Visions of the Roman North: art and identity in northern Roman Britain

This remarkable and important study of the art and culture of northern Roman Britain has been published almost two decades after my own – The Heirs of King Verica (Tempus, 2002; 2nd edition: Amberley, 2010), which dealt almost entirely with southern Britain – first appeared. Both are highly personal visions, expressive of deep empathy for the art they describe, and both stress the importance of landscape. This book, however – which I regard as a pendant to my own – could not be more different. In southern Britain, the influence of the Roman army was short-lived and even minimal, and it was the local tribal gentry who ran the towns and lived in sumptuous villas set in pleasant rolling landscapes. By contrast, Ferris’ North was wild and untamed: temple-like structures and bucolic myths in art provide a comforting human presence in a landscape of rocks (from which the stones were all hewn) and mighty rivers in spate. The army (though largely composed of provincials from different provinces) was the driving force in culture here, epitomised not only in the frontier walls of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, but on numerous tombstones and religious dedications. There were no towns as understood in the south, with the partial exception of Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough) which, together with York, largely accounts for the mosaics from the region – the most prominent art of towns and, especially, villas in southern Britain.

Not only is there far more sculpture from the North, but there are very many more inscriptions associated with it, mostly commissioned by the army and its units or closely associated with it, expressing Romanitas as well as the local, north British response to it. This is especially seen in the remarkable legionary distance slabs set up along the Antonine Wall, and rightly seen in some ways as a parallel to Trajan’s Column in Rome and the monument at Adamklissi in Romania. These depict symbolic figures, notably Victoria, and on the superb Legio II Augusta Bridgeness slab, the brutality of fighting and the decapitation of enemies (also noted on the rider-tombstone from Lancaster), as well as the purificatory religious rite of the suovetaurilia on which Roman success depended.

One prominent feature of northern sculptural art is what Ferris calls hyper-masculinity. This can be seen in images of Mars – as on the statues from Balmuildy, Lanarkshire, and York, which are so different in effect from the agricultural Mars featured on small altars from the Cotswolds – and beefy figures of Hercules – as on the famous relief from Corbridge, showing him killing the Hydra. Lions devouring animal prey are common in Roman funerary art in Britain and elsewhere, but they do not prepare us for the magnificent lioness laying into a human head from Cramond, near Edinburgh. Even the phallus, a common trope as a protective symbol, can appear aggressive here, such as in the ejaculating example on a Catterick relief.

These images contrast with the delicacy with which women and family groups are portrayed in the region on a remarkable number of stele, in varying styles but including what are surely three of the finest reliefs from Roman Britain: two from Carlisle and one from South Shields. The last is that of Regina, a Catuvellaunian freed-woman from the South, married to a Palmyrene and carved by a Syrian sculptor. The cults of Jupiter Dolichenus and of Mithras are a reminder of the complex forces operating in this community, both Eastern cults in origin but here, as in the Inveresk Mithraeum, serving a military elite.

Smaller items include enamelled pans which feature on the western side of Hadrian’s Wall, emphasising its dominating position in its landscape. They have all been found further south in Britain and abroad, sometimes in religious contexts, revealing that this great construction at the limit of the World must have registered on the religious sensibilities of these pilgrims. Other personal objects – gems and jewellery, jet, amber, and glass – were cherished locally or sometimes disposed of as votive offerings in shrines and rivers.

Review by Martin Henig.
Visions of the Roman North: art and identity in northern Roman Britain, Iain Ferris, Archaeopress, £35, ISBN 978-1789699050.