Charlotte Higgins has written a fascinating book combining history, travel, archaeology & literature in a survey of Roman Britain. I’ve become more interested in Roman Britain over the years as my historical reading has moved further & further back in time. From the Tudors & the Victorians who fascinated me in my teenage years, I’ve gradually become interested in other periods of English history. Richard III took me to the medieval period, then I jumped forward to the Civil War & the 18th century & then right back to the Anglo Saxons. Finally I became interested in the Roman period, from the invasion by Claudius in AD43 to the withdrawal of the Romans in around 410.
Under Another Sky is structured as a journey around Britain undertaken by Higgins & her boyfriend, Matthew, in a dilapidated van. Their aim is to visit all the Roman sites still visible in Britain, from the Antonine Wall in Scotland to Hadrian’s Wall & the sites of the magnificent villas in the south & the remains of Londinium, buried usually deep underneath the modern city. It’s also a book about how the British have thought & written about the Romans through the centuries. From Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century to Camden’s Britannia in the 16th century, Thorneycroft’s monumental statue of Boudica & her daughters to Auden’s Roman Wall Blues in the 20th century.
In London, Higgins discovers traces of Roman Londinium in the most unlikely places. In the basement car park of the Museum of London there is a segment of the Roman wall, exposed during the Blitz & preserved near Bay 52. It stands two and a half metres tall. There’s a photo of it in the book with motorcycles parked right next to it. Walking along Hadrian’s Wall, she discovers that the perception of the Wall among the farmers who live close by has changed even in recent times. Where once they resented ramblers wanting to walk over their fields to look at bits of broken wall, it’s now become a tourist attraction & a welcome source of income for those who offer accommodation.
Theories about why the Wall was built have also changed. Once historians thought it was a barrier to keep the Pictish tribes of Scotland out. Now, it seems to be seen as more of a trade barrier, regulating & taxing the traders as they passed through. Discoveries such as the Vindolanda tablets have excited interest in the Wall & the soldiers who were stationed there. The tablets, discovered in the 1970s, are slivers of wood which were used to send messages along the Wall & further afield. The most famous is an invitation from Claudia Severa to Lepidina, inviting her to a birthday party. Suddenly the soldiers, traders & their families living in the forts along the Wall became real people who wrote shopping lists & party invitations just like we do.
Higgins also meets some interesting people on her journeys. I loved the Woodward brothers, builders who decided to recreate the Orpheus mosaic, known as the Great Pavement, at Woodchester near Stroud in Gloucestershire. The mosaic was last uncovered in 1973 & Woodward was so mesmerised by it that he decided to create a replica as the original was too fragile to be exposed any longer. They learned, through trial & error, how to create the tesserae, researched the missing parts of the picture using 18th century drawings & working in libraries, reading about ancient mythology. The finished mosaic used 1.6 million tesserae & is as big as a ballroom.
As well as the stories of the remains of Roman buildings, villas & forts, we also meet the people. The Britons who resisted or accepted the Romans – Boudica, Cartimandua, Caractacus & the Romans who invaded & then sought to control Britain – Julius Caesar, Claudius, Agricola as well as the many nameless soldiers, traders & farmers. Higgins tells their stories & examines the ways in which historians, artists & writers through the centuries have depicted them. She also tells the stories of some of the antiquarians & archaeologists who have uncovered Britain’s Roman past.
Under Another Sky is a fascinating book. I loved the mix of history, travel, art & literature. It’s immensely readable & full of great stories. I only wish there had been more pictures. There are some black & white pictures in the text but I would have loved some colour plates of the locations & some of the art & treasures Higgins describes. Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize & Higgins writes here about the experience of not winning. It’s an interesting discussion about literary prizes & the expectations that come with them.