The Edge of the Empire
By Bronwen Riley
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
There seems to be a trend in history books these days that I'm all for, which is to de-emphasize the date-focused tradition of battles and emperors to instead "paint a portrait" of what daily life in those days must've been like for the average citizen; take Bronwen Riley's The Edge of the Empire, for example, which examines the Roman Empire's far-flung colony of Brittannia (or modern-day Great Britain) by picturing what the trip there must've been like for its newly appointed governor in 120 AD, Sextus Julius Severus, as he made his way with his retinue from the center of Rome itself all the way to the northern wasteland of Hadrian's Wall. This then gives Riley an excuse to look at all kinds of interesting topics that would relate to such a trip, from the roadways and shipping lanes that had been established by then, to how such traveling groups kept themselves fed and housed over such a long distance, the way the countryside's culture changed as you traveled farther and farther away from Italy, what exactly was built by the Romans in these far-off spots and what was co-opted from the pagans who were already there, what kinds of things were valuable enough in those locations to be imported back to people in Rome, and what kinds of things needed to be exported from Rome out to them. It's a surprisingly short book, only 200 pages once you remove the bibliography and notes; and this lets it move at the lively pace of a contemporary novel, certainly not a book for serious academes but a perfect volume for armchair historians like you and me. For those who are interested in learning more about this endlessly fascinating period of human history, but don't feel like trudging their way through a thousand pages of "Caesar This" defeating "Minor That," this comes strongly recommended, a brisk and fact-filled look at what European travel was like in an age before jetliners, ocean cruisers or even paved roads.
Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.3 for amateur history buffs