I should begin by confessing the modesty of my qualification to undertake this review. As a student of Ancient and Modern History at Oxford in the late 1980s I had ‘small Latin and less Greek’; a limitation compounded by rather indifferent application. Almost the only thing which stays with me from the few lectures which I attended was that Rome has a substantially higher average rainfall than London. Thirty years on, I still find that a surprising fact…

One question posed by Sir Rupert Jackson in his excellent new history of Roman Britain is why did Britain appeal to Rome at all? Distant, troublesome, cold (albeit not as rainy as you probably always thought), it may never have paid its way and its subjugation for most of four centuries required the constant deployment of legions and treasure. So why bother? All empires intrinsically involve dominion and exploitation and when it comes to Britain perhaps the answer is as simple as Sir Rupert suggests: one emperor (Claudius) wishing to prove himself by conquering it and no subsequent emperor wishing to lose face by abandoning it.

In his new study, Sir Rupert takes not much more than 300 pages (plus a useful online appendix) to cover the entire history of Roman Britain along with an Iron Age prelude and Anglo-Saxon aftermath. He necessarily proceeds at pace but not at the expense of vital detail or reflection and all that he says is explicitly linked to both primary and secondary sources. His extensive bibliography has clearly been read and critically evaluated and, in the usual way, provides not only an account of his sources but also a comprehensive list of destinations for those wishing to learn more about any of the many subjects which this book discusses. There are inevitably numerous imponderables – Sir Rupert not only describes them but, after giving judicious consideration to the various uncertainties and controversies, does not shy away from expressing a view.

Sir Rupert read classics at Cambridge and seems (somehow) to have found the time while at the Bar and then on the bench to remain actively engaged with Roman literature and history. In that sense, this book is a natural and fitting culmination of a lifelong interest but though he may love Rome, he is not blinkered or romantic about its brutality. In Britain, as in other provinces, the mechanics of conquest and the maintenance of control were often very bloody and it is a striking example of how different from (rather than similar to) us the Romans were, that it does not seem to have occurred to historians such as Tacitus to disguise the extent of their killing and enslaving. Indeed, it is not much of an exaggeration to regard Caesar’s Gallic Wars as an account of genocide. This history quite properly shows warts and all.

There has been something of vogue in recent years for some historians of the Roman empire to dispute the very concept of ‘Romanization’. Sir Rupert respects their endeavour – even where he suspects that it may be motivated by the desire to say something different and new – but he is entirely convincing in his conception of the Roman encounter as a multilateral phenomenon. In his view, not only were provinces like Britain Romanized, but Rome was simultaneously provincialized. Moreover, Rome was not a monolith and the provincial experience of its dominion depended not only on the disparate international origins of its occupying legions and auxiliary cohorts, but also the unprecedented extent of international trade under the empire. As Sir Rupert puts it, Britain under Rome ‘was becoming more Gaulish, Spanish, Rhinelandish and Danubian’. This was (as he expressly identifies) a kind of globalisation and just as with its modern manifestation, its benefits were not evenly distributed. In particular, ground-breaking recent research indicates that the diet of the rural population of Britain actually declined during the Roman occupation. By contrast, the urban experience was one of the continued prominence of the Iron Age elite, many of whom seem enthusiastically to have embraced the trappings as well as benefits of Roman life. Finds of foreign luxury artefacts show similar disparities between town and country (save in the case of country estates).

Even in the relatively literate urban society of Roman Britain, archaeological evidence is vital, indeed pre-eminent, and Sir Rupert writes evocatively of the many such sites in Britain which he has self-evidently visited; there have been many recent discoveries and this is one of the many respects in which this book is right up to date. I suspect that I am not alone in hitherto having found the ruins of Rome and the Bay of Naples rather more alluring – I suspect that the food will always be better – but this book gives the reader a real desire to explore the many sites which (at least relatively speaking) lie on our doorstep. I really might now go to Caerleon to address an imagined legion in the amphitheatre just – so Sir Rupert muses – as the Roman legate might have done.

It was in the urban centres, the vicinities of the countryside villas of the elite and the areas around military installations that the encounter with Rome was most keenly felt while many rural areas – where most of the British population lived – would have been left relatively untouched (albeit that Roman taxation was universal). That brings us to the question of legacy. The Anglo-Saxon invasions which followed the departure of the Romans caused disruption rather than continuity; unlike so much of western continental Europe, the invaders of this island did not adopt Christianity or Latin (which instead returned much-mutated several centuries later with the Normans). Scotland was never subjugated or even significantly occupied by the Romans and Wales seems to have been little touched by the occupation apart from the military installations which prevented rebellion. Even in England, one is left with the sense that the Roman legacy was and is permanent but only one subsidiary part of a complex whole. The Romans introduced the concept of cities and indeed established many of the towns and cities which survive to this day as well as the pre-eminence of London. Ports and trading routes as well as roads also linger but, infrastructure apart, the cultural and societal legacies are more elusive.

In the coda to his history, Sir Rupert describes the distinctive and isolating effect (not least in our consciousness) of being a far-flung island in the first centuries of the common era. In so doing, he seems to me to express an enduring truth which vindicates the reference which he makes to Brexit, even if only for ‘comparison’ rather than ‘parallel’.

The net royalties from this book are to be donated by the author to Classics for All, a charity devoted to the promotion of the teaching of classics in state schools. It is a noble and worthwhile cause and it is hard to imagine a better introduction to Roman Britain for pupil and adult alike. Its direct and unfussy style is sprinkled with humour, often in the service of comparison with modern history and experience; this too makes this book both more immediate and attractive. We may not be holidaying in foreign climes any time soon so why not add the Roman to the Medieval in your British summer sightseeing?