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A Portrait of Roman Britain

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A Portrait of Roman Britain
By John Wacher.(London & New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 139. Illustrations.) ISBN 0-415-03321-7


Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 1, 2000

"Every landscaape is comprised of three elements: form, colour and texture; three factors have created them: geology, climate and, most frequently, humanity." (Pg. 1).

Landscape archaeology, as a distinct speciality, is a relatively unknown field. In short, what a landscape archeologist tries to do is discern what the landscape was like during a finite period. In A Portrait of Roman Britain, John Wacher, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester, has recreated the landscape of Roman Britain.

This is not simpley a survey of how much woodland existed, or how much area was swamp, although such issues are covered. What Wacher has attempted in this book is to convey a sense of what Roman Britain would have looked like, and to explain why it would have looked the way he thinks it did. For instance he devotes several chapters to what the urban and rural areas of the country would have been like, down to what grains the citizens would have eaten. In addition, this books covers not only what the land look liked, but also what the buildings looked like and what they were built of. He explores the impact that manmade structures, and manmade activities, such as farming, had upon the visual landscape of the country. Wacher also interprets what colors the buildings were likely to have been and he takes great care to show evidence in support all of his assertions.

Besides describing the visual landscape, Wacher has taken pains to describe how the landscape changed during the course of the Roman occupation. For example, Wacher examines the impact of various Roman building projects such as the construction of forts and other defensive structures, including Hadrian's Wall. He describes not only how the forts were built, but also how much wood was needed for the construction and the visual impact such structures. This is in addition to exploring the impact that deforestation would have had on the environment.

"From the outside, the principal eye-catching focus of the fortress would have been its rectangular shape, surrounded by ramparts, set with gate-towers, and possibly interval-towers which probably rose to perhaps twice the height of the former. The rampart, up to 3-4 m high, would at this stage of the conquest have been constructed of material derived from digging the ditch in front of it, retained between cheeks made of blocks of clayey turf. The blocks were cut to a standard width and thickness so that they could be laid in regular courses. When first constructed, therefore, they would have appeared as wide brown lines probably interspersed with thinner bands of uniform green or brown, according to the time of year." (Pg. 31).

One of the most interesting aspects of this text was, I believe, is Wacher's chronology of the land changes over time. Beginning in the Iron Age, he chronicles the changes that the various areas of Britain underwent throughout the extent of the Roman occupation, and its reversion to a more natural state after the Roman's left. To support the text, Wacher has included photos that show just how quickly cleared land can revert to woodlands. As well, Wacher explains how the Roman's impact on the landscape can still be seen today. This impact can be as subtle as mounds and field systems that are identified by ditches. It can also be seen in major features, such as the remnants of Hadrian's Wall to the remains of fortresses and old walls incorporated into post-Roman structures. He also demonstrates the long-standing impact that the Roman's have had upon the British landscape, and modern British life. For example,

"Most of the modern main roads radiating from London owe their origins to the Romans and have thus indelibly imprinted themselves on the landscape. Some are lost in the suburbs, but not all..." (Pg. 121).

This book presents a real portrait of Roman Britain in all the color and texture that can be rendered with the written word, and I found it extremely informative. I have to rate this book a "must read" for anyone wishing to recreate, or to understand, what Roman Britain would have looked like - and why. A Portrait of Roman Britain will captivate both scholarly and lay readers.


Related Reviews:

Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, By Graham Webster.
Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, raised an army and nearly succeeded in forcing the Roman's out of Britain. In Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60, Dr. Graham Webster explores the archeological evidence from which much of our knowledge about Boudica and the revolt has been derived.

Ordering Anarchy : Armies and Leaders in Tacitus' Histories, By Rhiannon Ash.
Written by Rhiannon Ash, a classical scholar and latinist, Ordering Anarchy offers an indepth literary analysis of Tacitus' Histories.

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