“I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape — not just through the sublime contours of the Northumberland hills, but in humbler urban and suburban tracts of territory.”
If you pull a pound coin out of your wallet (assuming you’re in the UK, or like carrying the currencies of many countries around with you), you’ll see the phrase Decus et Tutamen written on the edge of the coin. It’s from Virgil: Aeneas bestows some armour on one of his soldiers as prize for valour, and describes the cuirass as ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – Decus Et Tutamen. Slightly more recently, Charles II put in on English coins. Why? The goal was to prevent milling: if thieves attempted to shave off bits of precious metal from the coins, they would destroy the phrase. Hence: ornament and safeguard. No longer quite so relevant with a modern coin, but kept for history’s sake.
The Romans have played what is in some ways an astonishingly pivotal role in much of history: long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, children were taught Latin in school while their elders studied and argued over Cannae, the Gracchi, and the reasons for the fall. Higgins has written a book devoted to the Romans in Britain, or rather, how their presence has influenced and continues to influence the British.
The book ends up part travelogue, part history text, and part repository of interesting facts. It works because Higgins has a focus on beautiful imagery; as she discusses her trips to the extant sites of Roman Britain, she summons them up for the reader, before discussing how they affected later British generations. Despite being on the fringes of empire, England also has a lot to say: Constantine the Great, who turned the Roman Empire Christian, was crowned in York, and other emperors made repeated trips, both to visit and to build walls.
If you have no interest in Romans, I’m not sure this book will sell you on them: if you’re already a believer, this is a nice way to learn more about Roman Britain.