Rich historical pickings

31st October 1997 at 00:00
tHE ROMANS IN BRITAIN. BBC Radio 4 Saturdays. 4.02-4.32pm Rpt Sundays 8.30pm. From November 1.

Tired of centurions, mosaics and those long straight Roman roads? Suffering from villa fatigue? Don't worry, some enthusiastic help is at hand in the shape of a historian called Guy de la Bedoyere and six radio programmes, also available on cassette.

The cassettes differ slightly from the radio programmes in that they are in 4 x 45 minute chunks and exclude a little of the material used. So a good idea might be to listen to the radio version first.

Guy de la Bedoyere, who sounds like a cross between John Noakes and David Bellamy, picks one historical plum after another from the rich pie that the Romans and Britons created between them. (He explains with glee that we should really be "Pritons" rather than Britons, but the French misheard somewhere along the line and the name stuck. In Welsh the "P" remains).

In the first programme, he starts with the question, why the Roman invasion of Britain? Apparently it had a lot to do with British gold and silver reserves, and the Emperor Claudius's desire to cut a good military image in Rome. Interestingly, once the Romans had conquered Britain, they gave the defeated Britons important roles in local government.

This becomes a dominant theme of the series: "The Romans didn't like to inflict anything - unless they really had to", is how one expert puts it. They liked to co-exist tolerantly as long as the natives toed the official line. If they didn't - as Boudicca didn't - that was something different. She burst out of Norfolk and sacked and pillaged till she was defeated by a more disciplined Roman army.

Another theme is the sophisticated and cosmopolitan nature of Roman Britain. Algerians, Hungarians and even Africans were mixed in with the local population. And Britain was then - evidently without too much fuss - part of the first-ever single European currency as Euro-wide haulage firms serviced the Empire's trade.

Guy is good on the processes of discovery - like the half-burnt bonfire which provided so many fascinating letters. And on dispelling myths - Roman roads may have been straight, but one centurion found them so bad he couldn't complete a simple journey to York.

There's plenty of life in these programmes; no expert is allowed to drone. Admittedly, sometimes the plums are so rich that you feel deprived when they're abruptly swallowed and another picked out. Linear narrative is not Guy's bag, but it's nice to be entertained. The cassettes are full of extracts which could be used with most ages, but it would be much easier if a contents list came with the pack.

Bernard Adams This series is available as two cassettes from BBC Worldwide, Pounds 9.99; tel: 0181 743 5588

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