How are we to get a handle on Roman Britain? Traditionally, the answer has been to construct a skeleton chronology using surviving snippets of information in the ancient literature, and then flesh it out with archaeological evidence. This tried-and-tested technique has produced numerous successful biographies of Britannia, but it places great weight on the views of remote elites. The prominence of structures such as villas, towns, and forts also aids an appreciation of the ‘Roman’ side of the narrative.
Richard Reece, who this volume is dedicated to, once likened the resulting impression of Roman Britain to a ‘nice sand pit’, rather than the ‘wild overgrown garden’ he envisioned. Fresh insights over recent decades are allowing wider perspectives. Developer-funded archaeology has, among many other contributions, balanced out the villas with numerous examples of the more modest farmsteads occupied by ‘ordinary’ folk. Alongside this, the use of artefacts to tease out how people lived their lives, and harnessing theoretical models to interrogate different groups or ‘communities’ opened fruitful avenues of exploration. The remarkable corpus of documents written by people living in Roman Britain that has accumulated since the 1970s also offers a more bottom-up view of the province.
This handbook fully embraces the potential. After summarising the familiar historical accounts, it launches into 41 fascinating chapters authored by a winning mixture of established and early career scholars, who introduce aspects of life in Roman Britain and its historiography. These include topics that rarely receive more than a cameo in general accounts of Roman Britain, such as medicine, metalworking, animal husbandry, and horticulture. Staple subjects such as urbanism and the military are approached in fresh ways, while assessments of inward and outward migration, life in the shadow of Walls, and the significance of longdistance networks provide reminders of how relevant Roman Britain remains to modern discourse.
Foregrounding the archaeology in this way reveals a fascinating, complex world evocative of Reece’s ‘overgrown garden’. This compendium is essential reading for anyone willing to take a walk on the wild side of Roman Britain.
This review was published in CA 323.