by Patrick Ottaway
I’m not usually too much into Roman history for whatever reason – that isn’t to say it’s boring or uninteresting, I’m just not as fond of memorizing the names of various rulers and dates, and that seems to be one of the main focuses on scholarship in that realm. At least that was how all of my college classes that dealt with that particular era handled things. There’s a bit of that in this new book, Julia Velva, A Roman Lady from York – Her Life and Times Revealed by Patrick Ottaway, but I would say that the author has chosen a rather interesting way to make a book about Roman History – focusing in on one artifact and trying to establish the world around that person. The artifact in question is a gravestone dug up almost 100 years ago in modern-day York depicting the life of a Roman woman named “JULIAE VELVAE” or Julia Velva. The author tries to paint as full of a picture of the events and social structures found in ancient York as they can.
“The tombstone of Julia Velva, one of the best-preserved examples from Roman Britain, was found close to a Roman road just outside the centre of York. Fifty years old when she died in the early third century, Julia Velva was probably from a wealthy family able to afford a fine monument. Patrick Ottaway uses the tombstone as the starting point to investigate what the world she lived in was like. Drawing on the latest archaeological discoveries and scientific techniques, the author describes the development of Roman York’s legionary fortress, civilian town and surrounding landscape. He also looks at manufacturing and trade, and considers the structure of local society along with the latest analytical evidence for people of different ethnic backgrounds. Aspects of daily life discussed include literacy, costume, cosmetics and diet. There are also chapters dedicated to the abundant York evidence for religion and burial customs. This book presents a picture of what one would have found on the edge of a great Empire at a time when York itself was at the height of its importance. Illustrated with dozens of photographs, specially prepared plans and illustrations, this is an excellent study of one of Roman Britain’s most important places.”
It’s honestly amazing how much information can be gleaned from such a seemingly insignificant piece of stone. For example, by seeing what her presumed husband’s name was as inscribed on the headstone, Aurelius Mecurialis, the author describes the Roman rules for military service wherein foreigners were not seen to have legitimate marriages or children until they retired from the mandatory service and were granted citizenship. With his non-given name being “Aurelius”, it can be surmised that he was an outsider that joined the Roman military, gained citizenship through military service, then took a new honorific name in honor of the ruler at the time, either Marcus Aurelius or possibly his son. These names were a way to tell if somebody was higher up in the class rankings than a person without such a name. I was skeptical as to how an entire book could be written about a headstone, but stuff like this surprised me.
Overall this book was interesting despite my general disinterest in Roman history. The second half of the book, which particularly described what life would have been like in what is now known as York was interesting and paints a far better picture on what life was like in Roman-ruled Britain than most other sources I’ve come across. I’m not going to say that I plan to go hog-wild on Roman stuff anytime soon, but this was a solid book that may have helped changed my mind about reading books in this wheelhouse.
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NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.