A delightful trip from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall—in C.E. 130.
On the surface, the book shouldn’t be that interesting: descriptions of roads long gone, cities renamed, and modes of transportation gladly forgotten. Still, classics scholar and guidebook author Riley (Great Yarmouth Row Houses and Greyfriars’ Cloister, 2011, etc.) has an impressive gift for travelogue. She tells the story of Sextus Julius Severus, the new governor of Britain, an imperial province as opposed to a mere senatorial one. Riley’s descriptions of the roads along her journey will make readers want to visit for themselves. At the mouth of the Tiber River is Portus Ostientis, built by Claudius to hold 400 ships, even the enormous grain ships from Alexandria. A quick sail to Narbonne and passage through one of the three Gauls proves to be a fairly comfortable trek with good roads and hotels. The author deftly tells of alternate routes—and their advantages and problems—to Oceanus, an “immeasurable expanse of sea full of monsters and unfathomable tides at the ends of the earth”—now known as the English Channel. In London, the author takes off on a remarkable story of the towns and roads of Britain in the year 130. The maps and descriptions of the route through London, Bath, Wales, and north to the wall are informative, scholarly, and colorful. Along the way, Riley also discusses the druids, curious offerings to the gods, curse tablets, Roman baths, and other archaeological findings. Of course, the tale of Hadrian’s Wall could make a book on its own, but the author has higher ambitions, and she achieves them in this successful evocation of “a journey to Britain in the Roman period.”
Great fun for anyone with even a slight knowledge of Roman and English history and geography—or those curious about them.