I was introduced to Roman Britain quite unexpectedly on a cold, windy day in October 2008 in London. I had been in London for about 3 weeks then and was already head over heels in love with this beautiful city. Each day was a new day of exploration and between settling into a new city and classes at the university, there was always something wonderful to discover and delight over.
That afternoon, I took a path leading off from Tower Bridge Tube station, a path that led me past a hotel and then, quite suddenly into a walled dead-end. I was about to turn back, when I saw an information board there and walked over to read it. Good thing I did that as this turned out to be the most interesting dead-end !
The information board announced that this was no ordinary wall, but a slice of London’s history. Built by the Romans in 190–220 AD, this wall used to run around the city of Londinium, the Roman name for London. About 9 ft thick at the base and about 20 ft. in height, it was one of the most important and expensive developments in the city at that time. (By medieval times, the height of the wall was increased and though it is not evident in the photograph, the colour of the mortar distinguishes the two sections of the wall.)
My first reaction was, “Wow! So Asterix and Obelix wasn’t an exaggeration; the Romans were really here. Dear old Julius Caesar was really here !” For the rest of the day, I walked around in a kind of daze as the Roman fever took hold. It was a fever that refused to go away and one that I had great pleasure in indulging when I visited erstwhile Roman cities in the UK and explored a part of history that I thought only existed in comic books !
So join me on my journey of discovering Roman Britain through visits to Camulodunum (present day Colchester), Aquae Sulis (present day Bath), and Verulamium (present day St. Albans) in England. (Strangely, the wall remained my only encounter with Roman Britain in London.) It was a journey that left me breathless, awestruck, and delighted in turn, but always richer in having gained knowledge of something new, and of having discovered a whole new world.
It is the year 55 BC. Britain is not the nation that we know today and comprises tribes that are constantly at war with one another. These tribes are largely of Celtic, Gallic, Belgic, and Germanic origin. Julius Caesar has already invaded Gaul and is looking for an opportunity to extend his empire. He believes that the land across the great ocean from Gaul is full of silver and worth plundering, and decides to launch an offensive. He doesn’t really succeed beyond landing ashore on British land and unfurling the Roman flag. One year later, in 54 BC, Caesar launches a second campaign with a larger army behind him and manages to make some inroads into Britain this time. But there is no silver or other booty to plunder and Caesar returns to Rome disappointed and disgruntled.
Let us move forward to the year 44 AD. Claudius has just become the Emperor of Rome in a palace coup and has to consolidate his position quickly. And how better to do it than a military campaign to conquer Britain. Four legions set off across the sea for this purpose and after a stiff battle enter Camulodunum (the capital of the Catuvellauni, one of the largest and strongest tribal kingdoms), the largest city in Britain. A triumphant Claudius enters Camulodunum through a specially built archway (which no longer exists today) with a large retinue of soldiers and, hold your breath, African elephants. Camulodunum is declared as the capital of Roman Britain and remains so till 48 AD. Pleased with the success of his campaign, Claudius orders for a temple to be built in his honour.
Today, Colchester claims to be the oldest recorded town in Britain on the grounds that this fact was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in AD 77. It has had an interesting history of Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, settlers from Belgium and Holland during the Reformation, as a centre of Puritanism in the UK, a 2,000 year presence of a military garrison in this town… And all this rich and varied history is proudly displayed for all to see as I discovered when I visited this erstwhile Roman capital.
It takes the Romans 30 years to establish their empire in Britain with bribes, threats, treachery and subjugation. In 61 AD, they face a major uprising of the various tribes led by Boudica, the queen of the Iceni tribe, and who refuses to submit to Roman rule. Boudica is eventually defeated by the Romans, but not before she has led the pillaging and razing of the 3 Roman cities of Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium. The Temple of Claudius in Camulodunum and the Roman theatre at Verulamium are among the many structures destroyed completely.
Whatever knowledge we have of Boudica, also called the Warrior Queen, today is from the records kept by the Romans. She is believed to have been very tall, with long red hair, a harsh voice and a piercing glare.
Verulamium is the third largest city in Roman Britain and has the status of a municipium (municipality). It has a basilica (town hall), a forum (market place) and a well-known theatre. The Verulamium Theatre has the capacity to seat about 7,000 people. Like all Roman theatres, this one too is a semi-circular auditorium facing the stage.
Today, Verulamium is known as St. Albans after the first British Christian martyr, who was beheaded here by the Romans around 274 AD. It is a fascinating city today and the only place in Britain, where the remains of a Roman theatre has been found. Much of Verulamium remains unexcavated due to the presence of modern constructions as well as being under agricultural land. But what little has been unearthed is a breathtaking record of Roman history in Britain as I found on my visit there.
The Romans are polytheistic as are the Britons they have conquered, and have no problems in adopting the local spirits/ guardian angels and giving them Roman names. Nowhere is this more evident than in a place called Sulis, which is renowned for its healing and medicinal waters. Sulis is also the Celtic Goddess of healing, and when the Romans arrive here, they are quite happy to use the local knowledge. They rename the city Aquae Sulis and build a grand Temple and Bath complex dedicated to Minerva, the Roman Goddess of medicine and healing. The temple and bath complex not only becomes a place of healing, but also a place to ask for favours from the Gods—people would drop coins and requests into the Circular Bath at the Temple and Bath Complex.
After the Romans left, the Temple and Bath Complex fell into disrepair, and was slowly forgotten. Aquae Sulis came to be known as Bath as the healing properties of the waters in this place were never really forgotten. Over the centuries, people continued going to Bath seeking cures for rheumatism and gout, as well as various skin disorders. The beginning of the Georgian era (1714-1830), helped in the revival of the city and as well as in the uncovering of the forgotten Temple and Bath Complex. While the Baths were fairly intact, there was nothing much left of the temple, as I discovered on my visit there.
The almost five centuries of Roman rule in Britain unites its people like no other and creates a national identity. A common official language, Latin, is imposed as are other administrative systems, and its effects are felt for centuries after. But a consistently failing economy, diminishing numbers of troops, problems with payments to soldiers and officials of the Empire, and continuous attacks by Barbarian troops leads to the decline of the Roman rule in Britain, which ends in 410 AD. This paves the way for other groups to come and establish their rule.
My journey through Roman Britain was by no means a comprehensive one; what I saw and experienced and discovered is just a glimpse into a vast and complex and fascinating empire that ruled Britain for more than 400 years. The Roman remains in Britain are not even the best preserved nor the best illustration of their art or architecture; one has only to see the Roman remains in Turkey or Jordan or Syria or North African countries like Tunisia and Algeria to know what I mean. But for someone who was discovering the history of the Roman Empire for the first time, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. The feeling of literally walking over history cannot be described in mere words and these two photographs should explain what I felt during my visit to Verulamium.
At its peak, the Roman Empire covered vast territorial areas in Europe, Africa and Asia. But no other country today has carried forward the Roman legacy like Britain: the very name of the island is a Roman one and the capital is a Roman city, as is their language for religious and administrative purposes (for many centuries after the end of the Roman rule), their culture, their architecture, and their town planning among, so many others. It is often said that history repeats itself and as I read about and saw more of the Roman legacy in Britain, I couldn’t help noticing interesting parallels in the legacy of British rule in India !
But I’ll save that for another blog post, for I now want to know what did you thought about this journey through Roman Britain. And I would also love to hear about your own travels to different parts of the “Roman Empire”.
- Michael Ibeji has written a fantastic “Overview of Roman Britain”. It is a must read and I highly recommend it.
- To see the photo-essay on my visit to Camulodunum/Colchester, please click here.
- To see the photo-essay on my visit to Verulamium/St. Albans, please click here.
- Sometime back, I wrote a blog post on Bath, which you can read here; for the photo-essay on Bath, please click here.