Romans in Britain: Coming of Age - Transcript

Having added parts of Britain to their empire, the realities of occupation started to sink in for the Romans.

By: Guy De La Béyodère (Guest) , Gustav Milne (Institute of Archaeology) , Sally Grainger (Guest) , Stewart Ainsworth (English Heritage) , David Rudkin (Fishbourne Roman Palace) , Gerald Brodribb (Guest)

  • Duration 30 mins
  • Updated Friday 11th December 1998
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under TV, Romans in Britain
Share on Google Plus Share on LinkedIn Share on Reddit View article Comments
Print

(Oxford Circus, London)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Imagine dropping a Roman legionary down in the street here. What on earth would he make of our busy and noisy world full of all this traffic and all these crowds of people? Well, I think he might be fazed for a bit, but all of this is something a Roman would understand. They lived in the first multi-ethnic Empire the world had seen, and they knew all about terrible traffic problems in Rome. They were familiar with large buildings, roads, transport and trade in exotic goods, and managing huge crowds of people. The Romans were the world's first moderns and we've inherited more from them than perhaps you might think. This is Oxford Street in London and even this was laid out by the Roman army nearly 2000 years ago.

(Clip from 'Monty Python's Life of Brian')

After the Romans had invaded Britain in AD 43, Roman Britain began to come of age. And if you travel across Britain today you can still see the legacy of nearly four hundred years of Roman occupation - in the roads, in the layout of the fields and the countryside, and in the towns. And there's no better place to grasp how the Romans shaped modern Britain than London. When the Romans invaded, London didn't exist - there were just small rural settlements on the banks of the great river. Twenty years later they'd moved the capital here from Colchester and the foundations of modern London had been laid.

Roman Wall, London - near the Barbican Creative commons image DG Jones under CC-BY-NC under Creative-Commons license  

(At the Roman Wall, near the Barbican, London)

By around the year 60 - that's less than a generation after the invasion - we're told by one Roman historian that London was already a thriving, trading, mercantile centre. And London went on to become not only the biggest city in Roman Britain, but one of the biggest ancient cities in the whole of Northern Europe. There's very little of it left now - most of it is way down beneath my feet - and that's because London has continued to grow and develop more or less ever since. And it's now its one of the biggest and most powerful cities in the whole of the world.

What the Romans did was not just found London - they invented Britain itself. Before the invasion the island was a set of tribal chiefdoms. After the Romans had arrived and had crushed the resistance of tribal leaders like Boudicca it quickly became one province, governed from the centre. 

(On the bank of the Thames)

The river Thames was what drew the Romans here. It was their highway right into the heart of Britain. Most of Roman London - like most of Roman Britain - has now disappeared, but if you know where to look you can still find evidence of London's distant past. Gustav Milne is an archaeologist who's spent most of his working life alongside the river.

What are all these bits? For example, what about that rather nice piece?

GUSTAV MILNE
Archaeologist

That's late medieval in date, so that's you 500 hundred years old or thereabouts.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
What about that white bit there?

GUSTAV MILNE
Goodness, that's even older. That's a Roman sherd. That's one of these amazing mortariars. It's got this thick flange on the rim, so it would have been a large circular dish which would have been used for grinding up your breakfast cereals.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now if you've got all those buildings and those exciting things in Roman London, paint me a picture if you can of the kind of life that people living in Roman London were able to enjoy?

GUSTAV MILNE
Well, because of its role as a port, you do get this vast array of exotic merchandise coming in. We find for example lots of amphorae, which are these huge storage jars, and they were carrying cargoes of wine, olive oil, fish sauce, dates, and all sorts of things. So all this exotic produce ends up in cold wet and dreary Britain. 

SALLY GRAINGER
(Food Historian, preparing Roman banquet)

The coxcomb on a cockerel, the little, red feathery thing - apparently that was a great delicacy. Larks tongues: something I have no desire to cook, but they used to eat them. The Romans would eat anything that moved.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
If you want to understand the impact of Roman culture on Britain just look at the food they introduced: after all, we are what we eat.

SALLY GRAINGER
This is a very traditional way of baking fish, by wrapping it in vine leaves. Now first I'm going to stuff it with a few herbs, and that's bay leaves and fennel. This recipe actually comes from a very old text, it's roundabout 350BC.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Sally Grainger is an historian who has researched the ways Romans prepared food and the kinds of recipes they used.

SALLY GRAINGER
It works by providing such a thick layer of leaves that even though they may burn on the outside it's the perfect insulation for the fish.

As a chef and Roman food historian I wanted to experiment with the actual cooking equipment that the Romans had and it's become a hobby. It's become something we do all summer. It's exhausting, it pays a little, and it's great fun.

(Raking the fire) It's pretty fierce! Imagine the poor Roman slave who has to do this all day. I've been doing it all day and I feel absolutely kippered. We're having an olive relish, which dates from around 150BC - it's quite early and it has fresh coriander, mint and rue with oil and vinegar and it's marinated for two or three days and absolutely beautiful. And then we're having a whole roast lamb, which has been dressed with a mixture of coriander seed, pepper, honey and wine, as it was being turned. We have a whole baked salmon and lots of wine, and ale, of course, which the Romans drank too. I think Roman food, with all the cumin and coriander tastes like a sweet curry. Sweet and sour using oil, wine, vinegar. Fish sauce and honey is the basis for most of the Roman sauces, so there're very sweet, they're also very spicy.

(Tasting cooked salmon) Mmm, heaven, that's wonderful.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Roman Britain was coming of age - and not just for the chosen few in their palaces. Across southern Britain towns like Bath were springing up. They brought the benefits of Roman rule to the ordinary people of Britain - and what benefits they were!

Roman Baths, Bath Creative commons image Liminae under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license  

(In the Roman Baths at Bath)

I don't think you'll see anything else like this in Britain: a monumental Roman bath still full of water, and it's just part of a whole suite of baths and a complex of shrines and even a classical temple, making up an enormous Roman leisure entertainment and religious complex. 

(At Covent Garden in London with Gustav Milne)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Just imagine the impact of these new cities on the Iron Age people in Britain, with their roundhouses built of wattle and daub. Their lives must have been transformed by contact with Rome.

Gustav, I'd like to try and get an idea of what the architecture was like in Roman London and all the other towns, and the kind of effect that must have had on the people who were living here?

GUSTAV MILNE
Right, well the the whole concept of a town like Londonium was very alien to the Iron Age Britons, living as they were in mud walled thatched round houses, to be faced with buildings of stone, buildings of brick, colonnades, huge open public spaces.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Presumably buildings a bit like that, I mean it's obviously a church but it looks like a Roman temple?

GUSTAV MILNE
Well that's right.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
The heart of any big Roman town was the market and administration area - known as the forum and basilica. The best modern parallel is with somewhere like Covent Garden in London. What you'd have seen two thousand years ago is something like this.

GUSTAV MILNE
We can expect the the sound of music, we can expect the occasional hunting dog going wild. We can expect the smell of the fish sauce. The products from the villa estates have been brought in to the towns to be sold, tourists passing through, soldiers off duty, a whole mix of people speaking different languages, making transactions, bartering, a bazaar: 'No that's too much', 'Aah, my brother, he sell cheaper'. You can expect all this kind of thing. This is what markets are all about.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now that's the commercial side of things but what about governing and organising a province or a city like London. How was that done?

GUSTAV MILNE
The administration would have been conducted in the great basilica, this huge hall which dominated the forum market place.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
So it would have been right next to all this commercial activity?

GUSTAV MILNE
It would have been right on the northern side, overlooking the courtyard. There was a huge building a hundred meters long. That's longer than this arcade here.

Roman Baths, Bath Creative commons image Liminae under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license  

(At Chedworth Roman Villa)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now because the Romans placed such an emphasis on towns it's very easy to get the impression that most of them lived in towns like us. But in fact the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside, and most of those people were really very poor. They were peasants living in simple farm steads. A small number of families, though, had done really well out of the Roman occupation and they lived in extravagant country houses - a bit like this one at Chedworth.

Chedworth Roman villa is in a fabulous location in the Cotswolds. Discovered in the 19th Century by a gamekeeper searching for a lost ferret, the site's dominated now by a Victorian hunting lodge. Excavations here have revealed a magnificent Roman country residence. There is still a lot of mystery about the villas. We don't know for certain the names of any villa owners - but we can assume that a villa like Chedworth would have belonged to a British family who had made good under the Romans, probably making much of their money from farming. What a villa like this shows is that the Romans weren't just brilliant at building cities - they really understood the countryside and how to build there too.

STEWART AINSWORTH
Landscape Archaeologist

You've got shelter from this ridge, from the prevailing westerly winds. You've got the junction geologically between limestone and Fuller's Earth, which means that water will actually come out in a spring line along the ridge. You'll have a ready made supply of running water, high up the hill where it's also dry. So you can put a house there, it won't be damp it won't be in the valley bottom. And so you've got all the factors round about you which help choose your location for you.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
And we know this is a Roman villa but what actually is a Roman villa?

STEWART AINSWORTH That's a good question. I think a villa can be anything, from a small country retreat for for the urban worthies out from Cirencester, right up to a huge thriving farm and and fairly prestige lodging. It can be a whole range of things and I think it's wrong to think of a villa as just being one thing. 

(At the spring at Chedworth)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Since we've established that water was one of the main reasons for this house being built, it's nice to see how the Romans have actually made an architectural feature out of it.

STEWART AINSWORTH
It is, isn't it. It's interesting how people are still throwing money in, making offerings into the shrine, as the Romans themselves would have done.

(In the bath house at Chedworth)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now perhaps the most architecturally complex and sophisticated set of rooms in any Roman villa perhaps in any Roman building was the bath house. These great stone walls were once here to support vaulted ceilings, and you can see on the floor beautiful coloured mosaics. This was where the greatest amount of trouble and expense was gone to in a Roman villa. For someone coming in here for a bath it was much more complex than the kinds of bath we have today. It was like a Turkish bath really. People would have to warm up in this room here, then go and get really sweaty in a hot room before cooling off in a cold plunge and then perhaps reverse the whole process. But that was for the rich people. It was a kind of upstairs-downstairs situation, because here's all the technical side of the bath house. All these stacks of tiles support the floor so that warm and hot air can be circulated around. And all the slaves - the other side of villa life - were down there stoking fires and keeping the rich and wealthy people's lives comfortable.

The Roman historian Tacitus watched with interest what was happening in Roman Britain. He wrote that: 'The wearing of our dress became a distinction and the toga came into fashion. And little by little the Britons were seduced to the lounge, the bath, and the well-laid dinner table'.

(In the gardens at Chedworth)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
I think it's interesting to speculate, looking at the extensive ranges and rooms we've got here, just how many people would have lived and worked here. There was the family, the extended family, but who else would have lived here?

STEWART AINSWORTH
Landscape Archaeologist

Well presumably there'd be industrial workers, smithies, things like that.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
They must have had slaves as well here?

STEWART AINSWORTH
Presumably lots of people supporting the industry of the villa. Another element this often gets forgotten about villas actually is their use for recreation. People are coming here, probably from Cirencester, into this prestigious place. There's a temple up there, and these open areas would be used for recreation. We'd have people sitting around in little gardens. It's the equivalent of a country house stately home of today.

Fishbourne Manor mosaic Creative commons image Leguann001 under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license  

(In gardens at Fishbourne Roman Palace)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
The best place to find out about Roman gardens is Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester. They've reconstructed what the original formal garden would have looked like. They've also researched Roman gardening techniques and tried those techniques out.

Now this is all a very impressive little garden here but what's it got to do with Roman Britain?

DAVID RUDKIN
Fishbourne Roman Palace

Quite a lot. What we're trying to display here is the range of Roman plants that were being grown in Britain at that point in time.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Is that some kind of novelty?

DAVID RUDKIN
Very much so yes. Before the Romans came there'd be a little plot behind everybody's house with peas and beans and turnips, just growing food. But the concept of gardens for pleasure - pleasure gardens - was something that was brought with the Romans.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now what have we got here, David? There are all sorts of household names like juniper and lavender here. Are these part of a Roman legacy?

DAVID RUDKIN
In effect a lot of them are, although it's often difficult to tell what were actually native here when they arrived. But certainly they were growing things like onions and shallots and garlic and chives, the type of thing that we now take for granted.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Were they purely functional or did they have a more elaborate set of purposes?

DAVID RUDKIN
Oh certainly. The ones in front of us, for example, are for ritual purposes to a large extent. Things like rose. The petals were scattered in processions. Violets were used for perfumes and for for various other functions. It's surprising what functions plants can be used for.

Over there we have industrial plants. Things like teasel for carding the cloth to bring the nap up. Dye plants such as woad.

When people think of Romans they think of soldiers marching up and down. But in fact they were spending a lot of the time enjoying their gardens.

(Arriving at Beauport Park)

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Of course, to enjoy leisure time you have to generate wealth. And the Romans quickly set about developing the province as a money-making proposition. Evidence of their industrial activity has turned up in some unlikely places. 

(With Gerald Brodribb in the woodland)

Gerald, I think I could be forgiven for saying this just looks like an ordinary wood.

GERALD BRODRIBB
Oh it's far more than. We're walking here on the top edge of a gigantic slag heap which was found by the Victorians about a hundred and twenty years ago.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Now what's slag and why is there a slag heap here right in the middle of the wood?

GERALD BRODRIBB
Well, slag shows that there must have been iron working here, because slag is the residue after the iron has been extracted, and it was just thrown away creating an enormous heap.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Gerald Brodribb is an amateur archaeologist, now in his eighties. Nearly thirty years ago he stumbled on the remains of a remarkable Roman industrial complex. Using divining rods he's uncovered a whole network of hidden Roman supply roads, and found slag from the iron workings stacked in huge heaps through the woodland.

GERALD BRODRIBB
Well you walk along with them, and then suddenly they cross over. They can find anything - I mean, they can find stone walls. But rods are very good with the metal. It's the metal. They go bang straight away. How, I don't know. I don't want to know.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
Iron was an essential commodity in the expanding Empire, used for weapons, tools, ships, building and much more. Amazingly, what Gerald stumbled across at Beauport Park is reckoned to be the third largest iron working site in the whole Roman Empire.

(By the slag heap at Beauport Park)

We always think of the north as being the industrial heartland of Britain, so it's quite a surprising discovery to find out that down here in Sussex was the industrial heartland of Roman Britain. They've got this amazing slag all over the place. This heavy dark, black material, which is all that's left of those Roman ironworks. This stream actually cuts right through the middle of that huge slag heap.

On this particular piece you can even see the bubbles which have been caused by the heating and then cooling process. And it's a really useful reminder of how this place was once right on the edge of frontier existence. This was a mining town, a mining settlement, where life would have been hard and probably very short, with smoke and furnaces and thousands of slave workers all over the place. It reminds us of how Britain had been absorbed into the machinery of the Roman empire.

(At Portchester Castle)

Beauport Park was one of the engine rooms of Roman Britain - hard as that might be to believe today. And the first and second centuries were a golden age for many people across the province, enjoying the fruits of Roman occupation.

But by the third century the mood changed, not just in Britain but right across the Roman World. The Empire was increasingly under threat from beyond its borders. The cities began to crumble, defences went up along the coast, and the wealthy began to retreat from the cities into the countryside.

The English Channel is the key to all of Britain's history. To the Romans it made Britain exotic, remote, a great conquest - only the mighty Roman Empire could tame that wild animal across the water. Once Britain was conquered, the sea became a highway to the rest of the known world. Out went Britain's produce. In came the luxury goods that the rest of the Empire made.

But times were changing. By the time Britain had been a Roman province for more than two hundred years the Empire was under siege. Barbarian pirates were sailing up and down attacking coastal settlements and towns. So they built huge forts like this one here at Porchester to protect the coast. Within, Britain was changing. In the towns the great public buildings were in decline and Britain was having to rely more and more on the things she could produce herself. But for some people the good times had only just begun.

(Travelling back to Chedworth Roman Villa)

The rich took their money in to the countryside , and villa life came increasingly into its own in places like Chedworth. The fourth century was the age of the super-rich in Roman Briain. Spectacular treasure hordes have come to light, evidence of a late flowering of Romano-British culture in the countryside.

Stashed away in the dying days of Roman occupation, these hordes show the vast wealth accumulated by a privileged few, and their extravagant lifestyles.

At Chedworth the owners continued to extend and develop their villa, splashing out on a second bath house and on mosaics - classic status symbols, epitomising the Roman high life. But mosaics like these tell us more than just how wealthy the owners were: they tell us about how they saw themselves. This one at Chedworth looks conventionally classical in design - but the figure of Winter is wearing what's called a Birrus Britannicus - a hooded woollen cloak, as archetypically British as Harris Tweed or a bowler hat is today.

The Romano British were looking both ways - to Rome, and its classical traditions, but also back to their own cultural roots.

(At the British Museum, with a bronze skillet)

This bronze pan, or skillet, was found in Cambridgeshire, and it's a completely Roman piece of equipment; the kind of thing that would have been used throughout the Roman world. It's got these Roman motifs, monsters here, a Cupid and dolphins at the other end, and all these swirling vine leaves, but the clue to its origin comes in the maker's name, which is stamped at this end: Boduogenus.

Boduogenus is a completely Celtic name, and it tells us that the person who made this was a Celtic craftsman, someone whose family origins came from this part of the world, or perhaps North Western France. But he's even used an 'f' at the end for 'fecit', a Latin word.

So he's expressing himself in Latin, and it shows us how Bodugenus and his kind have been completely absorbed into the whole Roman world. And that was the thing about the Roman world. It wasn't overwhelmingly destructive, it managed to merge with the cultures and the peoples that it came across

Roman Britain - like the rest of the Roman Empire - was a melting pot of peoples and cultures. Rome provided a sense of order and structure. But the Celtic, native traditions weren't crushed by the occupation either. And in one particular area, the Romans - for all their military muscle and sense of purpose - trod very carefully indeed.

(In St Albans Cathedral)

We always think of the Roman Empire as uncompromisingly militaristic and imposing its will on all the peoples it conquered. It was. But when it came to religion it was a completely different story. Unlike those 19th century imperialists and all their missionaries, the Roman Empire was - even by our standards - extraordinarily tolerant. And there's no better example of that than the remains of the baths and shrine of Sullis Minerva at Bath.

(At the Roman Baths in Bath)

LINDSAY ALLASON-JONESI think the Roman attitude to other people's religion was always a slight fear that other people's gods were more powerful than their gods, and so whenever they went to a new province they may have taken over the province, but they also in a sense took over the gods as well. They tended to adopt these gods, and they would set up temples to the gods and they would worship them, and often equate them with the known gods. So here at Bath we have Sulis, the native god, equated with Minerva, who of course is a well known Roman deity.

GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE
When they arrived at Bath the Romans found the local people worshipping their own, Celtic God - Sulis. When they built their grand temple they didn't replace that God with their own goddess, Minerva - they merged them and placed this extraordinary, unmistakably Celtic image on the temple pediment.

I think Bath sums up Roman Britain. It was a special place long before the Romans arrived, and it has remained so long after they left. Britain had became part of Rome - but Rome too had become part of Britain.

Conquerors hardly ever go native and the Romans were no exception. It's here at the Bath that we have one of the best examples of where the organisation of the Roman world met the chaos of the Celtic fringe head on.

With the honey coloured Bath stone and the noise and laughter of all the visitors I think this must have been one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in Roman Britain - perhaps all of Britain's history. But with the wild-eyed Celtic God staring down from the Roman temple no-one would have forgotten where they were. Britain was only ever half-tamed.

More like this