Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Richard Hobbs, Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain: Life at the Edge of Empire. London: The British Museum Press, 2010. Pp. 160. ISBN 9780714150611. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Stacey L. McGowen, University of Oxford (stacey.mcgowen@arch.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Over the last century, there has been no shortage of general interest books about Roman Britain, and at first glance at the title, this book appears to be just another. It is, however, a little gem of a book, especially given the relatively reasonable price. The authors are joint curators of the Romano-British collections at the British Museum, and the central focus of their publication is this collection. The authors take the opportunity to discuss a diverse group of objects, most of the finest examples of Romano-British art, which come from a variety of contexts. The focus on the British Museum's collection does lead to a few omissions, for example, the tombstone of Marcus Favonius Facilis or the sculptures from the sanctuary of Sulis Minerva at Bath, but these famous works and a few others are well-covered in other publications. Overall the selection of objects is outstanding for its variety and quality and includes many which might be easily overlooked.

With regard to content, there is nothing much new presented in the way of arguments about Roman Britain. The topics of the chapters offer fairly standard fare on the subject. Following the introductory chapter, the first and last chapters are chronological in presentation, with the former discussing pre-Roman Britain and the latter Britain after the fall. The other chapters are thematic, with topics ranging from the conquest and the army to life in the city and country to trade and religion. Chapter 5, entitled "Language and Literacy", with particular emphasis on the Vindolanda Tablets, which also appear in the chapter about trade, is particularly interesting, as is the small but frequent mention of the Roman navy's role in Britain, a topic not often covered in introductory books about Roman Britain.

Each chapter begins with a brief excerpt from an ancient source, literary or non-literary, relevant to the chapter's theme. For example, Chapter 2 on pre-Roman Britain begins with Diodorus Siculus' assessment of the pre-Roman inhabitants of the island, and Chapter 5 opens with Tacitus' account of Agricola's methods in bringing Latin to the Britons. Chapter 8, which discusses religious life, begins with a translation of a dedication to Silvanus, an unusual choice as Silvanus has nothing in particular to do with Britain. Perhaps a stronger one might have been something from Coventina's Well in Carraburgh or the sanctuary of Sulis Minerva at Bath, both of which are much more expressions of Romano-British religion rather than simply Roman religion in general. Also, the choice of Seneca to open Chapter 7 on town and country living is a bit odd because it is the only one of the selections with no apparent connection to Roman Britain at all. These textual sources do, however, give the reader a good introduction to the types of ancient textual evidence that survives on the topic of Britain.

The focus of each of the chapters is, however, the objects themselves, and the text unfolds largely around them. Many of the selections are fantastic little objects that do not receive much attention elsewhere, if any at all. For example, on p. 42 is a second-century souvenir bowl from Hadrian's Wall, and on p. 52 is a bronze figurine of a North African Moorish cavalryman. Within each chapter is a two-page spread entitled "In Focus" that brings together several objects on a similar theme or presents multiple objects from the same context. It is valuable to see many of the pieces from the so-called Jeweller's Kit from Snettisham (p. 94-95) as well as the hoard from Water Newton (p. 136-137) together, as you would in the museum but are unable to in any other text (to my knowledge). A third example involves cavalry sports equipment (including the Ribchester Helmet), a topic infrequently discussed in other texts on Roman Britain, much less illustrated to this extent.

Although the number of books aimed at general audiences about Roman Britain overall is high, particularly when compared those concerning other Roman provinces, even the European ones, the number of works on the topic of Romano-British art is relatively small. Martin Henig's The Art of Roman Britain remains the standard text,1 and certainly Hobbs and Jackson's book will not supplant it. But what really sets their publication apart are the illustrations. Although a short book of only 160 pages, it has 125 color illustrations with more than thirty full-page images. Moreover, the images are a mix of general views and top-quality details. For example, on p. 92 appears an image of pair of leather shoes from Southfleet together with a close-up of the stitching.

The book has no footnotes or endnotes, as is customary for a work aimed at a general audience, and in spite of the number and quality of the images, it does not have a list of illustrationss. This proves somewhat problematic because it is not entirely clear which of the objects depicted are currently held in the British Museum (the text on the cover flap says that the illustrations are "mainly drawn from the British Museum's world-class collection"). More importantly, it is impossible to know where they are currently held, if not by the British Museum. Though the captions for the images are generally substantial and informative, sometimes this sort of detail is lacking here as well. For example, on p. 93 is a beautiful image of a soldier's shoe and a hob-nailed shoe, but the caption gives no indication of where or in what contexts these objects were discovered. These sorts of omissions are, however, infrequent.

One curious choice of image is that of the famous floor mosaic from Hinton St. Mary, the central tondo of which may be one of the earliest images of Christ. The tondo was, however, only a small part of a large mosaic, including not only decorative patterning but also additional figural scenes, such Bellerophon slaying the Chimera. In 1997, the mosaic was removed from display in the Museum, and since then, somewhat controversially, only the central tondo has been exhibited. Likewise, it is only the tondo that is depicted in the book. As already noted, one of the high points of the book is that it provides excellent images, both wide-shots and details, and this would seem to be the perfect opportunity for such a presentation – why not present the mosaic in full as well as the detail of the important central figure, especially if one is unable to view the entire piece in the museum.

Because of the nature of this book and its intended audience, some of the more complex topics concerning provincial life and art have been simplified. As a specialist in the field, I take issue with a few choices of terminology and phraseology. For example, on p. 19, the term Romanization is placed in inverted commas, but the authors give no indication why the term might be controversial and thereby require such punctuation. Similarly, on p. 124-5, a group of bronze figurines of deities from Southbroom are discussed in the context of Roman-British religion and are said to be of a "'native' style". Again inverted commas are used, with no indication of the features or attributes that contribute to the designation or why the designation might be debateable. These are, however, only minor quibbles with what is an excellent introduction for the general reader to the Romano-British collections in the British Museum, specifically, as well as the topic in general.


1.   Henig, M. 1995. The Art of Roman Britain. London: Batsford.

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