The Real Lives of Roman Britain - Guy de la Bedoyere

History seen through the fragments left by ordinary lives: what could be more fascinating? I had no idea that our knowledge about Roman Britain was simultaneously so thorough and yet so limited.


de la Bedoyere states that the British were an anomaly. While most native peoples that the Romans invaded quickly climbed the social ladder, no British native has been known to reach even equestrian status. This might be due to an incomplete record or an eager adoption of Roman names and customs, but the British are conspicuous by their absence in the historical record. The Romans portrayed many native British tribes as untamable savages, exemplified by their construction of Hadrian’s Wall. 


One interesting insight I gained was the difference of female stature in the two worlds. When the Celtic leader Caratacus was taken to visit the Emperor Claudius, he also paid homage to Agrippina the Younger, possibly because women had much higher status in Britain. Female consorts held power, and women could be chieftans--and not just in the case of the somewhat mythical Boudica. When the wife of Caledonian chieftan Argentocoxus met empress Julia Domna some time around 200 AD, Julia Domna made a nasty crack about British men sharing out their women, she responded that while British women could ‘consort openly with the best men’ in public, Roman women were debauched in private.


I’ve been fascinated with Roman Britain ever since I read Ruth Downie’s Medicus series, so I was looking forward to learning about the minutiae of life in Roman Britain. (And by the way, this book taught me that the Medicus series is far more accurate than I’d thought.) While the idea of the book is excellent, the execution leaves something to be desired. I read an advanced reader copy, so hopefully things are a little smoother in the final version. However, in my copy, de la Bedoyere’s style is awkward, and the absence of important commas often forced me to read a sentence twice to understand the changes in object or subject. (Given my writing style, I know this is a pot-kettle complaint, but hey, that’s why I don’t write books.) Take a few examples:

“Cunobelinus was not to feature in the story of the Roman invasion since by 43 he was dead, but another ruler, Verica of the Atrebates, did.”

“Pliny the Younger, a senator born in the early 60s, lived on into the second century AD and despite a far-ranging career climaxing in the governorship of Bithynia and Pontus never forgot his home town of Como.”

The ungainly prose wasn’t assisted by the paragraph length, which often made the pages feel like walls of text. The paragraphs themselves were less than coherent, typically containing multiple subjects tenuously connected by awkward segues. While many images were referenced in the text, my advanced reader copy was devoid of all pictures except for the peculiar cartoon sketches of artefacts that appeared at the beginning of each chapter. The book’s final form will have images scattered throughout the book, which will likely assist with the text density issue. And despite the issues in execution, many of de la Bedoyere’s characters did come to life.


de la Bedoyere’s narrative spans from the beginning of Roman conquest to its slow dissolution. He uses coins, pottery, tombs, inscriptions, and ruins to try to piece together the lives of ordinary citizens. I think it’s the absurdity that brings these characters to life. Take Docimedis, who submitted a “curse tablet” requesting that the man who stole his gloves to “lose his minds and eyes” and that the man who stole his cloak to never sleep again or have children until he returned the cloak. And then there’s Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion in charge of civil policing in what would become the city of Bath. We know his name because of an inscription he left behind detailing the work he had done to restore all that had been “wrecked by the insolent.” He sounds so much like the jaded, exasperated cop from a police procedural that I’m just waiting for someone to turn him into a hardboiled detective novel.

It’s the little details, the mundanity and the absurdity, that brings a culture to life. Although the text is rather rough, I think that de la Bedoyere succeeds in providing a glimpse of the colorful, vibrant world of Roman Britain.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Yale University Press.~~