Marc Zakian looks at how the Romans changed Britain
Running water, toilets, medicine, wine, education, public health, law and (obviously) roads. That is – according to the classic comedy film The Life of Brian – what the Romans did for us. But is it true? And what is the legacy of the 400-year Roman occupation of Britain?
In 43AD, Emperor Claudius marched his army to the damp dark edge of western Europe. Across the choppy English channel was Albion, a country ruled by belligerent Celtic tribes.
Four legions – 22,000 soldiers – crossed the water. They rampaged their way up the river Thames, killing the Celtic King, Togodumnus, and claiming south-east England for the Roman Empire.
They named the new colony Britannia, establishing a capital at Camulodunum – modern-day Colchester. To frighten the locals, the Romans displayed a troop of military elephants in the city centre. Never before seen in Britain, to the cowed Celts these beasts appeared like magical other-world creatures, symbols of a new world order. Britain would never be the same again.
The Romans used urine as a mouthwash and to keep their teeth white and clean.
The Iceni tribe controlled East Anglia. Their uneasy alliance with Rome fell apart in 61AD when King Prasutagus died, leaving half his lands to his family, half to the Roman emperor. The Romans – demanding the entire kingdom – flogged his widowed queen, Boudicca, and raped her daughters.
Queen Boudicca emerged as one of the most fearsome women warriors of all time.
Exhorting the Celts to join her in revenge, “not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but one of the people avenging lost freedom, my scourged body and the outraged chastity of my daughters”.
Boudicca’s army besieged Camulodunum, demolishing the Roman capital and killing the entire Ninth Legion infantry. They moved on to Londinium, burning it to the ground, “slaughtering by gibbet, fire or cross, the noblest women were impaled on spikes and had their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths’’.
But the Romans rallied, and rather than fall into enemy hands Boudicca took her own life. According to an unlikely legend, the warrior queen’s body is buried under King’s Cross station. Today Boudicca is remembered as a battling British hero, with a statue of the queen in her war chariot – anachronistically bearing Persian-style scythes – on Westminster Bridge.
WHAT THE ROMANS DID FOR WAR
The success of the Roman Empire was based on military prowess. The ballista was a crossbow combined with a catapult, used to fire arrows and stones up to 300 metres – one arrow shot could kill two men. Mount the ballista on a cart and you have a four-wheeled carroballista – the prototype tank. Each legion was armed with 55 carroballistas, manned by specialist artillerymen. The onager – named after the wild ass because of its ‘kick’– was a giant catapult that would launch 25kg stones into enemy lines.
The imperial Roman soldier was a paid professional. A legionary had to be over 17 years old, a Roman citizen and was screened for height and strength. They served for 25 years and if they survived, they were pensioned off with a plot of farmland and a bonus of 13-years’ wages. Only half of them lived to retirement age. Old soldiers often retired together in military towns called ‘colonia’ – there were three in Roman Britain: Camulodunum, Lindum (Lincoln) and Glevum (Gloucester).
An auxiliary soldier was not a Roman citizen. Paid a third of a legionary’s wage, auxiliaries guarded forts and frontiers and fought in battles, often in the front line where it was most dangerous. A soldier wearing body armour and carrying a shield, spear, dagger and a gladius sword (giving us the word gladiator) was expected to march for 18.5 miles in five hours with a 20kg backpack.
If a Roman legion showed cowardice in battle, they risked the punishment by decimation – literally destroying every 10th man. A cohort (480 soldiers) selected for decimation was divided into groups of 10. Each group drew lots, and the soldier who drew the shortest straw was executed by his nine remaining comrades, usually by stoning, clubbing or stabbing.
Roman cuisine included a sow’s womb filled with pigs’ brains and a fast-food snack of stuffed dormouse.
BUILDING THE WALL
The invading Romans moved north into Scotland. Unable to subdue the bellicose Picts, they retreated south to construct one of history’s great monuments – Hadrian’s Wall.
Begun in 122AD, it took 15,000 soldiers six years to complete. The wall runs for 73 miles from the River Tyne in the east to Solway Firth in the west, with 16 large forts, milecastles and lookout turrets. The wall marked the western edge of the empire – the place where Roman ‘civilisation’ ended. Hadrian’s Wall was the largest structure in the classical world, with 1,000 Roman soldiers patrolling its span. There were, however, very few actual ‘Romans’ stationed on the wall. The military came from across the empire – Turkey, Germany, Spain and Judea in the Middle East. During the third century AD, a unit of north Africans was garrisoned at the western end of the wall, forming the first ever African community in Britain.
Vindolanda is the most famous of the wall’s 16 forts. A cache of wooden writing tablets was discovered there in 1973, including letters home in which Roman officers pleaded for relatives to send socks, vests, cloaks and underpants to keep them warm during the cold Northumbrian winter.
At Housesteads Roman Fort archaeologists uncovered a military treatment centre with small metal implements used for eye operations and a communal latrine. There was no toilet paper – Romans used a sponge on a stick – with water piped from the top of the fort to flush the sewage away. Today, around 10 per cent of the wall is still visible, and its museums house some of the most important Roman remains in Europe.
The Romans built some 10,000 miles of roads in Britain – wide and straight, often with paved streets. The modern A2 and A5 follow the Roman Watling Street, while the A59 and A1 from York run along the old Dere Street.
Roman rule brought order and organisation to Britannia. Iron Age tribal centres were transformed into Roman settlements, and within a century most of the 20 or so large British towns had a full set of public buildings, regular street grids, market squares, basilicas (assembly rooms), temples, theatres, bathhouses, amphitheatres and shops.
Though the architecture was Roman, those in charge were not. The towns were administered by local rulers who, in the space of a generation or two, converted themselves from Celtic warriors into toga toting, Romanised gentlemen and women – citizens of a 60-million-strong empire covering three continents.
The Romans gave us the mile. 1,000 is mille in Latin and 1,000 paces and made up the Roman mile.
FROM GODS TO GOD
Britannia was the location for one of the most important transformations in world history. In 305AD, Emperor Constantius and his son, Constantine, came to Britain. Constantius died in 306AD in York, and the Roman army in Britain proclaimed his son emperor. Constantine adopted the Christian Chi-Rho symbol as a talisman for his army who fought to bring him to power. In victory, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire – so you could say that Britain was the birthplace of Roman Catholicism.
THE END OF THE ROMAN ROAD
In 410AD, the citizens of Britannia sent a letter to the Roman emperor, asking him to come to their aid against the Saxon invaders. He wrote back telling them to “look to their own defences’’. Four hundred years of imperial influence in Britannia was ended. The country was on its own.
WHAT TO SEE IN ROMAN BRITAIN
The Romans settled and named Londinium. By the first century AD, with 60,000 inhabitants, it had replaced Camulodunum as the capital city.
THE ROMAN WALL
From 200AD, London was defined by one structure – its six-metre high city wall.
From Tower Hill in the east to Blackfriars station in the west, the wall stretched for two miles around the ancient city. Fragments of the wall still stand – one piece is in the Tower of London, another in a City of London car park.
In 1988, after over 100 years of searching, archaeologists found London’s lost Roman amphitheatre hidden beneath Guildhall yard. Built in 70AD to accommodate 6,000 people for animal shows, public executions and gladiatorial combat, the remains can be visited via the Guildhall Art Gallery and include its original walls, the drainage system and vomitorium – not where people were sick after a bloody spectacle but the entrance and exit ways.
TEMPLE OF MITHRAS
In Wallbrook, in 1954, builders unearthed a Mithraic temple. Mithraism was a mystery religion that flourished throughout the Roman empire, especially among soldiers. A legend tells of three magi who followed a star to where Mithras was born on the winter solstice (Christmas), a god of light to be worshipped on Sundays. The remains of the temple are presented in the multimedia Bloomberg Roman museum. There are world-leading Roman collections in the British Museum and the Museum of London
The city of Bath is the site of a huge first century AD bathing complex, developed around Britain’s only natural hot springs. The Romans adopted the local Celtic god, Sulis, and built Aquae Sulis, a luxury spa with hot and cold pools. Fast forward 2,000 years, and you can wander around the magnificent great bath and visit the extensive museum telling the story of the bath and its visitors – including coins, hairpins and curse tablets thrown into the sacred waters. This year, a £5 million project introduces new areas to the Roman baths, including a laconicum (dry sweating room) and exercise courtyard.
The Romans created the Cotswolds by introducing the new breed of long-wool sheep that became the backbone of the local economy. Chedworth Roman Villa is one of the UK’s most extensive Roman ruins, with mosaics, a hypocaust, two bathhouses and a temple. Cirencester, known as Corinium Dobunnorum, was once the second largest Roman settlement in Britain. The town’s Roman attractions include an extensive earthwork, remains of a large Roman amphitheatre and the Corinium Museum
FISHBOURNE ROMAN PALACE
Near Chichester is home to the remains of the largest residential Roman building ever discovered in Britain, Fishbourne Roman Palace. Much of the palace has been excavated and is preserved, along with an on-site museum and a part-reconstructed garden.
Also in West Sussex, Bignor Roman Villa is a large excavated Roman courtyard villa with world-class mosaic floors featuring depictions of Venus and reluctant cherub gladiators, Ganymede being carried off by an eagle and the four seasons.
Known to the Romans by the name of Castra Deva –‘the military camp on the River Dee’– Chester began life as a fort occupied by the 20th Legion. For more than three centuries it was one of the most important military bases in the Roman Empire. Visit Chester Roman Amphitheatre and see a garden with Roman tombstones and a temple.