Review – Britannia Romana: Roman inscriptions and Roman Britain

5 mins read
R S O Tomlin
Oxbow Books, £48
ISBN 978-1785707001
Review Edward Biddulph

Visiting any of the great national museums on the Continent (even the regional and local ones, come to that), students of Roman Britain could be forgiven for walking about the galleries filled floor to ceiling with altars, tombstones, and public inscriptions awestruck, but also a little downcast. What has Britain got to compare with it? After all, what has been termed ‘the epigraphic habit’ is just something that happened to other parts of the empire. Well, no. The monumental Roman Inscriptions of Britain, which covers inscriptions on stone and portable objects, now runs to three volumes, and, as the annual round-up of epigraphy in the journal Britannia testifies, more inscriptions are being found. These volumes are joined by the remarkable collections of writing tablets from the Roman fort at Vindolanda (see CA 330) and, more recently, from the Bloomberg building in the City of London (see CA 317). This is an invaluable resource that, as Roger Tomlin superbly demonstrates, provides insights into every aspect of Roman Britain.

Britannia Romana illustrates the history and character of Roman Britain through a selection of inscriptions found in the province and, where relevant, outside it too. The book takes a broadly chronological approach, with chapters on the invasion of Britain, its conquest and consolidation, the oscillations between the northern frontiers, and the 3rd and 4th centuries. There are also chapters on religion, the economy, and the government. This is, however, no grand narrative devoid of the details of daily life. Rather, Roger Tomlin examines the language, the meaning, and the context of the inscriptions in order to get up close and personal with the people of Britannia.

The epigraphic evidence reveals family connections. Julius Classicianus, procurator of the province in AD 60, is well known, and thanks to the Bloomberg London tablets, we now know a (possible) kinsman of his: one Julius Classicus, prefect of the 6th Cohort of Nervii. It’s a small world. The inscriptions also give us the names of individuals who profited from the conquest. Gaius Nipius Ascanius is recorded on a 1st-century lead ingot from the Mendips, and his name crops up again on a later ingot from North Wales; both clearly identify Ascanius as one of the province’s biggest cheeses. Somebody else who seems to have cornered the market, this time in beer, is Tertius the brewer. Inscriptions bearing his name have been found in Carlisle and London. Some of the inscriptions also hint at the diversity of Roman Britain’s population. A poignant tombstone from South Shields tells of Regina, a freedwoman and Catuvellaunian; it was set up by her husband, Barates the Palmyrene. How Regina became a slave is unknown, but her master, who came from Syria, freed and married her, and was grief-stricken by her death.

If you want to know how people spoke, then the inscriptions give us a clue. The scribe composing a loan-note for a soldier of the 20th Legion wrote scribsi instead of scripsi, perhaps, as Tomlin suggests, reflecting the way he pronounced the word. I was amused by the formulaic phrase, amico optimo, describing the relationship between the subject of the inscription and the individual who set it up. Tomlin translates the phrase as ‘excellent friend’, but to me it conjured up a modern acronym: BFF, ‘best friends forever’.

While the book represents just a small selection of Roman Britain’s epigraphic evidence, the examples and accompanying commentary offer a comprehensive picture of the province. More images of the inscriptions would have been useful, and those that are presented are on the small side, making it difficult to compare the original text with the transcript. I would have appreciated more consideration of inscriptions from objects such as pottery, which have revealed fascinating details about literacy, ownership, relationships, contents and use of vessels, and so on. However, these are minor concerns. The book is a triumph, and if you are only able to read one book on inscriptions, you had better make it Britannia Romana.

This review appeared in CA 339.

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