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on 1 March 2012
There is no doubting that in this book Patricia Southern has written a fascinating and compelling account of the Roman occupation of Britain but it's claim to be "a new history" suggests a revisionist approach akin to the excellent "UnRoman Britain" by Russell and Laycock. Instead, this book is in many ways very much a traditional narrative history that borrows heavily from ancient texts to describe the political and adminstrative process with the social history largely being limited to inserts within each chapter. Apart from her desire to frequently offer contrasting opinions, this seemed to me to be almost an old-fashioned approach to history in the way that she is attracted to significant people, dates and events.

As well as being a great read, there are several aspects that I really like about this book. It is easy to read, doesn't court controversy and offers conflicting interpretations of particular events. This book has no tub-thumping agenda like Russell and Laycock's book (although I applaud their conclusions) and Southern is happy to marry up archaeology with the written history which I found to be very satisfying as someone who likes to see the "given" questioned. Anyone with the slightest inkling of this era of British history will already be familiar with the accounts about Julius Caesar, Agricola and Boudicca but the 2nd century onwards is equally covered in the book albeit the number of sources available appear to be extremely scant. Much of the book seems to be given over to events in the North of England and the border with Scotland where the loal Brigantes seemed to always cause a degree of nuisance. You will find very little about Venta Belgarum where I live, for example! In fact, there were stretches of this book where is felt like nothing else was happening South of Hadrian's wall other than the construction of the Saxon shore forts. However, the story is hugely compelling and I felt that the book seemed to demonstrate that we are equally in the dark about the later Roman periods than we are about the Dark Ages. As well as being very enjoyable, the glossary includes a dictionary of Roman terms, a comprehensive list of Roman sites in the UK that are available for the public to visit and a very good summary of each of the Classical writer's work on the topic of Britannia.

There are a few quibbles. If you close your eyes after reading this book, it is still very difficult to imagine what Roman Britain may have been like and I found that I was unable to build up a picture of how Britannia may have looked or indeed, how it changed over the years. You will find very little about town development in comparison with the phase-by-phase descriptions of Hadrian's Wall and the social aspect of the history is touched upon but not elaborated. I felt this book was at it's weakest when considering how Britain changed when the Romans left and there was no real analysis of just how much or how little they impacted upon society. After reading "UnRoman Britain" which mimimalises the contribution of Rome, I would have loved to have read Paricia Southern's opinion. However, I would imagine that she would have remained balanced on this matter and offered a contrasting view just as she had on other topics.

In summary, this book effectively is a narrative history with a bias towards the "big hitters" in history and , in this respect, is against the current trend. Given that so much of this is oftern over-looked in the discussions regarding villas, Romanisation and religious culture, I found this approach refreshing and whilst not at all controversial, there is sufficient in this brilliant book to make you want to investigate the topic further. Thoroughly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 December 2013
There are at least three other books with the same title. There are also a host more from various other historians and/or archaeologists covering the same topic: Roman Britain. I have read some of them, but by no means all of them so I am in no position and do not intend to make sweeping comparisons. It may not be perfect. I found a few "glitches" in it. Some things looked a bit odd, or perhaps even a bit questionable, and I will get back to these later on.

To begin with, the reader needs to understand what the author seems to have tried to achieve and how she has - quite deliberately - limited herself to what is really known. This is what you would expect any good historian to do, although it can be quite difficult and it raises at least two sets of issues.

The first set of issues arises when realising how little we really know about "Roman Britain" and how much we have to rely upon comparisons with other parts of the Empire, some of which may not always be relevant. This is something that is very well shown and illustrated across the book. A related point here is that the main advances in Roman history in general, and Roman Britain in general, are due to archaeology and the numerous findings that have been discovered. However, even in Britain, where archaeology started earlier than in most places and where there is still some much to find, there are limits to the information it can provide. This is also something that the author shows rather well and she mostly refuses the kind of unverifiable speculations and theories that could have so easily side-tracked her.

For this in particular, the book and its author deserve quite a lot of credit, especially since it can easily lead to misunderstandings and disappointments. For instance, a reviewer of the Kindle version of this book complained that it was "a history of Roman Britain written entirely from a Roman perspective." This is a perfectly correct statement. It may even be exactly what the author intended to do although whether intended or not, there was simply no alternative, given that the facts about the Britons (that is the collection of tribes that populated the island) are even fewer than for the Romans. The conclusion is that it is simply not possible to write a history of Roman Britain with "insights into what the indigenous population did or thought". Consequently, it seems rather unfair to blame the author for not having tried to do something that is simply not possible.

A related criticism is that this book has an "almost exclusive focus on military affairs." The statement is perfectly accurate. Whether this should be seen as a criticism is perhaps more questionable. Patricia Southern has written extensively on the Roman army. This book reflects this fact and even includes bits and pieces from her more general volume on the Roman army, with a number of examples from the Roman Army in Britain being found in both volumes. There are also two other reasons explaining the focus on military affairs and the Roman Army. One is the fact that the Roman Army is perhaps better documented, and the other is that it played a huge and complex role in the development of Roman provinces in general, and Roman Britain. Both reasons are well and rather convincingly explained in the book.

Apart from its obvious "law and order" and strictly military role, it also played a considerable economic role. Provided for Roman forces was a huge market, or more accurately a series of large markets in each of the provinces were significant forces were stationed. The economic role of the Roman Army was also indirect. Many of the forts that were evacuated as the army moved to the north became the sites of Roman towns and Roman engineers did occasionally help edify public buildings, for instance.

Two further advantages of this book, for a so-called "general reader" or someone not very familiar with the history of Rome, and of Roman Britain especially, are the way it is written and the structure that Patricia Southern has chosen to follow. The contents are presented as simply as possible, that is chronologically. A number of boxes are scattered across it to explain and focus on specific points. The text itself is indeed presented as a matter of fact way, using plain layman English, with explanations and translations being provided as soon as a "specialised" or Latin term is used. As a result, the contents are clear, easy to access and easy to understand.

There may however be a "price to pay" for this. Because this book is about facts, history and archaeology, the author avoids most scholarly discussions and often does not present the various debates and interpretations. She just mentions that this or that issue happens to be controversial. So, in the case of the battle of Mount Graupius, for instance, do not expect this book to contain a lengthy presentation of all the theories about the location of Agricola's main and major victory: you will not find this. A related effect is that the contents, which I happened to find fascinating, may "feel" somewhat "dull" for those who might not be "Roman buffs". Do not, for instance, expect to be "entertained" in a Tom Holland style, although, now and again, some of Pat Southern's comments and dry humour might make you smile.

Then there are a number of little "glitches". One is a (limited) number of repetitions, because the same issue may pop up in different periods of Roman Britain and it gets repeated. This should however not be exaggerated. There are relatively few such repetitions and when they do occur, the author keeps them to a minimum - a couple of sentences to make the reader aware that a given topic was also an issue in the period under review. A second type of "glitch" results from the fact that the book is an overview. They are mostly simplifications and details which arise as the author attempts to cut a long story short while still preserving the core of it. For instance, Stilicho is presented as "by birth a Vandal". It seems that he was only half-Vandal. A slightly different case is illustrated by the following sentence: "the situation changed in 409, when Arcadius, Emperor of Constantinople, died." Contrary to what this sentence might suggest, Arcadius had died in May 408.

Despite this, I found that the book was a rather good starting point for someone (such as a general reader or perhaps an undergraduate student) interested in Roman Britain. It is also a rather good overview, regardless of how much one may know (of believe to know) on the topic. Four solid stars.
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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.
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on 9 December 2016
This lengthy tome (600 pages plus) is hardly lacking in detail. Some of us will use it as a reference book, others will dip in and out of it, real Roman obsessives will plough right through it.

The approach is now so out of date as to be original again - Southern has trawled all the classical sources for as much information as possible about Britannia. Most books these days are exclusively based on archaeology, and though Southern uses that too, this "old/new" approach makes this work different to most other books directed at the non-specialist reader, and I found her approach refreshing, though it won't appeal to someone who wants a broad-brush overview.

Also refreshing and new is the way Southern sets Britannia in an Imperial context - for example, when looking at Hadrian's Wall she tells us about the similar but different defences built at the same time between the Rhine and the Danube.
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on 10 April 2014
This is a really good descriptive book on the history of Roman Britain covering the period before the conquest, the reasons behind it and why the whole of Britain didn't fall to the conquering legions. How the native population viewed it and how they embraced the Roman way of life. It also covers the main characters who shaped the era and how Rome viewed its far flung province on the extremity of its empire and why at the beginning of the 5th century it abandoned it as the Western Empire slowly dissolved.

It is easy to read and very informative telling the story not just from a military perspective but the social side as well. Thoroughly entertaining and far from a dry read.
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on 10 July 2013
.. I can't work out what it was about this book that didn't grab me because it is my favourite period .. maybe too reliant on Archaeology and not enough DNA genetic and textual material .. maybe it was the wrong cut-off date .. maybe the lack of conclusions and the bigger European picture ...
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on 24 September 2013
this is concise, but draws together much detail into a useful, coherent interpretation. If Roman Britain is of interest to you, this is an important addition to your library.
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on 22 September 2013
This book provides an excellent study of Roman Britain, putting it in to context of the history of the wider Roman Empire.
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on 7 September 2015
An excellent book.
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on 21 October 2012
This was a present for my history mad brother, when asked he said it was perfect well written and a good read,his historial interests are mainly contained within the Romans just being in Britain and would like more books covereing this period
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