on 27 August 2013
There are a lot of books and TV programmmes at the moment about the ancient world, and so any new book needs to bring something new to the mix. Charlotte Higgins provides a very personal account of her visits to different corners of Britain, and with a journalist's eye captures the experience of seeing them for the first time and talking to experts about how they came about.
As a Classics graduate, she knows her stuff and is well infomred. But the journalist in her is able to distil the infomration into a very readable account.
For those readers inspired to follow in her footsteps, there is plenty of information in the suffix of the book, providing her sources and also how to get to each of the sites she mentions.
This is a good popular study of what Roman Britain has - and does - mean to various people across time. Higgins has a Classics BA and is a journalist so this is intelligent without being academic or scholarly. Setting out her stall upfront, Higgins sets out to show how `Britain' has always been a constructed idea for the Romans (e.g. Catullus' ultimosque Brittanos, `the most remote Britons', c.11), just as `Roman Britain' is for us, as well as being both a chronological and physical location.
Travelling around the UK to various Roman sites (London, Bath, Scotland, Norfolk etc.) this is an expansive narrative that dips in and out of being a travelogue, a history, an archaeological guide and more.
Higgins is a witty and interesting companion on this journey and writes well in a style which is easy to read without compromising on accuracy - fluent and fascinating, this is a book crying out for a TV series.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 31 December 2013
The author uses her travels around Roman remains in Britain to bring together a historical account of the years the Romans were here (starting in Deal with Julius Caesar's inconclusive invasions) and ending with the last Roman remains (Mildenhall hoard and so on) before the end of Roman Britain in 408AD. As she goes she bring together the stories of scholars who have played a critical role in unearthing and interpreting the historical record (Mortimer Wheeler, RG Collingwood, and living scholars of today who interpret Vindolanda tablets) and a more general account of what it is like in the places where there are Roman remains (so Bath through the ages, briefly, and so on - it hasn't always flourished as it does today). She also covers the place that Roman remains have had in cultural life, commissioning new music for a theme written by Benjamin Britten to verses of WH Auden pre-war, a blues about the Romans in Britain, Roman Wall Blues. And talks to, for example, freelance Roman centurions...
This sounds like a winning combination and clearly many readers have found it so. I found it less satisfying than I had anticipated. Perhaps there's just not quite enough left of Roman remains to make this really interesting (the black and white illustrations may not do them justice?); or not quite a vivid enough sense of Roman culture emergent - though the book did make me think - Romans, for instance, not being Italians from Rome, but free men from anywhere in the Empire and people who served in Britain came from all over, and the precise nature of Hadrian's Wall with fortified gatehouses every mile along the route, ie perhaps it wasn't really meant to keep out invasions.
I suspect the chapter at the back saying what there is to see and where, and how to see it (book B&B in advance for six nights if you are walking Hadrian's Wall) is a very helpful guide - but I haven't used it as such!
on 20 August 2013
Charlotte Higgins writes from the heart, with superb, scholarly insight and confidence. Her book was such a pleasure to read, exciting, funny, awe-inspiring and humbling.
As a young man, I had the great good fortune to spend a long summer in Britain and was encouraged by my host family in Marlborough to explore. I was working full-time but, with the audacity of the young, I hitchhiked all over. I saw the standing stones at Avebury and Stonehenge and explored Bath and the highlands of Scotland. How moving it was to read of some of these same places in Ms. Higgins' book.
"Oh, to be in England ... " indeed! Alas, air fares are not what they were then! Still, with books like "Under Another Sky" it is almost, _almost_ as extraordinary as being there.
on 28 October 2013
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive gazetteer of the sites to be found all over the country, or an in-depth history of Roman Britain, which some of the more negative reviewers seem to have been expecting. But it casts a bright spotlight on some more obscure places, some of which I'd never heard of, and some of which - Vindolanda, Bath, Silchester - have become famous. I found the story of how each era has interpreted Roman Britain in its own image, to bolster its own prejudices, as fascinating as the details of how the sites were originally discovered and excavated, with some interesting sidelights on well-known archaeologists. Finally, the losses over the years, particularly in the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries, of mosaics casually broken up, buildings demolished for their stone, treasure hidden, is both tragic and an appalling indictment of greed, thoughtlessness and ignorance. My one complaint is the lack of good photographs - the ones embedded in the text are dark and unclear. It would have benefited from some clear colour images, particularly of the mosaics, which are beautifully described but, apart from a couple, not illustrated.
And even if Ms Higgins hadn't produced a well-written, entertaining overview of Roman Britain and what it has meant to us down the ages, her obvious love for the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, particularly my own childhood favourite The Eagle of the Ninth, would make it worthy of an extra star.
on 26 May 2014
The author, currently The Guardian's chief arts writer but with a Classics background, has over the past years developed a particular fascination with Roman Britain, travelling around Britain to visit most of the main sites and finds of the time, including walking the full lengths of both Antonine and Hadrian Walls. This book is, in part, an account of those visits and the stories behind the sites, both of their places in the history of Roman Britain and of their discoveries. To help follow the historical chronology, rather than following her visits in the order she travelled, the chapters each focus on a particular area that relates best to successive periods of that history, so it is more of a historical than travel piece. Thus the opening chapter focuses on Kent and Sussex and the early invasions, moving on to Norfolk with its association with Boudica's uprising, and so on westwards and northwards, until returning to East Anglia and the Saxon Shore forts representing the dying years of the Empire's presence in Britannia.
It is however, rather more than that, as the author herself explains: "This book is very far from a comprehensive account of Britain's Roman remains. Instead, I wanted to see what I could learn from an encounter with them. Not to discover what being in Roman Britain was like - for I was convinced of the irrecoverability of the lives of people from the deep past, except as manifestations of the historical imaginations of those who described them. Rather, I wanted to think about what this period means, and has meant, to a British sense of history and identity. I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of a Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape."
And, given the temporal distance, it rather surprised me how relevant it does appear. This was particularly highlghted by the section of the York chapter covering the 'ivory bangle lady', a skeleton excavated in the city in the early years of the 20th century. Much more recent work (it is particularly noticeable how much has happened in the past 5-10 years in Roman Britain research) suggests that she was of mixed-race ancestry, possibly from north Africa. The controversy surrounding the suggestion that Roman Britain may have been rather more multicultural than previously thought indicates how important even such distant history can be in comtemporary cultural belief, significantly influencing both sides of the divide.
Somewhat quirky and personal, it may not be as as good 'history' as some other books, but that wasn't the author's objective, as she clearly states. However, having never really taken more than a superficial interest in Roman Britain before, I found this an ideal entry point, vividly bringing the places and the subject alive, wetting my appetite to learn more about the detail of the period, whilst showing me how relevant it is to us today.
This is one of those books that must be a nightmare for a librarian to classify. Is it history? Archaeology? Art history? Travelogue? Personal memoir? In truth, it's a little bit of all of those things, and a thoroughly enjoyable read besides.
Through her personal odyssey visiting both notable and lesser known Roman sites, Higgins sets out to explore the concept of Roman Britain - not so much the historical reality of it, but the 'idea'. What did Britain mean to the Romans invading it and subsequently writing about it? What did the concept of being 'Roman' mean to those who became citizens and wore the toga? What do we think of today when we think of 'Romans'? How has British history incorporated the Romans into our national narrative? To a very real extent, 'Roman Britain' is a construct - how history has come to view Roman Britain says more about the ways the invaders viewed this land on the edge of the world and how its inhabitants viewed their place in the Roman Empire, than it does reflect the reality on the ground.
As I said, I really enjoyed this book. We are so blessed in many ways in Britain, with so much of historical import and interest remaining intact (some tragic losses and destructions notwithstanding), so many eras and events all compressed within a relatively small space, geographically-speaking. For those, like myself, who are interested in retracing some of Higgins' steps, there is included a helpful guide to all the places she visited - none of which, in this small island of ours, is far enough away to excuse not going!
Charlotte Higgins is a deft and charming guide to Roman Britain. Not only does she recount what these sites - sometimes no more than a few crumbling stones - have meant to people down the ages but she also explores how we preserve and protect (or not) our ancient heritage in this era of modern tourism. The chapter on Hadrian's Wall is alone worth the price of admission.
All this to say that Ms Higgins makes this insightful history-cum-travelogue relevant to the reader today and she does so in an unstuffy, anecdotal way that is accessible to all.
Here she is talking about the mythical London Stone: "When I visited it, it was surrounded in its niche by cigarette ends* and discarded train tickets, and what seemed to be grains of wheat and a couple of almonds (as if in obscure offering)."
Here, at an imposing Roman ruin in Norfolk: "A large chunk of wall, in all its massy two-metre width, leaned out at a disconcerting angle from the main run, like a slice of cake ready to be levered on to a plate."
And here, talking of eminent archaeologist R. G. Collingwood who believed: "The past never truly went away; it lay 'incapsulated' in the present." Which sums up this lovely book perfectly.
* In the book, the author uses a slang word for 'cigarette' which shows how lightly she wears her academic credentials and this is why I chose this particular quote. However, the word evidently breaches the Amazon review guidelines and the system won't allow me to use it.
on 26 January 2015
Although I missed Charlotte Higgins' talk, I bought this at the Harrogate History Festival. A modern examination of what Roman Britain means to us today, plus a camper van - what a hook!
Unstuffy, but packed with facts enough for anybody studying the field, this was a wonderful read. Whether she's camping in the (mostly) trusty VW, staying in farmhouses or B&Bs or simply picnicking and taking time to ponder, we see how deeply engaged the author is with the countryside she is driving and hiking through. She not only gives us the historical background, but shows huge sympathy for people who lived in those Roman places, whether native, colonists, posted military or visitors. I very much enjoyed the accounts of the history of exploration from the earliest observers through the antiquaries to modern archeologists.
But it's the places she visits, their riches, their ruins, their atmosphere that she conveys along with the facts. I have one niggle (if I had to scratch around for one); I would have liked a map of Roman Britain with the places visited marked on it. I have a very good map produced by the OS, but one in the book would have been an handy and valuable reference for readers.
In summary, this book should be on every Roman writer’s reference shelf. Actually, no, on every Roman enthusiast's bookshelf.
on 6 December 2013
Saw a good review on t.v. about the runners and riders for this year's Samuel Johnson Prize. This sounded potentially the most interesting to me so I ordered a copy.
The idea of traveling around the UK to visit the remains of Roman Britain had a lot of potential, but unfortunately thus book fell between two stools :~ it was neither sufficiently academic to serve as a guide to the remnants, nor sufficiently informal to record the author's somewhat idiosyncratic travels. But the biggest problem is the illustrations, at the very least I would have hoped for some interesting photographs of the surviving walls, forts, villas and pavements. But no - what pictures there are are small, indistinct and black and white. I think the photos I took of Fishbourne villa on a school trip when I was 10 were better, and yes I used b&w film in my Kodak Instamatic then - well it was the 60's.!
So if you want to follow the Romans' roads get hold of a copy of the out of print guidebook she recommends rather than this book.