6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2010
This is a beautiful book in feel, and I figure a major contribution to understanding of Britain in the fourth century CE. Both town and villa-based countryside life for the Roman elite are described in depth. The style of writing sustains interest and evokes careful, unhurried reading. The several dozen drawings are precise and informative, and the colour photographs are skilfully selected and evocative. However, for someone primarily interested in the fifth and sixth centuries, the book is in the end utterly unsatisfying. Two words it never uses are kaer and Druid: absences that reveal White's basic non-understanding of Brittonic society at the inception of the mediaeval era.
In his enthusiasm for the unity of Britannia Prima, he does not see that when the colonial power collapsed in 409 the primary cohesive political units immediately became the civitates, that - as often also in recent times after decolonisation in Africa - the tribe (so, here, the civitas) was the natural focus of allegiance; White gives no evidence for the fourth-century province of Prima surviving as a political entity after 409. Rather, it seems that civitates became kingdoms ruled by a king who lived in a kaer (citadel), or in larger kingdoms progressed among several kaers, moving with his teulu (warrior knights pledged to loyalty), with his Druids and bards who were the kingdom's religious and cultural leaders and the keepers of its stories, and with a workforce of servants and craftsmen. White gives archaeological evidence for this, particularly at South Cadbury, Caernarfon and Poundbury, but bypasses it in his eagerness to leap from Roman to Christian power without considering the native religious culture.
Another basic misconception (p205) is that the early-mediaeval church needed towns as their ecclesiastical power-base, when the evidence is that Christian leaders such as Kentigern and Deiniol directly displaced Druids at the kaers of kings such as Rhydderch of Strathclyde and Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and had no status in the societal heirarchy independent of the power of the king. The first acts of seventh-century Roman bishops, such as Augustine at Canterbury and Paulinus at York, were to build or renovate fixed churches, but there is no evidence for similar acts by the earliest mediaeval Brittonic bishops such as David, Dunaut and Dyfrig.
White also passes on unexamined the pro-English propaganda line that the Saxons were innocent of the destruction of Roman Britain. Who does he think was responsible for making the burden of Roman governance untenable in the decades leading up to 409? Who required an entire Legion to be moved in the mid-fourth century from Caerleon to Richborough, Kent? Whom did the Gallic Chronicle of 441 say `the Provinces of Britain', meaning Flavia and parts of Maxima, had by then fallen into the hands of? Whom does Gildas, writing in c548, call `our enemies in the east'? The answer to all four questions is Saxon, i.e. English, warrior raiders and settlers.
White's strength is the interpretation of archaeological evidence. He makes a strong and thorough case for his understanding of the boundaries of Britannia Prima; for Cirencester having been its capital; and for the continuity with a greatly reduced population of many of its civitas capitals in the fifth century as market towns, as also of some ports such as Meols (Chester) and Abona (Bristol). Chapter 8, on Roman towns in the fifth century, is excellent. He also shows a valuable understanding of the fourth-century economy and of the economy of the fifth century with its different trade routes, military needs, elite expressions of wealth, and overwhelming preference for use of wood rather than stone or masonry for building. His attention to detail (a possible church here, a six times reconstructed floor there) means the reader at times needs to make a conscious effort to see the wood for the trees; and I longed for one map of Prima just locating all the modern places the text refers to.
His corresponding weakness is that he gives minimal weight to the thin but important corpus of contemporary and near-contemporary documentary evidence and none at all to the native oral tradition. Several times he falls into the trap of assuming that because the orthography of a text (a poem, for example) shows that it was first written down in, say, the ninth century the content was necessarily composed in the ninth century. In common with many others, he does not realise that Cornwall and Dumnonia are the name in different languages for the same place, the prosperous kingdom in the fifth and sixth centuries known in Welsh as Kernyw.
Finally, I question the purpose of the overwhelm of over six hundred references to other books.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 21 May 2008
This is a book that takes a much-needed look at a monumentally important period of British history that was to lead ultimately to the foundation of the identities of the Welsh and English nations, and is done so in an interesting and provocative manner. It is a perfect companion to K. R. Dark's "Britain and the End of the Roman Empire", and likewise puts forward a convincing argument for a continuation of a Roman identity in the native Britons long after the conventional dates given by Faulkner and others. It has it's weaknesses, particularly in late Roman religion and the early Christian Church, but it is reassuring to note that Roger White acknowledges that this is an interpretation of the evidence, and other interpretations exist, something other archaeologists should consider when putting forward their theories.