The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 00 Roman Britain

While Roman soldiers were defending the outposts of the Empire against Piets and Saxons, a kind of provincial Roman life was developing in lowlandBritain.

Various kinds of towns existed in Britain under the Roman occupation. There were four colonies or towns for time-expired soldiers: Colchester,York, where a colony and a fort grew up side by side,Lincoln and Gloucester. Secondly there was Verulamium, St. Albans, which was a municipium whose citizens had the privileges of Roman citizens. Thirdly there was London, probably the commercial capi­tal. Fourthly come the tribal capitals like Silchester which were run by the nobility of the tribe but had magistrates and a town council on the Roman pattern. Fifthly comes Bathwhich was a spa.

Verulamium is an example of a town which reflects the history of the occupation. At the conquest Verulamium was one of the first places to be taken over by the Romans. It was built mostly of wood, wattle and daub and fell an easy prey to Boadicea in A. D. 61 when she swept across the country, burning not only Verulamium but also the cities ofLondonandColchester. At Verulamium there are still the burnt remains of the first city.

In the second century the city was rebuilt on a larger scale and encircled with defensive stone walls. The build­ings of the second city were of stone, and remains have been found of houses, temple, theatre, forum and shops. The city was bounded on one side by the river and on all four sides by walls. Outside the walls was a ditch. Parts of the walls remain and can be seen but most of the facing stones have gone. Waiting Street, the Roman road which runs from Dovervia London to Chester, enters Verulamium by the South-East Gate and leaves it by the North-West Gate. The South-East Gate was a hundred feet wide, had two doors for wheeled vehicles and two for pedestrians, and was flanked by semi-circular bastions.

Within the city several sites of public buildings have come to light. There was a triumphal arch, probably a less elaborate version of the arches of Rome which are carved with sculptures recording the exploits of victorious Emper­ors. There was a fine theatre with front and back stage, dressing-rooms, a semi-circular auditorium with seats rising in tiers and an oval arena. Here the citizens of Veru­lamium probably were entertained with singing and dancing and with blood sports since the theatre also served as an amphitheatre.

Excavators have not yet revealed that the city had any public baths such as we can still see at Bath,Somerset. There a lead pipe brought the water straight from thehot springsto the bath. At Verulamium, so far as we know at present, the citizen had to have his bath in his own house and meet his friends socially in the forum or theatre.

One of the most important buildings in a city was the tem­ple. At Verulamium a triangular temple in a fork of two streets near the South-East Gate has been found; only the foundations remain. This was a pagan temple and there was another near the theatre in the west half of the city.

As pagans the Romans, like the prehistoric people, buried their dead with grave goods and cemeteries have been found outside most Romano-British towns. At Colchesterthere is an interesting burial from A. D. 50 of a child whose grave goods included toys, a feeding bottle and money to pay Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead across the River Styx.

The centre of a Roman town is the forum. At Verulamium the forum has not been fully excavated because it lies under a churchyard, but the existence of a city hall, market booths, and administrative buildings has been established. The tools of various shopkeepers have survived, although we do not know exactly where their shops were. There are a number of carpenters’ tools, the butcher has left his chopper. These are displayed in the museum.

What sort of houses did these people live in? The walls were of flint with brick bonding; the roofs were of tiles or of stone stabs. Some fragments of painted plaster remain to show that sometimes the inside walls were highly coloured.

The doors of the houses had locks and keys and the windows had glass held in place by small metal cross pieces. Water came from wells and some of it was brought in lead pipes.

The foundations of one house at Varulamium have been left uncovered to show how the Romans heated their rooms with a hypocaust. The bather sweated in a series of rooms of increasing heat. In the hottest room he was scraped, mas­saged and anointed with oil, and then before going out he took a cold plunge. From the stokehold, where the fire was, a brick tunnel carried the heat beneath the floor to the centre of the room and brick-lined channels brought it from the centre to the four corners, from which it rose up the walls in square flues.

Most Roman collections contain plenty of tableware and kitchen utensils; there are considerable collections of glass tableware which was imported from theRhineland.

The local pottery was used in the kitchen. Food was cooked on charcoal fires or raised masonry hearths like those found atPompeii. Some food was fried in olive oil in a three- legged skillet; other food was stewed in a cooking pot with a lid or an iron cauldron suspended over the fire by a chain.

Not all the Romano-British people lived in towns. Many lived in native villages; these were clusters of round huts some with painted plaster on the walls and a crude type of hypocaust. Some of the well-to-do people lived in the country estates that we know as villas.

In two villas excavated since 1945, evidence has been found to show that villa owners were men of considerable culture. The villa was a self-supporting farm and grew its own food. In some villas small industries were carried on. In Gloucestershire evidence of dyeing in connec­tion with the local wool production has been found.

The work on the farm was done by slaves. Sometimes we find a slave chain or a manacle in a museum.

The Roman occupation ceased inBritainbecause troops were withdrawn to try in vain to defend the rest of the Empire against the barbarians. Meanwhile there was a steadily increasing Anglo-Saxon infiltration intoBritain. Archae­ologists have found traces of these early raiders.

From Finding History around Us by I.Doncaster

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