Don’t for a moment think that Charlotte Higgins’ Under Another Sky is just another gazetteer of Roman ruins in Britain. It’s so much more than that. What Higgins (The Guardian's chief arts writer) has cooked up is a superb first-person account of her travels around Blighty on foot and in a chronically unreliable blue VW camper van looking at the remain of Rome’s most northerly province interspersed with examinations of how our view of Roman Britain has changed over the years and how our interpretations of its physical, emotional and intellectual legacy have similarly morphed over the centuries.
Over the course of this supremely readable book Higgins tracks down chunks of Roman masonry in the oddest places: in a field near Brecon; in a City of London underground car park, where she finds a section of Roman wall flanked by motorbikes. At one point, her camper van runs out of steam as it climbs the Lake District fells in search of Hardknott Castle, a Roman fort perched high on a wind-blasted crag. Even if you know nothing about Roman Britain this book will have you out and about looking for Roman remains in very short order.
Higgins pays valuable attention to the fact that physical remains of Rome are fragile and much has already been lost (this reviewer has seen a Roman mosaic used as the floor of a domestic garage near Aldborough). One tale in the book is of Arthur's O'on ("Oven"), a monumental beehive-shaped building with a circular aperture at the top, which once stood just north of Falkirk. Higgins notes that it is "the only Romano-British monument to have a football team named after it" (Stenhousemuir). But the "stone house" was demolished for its stone in 1745, so we shall probably never know what its purpose was.
Higgins also tells of the Bodleian librarian Edward Nicholson, who in 1904 transcribed a curse inscribed on a lead tablet, providing sensational evidence for the early presence of Christian theological debate in Roman Britain. Unfortunately, he was holding it upside down; the inscription is just a curse levelled at a thief. This highlights the all too common problem of interpreting the history and legacy of the Roman occupation was we wish it be to be, not as it was.
The modern commercial value of our Roman heritage is also examined, Higgins details the decline of local farming in the wake of foot and mouth which made Hadrian's Wall with 1 million visitors a year the centre of the local economy. Talk of rebuilding parts of the Wall is also discussed, the aim being to allow visitors to experience the fortifications in all their imposing grandeur.
In this case, perhaps, the rebuilding venture is justified (after all, we will never know exactly what the wall looked like). One of the lessons learned from the extraordinary cache of tablets discovered at Vindolanda (near the village of Bardon Mill) is that the wall was designed primarily for its visual impact and to impress the locals with the power and grandeur of Rome rather than military capability: there were no hordes of wild Caledonians to keep out of Britain, and in any case there were too few soldiers stationed in the forts to resist them - if any fighting was to be done it would be the job of the nearest legion stationed at York.
Verdict: Under A Different Sky isn't simply a guide to Roman Britain, nor is it a history of the province, but rather an analysis of Roman Britain’s legacy both physically, politically and historically. It’s quite unlike any other book on the subject I've come across and I’d recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Britain’s Roman past.