Journey to Britannia, Bronwen Riley

riley_journey_britanniaReviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Journey to Britannia. From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall. AD 130, Bronwen Riley

Head of Zeus Ltd., London 2015
ISBN: 9781781851340

Hardcover with dust jacket, with maps, checklist of Latin and English place names, bibliography, notes and index
335 pages
£25,00 / €27,00


Traveling through the Roman Empire

Before modern means of transport, traveling was often a dangerous, exhaustive and lengthy affair. Not least at the time the Roman Empire covered most of Western Europe. Although the Roman armies constructed highways wherever they went, journeying through the territory of the Pax Romana remained a risky and arduous venture. Although most travellers went by foot, horse or wagon, making a journey by ship was also possible. It was often faster and less dangerous than the route overland, but also costly.

In Journey to Britannia Bronwen Riley has reconstructed a voyage from the center of world power in the second century AD, Rome, to the outskirts of the known world at Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia. Along the road we follow in the footsteps of governor Sextus Julius Severus, who took up his post in Britannia in 130 AD and remained there three years. Before taking up office, it was not unusual for a new governor to make an inspection tour through the country, or province, and along its borders. We do not know if Severus made such a tour of duty, but Riley uses the possibility to take the reader through Britannia from the southeast to the southeast and then upwards through Wales up to the most north-western border of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall.

Piecing together the evidence we have from archaeology as well as from historical sources, Riley reconstructs a possible journey that could have been made around the year 130 AD. On the way, she takes every opportunity to inform the reader about spectacular and peculiar finds and facts such as the very special letters written on pieces of wood, found near the Roman fort Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall. Or what to think of the funeral tombs alongside Rome’s access roads that often functioned as dwelling places for prostitutes that were known by the name of bustariae, ‘grave girls’. Tombs were also frequently used as public toilets. Rome’s harbour town Ostia comes vividly to life under Riley’s pen, as are the many food-and-drink-selling establishments that populate the town, some of them less tidy and respectable than others but in every accommodation one has to expect lice and fleas in abundance.

The voyage by ship to Gallia Narbonensis, Gaul’s southern province, is followed by a journey on horseback or by cart through Gallia. Via Lugdunum, modern-day Lyon, and Lutetia, Paris, Oceanus is reached. Along the way the proper Latin of the Gallo-Romans is gradually replaced by Celtic. The crossing of the Channel is always a hazardous affair but the arrival at Rutupiae (Richborough) would be splendid. A beautiful arch crowned the entrance of the harbour and gave visitors of the island a monumental welcome. From Rutupiae the journey proceeds westwards to Londinium, where our guide Riley explains the city’s rise to prominence under the Romans. The towns of Silchester, Bath and Caerleon are also give an extensive treatment, not in the least because of the many remains of Roman buildings these places cherish. A lot of the town reconstruction in Riley’s book is based on architectural remains of buildings such as temples, amphitheatres but also fortresses of which there were plenty in Roman Britain. On her way to Hadrian’s Wall, the author gives a wealth of information about life in Britannia’s countryside in the second century. This, together with the interesting and very entertaining ‘tourist information’ Riley provides in her book, ensures a pleasant read from which one also learns a lot about the means of traveling in the heydays of the Roman empire, and about Roman society and daily life in the province as well.

Wouter van Dijk