the cutting edge of research. As such, it perhaps demands the presence of a teacher to explain the significance of many of the items (and to translate the laconic "Abbreviations" into useable book references). Inevitably, such a compendium will attract accusations of "dumbing down", but the author does not claim its suitability for specialist readers. It may, in any case, prompt students to dig deeper into the original sources.

As the new edition of a book originally published in 1986,2 and updated in 1996,3 it may be most useful to focus on changes, but the author does not signal where new material has been added (except in the case of Tacitus' Agricola, mentioned below). There may, in any case, be readers who, like this reviewer, have never encountered the book in its previous versions, so a summary of the contents with occasional reviewer comment is probably the most sensible approach.

The book is divided into three parts, in which the extracts are further subdivided into fifteen chapters. Part I ("The geography and people of Britain"), comprising chapters 1 ("The earliest contacts") and 2 ("The Roman period"), presents 17 items of geographical interest drawn from a variety of sources, both well known (Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Caesar) and obscure (Eustathius' Commentary on Dionysius Periegetes). It has been the author's primary aim, from the start, "to assemble as many as possible of those sources that would otherwise be obtainable by readers only with difficulty" (vii); he has certainly succeeded with Eustathius of Thessalonica, who was previously unknown to me. But it is unfortunate that, here and throughout the book, the historian Cassius Dio is called "Dio Cassius", a peculiar reversal found in the older literature, perhaps from confusion with Dio Chrysostom, but definitely to be discouraged.

Part II ("The political and military history") makes up the bulk of the book, with eleven chapters. Chapter 3 ("The invasions of Caesar") presents 19 items, including extensive extracts from the De bello Gallico 4.20-38 and 5.1-23, along with the parallel extracts from Cassius Dio's Roman History (39.51-53 and 40.1-4), with some snippets of Cicero thrown in. Caesar's reports (and Tacitus' Agricola, mentioned below) had been omitted from previous editions, on the grounds that they were "already well served by Penguin translations" (vii), but are now included, perhaps prompted by the carping of a previous reviewer.4

Chapter 4 ("Caesar to Claudius") presents 19 items, including four examples of British coinage illustrated as crisp monochrome line drawings. (All 21 numismatic items in the book are similarly illustrated.) Chapter 5 ("The Claudian invasion") presents 9 items, including lengthy extracts from Cassius Dio (60.19-23) and two Roman coins advertising Claudius' triumph. This chapter presents the first epigraphic text (item 56), the inscription from Claudius' triumphal arch at Rome, here cited as "Britannia 22 (1991), p. 12". Epigraphic convention demands a more accurate citation, ideally utilising the universally recognised L'Année Epigraphique for any inscriptions omitted from the standard collections (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Roman Inscriptions of Britain or Dessau's Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae); this one should be AE 2004, 38. (Incidentally, the translation given here, specifying "11 British kings" is technically incorrect, as the 1991 publication cited here gives the restoration reges Britannorum XI, "eleven kings of the Britons"; previous editors had preferred Britanniae, "of Britain", on analogy with ILS 217, but it is worth noting that only the final I of XI can be read with certainty, making XXI or even XVI possible.)

Chapter 6 ("Expansion of the province and rebellion") presents 16 items, including lengthy extracts of Tacitus (Annals 12.31-40; 14.29-39) and Cassius Dio (62.1-12), to illustrate events down to AD 62. Five inscriptions from RIB are included (in one of which the dedicatee is described as an "auxiliaryman", a word that the author appears to have invented). Item 66 (RIB 200) is labelled "The XX Valeria" (a term used elsewhere in chapters 6 and 7), although the legion at this stage appears to have had no name (and is, in any case, never found simply as Valeria without the accompanying Victrix); and item 80 (RIB 12), the tombstone of Julius Classicianus, gives his wife's name as "Julia Pacata I" (which seems to imply "the first", rather than "Julia Pacata I[nduta?]", as has been suggested in Britannia 33, 2002, pp. 43-75).

Chapter 7 ("Tumult and expansion") presents 29 items carrying events down to the recall of Agricola in AD 84. It includes the abridged, but still very lengthy, extract from Tacitus' Agricola (item 103), already alluded to. Here, the author's explanation, that "AD 78 as the traditional date for the arrival of Agricola in Britain has been revised in recent years as a result of studies into the coinage of the period" (250 n. 5), is overly cryptic for his intended readership, who would be better served by a reference to A.R. Birley's recent translation. Again, the literary extracts (mostly from Tacitus' Histories, but including Plutarch, On the Disuse of Oracles) are supplemented by a selection of inscriptions. However, in the well-known Verulamium forum inscription (item 106; here, "JRS, 46 [1956] pp. 146-7, cf. Burn p. 40", but better simply as AE 1957, 169 = AE 1959, 7; the cross-reference to Burn's long out-of-print anthology is pointless), the author's attempt to indicate the few extant letters by using italic script is less successful than his earlier strategy (valiantly accomplished for item 56 in chapter 5) of indicating missing words by using square brackets. Also, it should be explained that the date of AD 79, given here, depends on the emperors' titulature, which is entirely restored and could equally belong to AD 81. For items 108 (RIB 662-3) and 109 (ILS 1015), the author (quite understandably) eschews any attempt to indicate extant and missing portions of the inscriptions!

Chapter 8 ("Withdrawal and consolidation") presents nine items, mostly inscriptions, to be slotted into the pre-Hadrianic history of Britain. But item 113 (CIL 13, 6679) demonstrates some of the shortcomings of the book's format: the inscribed object is not described, so it is not immediately apparent whether we are reading the text of a tombstone or a dedication; the author has elected to change the original ordering of the text (which begins FORTVNAM SVPERAM) in the interests (one supposes) of readability; extant and missing portions are again not indicated; and part of the text (a small part, admittedly, that presumably gave the dedicator's rank) is omitted. The inscription, a dedication to Highest Fortuna by a serving soldier (possibly a centurion) in the army of Upper Germany, is interesting because the man was born at Lincoln, but surely much later than its inclusion in this chapter would imply. Elsewhere in this chapter, a peculiar end-note is provided (250-251 n. 2) listing six personnel from the Twentieth Legion, a service not provided for any of the other legions in Britain.

Chapter 9 ("The Hadrianic and Antonine frontiers") presents 39 items, including seven coins, covering most of the second century, from Hadrian to Commodus. Notoriously, there is little in the way of literary source material, but the extracts from the Historia Augusta mentioning Britain during the reigns of Hadrian (item 119), Antoninus Pius (item 133), Marcus Aurelius (items 148 and 150), and Commodus (items 155 and 157), curiously omit Life of Commodus 8.4 ("Commodus was also called Britannicus by his flatterers, although the Britons actually wanted to choose an emperor to oppose him"). Along with the extracts from Cassius Dio, the author has supplied the problematic passage from Pausanias' Description of Greece which mentions the "Genounian district" (item 144). This, and the equally problematic Newcastle inscription (RIB 1322), probably require more explanation to guide the intended readers.

This chapter includes several epigraphic items, but the author omits any indication of dating (which he provides for inscriptions elsewhere). In fact, he has missed an opportunity to string together a whole series of items that provide a picture of the Antonine invasion of Scotland. Lollius Urbicus' rebuilding at Corbridge (item 134 = RIB 1147), in preparation for the invasion, may be dated precisely to AD 139 by the mention of Pius' second consulship. Sadly, the author does not include its companion (RIB 1148), which attests that rebuilding continued there during the period of Pius' third consulship (AD 140-144, earlier rather than later). Lollius Urbicus' work on the Antonine Wall at Balmuildy (item 140 = RIB 2191) can then be dated broadly to the period AD 140-142 (later, rather than earlier), to keep Urbicus within the governor's standard term of office. The book's treatment of epigraphy again falls down with the Ingliston milestone (item 141, mis-spelled "Ingilston"). Readers will not realise, from the bare translation here, that a governor's name has been deliberately erased; it would be unthinkable for Lollius Urbicus' name to be removed, so it must be his unknown successor; thus, there is no need to agonise over Pius as "2/3 times Consul", as it must date from his third consulship (AD 140-144, later rather than earlier).

Chapter 10 ("Albinus and the Severan dynasty") presents 47 items, including four coins, but sadly not the well-known Profectio Augustorum ("Departure of the emperors") issues that celebrated the opening of Severus' Caledonian campaign, nor Caracalla's Traiectus issue of AD 208, which ties in with Herodian's report of river crossings in Britain (3.14.10; item 177, here). A poor substitute, but an interesting one, is provided by an altar at Rome (item 161 = ILS 414); the translation of (centurio) coh(ortis) II vig(ilum) as "centurion of the 2nd Cohort of the Watch" should perhaps have an authorial note explaining the role of the Vigiles; and the rather loose translation of pro salute et reditu as "for the safe return" may be acceptable (though it sits awkwardly with the author's promise "to represent accurately the contents of the originals without the addition of stylistic flourishes" [vii]). Oddly, the text naming the altar's co-dedicator, a fellow centurion of cohors IIII Vigilium (sic), has been omitted; and readers may have been interested to know that the name of Clodius Albinus was later erased (rather than simply missing, as the square brackets here imply). Another inscription, naming the numerus exploratorum Bremeniensium at High Rochester (item 203 = RIB 1270), is misleadingly annotated with the statement that "in this same period units of barbarian troops, cunei and numeri, ranking lower than auxiliaries, begin to make their appearance" (123); so-called irregular numeri are known as early as the reign of Antoninus Pius.

Chapter 11 ("Usurpation and recovery") presents 29 items, including six coins, to illustrate the period of Carausius, while chapter 12 ("Reorganisation and the dynasty of Constantine") presents 23 items, including two coins, bringing events down to AD 360. Amongst the literary sources are seven extracts from the Notitia Dignitatum (although the author often cannot decide which words merit translation and which should be left in Latin) and several of the so-called Panegyrics (though the omission of references to the standard edition of the Panegyrici Latini Veteres is unfortunate). Also, the inclusion of RIB 1553 would have illustrated the interesting phenomenon of an inscription precisely dated by consular year (AD 237).

Chapter 13 ("Danger, decline and collapse") presents 34 items, beginning with the so-called conspiratio barbarica ("barbarian conspiracy") of AD 367, and ending with a lengthy extract from Gildas' On the Destruction of Britain (here, uniquely, given its Latin title in parallel). By this stage, few inscriptions are known, an exception being RIB 721 (item 263), which advertises the building of the turr[e]m (et) castrum on the coast at Ravenscar. The author has attempted to give a flavour of the rudimentary lettering on the stone by noting "(masbier = magister?)" in the midst of his translation, but his readers surely require some supplementary explanation; the (probably illiterate) stonecutter has obviously attempted MASBTER where the middle "SB" is clearly a botched "G" (with a tail) and a peculiarly ligatured "IS". This again highlights the problem of attempting to represent an inscription solely as a translated text.

Finally, Part III ("Religion, government, commerce and society") comprises chapters 14 ("Religion") and 15 ("Government, commerce and society"), which together account for 353 miscellaneous items. These are mostly inscriptions, but there is a lengthy section on "Correspondence" (items 528-563), largely from the Vindolanda tablets but including one of the Carlisle tablets (Tab. Luguval. 16), which unfortunately repeats the mistranslation of subarmalis as "smaller spear", when it should clearly be the padded undergarment worn beneath armour.

This book held an obvious advantage in 1988. It is perhaps less useful in this internet age, although students may still welcome a portable compendium of translated source material.


1.   A glaring omission, amongst others, is the splendid translation of the Agricola by A.R. Birley, in the Oxford World's Classics series (1999).
2.   Reviewed, for example, at: Brit. 20 (1989), 355-6; Class. Rev. 38.1 (1988), 104-7; Class. W 82.1 (1988), 56.
3.   Reviewed here: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.33.
4.   Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 20.3 (1988), 445-7.

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