An understandable Roman fascination - Roman Britain
How could you not be happy about the Romans? They invaded and conquered a country that was in dire need of a general tidying, as the ever-fragrant Mrs M would say. There is scarcely any part of Great Britain that was left untouched by the invaders, as they traipsed into the far north of Scotland, even onto some remote islands, wandered all around the north of England, its eastern extremities, through Wales and even the deepest, darkest Devon and Cornwall.
So much of what was Roman architecture remains in restored, renovated or ruined forms around the UK but it has been responsible for attracting worldwide treasure hunters in as great a number as all those marauding pirates that once populated the coastline of my neck of the countryside, down in the south-west. However, let’s put the Roman connection into perspective. The Provincia Britannia, as our Italian friends used to call it, existed from 43 to 409AD, which is impressive, especially when you consider how much hardship was involved in moving about at that time.
It needs to be stated that the Roman occupation of Britain was probably the most significant event in our islands’ history. The legacy lies in our country’s Latin name, its Roman capital city and a language that pervaded its religion, currency and politics. Yet, contrary to popular opinion, while a lot of the sub-structure was definitely Roman, we were actually settled by soldiers of Rome, who came from many different backgrounds, such as Thrace, Batavia and Mauretania, and they settled here, assimilating with the indigenous population. Starting out in forts, which grew into small settlements and then townships, some fine examples of early Roman living still exist in the UK.
Naturally, Hadrian’s Wall is probably the best and most famous of the Roman fortifications that remains, albeit in reduced form. Not so much a defensive structure but an administrative one, capable of claiming tolls from traders and built in a most unwelcoming and, when not craggy, then boggy stretch of moorland, north of a very fruitful valley, through which the River Tees runs. Visit
this area and you will find it hard to escape the Roman connection. You can almost walk the entire wall from west to east coasts but, there is not much of it left to see, even though you could easily spend a fortnight in this area and barely scrape the surface.
However, almost any modern town ending in ‘-chester’ (castrum) has a castellated Roman origin, although it might be tougher to seek out in the likes of Manchester (Mamucium), now so massively developed, rather than the conveniently named Chester (Deva Victrix), about 35 miles due west of the Mancunian centre, where the Roman walls around the original city are still part of the
tourist walks, and its main roadways into the city, Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate and Bridge, are still based on the Roman originals. When you visit Chester, do not forget to take in the wonderful amphitheatre.
When you think about it, Colchester (Camulodunum), in Essex, is another famous Roman town, with more than its fair share of artefacts, buildings, ruins and remnants. Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) features its ancient and proud 20-feet high city walls, while Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) presents some of the oldest Romano-British signs of existence yet uncovered in the UK.
In the East Midlands, Lincoln (Lindum) has a proud Roman heritage, from its inland harbour, to its city walls, one of which can still be driven through by motorcars (the wall, not the waterway). Wherever you walk in the city, which happens to be one of the smallest so designated in the UK, some reminder will highlight the strength of the original Roman settlement, uphill, near the lovely, original cathedral, or downtown, beside the Brayford Pool.
Staying in the east of England but moving a little further north to York (Eboracum), its geographical importance was not lost on the Romans and it remains a major centre today, with its strong links to Roman Britain more than obvious around the walled city.
Just reflecting briefly on the Monty Python reference made earlier, sanitation played a vital role in Roman Britain. This was not just from the invention of drainage systems, toilets and introducing fresh water into the equation, by means of drilling for artesian wells, but also the many public baths and steam rooms so beloved by those inventors of central heating systems.
Aptly-named Bath (Aquae Sulis), which means the waters of the Celtic goddess Sulis, were attractive to the Romans because they emerge from the only truly hot spring in the UK. Yet, of equal importance, located in England’s highest market town, Buxton (Aquae Amemetiae), has its spa of the goddess of the grove, which yields another geothermal spring and drinking the waters infers their healing qualities, which are now bottled and sold worldwide.
If you happen to be in Scotland, close to the university town of Stirling, perhaps visiting the Antonine Wall, another defensive structure built between the Firths of Clyde and Forth, around AD140, you ought to take a minor deviation to go to see the Bearsden Bath House, which is actually in Dumbartonshire. It is beautifully laid out, with its changing room, cold room, cold bath, three steam rooms and even a hot drying room, as well as a latrine. Heated by an obvious hypocaust system, Roman ingenuity is displayed at its finest.
Many other Roman towns, such as St Albans (Verulamium), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) boast bathing centres, used by local Roman inhabitants on a daily basis, that are still being unearthed, thanks to urban developments that are uncovering the past, allied to a protective attitude displayed fiercely by university academics, historians and local interest groups.
Having determined that the quickest route between two points was a straight line, the Romans set about giving us the most direct main roads system of settled Europe. In fact, it was only Hitler’s pre-WW2 Germany that improved on the methodology and the German dictator was renowned for his Roman fascination, adapting so many of his gatherings, uniforms and warfare from a Roman model.
Our traditional numbering system has its roots in Roman engineering, hence the A1, or Ermine Street, that runs from London (Londinium) to Edinburgh (Dun Eidyn, a Celtic term meaning ‘hill fort’, a name left unchanged by the Romans), or the A5, or Watling Street, that runs from London to Anglesey. The chances are that wherever you see a perfectly straight main road, its origins lie in Roman culture.
One of the most infamous is the Fosse Way, or the A46, which runs from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum), through Bath, Gloucester (Glevum), Leicester (Ratae Coritanorum) and Lincoln, where it crosses the aforementioned Ermine Street. It is possible to drive each of these roads (although you ought to look out for some more modern numbering changes), which can make for a fascinating holiday in its own right. Sticking to the Roman theme, you would be able to visit all manner of Roman sites, some far less renowned than others.
Verulamium was the Roman city that was closest to Londinium, a situation that is virtually unchanged today, although it almost did not happen, after the Romans departed England and the town fell into disrepair. Fortunately, armed with a solid 2,000 years’ worth of history, it is known to be Hertfordshire’s oldest population base.
The ‘Ver’ element of the Roman town name relates to the river that runs through it, although the original Celtic Iron Age name, Veralanium, which is only slightly different in spelling, means the ‘settlement above the marsh’, which suggests that, although a useful watercourse existed, it was prone to flooding. Yet, that did little to stop its growth into one of the largest centres in Roman Britain.
Constructed largely from wood, it was very easy to raze to the ground, when Boadicea ran her revolt in AD60. However, it was soon rebuilt and walls and gates were erected by the late-200s, which served to protect its many impressive town buildings and private dwellings alike. As any visit today to this very attractive and desirable town will reveal, there are innumerable clues and remains of Roman structures still highly visible.
Its modern day name is genuinely of saintly origins. The original Alban was a pagan. However, when he sheltered a Christian priest, in AD209, a time of persecution by the Romans, he was christened and converted. Having received a tip-off, the Romans visited
Alban’s home to see if a priest was living there, only for Alban to wear the priest’s cloak and give himself up instead. He was beheaded on a hill above the town and the local abbey was founded adjacent to the site. He was Britain’s first martyr (the saint’s day is June 22).
Roman Britain top ten:
- Claudius’ invasion of Britain AD43, which brought law and order, literacy and culture.
- Bath, which lay buried and preserved for centuries.
- Boadicea’s violent and bloody revolt in AD60-61.
- The Governor Agricola, who pushed the frontiers and changed Britain forever.
- Roman handwriting (a birthday invitation) found at Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall.
- Hadrian’s Wall, with its mile-castles, forts and turrets.
- The Roman influence on British life and the country’s future.
- Roman villas at Brading (IOW) and Fishbourne Palace (West Sussex) that provide a taste of life.
- Roman legacy with roads, structures, coins and language.
- The Roman treasure found at Mildenhall Suffolk, now in the British Museum.
Roman finds top ten:
- At Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, the ‘Carlisle Armour’.
- At the Roman baths, in Bath, the temple stonepediment.
- At the British Museum, the ‘Ribchester Hoard’ of military metalwork.
- Ceremonial bronze helmet found in Cumbria (now in private hands).
- At the British Museum, the extensive ‘Hoxne Hoard’, found in Suffolk.
- At the British Museum, over 52,000 coins that make up the ‘Frome Hoard’.
- At St Albans Museum, the moulds and coinage of Tasciovanus.
Roman Britain useful facts:
Getting there: Bear in mind that, while it is possible to join local tourist groups, getting to and from the many Roman-based centres of the UK will be easier by car, although you can take direct trains to some centres, or even coach tours that concentrate on Roman Britain.
Staying there: As a nation possessing a wellfounded network of B&Bs, guests-houses, boutique hotels, chains and luxury accommodation, you are best to search on-line, if you are not indulging in an organised holiday, for residences. Naturally, there
are prices to suit all pockets.
Getting around: It might be useful to join the National Trust, as membership can enable free access to many Roman sites around the UK. Be prepared for nominal entrance fees and the inevitable tourist ‘trap’ shops and souvenir haunts. Plan your driving routes using Ordnance Survey maps, which provide more geographical details and even clues to Roman centres.
With thanks: A most practical little book, ‘Roman Britain’ by Gillian Hovell (£5.99, ISDN no: 978 178059 077 6, www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk), proved to be invaluable during my search around Roman Britain. A paperback of 96pp, it slips into a
pocket with ease and makes a great reference book for useful anecdotes and detailed information.