Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World. Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region. The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders. Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes with great colour.
Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples. It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.
There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century. On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up. You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.
Overall there is a grand sense of scale. The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus. The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality. The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.