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Roman Britain: A New History.

Roman Britain: A New History. By Guy de la Bedoyere. (New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 2006. Pp. 288. $39.95.)

The period of Roman occupation in Britain lasted nearly four centuries. Scholars now believe that Rome's influence on Britain began long before Claudius' conquest in AD 43 and lasted for more than a generation after the emperor Honorius recognized British independence in AD 410. Yet Britain is underrepresented in the histories and annals of imperial Rome, and few native-born Britons appear to have contributed to the high politics and cultural life of the empire. Why is it, then, that Roman Britain continues to fascinate readers (not to mention television and movie viewers)?

The answer, it is safe to say, is archaeology. The material evidence seems to provide a more abundant and vivid picture of Rome's imprint on the island, and this is readily apparent in Guy de la Bedoyere's Roman Britain: A New History. This is not so much a new history as a detailed portrait for nonspecialists of the many facets of Romano-British society as revealed by archaeological excavation, including the most recent discoveries. Because although the static written record has resulted in revisionist squabbling among historians of the period, the accelerated pace of excavation (urban and rural, planned and rescue) has yielded in recent years startling finds that may, indeed, lead us to rewrite much of the history of Roman Britain. De la Bedoyere, who has long published in popular formats and discussed these archaeological issues on British television, is right on top of these latest discoveries, from the Hoxne coin hoard to the Colchester stadium (the first to be found in Britain and the largest public structure built by the Romans on the island).

The structure of the book is fairly conventional, beginning with a brief narrative history of Roman Britain and proceeding through separate chapters devoted to the government, the military, towns, the economy, rural life, death and burial, religion, and the immediate aftermath of the Roman occupation. The writing is often engaging but surprisingly detailed for a popular work, including some very technical discussions of military offices and engineering. De la Bedoyere takes advantage of Thames and Hudson's penchant for lavishly illustrated art history and archaeology books, even contributing his own photographs and reconstruction drawings (the latter of especially good quality). The chapters are relatively short and contain many feature boxes, although a gazetteer of sites (with ordnance survey numbers) and larger maps would have made nice appendices. More important omissions include a lack of awareness of the ethnographic questions (who are the Celts? the Britons?); no mention of the economic incentives for Caesar's British expeditions; too little discussion of Constantine I and his British connections; and the failure to credit in the text such important excavators as Wheeler, Cunliffe, and Barker. The author is perhaps weakest in his discussion of the fifth century, contradicting himself regarding the end of Roman coinage, offering a facile and inaccurate account of the events of 406-410, and missing several important monographs on the period in his bibliography (77, 78, 262).

There is no lack of general overview books on Roman Britain and those of Salway, Frere, and Todd remain the standard for historians. However, de la Bedoyere's study, with its sometimes stunning visuals and up-to-date reporting on the latest excavations, may become the standard archaeological survey of Roman Britain for students and lay readers.

Christopher A. Snyder

Marymount University
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Author:Snyder, Christopher A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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