Roman Britain

Martin Millett

English Heritage (Batsford) 1995, paperback (ISBN 0-7134-7793-8)

Book review by Christopher Lemke

Martin Millett's intention in his book Roman Britain is clearly stated in his introduction. He says that his aim is "... to produce a narrative which does not simply supplement written sources with other information but rather places the Classical texts within a framework defined by the archaeological record" (p 26-27). This aim is ambitious and one might even argue that Classical texts, being themselves a form of material culture, should not be considered as something different from any other form of archaeological evidence. It might also be argued that if we treat Classical texts as if they are different from any other type of material culture, then we are creating a distinction that does not exist. Nevertheless, if one were to ignore this and examine the rest of Millett's text, one can visualise a Roman Britain that would be accepted by many academics. Millett's text is very successfully accompanied by a wide range of instructive charts, photographs and line drawings. These visual aids contribute significantly to the text and give the reader a glimpse at Roman Britain that would not be possible with prose alone. This book is very readable and gives an in-depth and clear view of this subject, and in the rare instances where the author has included esoteric terminology, it is well defined and used for clarification rather than obfuscation. It is unfortunate that the first chapter has more than its share of typos which slightly affect the reading, but this is a reflection on the copy editing rather than on Millett's narrative.

My main criticism of this book lies not in Millett's narrative or in the semantics of Millett's aim for his book, but in the fashion in which we archaeologists insist on publishing popular texts - as can be readily seen in many of the books produced for Batsford's English Heritage Series. More often than not, these popular texts forgo any citation and are written in a history book format - i.e., here is the past, and this is what happened. One of the rationalisations behind the lack of citation in these texts is that it apparently makes the text flow easier and is thus more accessible to the reader. This may be true if one would insist on using the Harvard system of citation , but if one were to use a system of footnotes or endnotes then the flow of the text would in no way be impeded. And more significantly, the lack of citation affects the non-critical reader by changing a book from a single version of the past into the one 'true' past. For a critical reader the lack of citation makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to academically scrutinise the content of that particular narrative, and thus it is of limited value. We would never attempt writing a book for our fellow academics without justifying our ideas or motivations, but when it comes to writing a popular text this does not appear necessary. Is this because as archaeologists we feel the need to legitimise our discipline to the popular market? Perhaps this is why we chose a format for our publications that implies there is one past which can be objectively found, and not a past that is created as a series of subjective narratives. The impact of this type of format on the popular market may have far-ranging effects, and it is extremely important to recognise that the past we construct in these publications will affect others' perception of the present.

Chris Lemke is a Ph.D. student at Sheffield University who has an interest in the maintenance of Roman traditions of manufacture and its relationship to the composition of early Roman glass.

Christopher Lemke 1996


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