By CE 130, the city of Rome was the center of an enormous empire
, roughly rectangular in shape, that stretched from the province of Aegyptus (Egypt) at its southeastern corner to Britannia in the northwest. Bronwen Riley chooses CE 130 as the year in which she imagines and constructs a journey “from the heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall” in this wonderfully accessible 2016 offering. In doing so, she draws upon a wide variety of sources ranging from modern scholarship to the immutable contributions of Cassius Dio
, and Pliny the Younger
While Egypt was immensely important to Rome, with the Nile River delta serving as the empire’s breadbasket, Britannia was… less so. Considered by cosmopolitan Romans to be the very embodiment of the term ‘provincial’, Britannia had functioned as an Imperial Province since CE 43 when the Emperor Claudius
ordered finished the work begun by Julius Caesar
almost a century prior. In the 90 years between CE 43 and 130, the Romans successfully secured their claim on Britannia, from the southern coast to the site of the modern village of Bowness-on-Solway
, through the liberal application of butchery, diplomacy, and industry.
Unlike the tamer Senatorial Provinces
closer to Rome such as Sicilia, Epirus, or even Macedonia, operations in Britannia were overseen by the Roman military. Riley selects for her travel companions the sorts of Romans who might be appointed to such a post. With her are Sextus Julius Severus, a battle-hardened Roman general who took up his governorship there in CE 130 and Minicius Natalis the Younger, the Patrician champion four-horse charioteer of the 227th Olympic Games, who assumed command of the Roman Sixth Legion at Eboracum
(York) that same year.
Riley describes in exceptional detail the ins and outs of travelling as a Roman citizen during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian
, who we’ll recall from our Western Civ. courses as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors
’. How would one arrange for travel from the ports of Ostia
to those in Gallia Narbonensis
on the far side of the Alps? What should one know of the intricacies of Gallic hospitality on the way to Gesoriacum
(Bulogne)? Here’s a travel tip: avoid the ‘pork’ offered by dodgy innkeepers if you harbor any qualms regarding potential acts of cannibalism.
Along the way, Riley draws attention to the myriad foundations of modern western civilization laid by Roman engineers. Upon arrival in the cities of Britannia, Riley focuses on the ways in which those engineers set to work emulating Roman life on the fringes of the empire. After all, city planning and the provision of civic institutions such as temples, amphitheaters, public baths, and above all, roads, were as important to Romans on the edge of their world as it was to those at its center.
It’s an engaging, immersive work that ultimately has far more in common with a historical monograph than a travel guide or a gazetteer, and in my opinion, comes off as less heavy and more approachable. Anglophiles and Romanophiles in particular will not be disappointed.