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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 December 2011
"What the Romans did for us" is the title of a television documentary comprising six episodes, which was first shown on BBC Two in the year 2000. The program was presented by Adam Hart-Davis, who has a keen interest in ancient history, especially ancient technology.

"What the Romans did for us" is also the title of a book published by Box Tree Publications and written by Philip Wilkinson, who is the author of several books, including Yangtze from 2005 and Mythology (Eyewitness Companions) from 2007. The foreword is written by Adam Hart-Davis. Some of the illustrations are still photos from the documentary.

The Box Tree book is published by arrangement with the BBC. It is not a transcript of what is said on the television documentary. It is an independent account, which can stand alone, if it has to. However, the television documentary and the book complement each other very well. In the documentary the focus is on attempts to reconstruct several types of ancient technology in order to see how they work. The result is good television. In the book the focus is on historical background and general information. The result is an interesting account about Roman Britain with emphasis on the technological aspects.

The book has the same structure as the television documentary. There are six episodes, and there are six chapters. Here are the headlines:

Chapter 1: INVASION

Each chapter covers one topic or one aspect of the history of Roman Britain. From time to time the main text is interrupted by a separate sidebar printed on a grey background. Each sidebar gives a brief presentation of a Roman site somewhere in Britain. In this way the author also covers the geography of Roman Britain. His list is quite comprehensive:

Roman Forts - 7
Roman Towns - 4
Roman Villas - 3
Roman Castles - 2
Roman Palaces - 1
Roman Lighthouses - 1

The book is illustrated with a large number of good colour pictures. There is a picture of almost every location and almost every type of ancient technology mentioned in the book.

Some people are not so fond of television programs hosted by Adam Hart-Davis. They feel he shows his face too often. I get the point. On the other hand, I have to say that Adam Hart-Davis always shows an enthusiasm and a commitment to his topic which is difficult to dislike and a good quality in a television host.

In this book several pictures show Adam Hart-Davis. There is one picture of him on the back cover, and inside the book his face appears fifteen times. But these are not the only illustrations in the book, so I do not want to complain about this issue.

In his foreword Adam Hart-Davis makes an interesting observation:

"An intriguing thing about the Romans is that they were brilliant engineers and organizers, but poor innovators. They came to Britain in the middle of the first century, and built roads and forts, baths and drains, many of which survive until today. And yet most of their ideas were taken from the Greeks, and they seem to have been unable to come up with new ones of their own. They occupied Britain for 400 years, but in all that time they had no industrial revolution; their technology was advanced when they arrived, but scarcely more advanced by the time they went home again. This failure to move forward may have been one of the underlying reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire."

I like this book, but I have to mention a few cases which bother me:

(1) On page 54 Wilkinson mentions Emperor Diocletian with the following dates: 244-311. These dates are supposed to be the year he was born and the year he died. But we do not know when Diocletian was born or when he died. If you search the internet, you will find many different answers:

* 245-313: The Catholic Encyclopedia
* 245-316: The Encyclopedia Britannica
* 236 or 237-316: De Imperatoribus Romanis
* 240 or 245-311: The Roman-Empire-Net

In his book about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, Roger Rees says Diocletian was born about 240; and perhaps he died in 312.

[Roger Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Debates and Documents in Ancient History), published in 2004.]

Why not use the dates for Diocletian's reign? They are much safer: he ruled from 284 to 305.

(2) On page 100 Wilkinson describes the Roman theatre of Verulamium (St Albans). He claims it "consisted of a raised stage, in front of which was a flat circular area called the orchestra." The orchestra is not circular, but semi-circular.

(3) In chapter 6 Wilkinson mentions an anonymous ancient text about military matters from the fourth century. According to him, the title is DE REBUS BELLICUS. This title appears on page 151 and it is repeated on page 152. It is also listed in the index, and every time the title is spelled the same way, so we are not dealing with a misprint. It is a regular mistake. The correct title is DE REBUS BELLICIS.

These flaws are unfortunate, but they are minor and they are the exception. With or without the television documentary this book is an interesting account about Roman Britain with emphasis on the technological aspects.

The author presents historical background and general information. In addition, he tells you where you can go and what you can see, if you want to visit some of the Roman sites in Britain. For these reasons his book is highly recommended.
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on 25 October 2010
The book was purchased to help with a preparation for doing scenarios ie live Roman Activities,(Living History), for a hikers walk along a Roman Road so that the hikers would have understanding of these activities. THe book was second hand and was supplied in good condition.

The service and delivery was extremely quick and is to be commended. I got the book much earlier than anticipated so was able to plan what was to be demonstrated on the walk.
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on 10 April 2015
I bought this for prisoners that I taught, enjoyable and informative
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on 1 March 2001
Sadly this book is more about the Peter Snow-esque self-gratification of author David-Hart than giving any real depth to the subject in hand. With many books & programmes currently "doing the rounds" on subjects such as the real causes of the Pompeii disaster, this is an attempt which makes light of the audience's intelligence, often repeating facts ad nauseam and annoyingly using picture after picture of Davis trying to "be a Roman". Whilst the TV series might have been carried by Davis' enthusiasm, the book transcription of the BBC series cannot capture this is we are left with static stills and lifeless pictures/descriptions which are frankly very good for pre-sleep bedtime reading. Not one of the BBC's better efforts, and frankly not worth the cost of the hardback book unless you have never heard of the Romans and want to start from scratch.
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