Roman Woman: Everyday Life in Hadrian's Britain
Lindsay Allason-Jones
Michael O'Mara Books
3342pp
Paperback, £9.99

An array of sites and objects from Roman times have survived in Britain and they make for enthralling viewing today. But what would it have been like to have actually lived in those times? Lindsay Allason-Jones provides us with the answer in Roman Woman, her vivid account of everyday life in Roman Britain which makes for compelling reading.

In the reign of the emperor Hadrian, in the year 133 AD, we are invited to follow the life of Senovara, a young woman born into the local Parisi tribe, who is married to Quintus Flavius Candidus, a veteran of the 6th Legion Victrix now working as a shoemaker. With a busy husband, infant son Lucius and toddler daughter Ertola to care for, Senovara is still adjusting to Roman ways in their home in the garrison town of Eboracum (York).

Each chapter chronicles a month in Senovara's daily life, an inspired device which works to great effect. Advancing through the year we are swept along on the tide of life of the bustling, noisy, not-too-sanitary town with its resident soldiers and their womenfolk, many of whom, like Senovara's German-born husband, hail from various parts of the vast Roman empire, together with some locals like Senovara's family who live on a farm nearby. To the north, a great wall across the country is being constructed.

We are in expert hands here. Allayson-Jones' work on Roman artefacts and Roman women has taken her across the Roman world. Chair of the Marc Fitch Fund and President of the Border Archaeological Society, she is also a Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University.

In Roman Woman, she displays great writing prowess conjuring up the local atmosphere from a freezing foggy January and the sweltering days of summer when fever grips the town to a colourful cast of characters from Senovara's circle. Among others, we meet Catia the widow and her suitor Bonosius, the butcher, the sensible midwife Grata, Adnamata, the pregnant young wife of the newly arrived centurion, and Senovara's young slave-girl Armea and her family, including her bossy grandmother who derides the odd new Roman ways. We also hear from others such as Quintus' brother who is serving up north on the frontier.

Effortlessly woven into the narrative is a mass of information about life in Roman Britain: the social milieu of the town, the way in which routine chores like cooking, cleaning and shopping were undertaken, the recipes used, the making of clothes, the treatment of ailments. We are struck both by the familiar and the strange.

Many aspects of life seem much like our own. Senovara's cares are those shared by parents today; the young son with a bad cough, the little girl who is worryingly slow to learn to speak. There is the same need for companionship and friendship. Senovara is thrilled by the additional company provided by the wife and sister of the new centurion. We share in the women's delight in visiting the town baths for a steam clean and a good gossip.

Other aspects of life seem completely different: the religious beliefs and practices of the Romans are alien to us and the dearth of medical knowledge and lack of effective remedies for illnesses is sobering. At the end of the year, I was sorry to part company with the good-hearted, decent Senovara but glad to have shared a year in her hectic life.

Reading about Roman Britain or visits to Roman sites in future will be all the richer for having met and become acquainted with Senovara and her friends and family.

Diana Bentley

 

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