Saturday, 18 August 2018

Review: A Brief History of Roman Britain, by Joan P Alcock

I found this book, which covers the entire period (and a little before) of Roman Britain to be rather interesting. It’s split into distinct halves, the former being a chronological account of Roman Britain (with a chapter on Celtic tribes beforehand) and the latter consisting of chapters focusing on individual topics, such as religion.

In that way it’s something of a mixture of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Fall of Carthage and Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller mini-series.

The level of detail included is often very deep, particularly regarding food, and does help to put the reader in the shoes of, say, a 3rd century Briton, who might dislike the imported garum fish paste, love their new mosaic floor, and enjoy availing themselves of the public baths.

As the title indicates, the book is about Roman Britain, but to an extent it also functions as a microcosm of the rising and falling fate of the Western Empire more generally. Charting how the Empire won wars then won support from the Celtic leadership (and then lost it with greed and corruption, leading to Boudicca’s rebellion) is an interesting read but also functions as a template for how the Empire won over the people it had conquered. Similarly, declining resources partly due to increasingly frequent civil wars denuded the province(s) of military manpower, exposing them to barbarian attack and reducing economic activity as the well-paid soldiers left and suddenly merchants had lost a huge market. The benefits of city living through local bakers (removing the need to grind your own flour), baths et cetera was replaced by onerous burdens for local leaders (whose taxes and public duties increased as the Empire weakened), leading them to leave and reducing the urban population.

I was a little worried about the first chapter. It’s a little bit listy, not quite to the extent of The Iliad or the Bible, but thereafter the book’s much easier to read.

The writing style could be a little more fluid and little less matter of fact, but except for the first chapter on pre-Roman Celtic tribes, it’s a minor point.

There are one or two small errors that perhaps should’ve been caught. (I’m no longer a Grammar Nazi about this sort of thing, as some mistakes are almost certain in a full-sized book, but certain errors such as writing Julius rather than Julian can be a little confusing). There was also confusion over the name of Isis’ son (Hippocrates or Harpocrates, which might reflect a Greco-Roman divergence or simply be a homophonic typo).

However, those small quibbles apart, I found the book to be interesting, detailed (immensely so in some places), and enjoyable.


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