Friday, April 15, 2016


Peter Salway, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction. Second edition (first published 1984). Very short introductions, 17. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 122. ISBN 9780198712169. $11.95.

Reviewed by Giacomo Savani, University of Leicester (

Version at BMCR home site


Peter Salway's book is a concise account of Britain over the five centuries of Roman influence and occupation, envisaged as a pocket guide for the general reader in keeping with the spirit of the Very Short Introduction series. It is divided into four chapters, followed by a useful chronology and a brief bibliographical essay. Few but carefully selected illustrations and eight maps, all extremely accurate and beneficial to the reader, are also included. Sporadic typos (mainly commas instead of full stops: 90; 98; 103) do not affect the general legibility and fluency of the text.

Chapter 1 ('The beginnings of British history') gives a synthetic overview of Late Iron Age Britain and outlines the background and implications of Caesar's invasions in 55 and 54 BCE. Chapter 2 ('The Roman conquest') constitutes almost half of the entire volume and covers broadly the first 250 years of Roman rule, from Claudius' invasion in 43 CE to the late 3rd century. As well as detailing all major historical events, this chapter touches on specific issues such as urban and rural development, religion, and military presence in Roman Britain. Chapter 3 ('Britain in the Late Empire') describes the great socio-economic and political changes that characterized the Roman world in the 4th century CE and their impact on Britain. Finally, Chapter 4 ('The end of Roman rule') briefly engages with the poorly understood phase of transition from the Roman withdrawal in the early 5th century to the advent of the Saxons.

Peter Salway is a well-established historian and his contribution to the understanding of Roman Britain is widely recognized (e.g. Wormald 1981 and Barrett 1994).1 In this volume, originally published in 2002, he was able to concentrate his outstanding knowledge of the topic into a readable and engaging text, as accessible to the non-specialist as it is stimulating for the scholar. This new, updated edition acknowledges recent scholarship and theory (in particular the concept of identity, see Mattingly 2004 and ; 20062), discusses new archaeological evidence (e.g. the variations in the character of settlement across different regions of the country, 46-50), and expands the account of the central period of the Roman occupation during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. The first and the third chapters provide a thought-provoking analysis of the early and final phases of Roman Britain, further reflecting the interests of the author in these two crucial periods. In these sections he offers concise but fascinating insight into specific issues such as the importance of personal cleanliness and grooming as a display of Roman identity during the 1st century CE (35-7) and the social implications of the architectonic complexity of 4th century villas (75-9).

Although as a whole the accuracy and reliability of Salway's work is indisputable, some details of his historical reconstruction might be challenged. At page 25, he states that Claudius' campaign in 43 CE 'was crowned by the submission of eleven British kings to the emperor (…)'. As already noted by Barrett (19943) in his review of Salway's The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain, this number is based on a 19th century restoration of a now missing inscription (Barrett 1991, 13-44) and should not be accepted unconditionally. Furthermore, in discussing the peculiar early date of urban defences in Roman Britain in comparison with other western provinces of the empire, Salway, while recognizing the lack of a specific crisis, supports the idea of an 'apprehension of barbarian incursion from outside and risings in the hills within the province' (57). This assumption fails to engage fully with the complexity of the issue and to acknowledge recent studies: as demonstrated by Simon Esmonde Cleary (2003, 79-845), urban status and civic pride may have played a far more crucial role than fear in the construction of earthwork defences and stone walls in Britain during the high empire. Oddly enough, only a few pages later Salway seems to be aware of a similar pursuit of civic prestige implied in the construction of walls around the cities of Gaul in the second half of the 3rd century CE (67-8). Finally, on a few occasions the author frustratingly avoids mention of the ancient sources he is referring to (12; 34; 37), using periphrases such as '[a] 5th-century AD Gallo-Roman aristocrat' (37), a poor practice even in a non-specialist volume such as this one.

Despite these minor inaccuracies, Salway's book is an extremely well-researched and at the same time approachable piece of work. The author admirably succeeds in condensing 400 years of Romano-British history into less than 110 pages, holding the reader's attention with frequent sociocultural and economic digressions. Moreover, his plain and engaging style make a complex and often problematic set of historical information accessible to the broader public.


1.   Wormald, P. 1981: 'Romanitas', London Review of Books Vol. 3, No. 21, 21-2. Barrett, A. A. 1994: 'Review of Peter Salway, The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain', BMCR 94.06.02.
2.   Mattingly, D. 2004: 'Being Roman: expressing identity in a provincial setting', Journal of Roman Archaeology 17, 5-25; Mattingly, D. 2006: An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, London: Penguin Books.
3.   Barrett, op. cit. (note 2).
4.   Barrett, A. A. 1991: 'Claudius' British Victory Arch in Rome', Britannia 22, 1-19.
5.   Esmonde Cleary, A. S. 2003: 'Civil defences in the West under the High Empire', in P. Wilson (ed.): The Archaeology of Roman Towns: Studies in Honour of John Wacher, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 72-85.

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