by John Manley
Stroud, Glou.: Tempus/Chicago: Trafalgar Square/Independent Publishers Group, 2007. Pp. 160.
Illus., maps, diagr., append., notes, biblio., index. $40.00 paper. ISBN: 978-0-752419-59-6
Manley, head of the Sussex Archaeological Society, and author of several other works on ancient Britain (e.g., Atlas of Prehistoric Britain) opens this interesting book by asking, “Why bother?” After all, what more can be said about events nearly two millennia ago that is really new? But Manley then reminds us that our views of the past are quite important in the present. Observing that archaeologists and historians have often assumed that a certain discovery provided had the answer to a particular historical question (e.g., Schliemann’s “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”), when, in fact, they had at best uncovered a little piece of the story, and perhaps gotten it wrong anyway, filling in just a little too much interpretation.
In short, interpretations of the past are based on prejudice, hasty conclusions, and, frequently, slender evidence, such as a helmet or potsherd, a few lines in an ancient text, and so forth. The evidence for Emperor Claudius’ conquest of Britain is such a case, a few scattered relics, some inscriptons, and about seven paragraphs from Dio Cassius, upon which volumes of interpretation have been based, none of which stands up to much scrutiny. Manley then goes on to consider alternative interpretations of the events, which he freely admits are perhaps based on equally weak evidence, but evidence that certainly is there. Manley concludes that the evidence is so poor, no narrative of the Roman conquest of Britain can be accepted as proven.
A good book about how we interpret the past, and not just about Roman Britain.