Chapter II Britain -- A Roman Province

[pg. 31]

Recall any pictures you may have seen of Rome, its ruins, and beautiful hills, or possibly a panorama in which the great buildings, temples, baths, palaces, theatres, reconstructed,, stand out in dazzling array: perhaps you have a post card of the ruins of the great Amphitheatre or Coliseum. Build it up again in your mind. Far, far larger than the Albert Hall, there was room to seat many thousands, tier above tier, eagerly watching the games below. Think of the sunshine, shaded by the great awnings above, the garlands of flowers, the bright clothes of the audience, their wreaths, the splendour of the Imperial party in their special “box,” the impassive guards in their armour.

The noise and excitement must have been tremendous indeed when the enthusiasm of such a multitude broke beyond bounds at the sight of the skill and danger below them. “Doors closed”; well, what matter! think what there was to see outside when those marbles were fresh and perfect, the statues and columns in place, and all was alive with colour and light and human beings.

Now you ask, “But where to the multitudes come from?” [pg. 32]

If you saw a map of the Roman Empire of that time you would find it included not only all the countries round the Mediterranean Sea, but it crosses the Alps and includes Gaul, now the land of France, and the beautiful Rhine-land.

“Beyond German,” says the old writer Tacitus, “lies a sea, the girdle and limit of the world, so near to the spot where Phoebus rises, that the sound he makes in emerging from the waters can be heard, and the forms of his steeds are visible!” Still one more province will appear, Britannia, our own foggy island. These countries were all conquered more or less completely, were kept in order by large armies, were colonized by Rome, were ruled by Roman law, and were taught Roman ways.

Now do you see where the crowds in Rome came from? Besides those who lived in the beautiful city and its surroundings, men were brought to the great capital by business, pleasure, or sad necessity, from north, south, east, and west. You know one man, at any rate, who made a far journey to see Rome -- St. Paul -- in the time of Nero. You will remember, too, the story of the British prince, Caractacus, brought to Rome with his family, after a long and brave defence of his country. No wonder as he looked round on the glories of Rome that he bitterly wondered why his conquerors were not contented with all they already had, without taking his poor home, so far away.

And now, let us look in the Roman Gallery, on the faces of our acquaintances. Julius Caesar -- his birthday in the seventh month gives July its name -- who paid [pg. 33] two short visits to the hitherto almost unknown island that lay in the mist, and who managed to find time to write books about his travels and wars in the midst of a most busy life. You will find another portrait of him amongst the Roman Cameos in the Gem Room. His name comes about the middle of the first century B.C., and next to it that of Augustus. Remember, as you study his face, his decree that all the (Roman) world should be taxed; remember, too, the Birth in Bethlehem, which took place while the taxing-census was being carried out in Judea.

The name of Tiberius will come next, early in the first century A.D. He was the Caesar referred to when the Jews asked our Lord, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?” and when they shouted later, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Claudius is interesting to us, because about a hundred years after Julius Caesar had shown the way, the conquest of Britain began in real earnest, and Claudius came himself for about a fortnight to encourage the soldiers in their great and hard work.

The hated name of Nero comes next, and there is a fine bronze statuette of him in the Roman-Britain Room. Nero is the emperor who “fiddled while Rome was burning,” who persecuted the early Christians, and in whose reign occurred the terrible revolt of the Britons, under Boadicea, maddened by her wrongs. Go and look at the group on Westminster Bridge. You will see the queen standing in her war chariot with her long hair and mantle streaming behind her as she urges her soldiers on to battle and revenge. [pg. 34]

There is a bust of Vespasian in the Roman Gallery, but before he became emperor he commanded a legion in Britain under Claudius. His son, Titus, lived from 40 to 81 A.D. It was he who finished the terrible siege of Jerusalem, and in his reign Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under the lava from Vesuvias.

Titus was a good friend to the great commander Agricola, who was for seven years governor of Britain. Agricola’s daughter married Tacitus the historian, and it is from him we have the account of Agricola’s voyage, of his wars and campaigns, and forts, and of his fine work in road-making, forest clearing and draining.

Domitiam it was who recalled Agricola, some say out of jealousy. Anyhow he would not let him carry on over here.

Under the next emperor, Trajan, there was a revolt in Britain, and so we come to Hadrian, who meant to have no more trouble of that kind. And that is why he built the Wall.

He comes near the beginning of the second century, and was a great traveller. You will find bronze medallions in the Coin Room, commemorating his journeys to Britain, Sicily, Syria; not for the purpose of adding to the Empire, but to see that all were well-governed and protected from fierce neighbours. He encouraged scholars and artists too.

A fine bronze of Hadrian was found a London Bridge, and is in the Roman-Britain Room.

A little past the middle of this second century we meet the name of Marcus Aurelius, who wrote such [pg. 35] wise books that they are prized even now. In one of them he says, after acknowledging what he had learned from his mother, that from his tutor he learnt “endurance of labour, to want little, to work with his own hands, not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.” It was in this reign that the barbarians along the frontier gave serious trouble, and Marcus Aurelius died fighting against the Germans.

At the end of this century comes Severus, who died at York, after a harassing campaign in the north. It was he who made the Praetorian Guards so strong, that practically the soldiers became the governors of the Empire.

The Romans left many coins in their British province, and you will recognize in the Coin Room the emperors you have now seen, as well as the later emperors.

Consider the soldiers who first conquered this country, and then settled in it. What a scene the arrival of the legions must have been, as the many-oared galleys swept in to the shore, discharging company after company, the general, the centurions, the standard-bearer, the legionaries; little by little they gain ground, as more press on behind. Fine organization and discipline, with oneness of purpose, tell against the mere bravery of the Britons, often bitterly quarrelling amongst themselves.

In the Roman-Britain Room you can see their fine helmets, swords, daggers, shields; on the boss of one of these is the very name of the soldier who owned it, [pg. 36] Junius of the Eighth Legion; here, too, is a small section of the scale armour worn by soldiers, and we can glean other details of their appearance from the “imperial personage in armour” close by, as well as from the two statues of Hadrian in the Roman Gallery. These helmets, breastplates, shields, sandals, may bring to your mind St. Paul’s description of the Christian armour. He must have often watched his guards when he was in prison, putting theirs on and off.

You see near the door some bronze tablets, at least, pieces of them. They are the military diplomas or certificates of honorable discharge from the army. They were presented to men who had completed twenty-five years’ service by which they had attained the rank of citizenship and freedom to marry. The translation of these diplomas is in a case close by.

Some tablets mentioning British soldiers have been found in distant countries, as well as in Rome itself, for the great army was always needing recruits, and the strongest of the youth of a conquered province had to go. A young Briton would be taken from his home, where he had hunted, fished, ploughed, and reaped a little, fought (perhaps a good deal) with neighbouring tribes, to become one of a great army. Then he would be disciplined, trained to obedience, and marched for days and weeks, perhaps across the Alps or Danube, or farther away still.

But the soldiers had other work besides fighting. Look again at the map of Roman Britain. As the legions made their way across the length and breadth of the country, they needed forts and camps -- castra -- [pg. 37] for shelter. These they built so strongly that we can see many of the foundations to this day, and at any rate the remembrance of them survives in the names of Chester, Lancaster, Manchester, and many more.

The quarters of the army were in the west and north of our country, where the soldiers were always on guard against troublesome neighbours.

The east and south were peaceful, and needed no soldiers, so it is there that we see how the civilians lived, and when the word “chester” comes in the name of a southern or eastern town (like Colchester or Gloucester), it does not mean that there was a military camp there, but that there was a Roman town. The Saxons often tacked on the word “chester” later to show this.

If you visit any of these places, and there is a museum, you will find the remains stored there of the times of the Romans. You will find, for instance, a baby’s feeding-bottle buried with toys, beside the small owner, at Colchester; a tiny bear, spread eagle, quaint rocking-horse four inches long, at Silchester; and endless treasures at York, Lincoln, Canterbury, and Dorchester.

But these castra had to be connected by good roads, and so well did the Romans do this part of their work, helped by the Britons (who complained that their bodies and hands were worn out with the labour), that their highways are the best we have to-day. Where necessary, forests were cleared, marshes drained, bridges built.

Trace on the map of Roman Britain the chief Roman roads. There is Watling Street, which reached [pg. 38] London where the Marble Arch now stands. Exactly where it crossed London is not known, but the “Watling Street” near St. Paul’s is not part of it; it is a mere name. From South-East London the Roman road went on to the Kentish coast, thus connecting Chester and Wales with far-off Dover. Ermyn Street went from London to Lincoln and York, the Fosse way from Devonshire to Lincoln.

The Milestone (mille passus, a thousand steps) by the door into the Roman-British Room, bearing the name of Hadrian, comes from North Wales, and reminds us of the measurement and careful tending of the roads.

Not only troops of soldiers would pass along these roads, but, as the country became more settled and cities were built and farms prospered, there would be trains of pack-horses or asses laden with food and merchandise. Perhaps the traders might carry some of those steelyards and weights (to be seen also in the Room of Greek and Roman Life), to measure and weigh the goods they sold on their way: they are just the same shape as those used in the carts selling fruit and vegetables in Yorkshire now. Near a mining district there would be heavy burdens of metal borne along: “pigs” of lead, stamped with the emperor’s name, cakes of copper, tin, all highly prized, as well as the smaller ingots of silver.

Look once more on the map to find a further work of the soldiers -- the walls.

You have only to read the names, Picti, Caledonii, to the north of the narrow belt of Scotland, to see why [pg. 39] walls were needed. Get a picture, if you can, of the ruins of the most important wall, the one built by Hadrian, and repaired by Severus.

There were fierce scenes of warfare, on the line of the wall -- stone rampart, ditch, and roadway -- crossing the country to the Solway. At intervals there were turrets and forts, and many are the memorials of the soldiers who lived and died there; their tablets, records of their work, as well as the altars dedicated to the gods they served. A beautiful gold necklace was found on the line of the wall, with coins of Aurelius.

Now look at the case of more peaceful things -- the work of potters and glass-blowers. Some, at any rate, of these beautiful pots and jugs and vases, and those fine glass jars and vessels, will have been made here. There are also bronze ornaments of every kind, and all sorts of personal possessions, helping us to realize the growth of cities and colonies, and the families who peopled them. It has been said that when a Roman came to a new country he brought Rome with him, and impressed his ideas upon the wealthy Britons here. So we find all over the country traces of fine houses, baths, theatres, such as the Romans had had at home, and particularly of his “villa,” his beautiful country-house.

In the Isle of Wight, for instance, there are the foundations of the Brading Villa, and there are many more all over the country; you can trace the rooms for every use, and you can see the furnaces which heated the baths and the villa generally. There are traces, [pg. 40] too, of the gardens with colonnades, statues, and beautiful tessellated pavements.

There are fine specimens of their pavements in our Roman portrait gallery, and if you want to see the sort of wall painting that gladdened the eyes of those who dwelt in them long ago -- such bright, clean colours -- you can find, near the Gem Room, those from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, flowers, birds, all sorts of graceful pictures, some as fresh as if done to-day. These were sealed up by the ashes and lava of Vesuvias.

Who lived in those old villas? There was the Briton’s Romanized wife, in her graceful flowing robe, moving across that pavement floor. Her name will be a British one, perhaps Boadicea, not a Roman one, such as Cecilia, Drusilla, or Cornelia, which will only be borne by the highest ladies in Rome.\

You can see her shoes in the Roman-Britain Room and others like them in a table-case in the Room of Greek and Roman Life; tiny shoes of a child too. You will see that they walked with a soft, firm tread, for they had no heels to click. In the Gem Room note the golden balls that her boy will have worn. He wore a white garment too. His tutor taught him reading from books he unrolled; writing, by guiding his hand, as he used one of these pointed styli on wax spread on his wooden tablet. If the stylus slipped, there is the broad eraser he used to smooth it out. The boy had most certainly to write well, for he had to copy out his own school-books.

For his arithmetic he used counting-boards; think [pg. 41] of this Roman boy when you try to read quickly dates such as MDLVIII., MDCXCIX. Would you like to work some with his figures?

The little girls would sit beside their mother and her handmaidens and learn to use the spindles and whorls which you now see.

The garments were often woven to fit, and you can study their graceful shapes in the Terra-cotta Room; here are the needles and bodkins too. You can see what the lady used, for there are the bronze mirrors, the combs, tweezers, little pots for ointment; and as for ornaments we have an endless variety of brooches, bracelets, rings, and in the Gem Room many more still. One of the bracelets, to hold money, looks more unsafe than a modern pocket.

There are the keys to lock all away safely, near the prescriptions of the oculists -- one is for red eyelids -- near the fish-hooks, and the seal boxes and the spoons, and many other lovely things, as well as kitchen utensils.

The British father -- Roman now in all his ways -- will be home for the evening meal, so let us look at the lamps he would use. You will see plenty in the Roman-Britain Room, and again, the Fourth Vase Room, is a whole case full of terra-cotta ones; you can find the moulds in which they were made in the Room of Greek and Roman Life.

You can see by the blackened rim of the holes where they were lighted. Notice the ornamentations, gods, gladiators, animals, and one with the fox and crow fable from Aesop. So you see, whether it was Celsus, Pedens, or Marius in Rome, or young Epaticcus [pg. 42] in Roman Britain, the boy of two thousand years ago knew the same story that you know.

A splendid store of personal possessions, as well as of stones of ruined houses and other buildings, has been found about seventeen feet below the busy city of London, and to see more of these you must also go to the Guildhall and the London Museum.

At the Guildhall look for the red pottery which bears the illustration of another of old Aesop’s fables, the wolf and the crane; another piece has a juggler with a skipping-rope, and there are some lamp-trimmers, some wonderful shoes, and much more that will interest you.

On your way there look towards the high ground above the old marshes (near St. Paul’s) where it is just possible that there may have been some prehistoric and British settlements. These were followed by the great Roman city on the Walbrook and Fleet rivers -- one of the greatest of the Roman Empire. The Basilica (excavated in Cornhill) was the largest in the west, outside Rome itself.

On the wall of this room is a map of London where you can trace the great wall built by the Romans after the rebellion of Boadicaea. Find the street now called London Wall, near Liverpool Street Station, and then trace it round by the names of the “Gates.” Billings-gate, Ald-gate, Bishops-gate, Moor-gate, Cripple-gate, Alders-gate, New-gate, Lud-gate.

Of the river wall and its water-gates we have only slight traces; it was built on piles. A busy place it must have been, with the ships of traders [pg. 43] on the river, as well as the pleasure-boats of the rich, and much traffic from the great roads, that entered at its gates from all parts of the country. Remains of great timber wharves are found whenever workmen dig fresh foundations on the riverside.

St. Alban, a British martyr for the new faith, appears near the beginning of the fourth century, and a little later comes the name of the first Christian emperor, Constantine.

You will notice as you pass through the Museum many of the altars dedicated to the old gods, the Tyrian Hercules, the Egyptian Osiris, the German goddess mothers, British gods and goddesses, as well as the Roman Mars and Sylvanus, for the Roman legionaries, as we saw, were recruited from every country.

Gradually Rome lost her great power, enemies began to close in on every side, and more and more soldiers had to be called home from distant provinces to defend the heart of the Empire, and so the legions left Britain, left the wall, and the camps, and the castles, and the cities.

There had already been terrible raids upon this land, especially towards the end of the fourth century. Scots from Ireland (that was before they migrated to Scotland), Picts from the North, and Saxons from across the sea, swarmed over the land for plunder.

These wild foes attacked the richest Roman-Britons first, and so reduced their beautiful villas to smoking ruins.

Then the Saxons began to settle down among the [pg. 44] Celtic Britons and to marry them. So the Britons became less and less Roman. At last it seemed that all that Rome had given to Britain was lost.

Not quite.

Rome had given Christianity to Britain, and it was now stamped out in the East, but it lived on in the West. The scholars and saints of Ireland kept it as their brightest treasure, and in the centuries to come gave back to our land the gift of Christianity that Rome had first bestowed on it.
(typed by Mary Harshbarger)

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