by Peter Salway
OUP (2nd edn, 2015) p/b 122pp £7.99 (ISBN 9780198712169)
This book is a concise, clear and readable history of Roman Britain across four centuries. It is ideal for the general reader, including one who comes to the subject with no previous knowledge.
The book is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 (‘The beginnings of British history’) covers the Iron Age and Caesar’s invasions. Chapter 2 (‘The Roman conquest’) takes the reader from Claudius’ invasion in AD 43 through to the late third century. This is the longest chapter. It includes Boudicca’s revolt; the subsequent reconstruction of the province; the Hadrianic revival; the construction of the Antonine Wall followed by the retreat from Scotland; the reign of Severus and the division of Britain into separate provinces by his successors; the curious saga of the Gallic Empire. The chapter also covers social issues, such as urban development, life in the countryside, the villa culture and the mining industry. Although long, this chapter is orderly and each topic is well sign-posted. There are numerous helpful maps and illustrations.
Chapter 3 (‘Britain in the Late Empire’) tells the story from Diocletian’s accession through to the reign of Theodosius. The period between the late 3rd C and 4th C was one of momentous change both for the British provinces and for the Empire as a whole. This chapter gives a clear account of the reforms under Diocletian and Constantine. Chapter 4 (‘The end of Roman rule’) covers the fifth century. It deals with the ‘Brexit’ in AD 409, about which tantalisingly little is known, and also with the period after Britain had left the Empire.
The history of Britain in the first five centuries AD is far from straightforward. The volume of available information is vast and is expanding every year. Salway succeeds in packing a surprising amount of detail into his narrative, without ever becoming boring or confusing. Not every historian achieves that feat.
Although the book is intended to serve as an introduction for the novice, it is much more than just a ‘Noddy guide’. Salway is a distinguished scholar in the field and the author of a 550 page history of Roman Britain (OUP, 2001), which is widely regarded as a classic. Even in this slim paperback, Salway finds space to discuss several controversial issues, such as why town walls were built so early in Britain and the extent to which Christianity was adopted in the fourth century. It is questionable whether the famous mosaic at Hinton St Mary is a depiction of Christ, as Salway confidently asserts (see Susan Pearce, ‘The Hinton St Mary mosaic pavement: Christ or Emperor’, Britannia 39 (2009) 193-218). But even where one disagrees with Salway’s views, they are always stimulating. I particularly enjoyed his analysis of economic conditions in the late 3rd C and his discussion of the theory that there was a ‘flight of capital’ from Gaul to Britain during that period.
This book does not take long to read. One summer afternoon sitting in the garden should suffice. Yet it has much to offer both the general reader and the expert.
Rupert Jackson—Court of Appeal