Discrepant Experiences of Britain in the Roman Empire

David Mattingly’s “An Imperial Possession. Britain in the Roman Empire” is a book that I’ve waited for some time, and I was happy to see it in print. As expected, it’s a masterly synthesis of incredible scope and clear-sight. The most exciting aspect of the book is that it dispenses with several orthodoxies in research on the Roman provinces, most notably the tired concept of ‘Romanization’ and all of its diluted variations. Instead it looks at the province’s three main communities (military – civil – rural) and how they fashion their identities, both independently and through interaction with each other and other parts of the empire. Many insights are offered from a post-colonial viewpoint, critical of the repercussions of empire. This is a noteworthy departure from most other books on Roman Britain, that have focused on the adoption by assumedly appreciative Britons of Roman material culture or disregarded those aspects of the province that do not appear ‘Roman’.

The book is also remarkable in its coverage of the ‘provincial landscapes’ of Britain. In fact, there are more chapters on the rural communities (4) than on the urban communities (3). I especially enjoyed how Mattingly deals with the vernacular architecture of Britain (such as roundhouses) in his interpretation of the countryside. His focus in on function rather than form, and it is clear that roundhouses do not simply go out of use, when Britons were introduced to the ‘villa’. The chapters on the rural communities are illustrated by a number of very useful figures mapping the use of the landscape. However, the book does not come from with any illustrations apart from maps and tables – it is, after all, a history – and is therefore best read alongside Barri Jones and David Mattingly’s “Atlas of Roman Britain“. “An Imperial Possession” should be of interest to not only those interested in a fresh new perspective on Roman Britain, but anyone working with Roman provincial archaeology.

Other reviews: The Times / The Spectator.

[tags]Romanization, Roman Britain, Roman Archaeology[/tags]

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