Silures: resistance, resilience, revival

Review by Miranda Aldhouse-Green.

Ray Howell’s new book focuses on the Iron Age and the transition to the Roman period as experienced by one particular tribe (or polity), zooming in on the Silures of south-east Wales. In 11 succinct chapters, the author takes his readers on a journey of exploration beginning with a summary of the Roman chronicler Tacitus’ comments. He then moves on to consider inscriptions, artefacts, trade, dwellings and fortified places, religion, the coming of Romanitas, and life in Siluria after the Romans. There is also discussion of personal experiments, bringing us face-to-face with a Silurian and telling us how to build a roundhouse. Chapter 12 contains a wise research model for future work on this enigmatic and intriguing tribe.

The book scores on many fronts, not least in the partnership established between author and reader. Chapter headings show an attractive relationship between accessibility and scholarship: for example, ‘Art and artefacts: “the study of stuff”’, and ‘The Silures at home: life in the round’. From the start, Ray ‘speaks’ to his audience as though meeting a group of friends and setting out with them on a quest. Throughout the book, that easy chat is maintained, the author repeatedly reaching out to his companions, sharing knowledge, firing questions, and pondering possible answers. This approach represents a skilful balance between erudition and communication, where each benefits hugely from the other.

Ray’s lectures and field trips, when he and I were colleagues at Newport, were always entertaining as well as scholarly, a happy combination that hooked students from all kinds of backgrounds. His book, crammed with knowledge and peppered with trenchant, often hilarious anecdotes, exemplifies this approach. For me, the best of these stories is in the conclusion, when a passing dog-walker noticed an actor dressed as a Roman centurion for an educational video that Ray organised with S4C. As the lad passed this curious sight, he commented, ‘You lot aren’t coming back are you?’ He then looked back with the riposte, ‘We’ll bloody have you next time!’ and stomped off. So much for entente cordiale between Silurians and Romans!

Silures: resistance, resilience, revival, Ray Howell, The History Press, £17.99, ISBN 978-0750998642