Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins has been nominated for the short-list for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. She has in the past written of her re-reading of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, ‘a childhood favourite‘. In the Guardian she has written briefly about her encounter with Roman Britain.
My academic training is as a classicist; but during my education, and for a long time afterwards, I wasn’t interested in Roman Britain – it struck me as a rather unglamorous, somewhat dreary outpost of the empire. Everything changed when, one spring, I went walking on Hadrian’s wall. I began to think about how the remnants of Roman Britain formed part of our mental and physical landscape. What had those who lived among these remains made of them? How had ideas about Britain’s Roman period shaped ideas about nationhood and empire?
The journey I took was a literal one: two summers were spent trundling around in a VW camper van in search of the physical remains of Roman Britain. I certainly revised my old, ignorant views of them when faced with such sites as the magnificent coastal military installation of Burgh Castle in Norfolk, or Hardknott in Cumbria, a spectacular fort perched on a steep mountain pass. I spent many months in libraries and archives; it was a particular pleasure seeking out antiquarian accounts of Roman Britain, from William Camden in the 16th century to writings by the learned and eccentric scholars of the 18th century.
I also became intrigued by the notion of Roman Britain as a generative place for art and ideas. Figures such as WH Auden, Wilfred Owen, Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten had been inspired by Roman Britain, not to mention authors such as Rosemary Sutcliff, but it had also sparked apparently humbler encounters: the Bristol builder who recreated a Romano-British mosaic in 1.6m tesserae; the amateur scholar who cracked an academic conundrum while running his children’s bath; the Newcastle seller of kitchens who became a full-time centurion, working in the modern heritage industry.
Under Another Sky is a book about the encounter with Roman Britain: my own, and that of others who came before me. I found Roman Britain to be an elusive, slippery place and time, offering up more anxieties and doubts than certainties. Above all writing the book was, for me, a way of trying to understand our present, by looking it at it through the lens of long ago.