ROMAN REFLECTIONS: Iron Age to Viking Age in Northern Europe

by Klavs Randsborg

Bloomsbury Academic (2015) h/b 192pp £44.99 (ISBN: 9781472579539)

This short volume consists of five essays that shed new light on a selection of topics related to Iron Age and Viking Age Northern Europe. The studies invite debate about the relationship between the Romans and their northern neighbours through an interdisciplinary look at a choice of open arguments: the possible interpretations of Bog Bodies, the question of the culture and location of the Cimbri, the value and reliability of the ethnographical information in Tacitus’ Germania, the unclear provenance of northern place and peoples’ names, and the origins and advance of the Danes.

R. is at his most convincing when he analyses the latest archaeological evidence with the support of classical texts to open new paths for investigation. For example, his hypothesis of the bog bodies as killed hostages is not only supported with a wealth of evidence but also presented in a thrilling and captivating manner. On the other hand, his etymological explanations for ethnonyms and toponyms in Northern Europe, which he considers to be largely a Roman invention, may not convince those familiar with Indo-European and, indeed, Germanic linguistics. These two disciplines are not fully taken into account, and most etymological explanations are based on phonetic similarities. For instance, he concludes that ‘Scandinavia’ stems from the Latin ‘scandare navem’ [sic] and that this exonym was later on assimilated by the locals. Nevertheless, such suggestions have the merit of advancing the debate through unconventional yet, arguably, not entirely implausible explanations.

R engages archaeology, literature, anthropology and linguistics to reassess the shaping influence the Romans had on the peoples of the North. In some ways, this ambitious scope means that not all arguments are explored in depth; still, any losses in detail are compensated by means of a vivid and enticing overview. Overall, the organisation of information, with thematic overlaps between chapters, means that each section can be read and understood separately; however, the volume as a whole presents an inviting introduction not only to the diachronic study of the peoples of the North from the Iron Age to the end of the first millennium AD, but also to the challenges and opportunities facing modern archaeology.

This volume has been conceived with students and scholars in mind, and each chapter is fully referenced and accompanied by a comprehensive bibliography. The content is also accessible for the general reader with an interest in history and archaeology; however, most primary sources quoted appear only in the original language. Thus, runes are transliterated but not translated, and large passages of Latin authors are quoted only in the original. However, the translations are widely available and non-specialists will be pleased to dive into this eye-opening and thought-provoking volume.

Ana Martin—Northwood College for Girls GDST

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