Becoming Roman by Greg Woolf

The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul

179679The 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.

Babylon by Paul Krizwaczek

Sometimes I just don’t gel with a book.  This is an interesting account of the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the formation of early cities through the Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians to the arrival of the Persians.  There is a mix of history, myth, culture and occasional attempts to make this contemporary (generally through Saddam Hussein references).  It touches on many different sources and interpretations, and all in a very readable way.

However, some of the modern analogies are forced, and conclusions on early developments towards civilization don’t quite convince (it’s probably impossible to do so many different cultures over so many centuries justice in just 270 pages).   Despite these faults, it’s an expert story teller giving the story of an often patchy period of history in an often unexpected way, and there was a lot to love about this book.  I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of monuments and artefacts (many of which are on display in Berlin).

My problem – I’m not that familiar with the time period and as a beginner I think I would have preferred a straight forward military/political account.  I cannot really appreciate commentaries on Sargon of Akkad or the Assyrians in II Kings, or even the story of Gilgamesh, as much as I’d like without knowing the narrative!  Babylon is by no means bad – I have a much greater sense of the culture of the region than I did before, but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed.