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At seventeen I went to Northumberland to help pull a Roman bridge from the ground. There was a deep navel dug into the riverbank when I arrived, knotted at the bottom with lumps of stone. The site was below river level, so a bulwark of sandbags was slumped against the Tyne and every few hours a phlegmy petrol four-stroke was woken up to pump out the water that seeped in. The Roman world puddled at our feet and I daydreamed about the bridge we were uncovering, the people that trudged over it, the road they walked. If you were to plant your feet as in a tug-of-war, take the road in your hands and pull, would those ancient streets tighten like a drawstring, causing the land of modern Britain to ruck and pleat? Or would the country just come apart at the seams?
Charlotte Higgins has spent a couple of years pulling on such threads and the result is Under Another Sky, a winning patchwork of history, historiography, literature and anecdote that takes the reader from Roman Britain’s troubled birth to its ragtag dissolution, as well as exploring the Roman legacy in Britain. The book doesn’t really get to grips with truly modern attitudes to this legacy but as an exploration of mostly 18th & 19th century antiquarianism it is wonderful.
“How do we read all this? Whose side are we on? Who are “we”? Are we to applaud Boudica’s patriotism and bravery, or condemn her atrocities? Is Britain to be redeemed from her barbarity by the civilizing force of the Romans – or enslaved?”
The span of Roman rule was well documented by its inhabitants (especially compared with the sketchiness of the abutting centuries) and Higgins makes good use of what was written down, drawing on myriad sources with infectious enthusiasm. Lives, now dwarfed by history, reassume their largeness through wooden tablets and lead scrolls conveying sisterly affection or bitter enmity. She tells how alder and oak “postcards” at Vindolanda contain expressions of familial devotion, the poignancy of which has only been sharpened by the intervening centuries. In York a tombstone in a museum shows the loving dedication of a wealthy Syrian to his British-born wife, a freed slave. The “curse scrolls” of Bath are written in a conniving sort of Roman legalese scrawled with the intention of roping one deity or another into exacting revenge for wrongs done to the petitioner. It’s hard not to picture Minerva rolling her eyes at another plea to avenge a stolen cloak.
For Higgins, Roman Britain is not just about vicarious time travel through primary sources — she is equally interested in the antiquaries who scribbled in the margins. As such, a succession of academic eccentrics spring into inky life at her touch. William Stukeley, a hapless antiquarian, confounds the legitimate naming of British landmarks by gullibly reprinting a forged “ancient” manuscript of supposedly Roman derivation — just as the nascent Ordnance Survey is scrabbling around for names to give to tracts of Britain that previously had none (such as the Pennines). In the early 1800s an elderly William Hutton strides forth, against the protestations of his daughter, to claim Hadrian’s Wall for himself, musing that he may well be the last man to walk its full length. In 1904 Edward Nicholson finds what seems to be a sensationally early Christian prayer in one of Bath’s scrolls. A century later it transpires that the tablet gives no such sign; in fact, it appears that Nicholson may have been reading it upside down.
“The end of Roman Britain is a shadowy, half-understood borderland, the explorers of which are apt to see phantoms and conjure ghosts.”
Though Higgins relates these exploits charmingly, as if talking about favourite uncles, she has a serious point to make about the appropriation of Britain’s Roman heritage to support an imperial agenda or subvert it, to bolster notions of rebellious individualism and to explore multiculturalism. These broader concerns give Under Another Sky a thoughtful undercurrent but Higgins does not force any conclusions; she is as happy to spread out a picnic blanket in the lee of a ruined wall as she is to pick over the whens and what fors of pre-Roman cultists.
In fact, more than anything, as Higgins traverses the country with her dutiful boyfriend Matthew* in tow, Under Another Sky proves a very difficult book to read while sitting still. Higgins visits so many mysterious ruins that you will likely be driven from your home in curiosity. On top of a manor house in Midlothian she finds the replica of an ancient Roman temple perched like a mantelpiece ornament. The buried city of Silchester gives up a secret or two. At Maiden Castle in Dorset she tells how Mortimer Wheeler, newly widowed and troubled by his time in the trenches, conjured nightmarish images of British tribesmen massacred by the Romans. Higgins has a knack for spinning out tales and making sense of complicated lives in a paragraph or two. It is stirring stuff; eminently readable.
“Stare at the pasture long enough and pale stripes in the green become visible – then disappear as you change the angle of view. This is the ancient street plan, revealed like subaqueous hints of a wreck seen from the surface of the sea.”
Higgins’ national survey is not complete, however. The south coast doesn’t get much of a look-in and the Cornish are left—as ever—to their own devices. But Under Another Sky does not strive to be comprehensive. Instead, the reader can lope along after Higgins as she follows her nose or the A1. It’s a great ride but, while Higgins’ itinerary is enviable and her Victorian guide books do a fine job of leading us through it, her own attempts to evoke a sense of place or a quirk of narrative lean towards the prosaic, intruding a little on the grander narrative of an empire’s inward and outward breath. Clouds tend to be “laced” and the air “thick with perfume”. Twice in the book, the jingle of an ice cream van is referred to as “melancholy”.
The thing is, while the antiquarians she adores spent their days executing careful drawings of fortifications, Higgins mostly just ambles around with nephews and nieces. Under Another Sky does not really analyse the modern heritage industry in Britain (except glancingly) so it is unclear what the reader is supposed to take from these excursions. Higgins’ VW camper van, much touted in the book’s publicity material, appears once or twice with almost as little to contribute as Matthew. It breaks down at some point and is abandoned. These attempts by Higgins to remind us she is there—right there—feel unnecessary, though they don’t dispel the book’s immersive sense of historical reverie.
“Here was the entrance to an underground car park, where there is another chunk of the Roman wall, exposed during the bombing and preserved by the Corporation of London. As I entered, the attendant gazed at me glassily, as if, like Charon, he expected a coin.”
Under Another Sky weaves an arresting tale but it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its own redolent title. It lacks a strong sense of what it meant to be alive and Romanised. To be fair, Higgins makes clear at the outset that she has no intention of trying to evoke such an ancient outlook: “I was convinced of the irrecoverability of the lives of people from the deep past,” she says. But this feels like a cop-out. We have archaeology with which to investigate the lives of people from the deep past—our modern understanding of Roman Britain is more than a little built on archaeological research. Higgins makes use of archaeological research to flavour a passage or two but she never quite manages to shake a reliance on historical sources or an obsession with celebrities — the ninth legion, Caractacus, Agricola. A frustrating gap opens up between the archaeological reality of the ruins that she explores and the half-mythical figures she lifts from the privileged pages of history.
It is unjust to criticise a book for not being what it never set out to be but, while it is not a critical flaw, this occlusion to archaeology hobbles some of Higgins’ broader analysis; she doesn’t have a lot to say about current attitudes towards Roman Britain, perhaps because so much of it is now rooted in something other than the purely historical. In the book’s conclusion, as evidence that the British have failed to assimilate their Roman heritage, she observes that no mural of Roman Britain was included in the new Palace of Westminster. But it is difficult to see how interior designs by the elite of the 1840s relate to British attitudes on the whole, then or now. All that can be said for sure about the paintings in Parliament is that they are political; nobody would claim they are entirely candid expressions of identity. It is a flimsy and dusty argument on which to end the book, out of step with the present. Midway through the book, however, is a fascinating look at the response of the Daily Mail and its readers to the news that a wealthy black woman appears to have lived in comfort in Roman York (spoiler: some of the comments are terrifying). This up-to-the-minute digression is refreshing and illustrates how archaeology continues to overturn common assumptions made about the past.
Other attempts to engage with modern interpretations of Roman Britain are less successful. When considering the signposted and giftshopped sites of English Heritage, Higgins merely labels them “banal”, which is far from penetrating. This glib rebuttal feels ill-considered when English Heritage’s presentational choices must have a greater impact on a modern Brit’s notion of historical context than murals in Westminster. At another point in the book an archaeologist wonders if a rebellious attitude towards Roman rule is encoded in the refusal of British subjects to align their houses with the grids of town planners. He draws a map to illustrate his point but, frustratingly, Higgins does not feel the need to reprint it. What we get instead is a poorly reproduced photo of the VW camper van. Archaeology can help us read between the lines of written history but it isn’t given sufficient credence here.
That’s not to say I wish the book were greatly different from what it is. As a series of snapshots it is captivating, offering a glimpse of the many different people who have been unable to shake their fascination with this odd period of British history. Ultimately Higgins seems to have a classicist’s disinterest in modern society but then again she makes up for it with a storyteller’s fascination for historical re-enactors conscripted to sell ice cream and local builders compelled against common sense to effect million-pound recreations of ancient mosaics. The silent dead who never wrote a word remain silent but, ultimately, Under Another Sky is warmly written and beguiling. It gently prompts us to think about where we came from and how we should feel about that. Can’t ask for much more, really.
“If it is to medieval literature that we owe the idea of Britain as a busy and productive and domesticated land, then it was the Romans who first made it wild, a land of sudden mists and treacherous marshes, a territory of mountains and impassable rivers. A land as ferocious as its people.”
* Matthew is so weird, seeming to haunt Higgins more than provide company. He gets about fifty mentions but never says a thing. He reminded me of the Hattifatteners who silently tag along with Moominpappa as he grapples with depression in Tales from Moominvalley. I almost want to reread the whole book in order to come to terms with this spectre.
Under Another Sky was published in paperback in March 2014. Buy it from Foyles.