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A detailed but very limited account
on 3 October 2013
This is the first and (so far) only book I have read on Roman Britain. I wanted a broad, narrative survey history of the period, to give me an introduction into a topic I knew little about. I found this book rather unsatisfying in that respect.
There is no doubt that Southern knows her stuff when it comes to Ancient Rome. She writes very clearly, with authority and often with wit. However, I found this book lacking in three key respects.
The first is that this is a history of Roman Britain written entirely from a Roman perspective. The native Britons (assorted tribes inhabiting the British Isles when the Romans invaded - there was, of course, no 'Britain' in any meaningful sense) are almost entirely absent and almost entirely silent in this book. A tribe might get a passing mention here and there - usually when it was rebelling against the Romans - but there is no insight into what the indigenous population did or thought, how they lived, how their lives were changed by Roman occupation, how much they became Romanised or even why they so frequently rebelled. We are told that native Britons lived in tribes, but there is no explanation of how a tribe, or the tribal system in general, functioned and how it changed over the period. Southern ensures that, if she knows it, she gives you the name of every provincial governor or Roman military commander of sufficient seniority to be worth mentioning, no matter how inconsequential they actually were, but the Britons are - with I think the sole exceptions of Boudicca, Calgacus and Cogidubnus - entirely anonymous.
Of course, this may be because of the lack of archaeological and historical evidence to provide these details, and it may be that every book on Roman Britain has no choice but to take the same approach for that reason. However, that doesn't explain the second shortcoming I felt with the book which was its almost exclusive focus on military affairs. Granted, there is some detail on governmental administration (although some of this is also military), but civilian life received scant attention. The design and development of civilian buildings get one or two fleeting mentions, but no detail on the design of forts and milecastles seems too trivial to describe minutely. There is virtually no mention of economics, culture or religion throughout the entire 400-year period, but endless speculation on the whereabouts and movements of individual legions from one year to the next, and Southern is clearly vexed when it is not known who the provincial governor was for any given three-year stretch. Yet, even as a military history, the book is incomplete - with much information on organisational structure and buildings but little description of Roman military tactics, strategy or technology.
My final concern with this book is that it seemed to me to adopt a very facts-and-dates approach to history. The sequence of events is faithfully, and as accurately as possible, reported. This is sometimes interesting and major developments, like Boudicca's revolt, the construction of Hadrian's Wall or Carausius' empire, benefit from this approach and Southern's attention to detail. But through much of the book the succession of Roman officials, suppressed revolts and legion relocations becomes a little tedious. Southern appears to have no central thesis, nor does she obviously present any over-arching themes across the period or any part of it. She draws no conclusions.
In the very last paragraph of the book, Southern asks you to try and imagine the scale and depth of the changes in Romano-Britons' lifestyles, culture and economy that a full 400 years of occupation must have brought about. I was disappointed that she said so little about these things in the course of the preceding book.