Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £20
The study of Roman Britain is always political, writes Charlotte Higgins. History is a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves and objective vision is impossible when it comes to the people who invaded us but also founded our capital city, who were our masters but provided the template for our imperial past. They came, saw and conquered us. Then they stayed, for as many years as separate the reign of Elizabeth I from the Blitz. We lived with them for 400 years. Do we now identify with the aggressors or the victims – or was it a useful mix? Were we slaves or a developing nation?
Selves and national identities are complicated and conflicted organisms: it’s hard to sort “I” from “other”, “ours” from “theirs”. The palace at Fishbourne was a Roman Downton Abbey, the epitome of luxury and glamour, and it was built 20 years after the conquest of Britain in 43AD. Its influence and economy must have permeated Roman Sussex for seven generations – enough time for Rome to get under everyone’s skin and into many Britons’ blood. The palace’s elaborate, geometric flower beds remind this nation of gardeners that our first grand gardens, like our first straight roads, came from Rome.
For these and many other reasons, Under Another Sky should be on every shelf in the UK. Part travelogue, part handbook and part revisionist history, it is a personal and vivid encounter with landscapes, artefacts and people. Higgins has a shrewd, enjoying eye for everything: a chunk of Roman wall in an underground car park; ferns rooting in the Roman mortar of an arch in the centre of Colchester; a new head of an Oxford college, sitting in front of a file marked “Bureaucratic Crap”. She gives us the Britain of 212AD but also the Britain of 2012 – in which, since farming around Hadrian’s Wall collapsed after foot-and-mouth disease while 100,000 tourists visit Housesteads Fort every year, at least one local economy depends on Roman ruins.
Like a travel book, Under Another Sky is organised by region. Kent, Scotland, Norfolk, Essex, Wales – everywhere, she takes richfronded byways into literature and music as well as archaeology. In Cumbria, the artist W G Collingwood stumbles over what he thinks is a corpse. It turns out to be someone trying to write poetry: a young man called Arthur Ransome. Elgar wrote a cantata on Caractacus, “marinating himself” in the landscape of his hero’s defeat by Rome. At Wroxeter, once the fourth-largest city in Roman Britain, the poet and Latinist A E Housman, a rare visitor to Shropshire, wrote “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble”. Twenty years later, a real Shropshire lad called Wilfred Owen wrote an ode to the same ancient site: “I had forgot that so remote an age/Beyond the horizon of our little sight,/Is far from us by no more spanless gauge/Than day and night, succeeding day and night . . .”
Ever since Roman Britain was rediscovered, it has been interpreted through ideological filters. Writers in the 18th century saw their own cherished values as the unbroken heritage of Roman “civility”. For the Britons of the 1840s, their true forebears were the Anglo-Saxon originators of the nation, who could step forward only once the alien intruders left. That dream of ethnic purity is hard to give up. Not one of the frescoes commissioned to decorate the new Houses of Parliament showed a scene from Roman Britain. “In a building whose fabric was conceived as an expression of national virtues and history, Britain’s four centuries in the orbit of Rome were felt to have nothing to say,” Higgins writes. And now, in a Britain that has long lost its empire, ideas of our Roman past are “coloured by contemporary concerns about modern imperialism and warfare”.
Yet, as Higgins shows, Britain was written into history by Caesar and Tacitus; those “noble defeated rebels” Caractacus and Boudicca – the first dramatis personae of British history – are “entirely Roman creations”. We build on others’ images of ourselves. Britannia’s first visual representation is as a bedraggled figure pinned to the ground by the emperor Claudius: hardly the lavishly draped figure wielding a trident on the pennies of George V.
Under Another Sky is beautifully considered and written. Gold coins glitter beside their moulds in a Colchester museum, “like jam tarts sprung from a baking tin”. Higgins prises received ideas from their moulds and sets them up for us to examine. Roman Britain, she suggests, “will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite”. Perhaps she’ll do Norman Britain next. But in this era of ever cruder debate about immigration, would a study of French Britain leave no British Britain at all? After reading Higgins’s book, you wonder: who were we then, who have we been since and who are we now?
Ruth Padel’s latest book is “The Mara Crossing” (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)