A relief from a pediment to a temple in Bath, England, thought to show a gorgon’s head, late first century CE

Roman Baths Museum, Bath/Bridgeman Images

A relief from a pediment to a temple in Bath, England, thought to show a gorgon’s head, late first century CE

Sometime around 90 CE, a young slave girl by the name of Fortunata (“Lucky”) was sold in London by her owner, Albicianus. Originally from northern Gaul, guaranteed to be of good health and not liable to abscond, she was bought by one Vegetus for the hefty sum of six hundred Roman denarii, or about twice the annual salary of a legionary soldier.

Vegetus was a slightly unusual purchaser: for he was also a slave, the property of yet another slave, Montanus, who was owned by the Roman emperor himself. Fortunata, in other words, ended up the slave, of a slave, of a slave of (very likely) the emperor Domitian—as is all carefully spelled out in eleven lines of the surviving sale contract, composed in technical legal Latin, and originally inscribed on wax spread over a tablet of fir wood (the wax has mostly disappeared, but the traces of the stylus can still be made out in the wood). This tablet, preserved in the damp conditions caused by an underground stream, was dug up in 1994 during excavations on a building site in the financial heart of the modern city of London.

As a notable recent find, it features in each of the three books under review. For Guy de la Bédoyère in The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Fortunata is a good example of immigration into the province; for Bronwen Riley in The Edge of the Empire, the sale price shows just how wealthy slaves attached to the emperor could be. Charlotte Higgins in Under Another Sky reflects somewhat ruefully on the fact that the location of the find is now entirely concealed by one of London’s most controversial new buildings, James Stirling’s huge office and commercial development (a “postmodern ark” in Higgins’s words), known still by the quaintly medieval name of “No. 1 Poultry.”

But the most important point about this document is just how ordinary it is in Roman terms. It is true that the pattern of slave ownership we see here might have seemed more complicated than normal, even to Roman eyes. But for the most part, the sale contract, the people involved, and the story behind it give us a glimpse of London less than fifty years after the Roman invasion of 43 CE, functioning like a Roman provincial capital anywhere in the empire. Vegetus and his owner Montanus were almost certainly office workers in the Roman administration, partly staffed—as it often was—by the emperor’s slaves. The trade in human goods was being regulated according to the provisions of Roman law: the phrases used in the contract come straight from ancient legal handbooks, and the first editor of the contract’s text found them, word for word, in other contracts preserved across the Roman world, from the Bay of Naples to Syria and modern Romania. Even the physical construction of the tablet, a single sheet of waxed wood, bound up between two others, then tied and sealed for security purposes, follows the standard pattern found in any Roman office or archive anywhere. It is a classic symbol of Roman “business as usual.”

This sale contract is just one of many everyday Roman documents that have recently been discovered in Britain, well over two thousand in the last forty years or so, including the contracts and correspondence, lists, and forms that are the remains of ancient filing cabinets and wastepaper baskets. Some of these preserve their message on durable material, such as pottery or metal. Hundreds of curses, for example, scratched on small scraps of lead have been found, thrown into a spring, in Roman Aquae Sulis (the modern city of Bath), a pagan sanctuary-cum-spa in the south of the province, where both Romans and locals called down the wrath of the gods, in sometimes lurid detail, on personal enemies and minor wrongdoers. Street crime and petty theft, particularly of cloaks, is what prompted most of them: “Do not allow sleep or health to whoever stole my bathing tunic and cloak until he confesses and brings them to the temple,” as one of the milder specimens runs.

But many are like the tablet from London, originally written in wax and scratched into wood. In fact the combination of the British damp, which preserves such organic material almost as well as the arid sands of Egypt, and the increasingly sensitive methods of digital imaging, which can help to decipher the faintest traces of writing, means that the most remote province has recently produced more “new” Latin documents than anywhere else in the Roman Empire.

A wonderfully revealing collection has been found three hundred miles to the north of Bath, at Vindolanda, a small fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall. These documents give a vivid glimpse of life on a Roman army base in the late first and early second century CE, and so caught the popular imagination that in 2003 they were voted the “Number One British Treasure” in the British Museum in a BBC poll, ahead of more likely winners such as the precious contents of the seventh-century ship buried at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia. They include occasional references to military operations against the locals (the Brittunculi, or “Little Brits,” as one of the documents calls them, with perhaps false bravado).

But mostly we find a world of form-filling, low-level inconvenience and domesticity. One letter records a delivery of sandals, socks, and underpants to someone serving on the base. Another document is a register of soldiers present and absent, and a record of their physical condition: over half on this occasion (May 18 in some year in the 90s CE) were on duties elsewhere, whether guarding the provincial governor or seconded to office work or to service in a neighboring camp; of those unfit for duty, more were suffering from eye infections than from wounds.

And most surprising of all, given the standard modern image of a Roman barracks, there is clear evidence that women and children were resident on the base too. (In fact much the same is true of Vindobona, the Roman army camp that came to be Vienna.) In this case, other archaeological remains confirm what we learn from the written documents. In addition to a surviving birthday party invitation sent from one army wife on the northern frontier to another (which includes what must be the earliest known specimen of the handwriting of any Roman woman anywhere), the excavations at Vindolanda have turned up plenty of women’s and children’s leather shoes, and one recent macabre discovery has been the skeleton of a child, aged around ten, buried—hastily it appears—just under one of the barrack room floors.

De la Bédoyère is too confident in his assumption that the body was female, and in his dark hints about child abuse. But it is clear that he or she was, like Fortunata, an immigrant (analysis of chemical traces in the teeth suggests that the child came from southern Europe or North Africa), and very likely a murder victim: as well as the unorthodox burial place, there are signs of a blow to the head and that the hands were tied. These military bases were the home not just to the soldiers, but to happy—and unhappy—families too.

This is all a striking contrast to the usual image of Britain in Roman literature as a wild place, almost more remote than you could imagine from the “civilized” center of the Roman world (ultimus, or “very far away,” is the favorite adjective of Latin writers for Britain and the Britons). After the raids of Julius Caesar along the south coast in the mid-50s BCE, the conquest proper was a vanity project of the emperor Claudius in 43 CE, who was anxious for a conspicuous military victory to secure his claim to the Roman throne. It was in some ways a dreadful waste of money. A few decades earlier, the geographer Strabo had calculated, in a rare ancient moment of economic rationality, that Britain would cost more to hold than it would raise in revenue; and modern scholars have often treated the northern frontier as Rome’s Afghanistan, eating up human and financial resources with almost no hope of permanent military success. But it was partly the sheer weirdness of the place—lying on the other side of the “Ocean” (better known to us as the English Channel) that bounded the civilized world—that made victory there such a propaganda coup.

For Romans, the journey to the new province was more like space travel than mundane territorial expansion. Strabo again, in a less rational moment, wrote of the native Britons as an entirely different species of humanity, huge in stature (though bandy-legged), living in a climate of constant rain and fog, with only a few hours of sunshine even on clear days, and dangerously close to the cannibals said to inhabit Ireland. Other writers referred to their extreme longevity (120 years was just the beginning of old age for Britons), their tattoos serving as clothes, their sharing of wives, and the extraordinary geography of their natural habitat, where even the seas were thick and sluggish. Only a few Roman mavericks turned all this on its head, to wonder whether the Britons, untainted by the corruption of so-called “civilization,” might perhaps have preserved some of the hardy virtues that the Romans themselves had long lost.

The question is how to put these very different images of Britain and the Britons together. In particular, how do we incorporate all those little glimpses of normal everyday life in the province that have turned up in recent discoveries into the big picture of Roman Britain—whether it is seen as an exotic place almost off the Roman map, a constant killing field, or (as some more recent writers have claimed) a failed experiment in imperial expansion that left the vast majority of the inhabitants of the islands largely untouched and unbothered by the hand of Rome?

As his title—The Real Lives of Roman Britain—suggests, de la Bédoyère attempts to root his account of the province in the stories of real people, mostly far below the level of the governors, legionary commanders, or native kings, that can be drawn out of many of the new (and some older) discoveries. It is a brave attempt. As a short history of Roman Britain, unencumbered by the apparatus of too much military history, it is one of the best available, both up-to-date and refreshingly skeptical.

De la Bédoyère is realistic, for example, about the limited success of the new Roman towns in the province (“it remains a real possibility that the civic organizations of some Romano-British towns were little more than shams”), on the glamorized rebel queen Boudica who massacred a large number of Roman soldiers in the early 60s CE (she had “nothing obvious to offer…beyond chaos [and] destruction”), and on the so-called Roman palace at Fishbourne, by the south coast near Portsmouth. This large Italian-style residence, excavated in the 1960s, is now a major tourist attraction and has often been elaborately overinterpreted as the grand, grace-and-favor home of the British king, Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, who features briefly as a useful collaborator with the invading Romans in Tacitus’s biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, governor of Britain in the late first century CE. There is no good reason for this connection with the British king at all, beyond the temptation to put together a famous name with links to the area and a large building looking for an owner. Rather more likely, as de la Bédoyère sensibly suggests, it was built as the country base of the Roman provincial governors, complete with Italian home comforts.

But the book also makes clear just how intractable for the historian many of the new documents are: they are wonderfully vivid snapshots of individual “moments” in the life of the province, but—apart from some important new insights into the organization of army camps on the frontier—they are almost impossible to join together into any story on a larger scale. For the most part the names we read are just names, they have no life beyond the documents concerned, they are impossible to flesh out, let alone identify, and they often have only an approximate date. In short, they open up no trail that we can follow any further.

These are not new problems. It has long been debated whether the “Verica” who appears on coins in Britain just before the Roman invasion is the same as the pro-Roman “Berikos” who, according to the historian Dio Cassius, was thrown out of Britain in a coup, fled to Rome, and provided an alibi for Claudius’s expedition in 43 CE. King “Togidubnus” is confusingly indistinguishable from a “Cogidubnus” (probably the same person in different spellings—the king himself, after all, is unlikely to have had any better idea of how to spell his name than we do). The slave-buyer Vegetus has proved just as elusive. One possibility is that he is identical with a man who is the addressee of a very fragmentary letter in the Vindolanda tablets, by the name of Marcus Cocceius Vegetus.

If so, we could begin to infer something about his later career: that he was freed from slavery by the emperor Marcus Cocceius Nerva (who ruled from 96 to 98 CE, and from whom Vegetus would have taken his new names); and that, in his new status, he remained for some years working in the imperial administration in Britain, with or without Fortunata. But the truth is that a close look at the fragmentary letter in question shows that only the “V” of the supposed “Vegetus” is clearly legible. No more than abraded traces follow—and, if anything, they are more plausibly read as “Velox” than “Vegetus.” It is a very long shot indeed to imagine that this is our man.

De la Bédoyère does not indulge in any such flights of fantasy (his insinuations about child abuse in the barracks are a rare exception). And he is careful to be honest about just how tricky the interpretation of some of this material is. In the process one of the most intriguing Romano-British characters, who has often provided light relief in the military narrative of the province, actually disappears. This is a man by the name of Austalis, whose strange habits at work appear to be recorded on a tile discovered in London in the late nineteenth century. When the tile was still wet, scratched into it in Latin were the words: “Austalis has been wandering off by himself every day for the past thirteen.” As a student, I was taught to treat this as a precious glimpse into the working culture of a Romano-British tile factory, an example of laddish repartee at the expense of a fellow worker with a problem, or (as Bronwen Riley puts it) “an in-joke passed around the yard for Austalis’s mates to snigger at.”

But it is not quite so simple. Riley shrugs off the fact that these words are written in verse (“a breezy rhyming couplet”). De la Bédoyère rightly insists that, more than just a jolly bit of doggerel, the Latin here obeys the strict metrical rules of verse composition. If we want to hang on to the usual story, we have to accept that these were extraordinarily well-educated tile-workers; more likely, as he admits, the words are a quote from a popular poem or a song, and nothing to do with a disgruntled workmate at all.

A mosaic of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, from the Roman fortress site at Aldborough near Leeds, circa 300 CE

Leeds City Museum, Leeds, England/Bridgeman Images

A mosaic of the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, from the Roman fortress site at Aldborough near Leeds, circa 300 CE

This caution is all very proper, and it is in many ways what makes The Real Lives of Roman Britain such a reliable handbook. But almost inevitably it also means that, despite his hopes of capturing the “human experience” of Roman Britain across a wider canvas, we end up with a very engaging series of disconnected glimpses of that experience, but little more. There is no frame, whether Roman or native, into which these glimpses can be made to fit, or to become more than the sum of their parts. And it is precisely for that reason—to provide a connecting narrative for understanding life in the province, albeit from an elite Roman point of view—that Riley in The Edge of the Empire opts for a lightly fictionalized account. Her book focuses on one known governor of Britain, Sextus Julius Severus, appointed by the emperor Hadrian around 130 CE, and reimagines his experiences as he travels from Rome and embarks on his first tour of inspection of the province.

Whether newly arrived governors really did take the trouble to go on such fact-finding expeditions, we do not know. But it is an ingenious idea and in some respects the conceit of the travelogue works very well. The date is a good one to choose. As Riley explains, Britain had by then been a province for almost a hundred years and there were plenty of towns, forts, and monuments for Severus to visit. He drops in at Aquae Sulis, where we are treated to a lively discussion of crime waves and cursing; he stops over at Vindolanda, where some of the supply documents among the tablets suggest the likely menu, including chicken and wine, that would have been put in front of any new governor; and he inspects the “Aelian Frontier,” which, to judge from another new snatch of Latin, inscribed on a metal cup (the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan) found in 2003, was the Roman name for Hadrian’s Wall—that is, Vallum Aelium, from Hadrian’s family name of Aelius.

The fictional form is also useful for raising some of those questions that often slip through the cracks of conventional provincial histories: from the language of interaction between the Roman authorities and the locals (how much Latin did how many Britons know?) to the problems of travel. How long, for example, did it take a governor to reach this “very far away” province beyond the Ocean? With all the advantages of official transport, Riley calculates that it was still “three weeks or more” from the port of Rome, across the sea to the south of France, then by land to the Channel. She has a good eye for the perils of the journey even for the top brass (hijackers were more of a danger than traffic accidents) but she lets Roman exploitation off rather lightly.

The “official transport” of the Roman empire was not a fleet of publicly owned vehicles. It was a system of what we would call “permits,” which gave the bearer the right to demand, from the provincial communities through which he passed, the use of animals and carts for very limited compensation. It was one of the biggest grievances of the provincials against the Roman authorities, and passing around permits as a favor to friends and family was one of the most notorious Roman “expense scandals.” Even the self-consciously upright Pliny, as governor of Bithynia (now northwestern Turkey), gave a permit to his wife to travel back to Rome. Riley observes that Pliny “scrupulously asked special permission” from the emperor. True, but that was only after his wife had already set out with the permit in her hand.

Yet fiction has its drawbacks too. It is partly that information about the basic institutional structures of Roman provincial government is sometimes awkwardly, and not always wholly accurately, inserted into the story (the technical difference between “senatorial provinces” and “imperial provinces” looms rather mysteriously in places). More important is the problem of constructing a vivid narrative when the direct evidence from Britain itself is so patchy. Riley’s answer is to plug the gaps with evidence from elsewhere in the empire: the gladiators at Caerleon in South Wales are brought to life with the help of the poetry of Juvenal and graffiti from Pompeii; the dangers of sea travel are filled out with a dramatic description of a shipwreck from the novel of Achilles Tatius, written sometime in the second century CE, somewhere in the Greek world.

This may be the best thing to do, and indeed the very ordinary form and style of Vegetus’s sale contract suggests that some things were very much the same the Roman world over. Nonetheless—even though she points to the occasional idiosyncrasy (such as one type of “personal grooming set,” including ear scoops, found only in Britain)—completing the jigsaw puzzle in this way tends to erode whatever “weirdness” Roman Britain had and replace it with a less specific, generic “Romanness.”

If Riley’s travelogue is an artful combination of history, archaeology, and the imagination, Charlotte Higgins in Under Another Sky describes real journeys around Roman Britain: her own, on foot and in an elderly camper-van, over several summers a few years ago. She has a good grip on all the recent discoveries from the province, and shows her gift for narrative on the curse tablets from Aquae Sulis and on the letters and lists from Vindolanda—confessing to a lump in the throat as she craned into the case in the British Museum to glimpse the famous birthday party invitation (“I read the words over and over again, and thought of the lost life of the woman who wrote them”). But as that glimpse of emotion hints, she is more interested in the impact of the history of the Roman province on modern Britons, and in the enduring place of Roman Britain in modern British cultural and intellectual life.

Many of us are introduced to a sense of history by reading about our Roman past or by visiting our local Roman sites. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth (1954), a story of a son’s search for his father’s lost legion in the north, is still a children’s favorite, despite its Boy’s Own Paper feel; and the first illustration in The Real Lives of Roman Britain is a photograph of the five-year-old author crouching at the edge of an archaeological trench at Fishbourne. Many, like de la Bédoyère, retain their interests in Roman Britain for life, in different ways. W.H. Auden, in his thirties, was writing plays and poetry about Hadrian’s Wall. (In a minor literary coup, Higgins publishes the newly rediscovered original musical score to Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues”—“Over the heather the wet wind blows/I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose,” and so on.) And it tends to be forgotten that R.G. Collingwood, author of The Idea of History and one of the twentieth century’s most influential historical theorists, had a second string to his academic bow: he spent his summers tramping round Britain on the hunt for Roman inscriptions and he was one of the editors of the major compendium of these texts, the hefty Roman Inscriptions of Britain.

For Higgins, the conflicting images of Roman Britain and the clash between the weird and the ordinary are not the problems they are for more conventional historians; they are part of the point and they underlie the rich imaginative tradition about the province among the distant and very mixed descendants of the Romano-British population. When we look back to Roman history we can never quite make up our minds whose side we are on: Do we root for the British underdogs or the Roman conquerors? Are we with the discontented squaddie marching along the wall or with the native freedom fighters? Do we think of our distant selves as an exotic and marginal trouble spot or as an integral part of a proto-European polity?

Those ambivalences are never more glaring, or revealing, than with Boudica (or Boadicea as the Romans called her), the rebel queen who destroyed much of the Roman infrastructure of the new province in the early 60s CE. De la Bédoyère goes against one powerful British view in casting her more as a violent nuisance than a British heroine. Higgins tracks the modern image of the queen down to some unlikely places and to some strange messages. In the town of Colchester, which—as Roman Camolodunum—was once torched and viciously destroyed by Boudica, she comes across a new school with the name Queen Boudica Primary (“this bloody queen had been adopted as a secular saint, feminist role model and an example to the young,” she reflects, in much the same spirit as de la Bédoyère).

In London Higgins wonders at the splendid bronze statue of the queen and her daughters in their murderously scythed chariot, sadly now rather litter-strewn and neglected, even though it stands on the very doorsteps of the Houses of Parliament. Finally erected in 1902 after decades of planning, the statue not only aligns the native rebel with Queen Victoria herself (the name “Boudica” is said to mean “victory”), but it also turns her into an ancestor of the British Empire. The few lines of verse by William Cowper attached to the plinth, as if addressing Boudica, make the point explicitly: “Regions Caesar never knew,” they begin, “Thy posterity shall sway.” The tortuous and self-serving cultural logic here, celebrating the opponent of Roman imperial control with the promise of imperial dominance over even vaster territory, is part of what gives this image its paradoxical appeal.

For Higgins, even the mundane sale contract of Vegetus raises similarly ambivalent connections between the British present and the Roman past. As she points to the vast postmodern pile of James Stirling now standing where the document was uncovered in London’s financial district, she is reminding us both of the gap between this remote outpost of Roman power and the brash modern metropolis, and of their continuities in commercial practice, contracts, and exploitation. And she is prompting us to wonder, whose side are we on? Vegetus’s or Fortunata’s?



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