BRITANNIA ROMANA: Roman Inscriptions and Roman Britain

R.S.O. Tomlin

Oxbow Books (2017) h/b 472pp £48 (ISBN 9781785707001)

T. is the doyen of Roman epigraphy in Britain. He is co-editor of the magisterial work, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, and translator of the cache of tablets recently recovered from the Bloomberg site in London. In this book he deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge to produce a history of Roman Britain in as far as it can be told by inscriptions. He draws together not only the well-known inscriptions found in Britain, but a vast number of other inscriptions scattered across the Empire which refer to Britain, including curse tablets, the Vindolanda tablets, the Bloomberg tablets and similar material.

In relation to the conquest period, Aulus Plautius was commander of the invasion force and first governor of Britain. The Emperor Claudius came over for a couple of weeks to fight the battle of Colchester and receive some surrenders. T. tells us that a relative of Aulus Plautius called Aelianus accompanied Claudius. The epigraph of Aelianus is carved on the front of the Plautius family mausoleum at Tivoli. Another of the soldiers in the invasion force was Vettius Valens. His tomb at Rimini records that he was decorated in the British war with torques, bracelets and medallions adorned with a gold crown. As the Romans extended their control across southern Britain, auxiliary cavalry units played a vital role. One of the cavalrymen was Marcus Stlaccius Coranus. His tombstone in Rome records that he was ‘cavalry prefect of the cavalry regiment of Spaniards in Britain, decorated with mural crowns and untipped spear’.

Chapter 4 reviews the evidence of Britons serving in the Roman army in the late first century. This is a valuable chapter because British tribesmen left far fewer traces of their military service than their Gallic and Germanic counterparts. Tombstones, diplomas and fragments of letters record some of their names and exploits. A tombstone in Vienna states that Titus Flavius Crescens served in Pannonia as part of a British detachment (vexillationis Britannicae). A diploma found in Hungary tells us that Lucco, a Dobunnian (i.e. from a tribe in southern England) was an infantryman in the First Cohort Britannica. Longinus of the Belgae tribe in Hampshire served in the First Cohort of the Brittones during the Dacian wars and received a grant of Roman citizenship from Trajan. A lengthy diploma survives recording his military career.

Hadrian’s Wall has yielded a vast number of inscriptions. Some record how the building work was divided up between the three legions and the other military units stationed in Britain. Perhaps surprisingly, one section of wall was the work of the classis Britannica, the Roman fleet which patrolled British waters. A bronze pan found at Ilam in 2003 (the ‘Staffordshire Moorlands pan’) lists the forts along the wall. More importantly, it reveals the name of the wall, Vallum Aeli (‘Aelian Rampart’). Aelius was one of Hadrian’s names. This little pan is the only piece of evidence we have that in antiquity Hadrian’s Wall really was named after Hadrian.

The Antonine Wall was built about 20 years after Hadrian’s Wall. It ran from the Clyde to the Forth. A set of ‘distance slabs’ record the lengths built by each legion. They are beautifully carved and well preserved. Its preservation is due the Roman abandonment of the Antonine Wall as soon as they had built it. At the same time they carefully buried the distance slabs, which must have been an embarrassment.

But this book is more than just an anthology of inscriptions. It is a work of serious scholarship. Where the subject matter allows, Tomlin links up inscriptions and reconstructs the stories of individuals. He even restores reputations. By referring to an inscription at Cologne and other sources, T. demonstrates that Pertinax had a more distinguished career than the Historia Augusta suggests. Pertinax was the only governor of Britain who went on to become Emperor. But after the end of the second century, there are very few Romano-British inscriptions. Accordingly, the final two chapters, which deal with the third and fourth centuries, are brief.

This book is not, and does not purport to be, a history of Roman Britain. There are plenty of those already. The narrative passages are cursory and selective. The reader is assumed to know the historical background. But for any professional classicist and for anyone else with a serious interest in Roman Britain, the book is a gold mine. It provides insights which are not available from any other source.

Rupert Jackson

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