Evoking the Past


BOWNESS-ON-SOLWAY in Cumbria was the north-westernmost limit of Hadrian’s Wall. In AD 130 it was also—apart from a handful of outposts north of the Wall—the most north-westerly point of the entire Roman Empire. From here, according to my online route planner, it is a distance of 1486.9 miles (2392.9km) to the Capitoline Hill (Piazza del Campidoglio) in Rome. The itinerary tells me that were I to travel by car, the journey would take 22 hours and 8 minutes.

The suggested route is not, of course, the only way of getting there, simply the most direct, along the fastest roads. Such a concept would have been familiar to the Romans, who used itineraries based on similar principles: routes drawn as a series of straight lines, giving distances between suggested stopping points, with symbols denoting towns, ports, temples and various types of accommodation available along the way.

Motorways now bypass the towns and cities through which the Romans once travelled and the stopping places where they would have sought refreshment for themselves and their horses. Scanning the modern route through England, I look for the Roman towns, forts and settlements that I might pass on my journey and find them straight away. Soon after leaving Bowness-on-Solway (Maia), I would pass by Carlisle (Luguvalium), a Roman military base and later Romano-British town. A little further south in Lancashire, having sped by Lancaster, I would cross the River Ribble, just a few miles west of Ribchester. Both these places were Roman forts, indicated by the -caster and -chester in their modern names: from the Latin castrum, via Old English cæster, by which the Anglo-Saxons denoted a place of Roman origin. What the Romans called Lancaster is unknown, but Ribchester went by the splendid name ‘Bremetenacum Veteranorum’. This comes from the Celtic for a roaring river, Bremetona (an apt name, as the Ribble has devoured a third of the fort), and the Latin for ‘of the veterans’, indicating that soldiers—at one time Sarmatian cavalry originally from the Ukraine and southern Russia—had settled here on retirement.

Just off the M6 Toll Road in Staffordshire is Wall (Letocetum), which provided a well-appointed government rest house or mansio for official travellers on Watling Street, a key military road between the south coast and North Wales. Once on the M1, I would pass by St Albans (Verulamium), a town that came to prominence soon after the conquest thanks to its strategic position north of London on Watling Street and its pro-Roman inhabitants. The rather less amenable Queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, torched the place inAD 61. She did the same to London (Londinium), massacring its citizens and burning the future provincial capital so effectively that it left forever a glaring red scar of burnt clay in the earth, which archaeologists refer to as the ‘Boudiccan destruction layer’.

The twenty-first-century route now bypasses London on the M25 and joins the M20 at Dartford, following a much more circuitous way to the coast and the Channel Tunnel south of Dover than the old Roman road. By contrast, Watling Street runs south of London in a no-nonsense line, directly connecting the capital with the ports of Dover (Dubris) and Richborough (Rutupiae) via Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum).

The way in which Rome’s tentacles reached even the most out-of-the-way places, in what for the Romans was our really faraway island, never ceases to amaze me, as does the origin of the men and women who ended up here from all corners of the empire. Just down the coast from Bowness-on-Solway, at the fort of Maryport (Alauna) on the Cumbrian coast, Caius Caballius Priscus, born in Verona, was a tribune here between AD 128 and AD 131. Marcus Censorius Cornelianus, from Nîmes in the south of France, served here in AD 132 before being sent to Judaea. Lucius Cammius Maximus, prefect of the camp between AD 133 and AD 135, came from Austria, returning to the region to serve on the Danube. And at some point in the second or third century, Gaius Cornelius Peregrinus, a town councillor from Algeria, prayed for a safe return to his sunny home after his stint as an officer on the north-west frontier.

Over at Corbridge (Coria), just south of Hadrian’s Wall, Diodora described herself—in Greek—as a high priestess on the altar she dedicated to the exotic oriental cult of Herakles of Tyre. She probably came from Asia Minor. Further east along the Wall at South Shields (Arbeia), Barates, a Syrian merchant, erected a handsome tombstone in honour of his British wife, a freedwoman called Regina.

Many who came to Britannia as high-ranking officers and officials were cultured and affluent men who enjoyed remarkable careers: men such as the slick and extremely rich Spaniard L. Minicius Natalis, who arrived in Britain in about AD 130 fresh from winning a four-horse chariot race at the Olympic Games. Would he have been appalled by life on this gloomy old island or been thrilled by the hunting, the famously sensitive noses of the hounds, and the archaic skill of the British charioteers who, as late as AD83, had ridden their war chariots into battle against the Romans at Mons Graupius? It was in thinking about these diverse characters from such varied backgrounds that I began to wonder not just why they came here and what they might have made of this place but howthey got here. What means of transport would they have taken? How long would it have taken them to get to Britain? How would they have got about the place when they arrived?

In attempting to evoke a journey to Britain in the Roman period, to capture the flavour of life for any of these people, the first hurdle is to confront the fact that Roman Britain spans a period of more than 450 years—beginning with Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55 and 54 BC. This is the same amount of time that separates the era of Elizabeth I’s reign from the the present day. Unsurprisingly during these centuries, both the Roman world and Britain changed profoundly: the Roman Republic fell and ‘chief citizens’ became emperors. The empire expanded greatly and then was carved up several times over. Christianity triumphed over paganism, and power shifted ever further east, away from Italy until, in AD 330, the Emperor Constantine the Great dedicated Constantinople in his name as the New Rome.

For these reasons a journey in the first or early second centuries would have been profoundly different to one in the third and fourth centuries, featuring personalities from widely different backgrounds, both in terms of their country of origin and their social class. Their journeys would have taken them along different routes, and those travelling in the later period would have had to face more uncertainties, including a greater threat of pirates on the seas and armed conflict on land. Britain was also administered in completely different ways; the province was split in two in the early third century, and into four in the fourth century, and her political and economic organization changed markedly.

In order to evoke a journey as it might have been experienced by any one person, it was therefore necessary to choose a period. There are a number of reasons why I decided on AD 130. It is a time when a most complex and compelling emperor, Hadrian, ruled an empire whose boundaries he was keen to consolidate and delineate, most famously with Hadrian’s Wall. He himself spent several years of his reign travelling through the empire and visited Britain in AD 122. It was at this time that he gave the orders to build the Wall, and he very possibly stimulated the construction of many other monumental buildings in the province, the remains of which may still be seen today. By AD 130 the main towns and cities of Britain were established, conforming more or less to a Roman model, albeit with some idiosyncratic flourishes. Both the Wall and other monumental civic building projects were well under way. We also know—and this is rare for most of the Roman period in Britain—the names of several high-ranking officials who served in the province in the early 130s and who may have overlapped: the governor Sextus Julius Severus (in Britain AD 130–133); the aforementioned Minicius Natalis, who took up his post as legionary legate in command of the Legion VI Victrix based at York (Eboracum) at about the same time; and Maenius Agrippa, who is thought to have been appointed ‘prefect of the British fleet’ (praefectus classis Britanniae) in the early 130s.

In this period, Rome was still the radiant centre of imperial power, the city where both the emperor and the ruling class needed to have a base and the place from which many high-ranking officials would have set out at the start of their postings to the provinces. It is the city that provided a model for the provincial towns and cities of the empire. To understand what was happening in a place like Britain in the second century, one must first glimpse the shape of things in Rome. And although people coming to live and work in Britain in the AD 130s would have arrived by diverse routes, many of them from places outside Italy, Rome was still the measure of all things, which is why this journey begins in the heart of the imperial capital.

Bearing in mind the fact that for this period and place there is simply not enough evidence to piece together an exact journey made by one particular person, I have attempted to reconstruct a journey as it might have unfolded at this time using what literary and archaeological evidence we have. For reasons of fluency and readability I have tried to limit the many potential ‘might haves’, ‘probablys’ and ‘possiblys’, but I hope that speculation, doubt or dissent is adequately treated in the footnotes and endnotes, which will enable interested readers to follow up the relevant sources and arguments.

I have had to be very selective about the places I mention to avoid this becoming a gazetteer and have tried to choose sites where there is a significant Hadrianic story, and which contain good examples of a particular type of building of the period, or where a theme can best be exemplified. It has been difficult to leave out some towns beyond the briefest mention, but places such as York and Cirencester (Corinium), together with many significant villas, for example, have at present more to tell us about the later history than Hadrian’s era. St Albans, a key town on major routes north and east of London, figures greatly in the early and late Roman periods, but the record is quieter in the second century.

That said, one of the excitements of Roman history in Britain is that archaeological discoveries are constantly being made, which sometimes add a piece to the puzzle and occasionally show that two pieces have previously been fitted together in entirely the wrong way. Recent discoveries at Maryport mean that many books on Roman military history will have to be rewritten. At Colchester (Camulodunum)—the first provincial capital of Britain, which figures so greatly in the early conquest period—Britain’s only known Roman circus or racetrack has recently been discovered. One of the many pleasures and excitements of writing this book has been hearing of new discoveries, and then thinking about how they could help inform the narrative.

One of the major problems with writing about any period of Roman British history is the paucity of evidence and fragmentary nature of our sources. Most of what we know about Roman Britain is based on archaeological evidence. The main written sources for Hadrian’s reign are from later: the flaky but titillating Historia Augusta (fourth century) and the account in the third-century Roman History of Cassius Dio, which only survives in a much later, abridged form. In both, only the odd sentence refers directly to Britain. For the second century, however, we do at least have several works of literature written by authors who were contemporary with Hadrian, or one generation removed. Tacitus, who was possibly still alive in the early part of Hadrian’s reign, offers our best written source for Britain in the first century, in the Annals and Histories, and in his biography of his father-in-law Agricola, who was governor of Britain for an unusually lengthy period between AD 77 and AD 83. The Letters of Pliny the Younger (c.AD 61–113) supply us with an enormous amount of information about the character, interests and career of an upper-class Roman who served as governor of a Roman province under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan—albeit on the other side of the empire, in Bithynia. Arrian, too, who is contemporary with Hadrian, also gives us a few snippets about his time as governor of Cappadocia in the early 130s, although he is rather more informative about hounds and hunting—the great passions of the emperor and of many army officers throughout the empire, including those in Britain. And Suetonius Tranquillus, author of the entertaining Lives of the Caesars became Hadrian’s chief secretary (ab epistulis), although he was later sacked.

Writing about Roman Britain, as has been said many times, is like trying to fit together a complicated jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces are missing. For one thing, the story is very one-sided—practically all from the Roman point of view. The British before the conquest did not have the literary habit: whatever laws, histories, songs and poems they might have had were passed on by means of an oral rather than a written tradition. Even after the Romans arrived, they do not seem to have taken to writing, or at least not for the purposes of erecting monumental inscriptions. Of those inscriptions that survive from Britain, only the tiniest fraction commemorate native Britons; for the most part it is the incoming soldiers, merchants and their families whose names are inscribed on tombstones, altars and buildings on the island. In the third century, even the military inscriptions dry up.

Miraculously preserved, though, in the boggy conditions of Northumberland and Cumbria, and discovered primarily at Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, are letters written on pieces of wood. They give wonderful everyday details of life on the frontier, albeit often in tantalizing fragments. The letters span the period from the AD 90s to the 120s and complement other letters with similar details of daily life in the army found in dumps of papyri thousands of miles away in Egypt. Excitingly, work continues on the Vindolanda tablets and others recently found in London. We also have hundreds of lead and pewter curse tablets, such as those, mainly from the third century, that were thrown into the thermal waters of Aquae Sulis (Bath), together with a substantial number of second- and third-century curses deposited at a shrine at Uley, Gloucestershire. Here, at last, even if through the most fragmentary filter, we can hear the voices of ordinary people, sometimes with distinctively Celtic names. Their odd spellings and grammar and use of colloquial words give a thrilling, but fleeting, insight into the idiosyncratic and accented way in which they might have used the imported Latin language.

These disgruntled individuals at Bath were visiting the only place in Britain to have made it into any sort of international guide. Unlike Egypt and Greece, this remote province was not one of the empire’s touristic hotspots. Like Julius Severus and Minicius Natalis, most travellers to Britain came here strictly for business rather than pleasure. It took courage to travel such a distance. According to the second-century jurist Ulpian, the hazards of travel included being killed by bandits, having the inn you are staying in collapse on top of you, and being run over by a cart. To these perils, any traveller to Britain might have added the dangers of crossing Oceanus, that immeasurable expanse of sea full of monsters and unfathomable tides at the ends of the earth.

Having made such a perilous journey, what awaited the second-century traveller on arrival on Britannia’s shores? Expectations, as far as we can tell, seem to have been low. The natives were considered to be uncultured and generally unpromising, though their plain clothes were of most excellent quality wool and their hunting hounds were deemed to be effective, if unprepossessing in looks. The climate, too, left much to be desired. Here was a place where the rain fell, the sun was seldom seen, and a thick mist was said to rise from the marshes ‘so that the atmosphere in the country is always gloomy’.

Welcome to Britannia, AD 130.



You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!