BMCR 2020.03.50

Britannia Romana: Roman inscriptions and Roman Britain

Roger S. O. Tomlin, Britannia Romana: Roman inscriptions and Roman Britain. . Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2018. xvi, 472 p.. ISBN 9781785707001 £48.00.

It goes (almost) without saying (but should be reiterated whenever possible) that the surviving record of ancient epigraphy throws light on all aspects of life and history in the classical period. In many instances, it may be argued that inscriptions—whether monumental, instrumental, or ephemeral, whether religious, political, or social—provide unique or essential additional information enriching our knowledge of antiquity. In this context, Tomlin’s Britannia Romana lives up to the exciting promise of the volume’s subtitle, articulating the deep connections between predominantly Latin (and a few carefully selected Greek) inscriptions from the province and elsewhere and the multifarious histories of Roman Britain from the Claudian invasion to the death of the last emperor to rule over the province, Constantine III (411 CE). Drawing on his formidable experience and acknowledging the importance of key epigraphic scholarship past and current,[1]Tomlin offers the reader “an illustrative guide” to the Romans in Britain, by period and theme. Within this overarching frame, “[t]he supporting inscriptions are located by narrative and commentary … showing how they may be read and interpreted … and how they are the raw material of history” (p.viii).

When telling a story that encompasses almost four hundred years and traverses the complex intersections of military invasion, imperial conquest, popular resistance, tribal rebellion, as well as those multiple, interdependent threads of socio-cultural, economic, and political adaptation, consolidation, and transformation comprising a province’s history under Roman rule, Tomlin recognizes the appeal of the personal. Whenever possible, and in conjunction with the relevant literary references and material evidence when available, he deploys his carefully chosen catalogue of 487 epigraphic exempla so as to situate his narrative within the context of the individual,[2] whether a maker of or participant in the historical moment, social phenomenon, or cultural process. As there is a great deal to enjoy in this volume, I will address the opening chapters in some detail to provide an indication of the riches within, and touch briefly on the remainder for additional observations.

Chapters 1-3 survey the invasions of Britain—the first led by Julius Caesar; the second on the agenda of Caesar’s adoptive heir Augustus, as reported in his Res Gestae (32.1); the third at the behest of Claudius and under the command of Aulus Plautius—and the conquests of the lowland and upland regions of the island. The inscriptions of these chapters offer windows into the lives and achievements of emperors, officers, infantry and cavalry, businessmen, and other civilians. Stretching from September 54BCE until November 83CE, the select epigraphic record takes us on a journey from “the shores of nearest Britain” (Cic. Att. 4.18.5) and the towns and cities of Rome’s newest province—inter alia, Colchester (Camulodunum), Lincoln (Lindum), Bath (Aquae Sulis); York (Eboracum), Caerleon (Isca), Chester (Deva)—to other places under imperial rule where information about the actors and events of this period are preserved in stone—Rome and cities on the Italian peninsula, e.g. Tivoli (Tibur), Rimini (Ariminium), Turin (Augusta Taurinorum); or elsewhere in the empire, such as Ankara (Ancyra), Avenches (Aventicum), Corinth, Ephesus, Lyon (Lugdunum), and Pisidian Antioch.

Exploring the period of native retreat from Rome’s advancing legions after Domitian’s recall of Cn. Iulius Agricola in 84CE until the consolidation of Trajan’s Britain on the accession of Hadrian in 117CE, Chapter 4 affords an opportunity to gauge the degree to which Tomlin’s epigraphic superstructure supports the unfolding narrative. A single item sufficing to measure the success of his approach pertains to the epitaph of a certain Insus son of Vodullus. Inscribed beneath a sculpture of Insus, identified as an eques alae Aug(ustae) and shown “holding … a detached human head … taken as a trophy from the naked warrior crouching under his stallion’s hoofs” (p.63), this tombstone of an ordinary cavalryman provides a vividly visceral introduction to Tomlin’s brief examination of the impact and aftermath of Agricola’s conquests, and exemplifies the value of grounding historical narrative in a contextualized selection of contemporary epigraphic representations of Rome’s relentless military intervention.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the epigraphic record of the famous period of wall-building under the consecutive rule of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. In Chapter 5 Tomlin demonstrates the importance of inscriptions to our understanding of historical turning-points otherwise overlooked in the fragmentary historiographical tradition, contrasting the incidental (and only) reference to why Hadrian ordered a wall constructed (SHA Hadr. 11.2) with an altar dedication confirming the emperor’s likely introduction of a new cult to Discipulina, discipline personified—an initiative potentially masking Hadrian’s “surrender of the initiative” to use occupying legions to make fresh conquests and marking the commencement of “[t]he Empire’s shift from the offensive to the defensive” (p.87). Tomlin’s judicious selection of 46 inscriptions traces Hadrian’s purposeful (and, unusually for a Roman emperor—the first to visit the island since Claudius—, firsthand) appointment of an experienced general as governor and his assessment of the factors informing his decision to build a northward-facing barrier across “the waist of Britain” (p.100); and the technical, logistical, and economic factors underpinning the wall’s monumental construction. Chapter 6 outlines the implications of Antoninus Pius’ decision to supersede his predecessor’s wall, reconquer southern Scotland and fortify the narrower Clyde-Forth isthmus. Tomlin deploys the epigraphic record here to illustrate what Antoninus’ decision entailed: reinforcement and provisioning of the British legions to support Rome’s northward advance; the building and garrisoning of the new barrier; and the evacuation of the wall after 155 CE and the subsequent recommissioning of Hadrian’s Wall and its outposts into the early 160s CE. Tomlin concludes the chapter with three inscriptions by a certain L. Maximus Gaetulicus reflecting the service of those who worked on both walls over the course of implementing, enforcing and eventually dismantling Rome’s ‘forward policy.’

Chapters 7 and 8 chart the fifty years of Roman rule in northern Britain under Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius Severus (161-211 CE). Here, Tomlin provides snapshots of political, military and religious life in the province—and how events elsewhere (e.g. the Parthian invasion of Syria) reverberate there—during a period he characterizes like a tide that “continues to ebb and flow as on a darkling plain” (p.155). And so we read about reinforcements sent from Britain to the eastern provinces and Sarmatian horsemen coming to reinforce Rome’s north-west frontier; heavy fighting and occasional victories north of Hadrian’s Wall; a governor of Britain (Clodius Albinus) who was briefly heir-presumptive to imperial power; incidental confirmations of the political upheavals marking Septimus Severus’ accession and death (including the partial excision from a rebuilding inscription of his son P. Septimius Geta’s names and titles following his murder on his older brother Caracalla’s instruction); Severus’ visit to Britain in 208 CE; details of troop travel and provisioning within and beyond the province; and the emperor’s death at York after more than two years’ activity in Britain (including strengthening Hadrian’s Wall, reoccupying the Antonine Wall, and an abortive invasion of Scotland just prior to succumbing to an infectious disease in early 211 CE).

Over the next four chapters, Tomlin turns to “the evidence of inscriptions for daily life” (p.195). Chapter 9 moves beyond examples of soldiers acting as administrators and dedicating altars to consider the ties they formed with civilians. This is a long chapter (pp.195-240), reflecting the fact that many of the inscriptions of Roman Britain on stone and wood—from the equestrian careerist Rufinus who married a senator’s daughter and officers associating their sons with them in formal dedications to the centurion Lollius Virilis whose death was commemorated by his wife Lollia Bodicca (a variant of Boudica, the famous Queen of the Iceni) and the wives and children of serving solders, veterans and even camp-followers—come from sites with military associations. Chapter 10 sheds light on government and administrators, treating the varieties of vicus that operated in the province (a civil settlement outside a fort, a ‘ward’ within a town or city, and a dependent ‘village’ in the territory of a tribe); the imposition on the province’s tribes of the delegation of power to local authorities known as civitas; the two kinds of city or urban settlement in Britain, municipium or colonia; and the organisation of central government (legate, procurator and staff). Although set up in Gaul, Tomlin considers the wealth of detail about Roman government in Britain provided by the Thorigny Marble, which features Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, legate of Lower Britain in 220 CE. Chapter 11 explores the province’s economy, in particular the land and what came from it, and facets of society revealed by the uses to which people—agricultural workers, artisans and craftsmen, shopkeepers, business owners and traders, prostitutes, domestic servants and slaves, doctors, teachers, and other professionals—put these products, in particular, those made from stone, metal and clay, as well as medicine, imported foods and wine, and local beer. Chapter 12 concludes this extended survey of epigraphic evidence for quotidian life in Roman Britain, presenting 97 inscriptions—in the main displayed on free-standing, squared stone pillar altars; though also on durable surfaces as varied as amulets, bronze tablets, statue bases, gabled niches—that deal with the relationship between the gods –from the genius of Britain and other entities found near springs (nymphs and water goddesses like Senuna) to Sulis Minerva, Silvanus, Cocidius, and Corotiacus, Belatucadrus and Veteris, Rome personified, Victory and Concord, Fortune and Nemesis; from the traditional Roman gods Minerva, Apollo, Diana, Vulcan and Neptune to oriental deities like Mithras, Jupiter Dolichenus, Caelestis and the Syrian goddess, Isis and Serapis, and Christianity—and the inhabitants of the province.

Tomlin’s final chapters review the chronological sequence of events during the third and fourth centuries CE (respectively, Chapters 13 and 14), divided either according to the rule of particular emperors (Caracalla, Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, Gordian III, Carausius and Diocletian, Constantine and his sons, Julian, Valentinian and Count Theodosius) or under the more general rubrics of ‘later years’ or ‘last rulers of Roman Britain.’ While the comparative brevity of these two chapters reflects a wider epigraphic phenomenon—namely “the steep decline in numbers of monumental inscriptions since the AD 240s”—Tomlin is quick to observe that the diminishing record of formal inscriptions should not be blamed on a corresponding decline in literacy (p.411).[3] It is an important point, well made, and supported by reference to two inscriptions, both written in New Roman Cursive—the first on a curse tablet, deploying “a rich and recondite vocabulary” (p.414); the second on two pieces of brick (inscribed before firing), a mundane list of names reflecting the fluency of the scribally literate.

There follows a list of bibliographical references and abbreviations used in the text, photograph credits for the more than 100 figures of inscribed stones and other objects, concordance tables between previous publications (Roman Inscriptions of Britain, other corpora) and Britannia Romana, a survey of inscription locations, and a collated index of personal names, geographical indications and general subjects.

It should be clear from what has gone before that Britannia Romana is much more than an annotated collection of inscriptions. Tomlin’s study examines with a keen, scholarly eye the wealth of epigraphic data found in relation to Roman Britain under the rule of the emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and Septimius Severus (Chapters 5-8); to a range of important thematic concerns such as military and civilian life, government and administration, economy and society, and religious belief and practice (Chapters 9-12); and to the comparatively slim corpus of inscriptions surviving from the third and fourth centuries CE (Chapters 13-14).

While this book does not set out to provide a history, Tomlin’s select epigraphic overview of a Roman province from first contact to last gasp is effortlessly informed, refreshingly idiosyncratic—“driven into the ignoble company of women and historians” (p.2: on Claudius, prior to his accession to imperial rule); “now eking out a gilded exile like the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas” (p.8: on Otho in AD 43)—and profoundly illuminating.


[1] Experience: Tomlin, R.S.O., R.P Wright, M.W.C. Hassall (1975- ), annual “Roman Britain (Inscriptions)” survey in Britannia (Cambridge University Press); Tomlin, R.S.O, Addenda and Corrigenda, in Collingwood, R.G. and R.P. Wright, Roman Inscriptions of Britain I. Inscriptions on Stone (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965; new edition, 1995); Frere, S.S. and R.S.O. Tomlin (eds.), Roman Inscriptions of Britain II. Instrumentum Domesticum (Oxford: Oxbow, 1995); Tomlin, R.S.O, R.P. Wright, M.W.C. Hassall, Roman Inscription of Britain III. Inscriptions on Stone (Oxford: Oxbow, 2009). Scholarship: Horsley, J. Britannia Romana, or The Roman Antiquities of Britain (London: Osborn and Longman, 1732); Sandys, J.E., Latin Epigraphy. An Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919); Burn, A.R., The Romans in Britain. An Anthology of Inscriptions Second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969); Gordon, A.E., Illustrated Introduction to Latin Epigraphy (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983); Cooley, A.E., The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Brunn, C., J. Edmondson, The Oxford Handbook of Roman Epigraphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Given that the relevant epigraphic corpus numbers in the thousands—three volumes of the monumental Roman Inscriptions of Britain, which comprise over 3,500 entries covering inscriptions on stone and portable objects; 49 volumes of the journal Britannia, which reports annually on pertinent epigraphic finds; and 961 items in the growing collection of complete and fragmentary writing tablets found at the sites of Vindolanda in northern England and the Bloomberg building in LondonTomlin’s final list of exemplary inscriptions reflects his breadth of knowledge, his perspicacity in making appropriate choices, and his capacity to render such a wide-ranging body of information in a coherent, intelligible, and clear-sighted manner.

[3] Tomlin posits that “this [phenomenon of diminishing monumental inscriptions] may be due to a decline in the size of the garrison and its technical skills, but surely not to economic decline” (p.411).