All roads lead to...?

Charlotte Higgins' Under another sky is an enthralling account of the roads that the Romans built across Britain, and the legacy that their time in Britain has left to this country. It's a great piece of writing, and is as beautiful to read as is much of the country over which the famous roads pass (think especially Hadrian's Wall).

Underground car-park in London with Roman wall.
Higgins uncovers the bits of Roman Britain that are often forgotten about. Alongside well known places such as Bath and Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex, there are the largely forgotten places - a Roman wall in a London City car park, a gateway in Mid-Wales. The history of Roman towns in Britain is often quite surprising too. The Romans may have loved their grid-systems, but the Britons that were living alongside them, sometimes used the system and sometimes (in a thoroughly British way) just decided to do their own thing, leaving some towns with a strange mix of Iron Age round-houses and Roman structures, all living together at the same time.

There are some surprises too when it comes to the cultures and nationalities that were living together in Roman Britain. Britain today is a multicultural society, some people would like to believe that this is a recent phenomenon, but it appears that at least as early as Roman times there were people from all over the known world living here. A body discovered in York proved to be of an African woman, while troops from Syria and Germany marched along Hadrian's Wall. Trade, already achieving long distances in the pre-Roman era blossomed during the Roman period, with amber arriving from the Baltic, costly fragrances from the Near East and citrus fruits from Spain. Olives and other snacks that Waitrose lovers in the UK will happily munch on, were just as popular during the Roman period.

And the Romans in one sense never really left. There was no apparent mass exodus, there was no retreat as in the fall of Saigon, some troops left never to return, other Romans stayed and became British, while some Britons took on the trappings of Rome while never really becoming Roman.

Britannia subjugated - her very first appearance in art.
There are some surprising finds in this book. Not just what it is about Britain that owes its sense of Britishness to the Romans - (Britannia, for example, was a Roman invention, though not the confident Britannia of Arne's imaginings that we are most familiar with. Initially the Latin name of the island of Britain, it also made its first appearance as a woman in a sculpture at Aphrodisias - a subjugated woman following the Claudian invasion) - but also what the Romans truly did or didn't do for us as a nation.

Much to my surprise I discovered that despite many stories to the contrary, there is no temple to Minerva beneath St. Paul's Cathedral, for example.

In many ways I loved this book. I loved the language and pace of it, I loved the history, I loved the inspiration it provided for more places to visit in this wonderful island. But oddly I also found it to be a very fleeting read. It disappeared from my memory swiftly just leaving a shadow of what I had just read, rather like walking through a field on which a Roman villa once stood, with a vague sense that once there was so much, that is no more.


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