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Higgins sets out on an adventure-filled quest to uncover the ancient monuments and vanished culture of Roman Britain.
In his fifteenth book published since 1986 on the history and archaeology of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere focuses squarely on altogether ordinary individuals who spent at least part of their lives in what was the northwestern most province of the Roman Empire. How are these comparative nonentities known to us, more than sixteen centuries after the Romans in the year 410 withdrew their last remaining troops from what they called Britannia? Aside from a small number mentioned in the writings of such well-known classical sources as Tacitus and Cassius Dio, the names of these people-whether women or men, slave or free, young or old-and what is known of their life stories derive entirely from Latin inscriptions, most of them in the form of tombstones. In his provocative introduction to this collection of interesting snippets from highly abbreviated biographies, the author invites his readers to ponder, from several different points of view, what caveats they should keep in mind as they follow him chronologically from Julius Caesar's initial Roman landings in Britain in 55 and 54 BCE through the conquest of Britain and its incorporation into the Empire almost a century later under the emperor Claudius, and from then on in roughly century-long intervals down to Honorius; early fifth century abandonment of the island to its own devices. For example, how "ordinary" can his subjects have been if they left behind texts about themselves in a language foreign (Latin) to their immediate environment? In fact, how many of them are likely to have been Britons? Indeed, what did it mean to be a Briton before the Romans created a single province out of the numerous warring tribes that occupied the island prior to the conquest? As it turns out, although we can't be at all sure, relatively few of the individuals profiled are likely to have spent their entire lives in Britain, so one thing the author is asking us to consider is what population they actually do represent. Yet even if not as "ordinary" as one might have initially imagined, these oddly immortalized inhabitants of the Empire's wildest-west province come across as a fascinating group. No matter how fragmentary and serendipitous their preserved life stories may be, they have a good deal to tell us about the range of human experience during the first four centuries of the United Kingdom's participation in the literate world. Aside from telling engaging stories about the persons he has selected here for inclusion, de la Bedoyere provides first-rate instruction in historical method by repeatedly drawing attention to how fragile our interpretations of the inscriptions and archaeological evidence (hoards of jewelry and plate, tombs, and religious dedications) he surveys must necessarily be.