Life in Roman Britain

Life in Roman Britain

by Joan Alcock, English Heritage

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This accessible reconstruction of life in Roman Britain begins by placing Britain firmly in a historical context, drawing parallels with other provinces of the Roman Empire and linking the indigenous Celtic people with the Roman invaders. Thereafter, individual chapters cover administration and society; religion, belief, and death; recreation and leisure; the


This accessible reconstruction of life in Roman Britain begins by placing Britain firmly in a historical context, drawing parallels with other provinces of the Roman Empire and linking the indigenous Celtic people with the Roman invaders. Thereafter, individual chapters cover administration and society; religion, belief, and death; recreation and leisure; the domestic economy; food and drink; art and decoration; and personal lifestyle. Throughout, in text and illustrations, the author makes use of the latest archaeological evidence.

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Anova Books
Publication date:
English Heritage Series
Product dimensions:
7.29(w) x 9.66(h) x 0.43(d)

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Life in Roman Britain

By Ken Dark, Petra Dark

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Ken Dark and Petra Dark
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8266-8


Experiencing Roman Britain

The Roman invasion in AD 43 (on the orders of the emperor Claudius) is generally taken to be the start of the Roman period in Britain. However, it is necessary to consider what it was like just before the Conquest, and just after the end of Roman Britain, to understand how incorporation into the Empire affected Britain and the lives of its people. This chapter presents a series of reconstructions from various people's viewpoints and at a range of times just before, during, and immediately after, the period of Roman rule.

The reconstructions in this chapter are works of imagination in the sense that the people and events are fictional, but the descriptions of how they lived are based in detail on current knowledge about Roman Britain, and the sentiments that the characters express are derived, where possible, from those found in written sources from the period. Reconstructing Roman Britain in the way attempted here can only give an impression of what it might have been like at specific times and in specific places. There are many gaps in knowledge about the past, and we can never really put ourselves in the minds of ancient people or totally escape the context in which we think about the past. Nor would all archaeologists or historians agree with every aspect of the reconstructions presented here (some would probably disagree with them all, or even with the use of such reconstructions), but it must be stressed that they are based as far as possible on up-to-date archaeological and historical studies.

Everyone living there will have experienced Roman Britain differently to some degree, depending on who they were (such as whether they were free or unfree, rich or poor, or male or female) and when and where they lived. Experiences will also have differed depending on factors such as age, family circumstances, health, religious and moral beliefs and personality. Furthermore, evidence for life in Roman Britain is open to varying interpretations, leading to a range of opinions among specialists about many of the topics discussed here. This does not mean that 'one guess is as good as another' or 'almost anything might have been the case', but it does mean that any book on Roman Britain (and any other historical period for that matter) necessarily presents 'an interpretation', which might be challenged in part or whole by other specialists or revised in the light of future studies.

We begin with a reconstruction of life immediately before the Roman invasion of AD 43 ...

Waiting for the Empire: a Durotrigan king, AD 43

The smoke swirls from the fire in the centre of the room up to the high roof beams of your circular wooden house. You hear the hunters returning from the woods, their steaming stallions hot from the chase and their game hung over their saddles. You open the wooden door, carved with the same intricate interlaced patterns as on the bronze scabbard of your iron sword, and go out into the bright sunlight. The smell of horse dung from the paddock, and of smoke from the grain-drying fires and the metalworking hearths, hangs in the air of the compound. A red squirrel scampers away as you leave, and you can hear the pigs in the pen behind the house – you'll need them for the feast in a few days.

Across the compound, over the high wooden wall around the hill-fort, you can see the surrounding landscape dotted with your people's farms – the conical thatched roofs of their homes visible even from here – and their fields yellow with a rich harvest of grain. Your sheep are grazing on the high pastures. You live in a rich land, like all of the British kings, and one full of the remembered associations of your people's history and their traditional stories. In the valley lies the sacred pool where your people gather to throw offerings and the grove where the priests make sacrifices.

The high wooden gates of the hill-fort are swung aside and huge hunting dogs, of the type that the Britons are famous for among the Gauls, bark with foaming mouths and run by the side of the horsemen as they enter the fort at a gallop, their cloaks flowing behind them. Your younger brother is at the front, wearing the long green and brown plaid tunic that your mother gave him and carrying your father's old spear.

In the feast you'll show your wealth and honour, giving roast meat and bread to the craftsmen and farmers. You'll stand by the fire and point to the skulls of your defeated enemies fixed high on the walls, telling the stories of how each was beaten by your ancestors and how your own father was the greatest king before you. Then you'll order the slaves to give everyone a cup of the imported wine that you bought on the sea-cliffs last year when the Gallic sailing ships were in port – it cost you ten hunting dogs. The Gauls come more often now, even though the Romans have taken their land. You remember stories of the brave Gallic king, Vercingetorix, who had held Caesar – the great Roman leader – at bay, and wonder if you'll be a famous hero when the Romans come here.

Everyone knows that the Romans are getting ready to invade. You've seen an image of their king – the Romans say 'emperor' – Claudius on their coins. You don't think he looks like a great warrior, but the merchants say that Roman ships are massing in one of the ports of Gaul, and talk of more soldiers than stones on the beaches. You've heard from the Gauls who came to your court last year that the Roman soldiers fight lined up like slaves obeying orders, not with honour like your men. Your people will fight for their land when the foreigners come, but the kings of the east of Britain like the Romans too much and their courts look like farms not forts.

It's hard to imagine the Romans taking your fortress, the most strongly defended and largest of all of the hill-forts of the island of Britain, with its many high banks and deep ditches. The food stores will last for many weeks, and your skilled slingers will be able to pick off their men one by one as they climb over the defences. You return to the house, confident that the Romans cannot take your kingdom.

The Roman army took the land of the Durotriges after only brief resistance.

A businessman in London, AD 60

This new town of London still has a 'frontier' feel. More and more soldiers arrive by ship, marching along the streets holding up the traffic. You hardly see anyone here wearing a toga, even in the town centre, and you don't hear much Latin spoken by the Britons, but you can see lawyers haggling over imperial legislation and accountants who keep books in the Roman way, written in good Latin. When their office doors are open you can even see the government administrators pondering piles of correspondence and official documents. The market is packed with traders calling out to passers-by and the smell of cooking meat from the take-away stalls hangs in the air. The muddy gravel streets are lined with wooden shops – there are more built each week.

You've been here for almost a decade, running your own shop selling fine pottery from back home in the sunny south of Gaul. Needless to say, you miss the weather and the amenities of a proper town, but the living rooms behind your shop are quite spacious and decorated with plaster painted in the latest fashion. Business is booming – the better class of Britons always had a taste for the finest Roman goods. Only today you counted your savings and, at this rate, you'll be able to retire in a few years to buy a country villa back home and live the life of a gentleman farmer in the sun.

There weren't many businesses here all those years ago when you set up shop, but these days you can't walk down any of the main streets without hearing the noise of workshops knocking out manufactured goods of all kinds. You counted ten languages, from across the Empire, being spoken as you hurried along the main street in the snow this morning, pulling your cloak over your head. The man sitting next to you in that dingy little café where you ate your bread and olives for lunch was a Greek to judge from his clothes.

There are many strange things about living in such a new province. You smile to yourself when you see wealthy Britons putting on Roman ways, or stumbling over the most straightforward Latin sentences in shops, and prefer to spend your time drinking good imported wine – properly diluted with fresh cold water – in the bars and baths with people from Gaul, Spain or Africa whose families were citizens long before yours. Yesterday one of the Britons, a huge man with a beard and trousers like a barbarian, came into the shop and tried to buy one of your best bowls in return for his horse! He went away shocked when you told him that you took only current imperial coins.

You're out in this awful weather on your way to ask the governor himself if he would give you a substantial loan to build more and bigger ships to bring wine from Gaul. Your elder brother has an excellent vineyard not far from Bordeaux and you intend to construct a jetty of your own on the waterfront to bring in the cargo ships. You would welcome the connections that the governor's patronage would bring even more than his money. They would put you in touch with many important people who could help you and ease the legalities of your business. You're not so proud that you would be unwilling to offer such a refined gentleman your loyalty. You would bring him a handsome profit on the endeavour without, of course, asking him to sully his hands by taking part in any commerce.

So you've no worries about living in such a remote province as Britain, although back home it was usual before you left to use 'British' as a name for what is wild and uncivilised. The army will always ensure imperial law is obeyed, and as a citizen you know that they'll always protect you even if the Britons rebel. Some Britons do give you odd looks as they walk through the town, and you once saw a boy throw a stone at a legionary centurion – of course, he was caught and flogged. You're not sure why they hate the Empire so much when all it did was bring them the fruits of civilised life. But you doubt if such hostility will last long, and there's no reason to worry that it will affect business. Not everyone agrees though - only yesterday you heard that a queen of theirs had revolted. You're sure that the army will soon sort that out.

A few months later London was destroyed by Queen Boudica's Icenian rebels

Looking out from a turret on Hadrian's Wall, AD 165

It's warm inside the turret where the hearth glows with fire. You sit on the bracken-strewn floor wrapped in your rough army cloak, and drink beer, play dice and sing soldiers' songs with your brother auxiliaries, while the freezing wind whistles past outside. You can hear your comrade on the floor above keeping watch across the landscape of rain-lashed fields, dark woods and treacherous marshes. Although you're only on lookout duty at the turret, the atmosphere is tense because a message just arrived from an outpost fort north of the Wall saying that one of their cavalry patrols had spotted the Brits moving up to the northwest. The commander says that you're only here for customs control and to enforce the law, but it doesn't seem that way very often – your unit lost ten men since the start of the year without fighting a single battle in the open. But the boredom and cold are the worst things, months staring out across the empty hills, shivering on guard duty and doing drill at the fort.

Tonight, in the flickering light of the fire, you can just make out the large stone blocks of the walls. At least they keep out the cold, even if they won't keep out the barbarians. Still, you have your lucky pendant and you saw the coins fall into Coventina's well. All sorts of beliefs co-exist up here - the men worship gods and goddesses from across the Empire, depending on where they're from. The officers, well, they go in for all sorts of odd cults – Mithras, 'the unconquered sun' (you laugh to think of that here) – that sort of thing.

At least in the army you get enough food. In the vicus you can buy venison, pork and beef – even oysters – and they serve imported Gallic and Spanish wine at the inn. The food is cooked in spices from across the Empire or in fish sauce – you never did like that. When you were a boy in the Rhineland you'd often go hungry if the harvest was poor. Out here living in the turrets it's only field rations, of course, although you always bring along a few luxuries of your own. You have to be careful, though - if your centurion caught you he'd give you a beating with that stick of his. You know men who are more afraid of the centurion than they are of the enemy.

Tomorrow, it'll be a short walk along the line of the Wall back to the milecastle and, after a few days there, the march back to the fort. You'll be glad to sleep in a proper bed rather than on a pile of damp straw and to go to the military baths again – you're looking forward to sweating in the steam of the hot room! In a couple of weeks your unit is moving out. You saw a slave burning official documents as you left camp, and the commander's wife was even putting her letters on the fire, so you don't know where it's going to be next. You'll be glad to move on, so long as it's not into combat again.

You remember the last time you were in battle up to the north, before they pulled your unit back to the Wall. When you saw the men from the legionary detachment fire their ballistas, and the waves of arrows from the Hamian archers (you don't know how those Syrian lads can shoot so quickly), before the trumpets sounded and the standards were raised, you thought there would be no Brits left in that wood. But they were still there in force and ready to fight when you threw your javelin. You saw it hit a brightly painted round shield and take it to the ground, but the massive Brit got straight up and threw the shield away – then your unit charged them head on. The men kept in formation right up to the moment you hit their line, but the Brits were well-fed professional warriors, with nothing else to do than train with their weapons all day, and stronger and taller than most of your comrades. The one you came up against knocked you to the ground with the impact of the charge against their shield-wall. You saw him raise his spear above your face. If it hadn't been for your comrade next in the line you would have been killed then and there.

You often wonder if you'll make it to retirement and get the diploma of citizenship, so you can get married and claim all the privileges for your family of being a true Roman. That's why all the boys from home joined up, but no-one knew what it would be like.

Waking up on a hill-farm in the North, AD 250

It is dawn when you wake. You feel the cold and rough of the drystone wall against your face, and open your eyes to see the beams holding the thatched conical roof above the single big room of the house. The bed is soft, stuffed with straw inside a carefully sewn mattress, and it's warm beneath the thick woollen blankets decorated with a checkerboard design in red, blue and green. But as you step onto the hard earth floor, the cold of the room hits you – only the last smouldering embers of last night's fire give any heat. It's dark inside the house without the fire and the only light is the pale Spring sunlight seeping in through the cracks in the plank doorway. You can hear birdsong overhead, but the cold reminds you it's another hard day of work until dusk comes.

So, it's time to get dressed – to pull on your thick woollen socks and linen underclothes and put on your tunic, tying the laces at the front in neat bows – before pulling on your leather shoes. Then, you get more wood from the pile and heap it onto the ashes in the hearth. It's always a struggle to get it to light with the flint and iron strike-a-light, but eventually the dried moss and smaller twigs catch the fire so that the hearth is again ablaze. Taking a bowl and jug from the shelf, you pour in oats and water and get some milk from the churn by the wall. It takes a long time to cook over the open fire, but when the weather's this cold the porridge will be welcome even though it tastes sour now the last of the honey has gone.

There's plenty of food in the store, but your father said the harvest wasn't good enough last year to take to market and the tax collectors took most of it in lieu of payment in coins – where they thought your family would get coins from you're not sure. You had a bronze coin once – on one side was a face, and when you asked your friend who lives at the inn by the Roman street, she said it was a picture of 'the emperor'. You've heard he's the great king of the Romans. People around here had a king of their own once, your grandfather says, but the Roman soldiers killed him and everyone else in the old fort on the hill – your family graze cattle there these days. That was a long time ago and the king of the Romans is far away. You only ever see tax collectors and, occasionally, in the distance, soldiers marching along the street singing songs in their foreign language.

Breakfast is over, so it's out to the fields with the leather satchel of seeds. Next year you'd like a new cloak; this one, wrapped around and pinned fast with a brooch by your neck, is getting old and threadbare, and doesn't keep the cold out like it used to. The fields are in the valley bottom, a patchwork of ploughing inside rough drystone walls, and you can see the sheep on the slopes above. The sowing goes well, and the seeds are scattered along the narrow furrows that your father and brother took two weeks to plough with the old oxen.


Excerpted from Life in Roman Britain by Ken Dark, Petra Dark. Copyright © 2012 Ken Dark and Petra Dark. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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