Little Brits

Tom Shippey

  • The Real Lives of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère
    Yale, 241 pp, £20.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 20719 4

‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ John Cleese asks in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. His audience, not realising his question is rhetorical, replies: aqueducts, sanitation, medicine, public order, etc etc. Guy de la Bédoyère, on the other hand, doesn’t need a list: the Romans’ most important legacy, he suggests in his new book, is literacy, and specifically the habit of written memorialisation. Pre-Roman relics are visible all over Britain – there are barrows, hill-forts, stone circles and chalk figures – and we can infer quite a lot about the people who made them: we can measure their skeletons, test the isotopes in their teeth to see if they were born nearby, and often establish how they died. But none of the information we have is personal. There are no names, no faces. Those come in with the Romans, and the inscriptions that record them provide a narrative that runs in parallel to the histories of Caesar, Tacitus and their successors. They document the lives of ordinary people, slaves and centurions, potters and graffiti writers.

Roman tombs have given us the first named face in Britain, the first named woman and the first self-proclaimed Londoner. The face belonged to Marcus Favonius Facilis, a centurion of the XXth Legion, and was carved, along with an inscription, on the elaborate statue that once sheltered his ashes. The statue was found in Colchester. De la Bédoyère’s book contains 32 coloured plates, but he has chosen not to waste one on Marcus Favonius, perhaps because the statue can easily be seen online – just Google his name. Both figure and inscription are surprisingly well preserved, because the statue seems to have fallen on its front not long after it was finished, and wasn’t set upright again. Marcus Favonius, who stands with one hand on his sword and the other holding his centurion’s olive-wood swagger-stick, or cudgel, hasn’t given his legion the title Valeria Victrix, which suggests that he died before the Boadicea rebellion of 60-61 ce, in which the legion played a significant part. It’s quite possible his statue was thrown down during that rebellion by the vengeful British tribesmen who stormed Colchester. Marcus Favonius must have served during the conquest of Britain under Claudius nearly twenty years earlier. His face may not be the most prepossessing – he had a small chin and protruding ears – but it did belong to him alone. The stone was commissioned, not unusually, by the centurion’s grateful freedmen, or ex-slaves, Verecundus and Novicius.

The first ‘securely dated and attested named woman in British history’ is Julia Pacata Indiana, or Induta. She was the wife of Julius Classicianus, who was procurator of Britain after the rebellion and castigated by Tacitus for being too soft on the natives. She commissioned his tombstone, which survives in fragments, and had her name put on it beside his. The inscription reveals that she was the daughter of a Gaulish leader of the Treveri who had stayed loyal to the Romans during a previous Gaulish rebellion. When her husband died, in 65 ce, she was probably around forty years old.

The first person to declare himself ‘a Londoner’ was Tiberinius Celerianus, who had a stone carved in dedication ‘to the Spirits of the Emperors and to the god Mars Camulos’. Tiberinius was another Gaul, ‘a citizen of the Bellovaci’, but he described himself as Londiniensis. Why should a Gaul call himself a Londoner? He also described himself as moritex, or moritix (one of the book’s plates shows his stone, but it’s not easy to read), which de la Bédoyère suggests must mean ‘a shipper, a man who plied his trade across the English Channel’. The same word appears on a coffin from York belonging to a man from Gallia Aquitania.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Tom Shippey reviewed Blood and Mistletoe in the LRB of 9 July 2009.