Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain
“This was not the Rome I thought I knew.” Charlotte Higgins’ travels through Roman Britain, both on foot and in a rickety campervan, yield glorious descriptions of the present state of our Roman remains. There is a useful section on ‘Places to Visit’, but it is the fruits of her travels through libraries and museums that truly fascinate. This is a book about how we understand Roman Britain, and about the pioneers who led the way: explorers united in passion, if not in opinion. We meet the fraudster who filled gaps in the material with swathes of highly plausible ‘facts’ of his own invention, and a startling document that turned out to be much less startling when it was read the right way up. In passing we learn why the Pennines are so-called, and how a misprint in an edition of Tacitus led to the naming of the Grampians.
There is much food for thought here. As Higgins observes, “each generation makes a slightly different pattern from the fragments.” In a tradition that stretches back to the aforementioned Tacitus and forward to recent controversy over human remains in York, we see how our view of Roman Britain becomes a reflection of ourselves: “a place where we may play out our uncertainties and anxieties about the perils of empire.”
Finally, to anyone who’s ever wondered if there is a tune to Auden’s Roman Wall Blues – there is. You’ll find it on page 124. Marvellous stuff.