The Real Lives of Roman Britain | Guy de la Bédoyère | 2015 | Yale University Press | 264p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Romans brought much more with them to Britain than roads, sanitation and posh tablewares – their obsession with recording the smallest of details, the most insulting of curses, as well as a habit of letter writing, means that for the first time in the island’s history we are able to learn the identities of a small number of individuals. Through their words, we can begin to build up a picture – albeit a fragmentary jigsaw – of what life was like in Britain almost two thousand years ago. And then there are also the accounts which preserve Rome’s attitude to this distant bit of empire – they didn’t think much of it.
But although Britain might have been a drafty backwater, it still contained a number of people who began to think of themselves as Roman, changing their names, their housing, their way of life, perhaps enlisting in the army, serving and dying overseas, perhaps owning slaves, then later freeing them, climbing the social ladder. It’s arguable how much or little life changed for the poor working in the fields but for those with Roman coins in their pockets it was sometimes appropriate to express their status in inscriptions, tomb monuments, villa mosaics, bling. And because of all of this we are able to learn a little about the real lives of Roman Britain.
This is the Roman Britain that Guy de la Bédoyère evokes in his excellent and very accessible history. It is a province populated by a colourful mix – native Britons as well as people pulled from across the Empire, many finding their way here through army service, or servicing the army. Following a broad chronological structure, de la Bédoyère examines the surviving evidence to examine what life – and livelihoods – were like from the conquest through to the withdrawal of the legions in the early 5th century. The emperors aren’t ignored – de la Bédoyère takes us to Rome to uncover the plans these men had for the distant province – but the emphasis is strongly on lives in Roman Britain and these cross all ranks and social scales. We have governors and administrators, centurions and ordinary soldiers, tradesmen and prosperous freedmen, potters and craftsmen. The evidence comes from all manner of sources, including graffiti on tiles and pots, mosaic symbols, to grand monument inscriptions, which, tellingly, were sometimes forgotten after a century, dismantled and reused in later Roman buildings.
Not surprisingly, most of the written evidence covers the male Roman world, indeed the free male world, but there are glimpses of female life, albeit mostly wealthy female life, thanks to letters which survive from Vindolanda as well as tomb memorials from elsewhere.
But while The Real Lives of Roman Britain gave me a great deal to think about, it also made me realise just how little surviving evidence there is and what does survive is often fragmentary and in a poor state. So few lives are represented. Very occasionally a person is known from two or more inscriptions but this is most unusual. A person pops up in the record, gives us a little detail about their lives, sometimes very mundane, and then disappears from history again. But these little fragments do tell us that there would have been a wealth of evidence that’s now gone, that these glimpses of past lives are just a taste of the generations of life that shaped Britain during these centuries. It is all hugely intriguing and frustrating at the same time.
Archaeological evidence is also used to throw light on Roman lives and some of it is striking, not least the evidence for ancient murders, or the remains of many infant burials under one roof. This is just as compelling as the remains of grand villas and palaces. But it is in these villas that there are signs of early Christian worship and there is evidence of fascinating continuity of activity at one site in particular.
Guy de la Bédoyère makes a distant period and distant lives accessible. Known from Time Team, he knows how to communicate the past and he knows how to pick those little bits of evidence that strike a chord more than any other, bringing the driest of sources to life. This book would make an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to know more about what life was like two thousand years ago along the roads and in the towns that are still such an important part of Britain today.
The book includes plates and substantial notes.