The Real Lives of Roman Britain

The Real Lives of Roman Britain
Guy de la Bédoyère
Yale University Press 241pp £20

Guy de la Bédoyère brings Roman Britain back to life through an engrossing study of those many individuals whose lives may escape the grand narratives of historians but leave their trace in the archaeological record. Working expertly with inscriptions, writing tablets, treasure hordes, mosaics and votive offerings, he recounts with style and originality the history of the Roman occupation of the empire’s most northerly province.

From Cassivellaunus, Mandubracius and the tribesmen who witnessed Caesar’s 54 bc invasion of Britain to those holy men such as Pelagius and St Patrick who came to distinction around the time of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain in ad 410, de la Bédoyère takes real lives and builds his story. In a singularly elegant structure, he combines an outline narrative history with case studies investigating the experience of centurions to scholars, craftsmen to criminals. The evidence for these lives survives in a variety of ways. 

The correspondence of two wives of legionary officers, Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina, is recorded on a wooden writing tablet excavated at Vindolanda, a fort established in northern Britain long before Hadrian’s wall. Claudia is arranging a birthday party and hopes that Sulpicia can attend. Demetrius, a Greek scholar serving under the famous Agricola, travelled as far as the Hebrides and left dedicatory offerings to Tethys and Ocean in the legionary fortress at York. Barates, a Syrian, made it to South Shields, where he set up an epitaph for his wife Regina in a mixture of Latin and Aramaic. Such remarkable peregrinations from one end of the empire to the other are mirrored in many tales of travel through military service, capture and commerce.

De la Bédoyère is particularly interested in the cocktail of different ethnic and religious identities that any one resident of Roman Britain could enjoy. Different parts of the same name may suggest native British heritage and newly acquired Roman identity. It is also striking to see some of the famous names of Latin literature turn up on inscriptions. Much fun is had wondering whether the Junius Juvenalis who led forces in Britain in the early second century ad could be the satirist Decimus Junius Juvenalis, or what could connect Aulus Cluentius Habitus, who commanded a cohort of Batavians at Carrawburgh, with the rogue of the same name whom Cicero had defended two centuries earlier. 

Some of the most charming figures in this book have no recorded name at all. One is the hapless Aldgate-Pulborough potter, whose efforts did for Samian ware what McGonagall did for poetry. No less incompetent is the Croughton mosaicist, unable to get his measurements right, or his professional rival at Rudston, whose Venus is some way short of an ideal image of female beauty.

This is an imaginative and refreshing study. I enjoyed it enormously. 

Matthew Leigh is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week