Inquiring into the deep sources of British identity.
A classicist and chief arts writer for the Guardian, Higgins (It's All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World, 2010, etc.) crafts a delightful, deeply informed recounting of her journeys across Britain in search of its ancient Roman past. Whenever the Romans landed—possibly in 55 B.C.E.—they encountered an Iron Age Celtic society of regional tribes living in settlements of thatched roundhouses. Although contemporary archaeologists imagine the Celts had developed a “sophisticated culture” with “a wealthy elite,” they were unable to resist Rome’s military invasion in 43 C.E. and subsequent encroachment throughout the land. Visiting museums, talking with researchers, and marshaling a prodigious number of memoirs, histories, and travel books, Higgins illuminates Roman presence in Kent and Essex, London and York, Norfolk and the Cotswolds. In Bath, costumed interpreters portray Romans as “friendly, unthreatening, familiar”; Higgins, though, wonders if “there were other stories that might be buried in the stones…stranger and more frightening ones,” stories suggested, for example, by curse tablets, thrown into Bath’s sacred waters, containing “appeals to the goddess of the spring to punish those who have done you wrong.” The author also chronicles her walk along Hadrian’s Wall, built in 122 C.E. and extending 74 miles. “This wall in the wilds of northern Britannia divides nowhere from nowhere,” she observes. Although some archaeologists thought the wall marked the northernmost Roman habitation, recent discoveries show that the empire extended into Scotland. Roman rule ended around 408 C.E.; scholars disagree about the causes and also about the extent to which Britons were “Romanized.” Some argue that “the Roman-ness of Britain was at best a thin veneer,” and others question whether Rome’s “vulnerable military” encountered fierce guerrilla resistance. Unresolved, too, are questions about the spread of Christianity under the Romans. An appendix offers a guide for visiting Roman remains throughout Britain.
A thoroughly researched, elegantly written history.