Mark Hall

title.none: Salway, Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain

identifier.other: baj9928.9501.005 95.01.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mark Hall, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Salway, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. xiii, 563. Illus. 270+ b/w, 34 color. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-822984-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.01.05

Salway, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Pp. xiii, 563. Illus. 270+ b/w, 34 color. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-822984-4.

Reviewed by:

Mark Hall
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Roman Britain is a topic that continues to receive attention from both archaeologists and historians. Invariably each discipline all too often operates without the other; archaeologists often reject the historical record due to its biases and historians are often at a loss to explain the importance of pot sherds and other domestic rubbish. The The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain changes this situation. In it, Peter Salway provides a visually exciting and immensely readable study of Roman Britain that integrates both archaeology and history.

Salway is an excellent choice to author this volume. He is Professor Emeritius of the Open University, former Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and the current director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit. Since he has worked in both disciplines, he can provide a balanced view of Roman Britain that is missing in other writer's works.

This book is a revised and abridged version of Salway's massive Oxford History of Roman Britain. The notable additions to his earlier book are the inclusion of over 300 plates, 34 of which are in color, numerous maps and site plans. These visual materials add zest and vibrance to the text that should attract the attention of both the general reader and serious scholar. Less noticeable, but equally important, is his integration of the findings from the excavations conducted in London, along Hadrian's Wall, and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980's. These recent excavations are important for our understanding the process of growth and decline in Roman Britain.

These illustrations and revisions come at a price. First, and most distressing, is the lack of footnotes or references in the text. Salway, in his introduction, notes that this is done since the book is aimed at the "general reader." I feel this attitude insults any reader and limits the usefulness of the book for students. Students need to know where to look for the sources involved in the academic debate. Furthermore, despite Salway's confident tone throughout the book, there is a lot of uncertainity in the archaeology and history of Roman Britain. A few examples of this will suffice. Dio, Josephus and Seutonius all provide different accounts of the Claudian invasion of Britain. Salway bases his text on Dio's version and never really explains why he feels Josephus and Seutonius should not be used. The end of Roman Britain is equally debated, but Salway bases his account on Zosimus and argues that the final breaking point was the British revolt of AD 409 against Constantine III. Finally, he states that there was a change of production and land tenure in the rural countryside under Roman rule in Britain, but provides meagre evidence (p. 434). Archaeology shows that areas like the Fens and the northern highlands had relatively few villas, while areas like Somerset had villas and British settlements occupying separate but adjacent areas. A further argument countering Salway's statement is that pre-Roman settlement and subsistence patterns survived through the Roman period and into the Anglo-Saxon period.

Salway's confidence can also border on arrogance. The most obvious example is his chapter on Roman economics. In just two sentences (p. 427), he dismisses nearly the entire field of economic anthropology. Admittedly, the Roman Empire is not a modern state, nor an industrialized society, nor a peasant society, but the models derived in economic anthropology are relevant to Roman Britain though. If nothing else, they provide examples to start from when developing models of the Roman economy.

The second cost of the illustrations and revisions is the lack of depth and detail. This will probably escape most readers, but for those who have read and used his earlier work, you will understand what I mean. The sections on population, health and mortality, social classes, and beheaded burials are just a few of the sections missing in the current volume. Sadly, the balanced and well researched section on the events in the early fifth century AD in Britain and Gaul is missing. This book is thorough, but is a far cry from its predecessor.

While this book has its faults, it strengths are numerous. A major one is Salway's stress on placing Roman Britain in context to the whole Roman Empire. All too often books on Roman Britain take one of two extremes—Britain was an unique cultural entity in the Empire, or it was typical of the Empire as a whole. This book strives for a middle ground; Salway argues for regionalism throughout the Empire and sees Britain as being a "typical" region within it. One way he does this is by providing an overview of Roman political history in each of the seventeen historical chapters. Each opens with a review of events in the Empire and events in Britain. As an example, Salway sees the abandonment of southern Scotland after Agricola's campaigns as being due to Domitian's Dacian campaigns. This approach is extended to the sections on material culture too. Hadrian's Wall is an impressive structure, but Salway notes it was one of many walls and fortresses built the second century AD Roman frontier.

Despite my negative remarks, I do recommend this book for courses on the Roman Empire and Roman Britain. The book is visually exciting and immensely readable. Furthermore, it contains a wonderful balance between archaeology and history. You have to be aware though that this book does have its faults and needs to be used with supplementary readings and bibliographies.