I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Guy De La Bedoyere (an expert on Roman Britain who often featured on archaeological TV show Time Team) has gathered together as many cases as he can of people in Roman Britain – rich/poor, slave/free, native or not. There often isn’t much to go on, and that means that De La Bedoyere speculates on who that person may have been – the guesswork is based on a solid foundation, what we know of Roman society and so on. But even with this, there isn’t much to say in the majority of cases. This means that we get a paragraph on one figure, then a paragraph on another, then a paragraph on another and it starts to feel like a dense wall of half formed information (welcome to archaeology!).
The author structures the book very loosely in a chronological fashion, but this means that the subject changes constantly. One case might highlight a social concern, the next economic, the next something more military. I thought Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp managed to structure a similar idea in a much more readable way. But Britain fundamentally was out of the way, and was different to the East of the empire, or to Italy, or even to Gaul so De La Bedoyere does have less information to go on. Themes do emerge – the upper class that was always just passing through temporarily, the freedmen and women, the ethnically diverse population of soldiers.
To end this post on a high – some figures do stick in the mind, even on the slightest of information. Gaius Severius Emeritus, a centurion who left a rather snippy note complaining of the insolent wrecking his local town. The potter of Aldgate/Pulborough who the author repeatedly brings up as an example of notably bad craftsmanship. All we have is a few fragments of badly made pottery, but that is enough to give a sense of something. And of course the curse tablets from Bath, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”.