Roman Britain is known to us through a diverse body of historical evidence. With no single chronicle or narrative of events in the westernmost Roman province(s) to guide us, students of Roman Britain rely on bits and pieces of information scattered throughout the writings of imperial historians like Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Britannia also makes an occasional appearance in panegyrics, geographies, and lists of offices. But increasingly historians have had to rely on less traditional material, especially epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence. When Stanley Ireland’s Roman Britain: A Sourcebook first appeared in 1986, one of its strengths was that it brought together successfully this disparate body of evidence in an arrangement that presented both a chronological narrative and a thematic approach to studying Roman Britain. The second edition, appearing ten years later, adds newly discovered evidence and clarification of old to an already powerful and eminently useful package.
In the Preface, Ireland first apologizes for the simple style of his translations, then praises other collections of sources for Roman Britain. The truth is that his translations are hardly rustic, and his sourcebook has a far greater scope than any of its predecessors. If there is anything lacking from the beginning of this book, it is a more extensive Introduction and set of maps. The three maps included (the third is Ptolemy’s) do not, for example, show us the location of all of the military sites mentioned in the text. And while the Introduction does explain the various evidence types that are to follow, it lacks citations to more specialist works. (There are notes in the main body of the text, but they refer the reader to a rather skimpy Bibliography at the end of the book.)
The second edition of the sourcebook follows the same organization as the first. Part One includes a few early sources (Pliny, Caesar, Strabo) which describe the geography and people of Britain before the Roman conquest. Part Two, the most extensive in the book, is a running narrative of the major political and military events in Britain from the first British expedition of Julius Caesar in 55 BC to the “official” end of Roman Britain in AD 410. These eleven chapters tell a dramatic story through Ireland’s adept weaving of his own short commentaries between passages in chronicles and occasional inscriptions on stone and coin. While this subjective approach to narrative construction may offend a few purists, I found Ireland’s linking commentaries to be unobtrusive and backed up by sufficient documentation in the chapter notes. Narrative gives way to a thematic approach in Part Three, whose chapters illustrate Romano-British religion, government, commerce and society. This discussion is heavily dependent on the diverse epigraphic evidence from Britain (and occasionally from continental inscriptions), a treasure trove of rich detail about Romano-British society heretofore inaccessible to all but a few specialists who have access to the voluminous—and expensive—catalogs. Finally, the book concludes with extensive Indices of both the literary sources and the inscriptions.
Testifying to the usefulness of the first edition is its citation in many of the recently published histories of Roman Britain (e.g. Peter Salway’s The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain). It has doubtless also been recommended to a new generation of university students entering this field. To continue to be useful it must reflect recent discoveries, and indeed the second edition has risen to the task by including excerpts from the Vindolanda writing tablets and the lead “curse tablets” from Bath. In addition to these fascinating personal writings (the Vindolanda tablets include shopping lists and a birthday invitation!), Ireland has included the latest inscriptions from domestic objects cataloged (since 1987) in Roman Inscriptions of Britain, Vol. II. As long as Ireland (and Routledge) continue to show an interest in keeping up with the latest developments in the field, the scholarly community will respond by continuing to make this the most recommended sourcebook for students of Roman Britain.