The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
The last time I read a book that focused on Roman (or pre-Roman) Gaul, it was the rather disappointing and very confused The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb. This book, thankfully, isn’t that one. Woolf’s book from 1998 is an much more academic argument against the concept of “Romanization”, that happens to give a pretty decent description of the changes in Gaul as it settled into the Roman Empire.
In brief, Woolf argues for a more open interpretation of Roman identity. It was possible to be Roman and have humanitas, and also to have a provincial identity. There were new towns, there Roman colonists, but Roman additions came bit by bit – a temple here, some road layout there. The religion altered but retained some local character (within acceptable Roman limits). Local tastes changed, but so did local produce and the trends did not mirror Italian trends.
It’s not always an easy read, there’s as much pottery in here as you’d expect. More than that though, it’s nuance and subtlety that requires some attention – the balance difference between urban and rural (Woolf might suggest that this is sometimes overstated), the difference between the busy Mediterranean coast and the marginal Breton peninsula. There aren’t many sweeping statements here. There also isn’t all that much theory on identity or empire, which is fine with me. I enjoyed it, definitely on the academic side but not inaccessible for a non-specialist with an interest.
Subtitled A Thousand Years of Europe’s History, this impressive but difficult work does pack a millennium and quite a bit of detail into seven hundred or so pages. When I was younger, dazzled by Medieval Total War, I quite fancied the idea of a single volume history of the HRE. Later I realized that that could be a quite hefty prospect (like the dry and extensive The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel), but then this book came out – and superficially seemed to be promising that. Hopes were raised by the easy going cover, blurb and subtitle.
They were then scattered by the restaurant-tasting-menu style table of contents. Single word chapter titles like Association and Governance for chapters spanning seventy pages. No sub-divisions listed here. And indeed some of the chapters are heavy going – particularly the opening ones on ideology and the relationship between church and state. Sorting the history thematically means that each chapter crosses back and forth between that thousand years of history in a baffling way unless you are familiar with the events and characters of the empire.
Some later chapters do flow more chronologically, but even they rely on a lot of pre-existing knowledge. Major events are brushed over in a few words, new people appear without introductions. The ending tacks on a short bit on the legacy that verges between the interesting (changing views amid the rise of 19th century nationalism) and the unfortunately outdated (lessons to be learned in EU comparisons). To give these topics the attention needed would really be a whole other book, so it feels like an inessential finale.
To say some positives about it – Wilson clearly has a great command of the material, and doesn’t lower his level for the reader. By taking the focus away from the great men of history and from material culture, he really gets to deal with things on the level of ideas, justice, identity. He gets to deal with mis-conceptions about the weakness of the empire or the push and pull of (de)centralisation. It’s fascinating, in a very involved sort of way
PS. It’s page 2 before Wilson uses the Voltaire quote, if you were wondering (as I was).