Book review: Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain

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What did the Romans do for us? Well, they fire our imaginations across the centuries for a start, says Stuart Kelly

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins

Jonathan Cape, 282pp, £20

Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief arts writer and the author of two previous books on the classics (Latin Love Lessons and It’s All Greek to Me) opens this charming, intriguing and not-infrequently elegiac book on Roman Britain by describing her disappointment, aged 12, at a school trip to Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall. “It was very cold. I have no sense now of having been moved by, or even particularly interested in, the low rubbly remains”. Having had the same schooltrip, I can sympathise completely. Doing my Higher Latin a few years after that, I envied the students who had been studying Cicero, Pompeii, or the rise of the empire, rather than castellation techniques on Hadrian’s Wall. Surely the other options were what Rome was really about – Oratory! Exploding Mountains! Glorious Battles!

Higgins similarly held Roman Britain in low esteem, until a trip in a VW camper van with her partner around the extant sites. In a way, the book is not about the country that existed between the arrival of Julius Caesar in 43BC and the Romans’ departure sometime around 410AD. Nor is it a dry catalogue of the ditches, roads and encampments they left behind. The idea of Rome, though, never left, and the book’s highlights often depend on Higgins empathising with the previous writers on Roman Britain, be they Nennius the monk, William Stukeley the antiquary, the John Woods, father and son architects of Bath, or RG Collingwood, archaeologist, philosopher, anti-Fascist and part of the inspiration for Swallows and Amazons. That last fact – which I never knew – shows how surprisingly replete and modern this journey is.

The reader does get the broad historical sweep, with Claudius, Severus, Constantine and the mysterious Carausius, the “renegade” emperor who tried to use Britain as his base to wage war against the might of the Empire (and who comes across as something more fascinating than a 3rd century AD Nigel Farage). The reader is also taken through the extent of Britain, from the first landing near Deal; to the city of Calleva Atrebatum, near Silchester, now mostly fields; to London, which involves both bank vaults and car-parks; York, the only place where a Roman Emperor was officially declared; Hadrian’s Wall and further north – Scotland was not it transpires, the nation that “sent them home again”.

It is arranged geographically, as a journey ought to be, and of course, the journey is as important as the destination. Higgins speaks to people in the places she arrives – as a good journalist should – but has also ransacked the archives – as a good classicist should. One story must suffice, but it is so glorious that not to share it in a review would be a crime. In 1904, Edward Nicholson, the Bodleian librarian, managed to interpret a rolled-up lead tablet. Such artefacts were thrown into pools in Bath to invoke curses, and are notoriously difficult to decipher. The translation was incendiary: it showed that Roman Christians had lived in Bath. One note of caution came from this very paper, but mostly the response was enthusiastic. Roger Tomlin, a papyrologist at Oxford whom Higgins interviews, shows her what went wrong (and how difficult the job is). Nicholson had read the tablet upside down.

We all project on to Roman Britain the ideas we have on modern Britain. When a resident of York – the “ivory bangle lady” – was suggested to be originally from Africa, certain newspapers’ comments sections exploded with accusations of backwriting multiculturalism on to the past. As Higgins shows, national mythologies – all of them, be they Scottish, English, British, French or Romanian – involve a complex negotiation with the past (the Thatcher-Boudicea comparison being a case in point). Even Bath shows this odd double-think about inheritance. The Woods were neoclassical in every sense that the term can mean; yet part of their work may even have been inspired by the elder Wood’s surveys of Stanton Drew and even Stonehenge. The structure – familiar in Edinburgh as well – of circus then crescent was the Woods’s bizarre homage to the Druid’s sickle.

What is most impressive here, rather than either the erudition or the endeavour, is simply the writing. Both Higgins’s previous books were highly enjoyable, and displayed many of the same virtues, even though they appeared in a market crowded by Harry Mount, Nathalie Haynes, Peter Stothard and others. This is not a journalistic book. It is a writerly book; the book ends on a “grey and corrugated sea”. Encountering one of the Vindolanda Tablets (the correspondence found at Hadrian’s Wall) she writes: “I read the words over and over again, and thought of the lost life of the woman who wrote them.” Notice: only three words are not monosyllables. “over”, repeated, and its twin “again”, and then “woman”.

Good non-fiction is rare: to be enlightening but not patronising; idiosyncratic but not quirky. Moreover, anyone who can include in their book a score for a composition with lyrics by Auden, and music by Britten (which was thought lost) and with a new accompaniment for piano by Colin Matthews deserves a round of applause, or a holiday abroad that does not necessitate a cagoule).

Charlotte Higgins is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 22 August