The book is subtitled Journeys in Roman Britain, and is a series of accounts of travels into various parts of Britain (including Scotland), looking at Roman remains (or at least, the remains of Roman Britain) and giving something of an account of the meaning of such items, how they were discovered and how interpreted.
The author of the book is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and a classicist with a useful grasp of Latin and Greek and knowledge of Roman poetry and mythology which comes in handy in interpreting inscriptions from monuments and mosaics.
As a wargamer, of course, her book is somewhat peripheral to my main interests, but it does serve as a useful reminder that much of Roman Britain was peaceful under the Empire, and culture did exist, commerce even, perhaps, flourished, and, possibly, no one, in general, was unhappy enough to rebel or invade terribly often.
The most interesting aspect of the book is that it is about how Roman Britain came to be uncovered, interpreted and assumed into our picture of the way the world is. I’m sure I have mentioned before this aspect of history, in general. The popular view of history is that it relates to fact, to dates, and battles, and kings and so on. However, as Miles Russell points out in his book mentioned last week, even a skeleton of undisputable facts can have more than one interpretation attached to it.
Higgins is not, as mentioned, an archaeologist, but she has an eye for detail, even though it sometimes lapses into slightly purple prose. Even well known Roman sites are sometimes overgrown, she comments, and some, like Hadrian’s Wall are possibly overblown, although the local economy is coming to rely on the tourism it generates.
Mostly, Higgins tells us the stories of artefacts and how they are interpreted. In this, she largely, I think, would agree with Russell. The archaeology is fragmented, and does not tell us a single, or at least, straightforward, story. The interpretation of them is similarly fraught. For example, she discusses the pictures commissioned for the Palace of Westminster. A number of scenes from Roman Britain were proposed, but none included. British history starts, there at least, with the conversion of Saxon kings to Christianity. As Higgins remarks: ‘Perhaps the problem is, and has been since antiquity, that Roman Britain is too jagged and unsettling and ambiguous to be pulled into line. It will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite’ (p 228-9).
How, then, can Roman Britain be interpreted. Of course, the Victorians and those earlier had views. For example, Higgins describes how, for example, William Camden, writing in the 1580’s, saw savage Britain being civilised by the Romans. Such a view continued throughout the eras of the British Empires, and became, perhaps, a reflection of how the intellectuals of that Empire, educated, of course in the classics of Greece and Rome, saw their own mission.
Of course, it was possible to peer down the other end of the telescope. The existence of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall could be used for Scottish purposes: clearly, the ancestors of the current residents had never been conquered. Of course, the current state of Roman Britain led to warnings of the potential end of the British Empire.
The Victorians, or some of them, also used Roman Britain as a terrible warning for their own age. They could take, say, Tacitus’ warning about the growing decadence of Rome during the early second century and apply it to themselves. The Roman Empire fell because of this growing softness. This could be applied to Britain, the civilising world power of its time. Rome, in the end, failed, and failed after becoming a publicly Christian state. This is, of course, something that troubled St Augustine, as well.
As Higgins notes (p. 175) the pendulum has swung. Post-colonialism now means that the Romans (and, for that matter, the Victorians) are now viewed as the villains of the piece. This, of course, politicises Roman Britain for our present day. We tend to over-empathise with the conquerors, because they wrote the history. Roman-ness was only wafer thin, and so we return to Russell and Laycock’s ‘Un-Roman Britain’.
These views work themselves out into our culture. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ is perhaps one of the most popular stories of Roman Britain. It has been filmed, recently, and as such has consciously, perhaps, been displayed as a modern problem. A tenuous military hold is maintained over a restive native population. The landscape is unknown, treacherous, dangerous. Disaster is just around the corner, or over the hill.
There is, thus, a conflict at the heart of our interpretations of Roman Britain, between the civilising Romans who bought all sorts of benefits to the place, and the savage Romans, who bought death, destruction and slavery to the freedom loving Britons.
Our own interpretation of Roman Britain is liable, I think, to be influenced by whichever of these views we happen to subscribe to. And so, the way we wargame is going to be influenced by it as well. How do we view the invasions of Britain? An invitation from a client king in trouble? A piece of theatre designed for the home audience? Are the Roman armies the cutting edge of a civilizing force or a crushing lapse into even greater barbarism?
You may well think that these issues are nothing to do with wargaming, but I think I would claim that they do have at least some contact. To start with, whether we like it or not, such resonances rebound through history. The classical world has been rediscovered several times during our history and used to redescribe the world in those terms. As noted, even the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been portrayed in terms of Roman Britain.
Secondly, of course, we have only the same sources as the Victorians to play with. Tacitus is Tacitus, the same as he was for them. We have other interpretations, but of course most of us do not read Latin so miss the nuances. Varying interpretations and applications of the lessons of history are, themselves, lessons from history. Wargaming itself is built on such shifting sands.