Saturday, November 30, 2013
For my third pre-Christmas book review: Roman Britain revisited...
Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky
Published by Jonathan Cape
In some ways, the Romans made Britain. Cities, roads, classical architecture, a Latinate hoard of words – it sometimes seems as if the Romans built the foundations of the country and framed the way in which we talk about it. And yet the evidence on the ground is fragmentary – no standing Roman buildings remain intact in Britain. We have to make do with the occasional bit of wall, the odd arch, coins and mosaics in museums. So what would happen if one travelled the country in search of the Romans? Charlotte Higgins's book Under Another Sky is one answer.
Travelling, often puttering along in an old Volkswagen camper van, from Kent to Scotland and back again, Higgins surveys Roman Britain. In doing so she describes the Roman set-pieces – Hadrian's Wall, Bath – and little known sites like Lydney Park with its Roman temple or Scotland's Kinneil House, where there is a Roman fortlet. Her descriptions are evocative, whether she is surveying Silchester with its air 'sickly-sharp with the scent of elderflower' or contemplating the modern creations one must encounter when searching for Roman Scotland, such as the oil refinery at Grangemouth, where 'Monstrous pipes vermiculated their way around structures made on no human scale'. On the way the author describes not just the remains but the people associated with them, and an incendiary lot they are, from queen Boudica to Britain's breakaway Roman emperor, Carausius.
Good as it is to read about these journeys through Roman Britain, the book comes yet more alive with the author's meditations on others' encounters with the country's Roman past. In its pages we meet the 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley, who advocated a study of Roman Britain as a kind of antidote to the grand tour, and his contemporary William Roy, who made meticulous plans of Scotland's Roman forts and the Antonine Wall. We read about the response to Rome of the members of the Scottish enlightenment and of the historian R G Collingwood. The excitement of discovery is brought to life in Higgins's meeting with the translators of the Vindolanda tablets. And then there are the literary responses to Roman Britain, from Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness and Rosemary Sutcliff (in The Eagle of the Ninth and all) with her sharp eye and retentive visual memory, to W H Auden and his radio play Hadrian's Wall. The treasure trove here is Benjamin Britten's song 'Roman Wall Blues', written for the play but thought lost until 2005, when a copy of the vocal line turned up. Colin Matthews has now written a piano part, and the song has been recorded.
Higgins also helps to make some of the complexity of Roman Britain clear. She devotes several pages to the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain, patiently explaining the clear evidence that people from Africa and Syria, for example, lived in Britain in the Roman period. She also describes the torrents of abuse unleashed when a tabloid newspaper referred to this diversity as 'Roman multiculturalism' and its readers lambasted the careful work of the archaeologists as 'neo-Marxist, multicultist [sic] propaganda'.
This book, of course, is always on the side of the evidence and its thoughtful interpretation. It contains vivid, sometimes haunting, descriptions of Roman remains and places, while never losing sight of the fact that archaeological evidence is sometimes ambiguous and difficult to make sense of. There is a wonderful story from 1904 about the scholar Edward Nicholson translating a faint inscription on a small lead tablet, but getting it completely wrong because he was holding the tablet upside-down. Amusing as this is, for Higgins it's a salutary tale about the whole business of interpreting Roman Britain. Look at the evidence one way and it seems to say one thing; turn it around and the message is utterly different. This is the story of all interpretation, and also its fascination.