Age of Romans A History of Ancient Britain


Age of Romans

Neil Oliver completes his epic journey through thousands of years of ancient history with the modern marvels of Rome and the very beginnings of history itself.


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Transcript


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This is the story of how Britain came to be.

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Of how our land and its people

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were forged over thousands of years of ancient history.

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This Britain is a strange and alien world.

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A world that contains the epic story of our distant, prehistoric past.

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For hundreds of years,

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regional tribes had fought for the land of Iron Age Britain.

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It was the time of heroes, of champions,

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men who could wield swords.

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This was a world of powerful Celtic warriors,

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druids and kings,

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before Britain was torn apart by an even greater force -

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the Roman Army.

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These men were executed, and their heads were stuck on spikes.

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This was what would happen if you got in the way of Rome.

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Now the journey continues

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with the next chapter in our epic story,

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a time when our land was being re-created

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in the image of Rome itself.

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This isn't just an abstract depiction of gladiatorial combat.

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These people have names.

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And its people had to come to terms with a bewildering, new,

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and utterly modern world.

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This is science fiction.

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Britain, 200 AD.

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The brutal violence of the Roman military campaign

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was a distant memory.

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Apart from the lands of the Picts to the north,

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all this was a far-flung corner of empire.

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Roman garrisons and administrators

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ruling over a land of more than three million people.

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The roads, buildings and cities

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were established and impressive features

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in the landscape of Britain.

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People no longer felt that they had been invaded.

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Instead, they were part of the most impressive,

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the most technologically advanced empire the world had ever seen.

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Britain was being dragged from its ancient pre-historic past

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into a new and very modern world.

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A world in which you could, perhaps,

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be both British and Roman at the same time.

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Today, the relics of Roman Britain

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still lie buried right beneath our feet.

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Here in central London, construction work is uncovering fragments

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of a city that once stood here almost 2,000 years ago.

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This building is completely derelict, as you can see,

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and it's shortly going to be almost razed to the ground,

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and replaced by something new.

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But at the moment, there's just this brief window of time

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that archaeologists can take advantage of,

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and dig deep into the foundations.

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And what they're revealing deep down here

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is a rare glimpse of Roman London.

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Alison Telfer and her team

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are uncovering the preserved remains of streets and buildings.

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This is planned, urban development.

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Everything about this is amazing. It's so recognisable.

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This is Roman timber.

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Yes, and you can see the skill of the workmen who made this.

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The timber survived very well because of the damp conditions,

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and that's really helped preserve it.

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In just a few generations, Roman London had grown

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into Britain's most important trading town.

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What's being discovered here

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are some of the shops and workshops that stood right at its very heart.

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Is that a fence line there?

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It is a fence line dividing this building from the one over there,

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and then heading that way, there might have been shop frontages,

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and about 20 metres that way is probably the Roman road.

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When you use words like shop frontages,

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it suddenly sounds modern and recognisable.

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At the time it would have been.

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You could probably come and get your latest leather shoes here,

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maybe get them made to measure.

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It fascinates me that life down here is so vivid.

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Yes. It makes people real, doesn't it?

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Look at this.

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This is a bag of leather pieces that have been excavated from here.

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Now, how recognisable is that?

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That's the sole of a leather, Roman shoe.

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Look at that. And you can see on the sides, the holes for stitching.

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And even more interesting, in a way, given that we're in a workshop,

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is a piece like this, which is an offcut of leather.

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That's been cut from a larger piece

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during the shaping and the making of something,

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and it's a find like this that shows

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that shoes aren't just being sold from these premises.

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They're actually being made here.

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And it still smells ever so faintly of leather.

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As early as AD50, a bridge had been built across the River Thames,

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and London grew rapidly around it.

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This was a trading hub -

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the Thames connecting Britain to mainland Europe

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and the furthest reaches of the Roman world.

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Not only to France, Italy and Spain, but Africa and the Middle East.

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Nearly 2,000 years ago, all of this was green fields

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as far as the eye could see,

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because there were no Britons settled on either bank.

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This is the actual site of the very first bridge across the Thames,

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built by Romans in the first century AD.

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It would have taken its line across the Thames,

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parallel to modern London Bridge up there,

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and the settlement that grew up on either side,

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they called Londinium,

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a name that has such a profound and deep connection

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to the city we know today.

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The Roman city of London was built on two hills -

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Cornhill and Ludgate Hill.

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By around 200 AD, it stretched all the way

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from where St Paul's Cathedral is today

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to the site of the Tower of London.

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It was home to maybe 40,000 people,

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and it was Britain's very first metropolis.

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The growth of urban living wasn't only felt in the southeast.

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From Bath in the west,

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to York in the north,

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many early forts and garrison towns

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had evolved into civilian centres of government and commerce.

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The roads that had been built to transport troops

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were now carrying the latest goods to growing centres of population.

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Roman mass manufacturing was making decorative goods

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ever more accessible to the aspirant middle classes.

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Innovations such as glassware would have been a modern marvel.

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Look at that!

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Instant product!

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And it's so detailed, just from the clay mould.

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You've got the basis of mass production there, haven't you?

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Even the idea of windows was new to Britain.

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It's almost impossible for us to imagine a world without glass,

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but try and put yourself into the mind of an Iron Age Briton,

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for whom the world had only and always been glassless,

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and think of the impact for him of standing inside a building,

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and while being proof against the rain and the wind,

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to still be bathed in sunlight.

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And glass was far from the only modern marvel

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that came with the Romans.

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Look at this.

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This would have been a wonder.

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This is all that remains of a gigantic statue

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that stood 20-feet high.

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And it wouldn't have been green, either -

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the figure would have been painted gold -

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it would have been gilded.

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The native tribes had never before seen likenesses of human beings,

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but to see that these people were accompanied by golden giants,

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three times the size of a human being -

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what would that have said to you

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about what these people were capable of?

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And then look at this. So familiar.

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It's exactly what it looks like. It's a padlock.

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Here's the keyhole.

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This could well be the key that fits.

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It shows the way in which the Romans, quite literally,

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brought the modern world.

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They brought the future with them.

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This is science fiction.

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Of course, not everyone in Britain was so directly exposed

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to the wonders of Rome.

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Away from the heavily Romanised south,

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the impact of Roman culture would have been much less,

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but if you were living in one of the new urban centres,

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then the classical, civilised Roman world

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would have touched every part of your life.

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And it wouldn't necessarily have been threatening and foreign -

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it would have been exciting and seductive.

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But if the new urban centres weren't enough,

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the new commercial opportunities, the new technologies,

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then Rome had something else to offer the people for the first time.

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And that was mass entertainment,

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often on a truly massive scale.

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I'm cycling along a piece of invisible Roman Britain,

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because where I am now used to be a racetrack

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where charioteers would hurtle along, racing against one another.

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That's once around. Another six to go.

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Colchester was the first Roman retirement town,

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where old soldiers could settle with their own plots of land.

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Its racetrack, or circus,

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was discovered by archaeologist Philip Crummy.

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What we've found is the only circus known in Roman Britain.

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Comparing it to these modern buildings, it's colossal,

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even by modern standards.

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Look at this massive industrial unit there, and the circus dwarfs it.

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This is the largest Roman building that we know of in Britain.

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This is the real deal, this is a giant thing.

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Despite knowing its layout,

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only fragments of the original structure have ever been excavated.

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So it's half a kilometre long,

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and we're taking out just this slot here.

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That's right.

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Inches beneath the ground,

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evidence of building work still remains from the massive stadium.

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Right, let's fire this up.

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1,800 years ago,

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Romans and Britons, rich and poor, citizens and slaves,

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would have shared in one of the greatest sporting spectacles

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of the ancient world -

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a chariot race.

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What you'd hear is the sound of the chariots

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going seven times round the central barrier,

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and the cheers of up to 15,000 people, yelling and screaming.

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-This was the modern equivalent of football.

-Right.

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-So it's mass entertainment, almost on an industrial scale.

-It is.

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This is where you come for a bit of excitement.

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So that's mortared masonry?

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Oh, yeah. Look at that.

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That's it, there. That mortar coming up there.

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-Oh, yeah.

-The start of Roman stuff,

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Roman brick there.

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'These are the foundation remains

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'of one of the greatest stadiums in northern Europe.'

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Built under a car park.

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It's good, isn't it?

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But in Colchester,

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the racetrack wasn't the only mass entertainment on offer.

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People could also get a glimpse

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of some of the sporting superstars of the age -

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gladiators.

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This piece of pottery, this vase,

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encapsulates so much of what we think about the Roman world.

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It was found in Colchester, near the circus.

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It's widely regarded as one of the finest pieces

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of Roman period pottery ever found in northern Europe.

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These two men here are baiting what looks, to our eyes, like a dog,

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but it's actually a bear.

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And that is so much how we think about Roman sport,

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Roman entertainment,

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how it was all wound up in blood and cruelty.

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But it's not just animals

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that are on the receiving end of the violence.

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On this side of the vase are two gladiators.

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This one here is a class of gladiator called a Secutor.

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He has armour, a helmet, a shield and, classically, a sword.

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His opponent, however, is in all kinds of trouble.

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He should be armed with a net and a trident, but he's lost both.

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What makes this

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vase so fascinating

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is that this isn't an abstract notional depiction of gladiatorial combat.

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These people have names.

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Valentinus and Memnon.

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Now, Valentinus was an international superstar of his age.

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He was attached to a legion in Germany, so perhaps he was brought over

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to Colchester, to Britain, to the provinces,

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to entertain the locals here

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and give them a taste of European glamour.

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Nothing like this could have been seen, even conceived of

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by the native British tribes, not until they had contact with Rome.

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Ancient Britain had evolved gradually through thousands of years of prehistory.

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But in the centuries following the Roman invasion, the face of Britain was being transformed.

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And it was all part of a plan,

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to feed and bolster the economy of an increasingly bloated Roman empire.

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Look at this.

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A silver, Roman coin.

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It's got the head of the Emperor on one side. It's called a Denarius.

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In its day, it was worth around £100.

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And it was money and wealth like this

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that was key to the control of Britain.

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Across an empire of perhaps 80 million people,

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the Romans needed to keep resources circulating and coming towards them.

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So it's likely that Britain was taxed directly,

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the individuals, for the very first time.

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All the building, all the entertainments,

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the military forts, the roads, they all had to be paid for.

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So another coin, like this one, would have become a common sight.

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It's called an as, and it was the pound coin of its day.

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You can imagine it being handed over reluctantly by a worker from Londinium,

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to a Roman tax collector.

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It's usually the Roman military that gets all the attention, that has all the glamour.

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In truth, when it comes to controlling a province like Britannia,

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keeping control of its economy,

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then the secret lies in Roman bureaucracy, its civil service.

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London, the commercial gateway to Britain,

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also became its political nerve centre.

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At the heart of the city, the Roman administration

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built a base for government in the shape of a vast basilica.

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The one built here was three-stories high, so, an enormous building.

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In fact, it wouldn't have been much smaller than the building that's here on the side today.

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The Roman basilica, though, was part Court House, part Records Office, part Tax Office.

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So all in all, a frighteningly imposing structure.

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During the last 2,000 years, this ground has been built on over and over again.

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But amazingly, a fragment of the ancient basilica still survives,

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if you know where to look for it.

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You're not going to believe what is behind this door.

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Look at that.

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Unbelievable as it may seem, this is all that remains of what was once

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one of the largest, most impressive buildings of the Roman Empire.

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One of the largest things they ever built north of the Alps.

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It might have been a wonder of the Empire, it was certainly a wonder of ancient Roman Britain.

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In London, Rome had created a provincial capital.

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The capital of a single territory,

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the very idea of Britannia that endures to this day.

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What you've got here is the start of something quite new.

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Whereas Iron Age Britain was based around local, tribal power bases,

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the Romans had imposed a single unified political structure.

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Look at this, it's a tile,

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and it's stamped with the letters "PPBRLON", so it's from London.

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It's stamped by the Authority of the Procurator

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of the Province of Britannia.

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What you've got here is the very start of the idea of Britain

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as a separate country, a single unit, and it all starts with Rome.

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For Rome, though, Britannia was just one part of something even greater still -

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the Roman Empire itself.

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And just like today's cities, Roman towns were cultural melting pots.

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Not only between the people of Britain and Rome, but people from all its far-flung provinces.

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As far north as York, just 100 miles or so from Hadrian's Wall itself,

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inhabitants would still have felt very much part of an exotic, international world.

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This was about as far from Rome as you could get and still feel you were in a civilised city.

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But even this far north, you would still have been bumping into people from all corners of the Empire,

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people who were either from, or had their origins in Germany, France, the Middle East, even Africa.

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Here, languages would have been heard from across the Empire,

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but there was a common tongue -

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Latin.

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What made Latin special was that you couldn't just hear it, you could see it.

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Latin brought writing to Britain for the very first time.

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And that was a massive shift.

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It took us from the pre-historic world into a world of records, names and dates.

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The trouble is that so little remains of Britain at this time.

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Most of what we have are abbreviated memorial slabs, gateways, tomb stones and the like.

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So it's very difficult to know what ordinary people in Britain were writing about.

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A rare collection of wax tablets

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is revealing unique insights into ordinary life in Roman Britain.

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It's a most remarkable find for Roman Britain, because

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until this material came to light we had nothing like this,

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either from this period,

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or from the whole of the provincial era

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of Britain under the Roman Empire.

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The tablets were discovered at Hadrian's Wall in 1973,

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but it's only now that new imaging technology is able to decode them fully.

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These are private letters, written around 100 AD, and sent home from the very edge of Empire.

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We've got one tablet which mentions a price paid for a small quantity of pepper.

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We have another example in which a writer refers to someone

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he's trying to help, as a man who is a lover of literary culture.

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A really quite remarkable phrase to be using on the northern frontier of Britain at this time.

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These fragments reveal Britain on the cusp of a new age.

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The very beginnings of written history.

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For Britain itself, there were a large number in the pre-Roman period

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of different tribal units, different small kingdoms and fiefdoms

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and one of the things the Roman presence did was to bring them all

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under one political system, and that system was run in Latin.

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Latin language and widening literacy were yet more unifying forces across the Empire.

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If you had the chance, and you took the leap,

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regardless of the heritage that you carried with you from birth, you could be Roman.

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Even as far north as York, evidence can be found of the cultural mobility that came with Rome.

0:24:480:24:54

The remains of a woman who died nearly 1,800 years ago.

0:24:550:25:00

This is the skull of a young woman -

0:25:050:25:08

when she died, she was around 22, 23 years old.

0:25:080:25:12

She was buried with fantastic wealth -

0:25:120:25:15

this is a few of the things that were alongside her in her grave.

0:25:150:25:19

This is a necklace made of blue glass beads.

0:25:190:25:24

The individual beads are so beautifully made -

0:25:240:25:29

look at the way it allows the light through it.

0:25:290:25:31

Anyone who saw this woman wearing it would have

0:25:310:25:34

identified her as someone of status, someone with access to real money.

0:25:340:25:39

But then the story takes a strange twist, because alongside her

0:25:390:25:43

in the grave were bangles made of African elephant ivory.

0:25:430:25:47

With beautiful turned decoration on it.

0:25:470:25:52

Now, what on earth is an African ivory bangle

0:25:520:25:56

doing in a grave in York?

0:25:560:25:59

There are clues here in the skull itself.

0:26:020:26:05

First of all, she has a broad and quite flattened forehead,

0:26:050:26:10

which suggests someone of black African descent.

0:26:100:26:13

But when we look at her nose, her nose is typical of a white European,

0:26:130:26:19

so in this skull, we have the suggestion of someone of mixed race.

0:26:190:26:26

And when her teeth were subjected to chemical analysis, it was found

0:26:260:26:30

possible, even likely,

0:26:300:26:33

that she grew up in North Africa, somewhere like Libya or Tunisia.

0:26:330:26:38

Perhaps she is the wife or the daughter of a centurion posted to York.

0:26:390:26:45

She's this - to our eyes - exotic figure, with this luxury jewellery,

0:26:450:26:51

these luxury items, and yet, in Roman York,

0:26:510:26:55

when she walked around the streets, she wouldn't have been so very unusual.

0:26:550:26:59

To be a Roman wasn't about where you were born.

0:27:060:27:09

But about how you lived, how you dressed,

0:27:090:27:13

how you spoke, the values you held.

0:27:130:27:17

There was a sense that within the Roman Empire

0:27:170:27:20

you could make your own way, you weren't necessarily bound or handicapped by your ancestral class.

0:27:200:27:27

And whatever barriers Rome did put up, colour wasn't one of them.

0:27:270:27:31

But was it possible to be both Roman and British at the same time?

0:27:330:27:38

Or, 200 years after the invasion,

0:27:380:27:41

did that distinction even matter any more?

0:27:410:27:44

In Celtic Britain, tribal identity had always been central to who you were.

0:27:530:27:59

Now, under Rome, who and what you were

0:27:590:28:02

seemed to be becoming more of a choice, or a matter of circumstance.

0:28:020:28:08

You could either act as a Roman, or not.

0:28:080:28:11

You could either live an urban life, or not.

0:28:110:28:15

And that's aside from class -

0:28:150:28:18

whether you were wealthy and powerful, or a trader or craftsman,

0:28:180:28:22

or at the bottom, a slave.

0:28:220:28:25

Or even more grim than that, a slave's slave.

0:28:250:28:29

Think of that.

0:28:290:28:30

Despite the growth of Roman towns, most of the population of Britain remained rural.

0:28:320:28:37

But even out here, the influence of Rome was unmistakeable.

0:28:380:28:44

The modern Roman ways weren't restricted to the townsfolk.

0:28:440:28:47

As a Roman citizen, you could own land with proper legal title

0:28:470:28:52

which meant that it could be bought, sold, and inherited.

0:28:520:28:56

And in the southeast, amongst the very rich, that was to lead to something truly spectacular.

0:28:560:29:03

Rich agricultural estates, surrounding big country houses.

0:29:040:29:09

The villas of southern England.

0:29:100:29:13

To our eyes, this is incredibly ordinary,

0:29:140:29:17

but it's as staggeringly modern

0:29:170:29:19

as anything you would have seen in the Roman towns.

0:29:190:29:22

These buildings were built on top of the foundations of the original building

0:29:220:29:27

that stood here in the late Roman period, into the 300s.

0:29:270:29:30

And it's representative of a kind of architecture that had never been seen in Britain before the Romans.

0:29:300:29:36

You have to remember that Iron Age houses in Britain were round, single-room dwellings.

0:29:360:29:42

They look ancient.

0:29:420:29:44

But this is a house.

0:29:440:29:46

You've got a rectangular floor plan,

0:29:460:29:49

you've got separate rooms inside, there's even glass in the windows.

0:29:490:29:52

This is the future.

0:29:520:29:54

And wait till you see what's inside!

0:29:540:29:56

No-one knows who owned this villa and its surrounding estate

0:30:040:30:08

but we can be sure they were rich.

0:30:080:30:11

And that they enjoyed a life of luxury.

0:30:110:30:14

If this was my villa, this would have been the floor of my private dining room.

0:30:140:30:20

It's luxurious and lavish in the extreme,

0:30:200:30:23

it's a real show of status.

0:30:230:30:26

My guests would have been arranged around the outside of this mosaic floor

0:30:260:30:30

and it's covered in scenes of myth and Roman legend.

0:30:300:30:34

My guests would have listened to the soft sounds of the water tinkling in the fountain,

0:30:410:30:47

they'd have been drinking wine, celebrating the god Bacchus.

0:30:470:30:51

Their eyes were probably drawn to the depictions of topless lady dancers.

0:30:510:30:57

And maybe if it was a really special occasion,

0:30:570:30:59

I'd have laid on real topless dancers, make it a real party.

0:30:590:31:02

But in any event, this was and is a spectacular place.

0:31:020:31:07

Now, as well as all the grandeur,

0:31:110:31:13

this room affords us a glimpse of something else.

0:31:130:31:17

Because at some point, this part of the floor has collapsed,

0:31:170:31:22

revealing the underfloor central-heating system.

0:31:220:31:25

It's called a hypocaust, which means "heat from below".

0:31:250:31:28

And you can see in this void where all the vents...

0:31:280:31:33

have been positioned to circulate the hot air

0:31:330:31:36

and the heat comes from a purpose-built furnace

0:31:360:31:39

on the other side of that wall.

0:31:390:31:41

All the hot air is pushed through, makes the floor warm.

0:31:410:31:44

So the whole interior is heated, very cosy.

0:31:440:31:47

The big man, the owner of the estate,

0:31:480:31:51

would've sat at that end of the room, in pride of place.

0:31:510:31:54

He would've greeted his guests and visitors from there.

0:31:540:31:58

And he would've been close by where that mosaic of Venus is

0:31:580:32:02

and that is regarded as one of the very finest Roman mosaics anywhere in Britain.

0:32:020:32:07

Any rich landowner would also have enjoyed a rich Roman diet -

0:32:150:32:20

an aspect of life studied by Sally Grainger.

0:32:200:32:24

We've got...

0:32:240:32:26

-coriander and cumin, they are the dominant spices in curry today.

-Yeah.

0:32:260:32:31

-We've got lovage...

-Lovage.

0:32:310:32:34

It's very bitter - use too much of it, you make appalling food.

0:32:340:32:39

We can then add some fish sauce. It's rather fundamental to Roman...

0:32:390:32:42

-Fish sauce?

-Yes.

-That's quintessential Roman cuisine?

-It is, it is.

0:32:420:32:47

Oh, that's so potent.

0:32:470:32:49

-Yeah, that's strong, whatever it is.

-Yeah?

0:32:490:32:52

-Lentils in wine.

-Are lentils Roman?

0:32:540:32:58

They are. They came to Britain in the first 20 years after the invasion, you'd find them on sale in London.

0:32:580:33:04

So compared to the way that native Britons would have approached food,

0:33:040:33:08

how much of a surprise would all this messing about with spices have been?

0:33:080:33:13

A great surprise, because archaeologically,

0:33:130:33:15

we have no evidence for use of spices in Britain.

0:33:150:33:20

What they were doing is roasting a lot of meat and drinking a lot of beer and eating a lot of bread.

0:33:200:33:25

But not actually developing a cuisine

0:33:250:33:28

-and I don't think it comes until the Romans.

-Right.

0:33:280:33:30

The Romans wrote recipe books and created the first fine dining.

0:33:320:33:37

Fruits from cultivated orchards of apples and cherries.

0:33:370:33:42

New green vegetables -

0:33:420:33:44

cabbages, leeks, and peas, as well as exotic herbs.

0:33:440:33:47

Even modern staples like chicken begin with the Romans.

0:33:470:33:51

For rich Britons, it was a culinary revolution.

0:33:510:33:56

-Now we're going to flavour our pears.

-OK.

0:33:560:33:58

And we're going to also add...

0:33:580:34:02

-the fish sauce.

-The fish sauce?

-The fish sauce.

0:34:020:34:04

Goodness! Why?

0:34:040:34:08

-Why ever do that? It's all going so well!

-It works!

0:34:080:34:10

-It sounds so wrong!

-It works!

0:34:100:34:13

I can't believe you put that in there! That just...

0:34:130:34:16

Oh, it's like varnish!

0:34:170:34:20

There we go.

0:34:200:34:23

Fairly crunchy on the outside but on the inside, there, you can see it looks pretty...

0:34:250:34:30

-At least, it's definitely cooked.

-Very tender. It's falling off.

0:34:300:34:35

-Mm.

-Mm.

0:34:370:34:38

-I must say...

-It's good.

0:34:380:34:39

-I must hold my hands up and say I can't taste fish sauce in that at all.

-Course you can't.

0:34:390:34:45

Somehow, all of this, the variety,

0:34:450:34:48

the spices, the care, seems almost more civilising

0:34:480:34:52

than so many other things the Romans are famous for.

0:34:520:34:57

There's something about all this fine food that would be so pleasing to people,

0:34:570:35:02

-it should lead to the betterment of society.

-You'd think.

0:35:020:35:05

The trouble is that we don't know how many people it affected...

0:35:050:35:08

it's difficult to tell.

0:35:080:35:10

City life and some of the big villas, yes.

0:35:100:35:13

And I think as British natives became more Romanised and consumed more of this, it was great, it was wonderful.

0:35:130:35:20

But it's always for people with wealth and leisure.

0:35:200:35:24

And a slave cook!

0:35:240:35:26

I can't do without one, myself!

0:35:260:35:28

Rome might have transformed the lives of many people

0:35:390:35:42

but it didn't transform everyone's, not by a long way.

0:35:420:35:46

Of the 3-4 million people living in Britain,

0:35:470:35:50

only a tiny fraction lived in towns - even fewer around villas.

0:35:500:35:55

For over 90% of the population, for all Rome's apparent impact,

0:35:570:36:02

life carried on much as it had always done.

0:36:020:36:05

This is a living space up here, I think.

0:36:100:36:14

Up these steps.

0:36:140:36:16

They're very simple, massively built of stone, circular in shape, cellular in shape.

0:36:170:36:24

You look at it and you can think or assume

0:36:240:36:27

that it was built and lived in 1,000 years BC, during the Bronze Age,

0:36:270:36:35

because the whole site resonates with everything you think of when you think about ancient Britain.

0:36:350:36:42

In fact, this village was built right in the middle of the Roman period.

0:36:480:36:54

In 200 AD, these very ancient-looking houses were brand-new.

0:36:540:36:59

Away from the Roman centres, away from the towns and the forts,

0:36:590:37:06

you would have had so much more choice about just how Roman you actually wanted to be.

0:37:060:37:12

And so a village like Chysauster would be left behind

0:37:120:37:17

as a kind of relic of ancient Britishness.

0:37:170:37:20

A kind of passive resistance, if you like, to the centralised authority of the Roman empire.

0:37:200:37:27

For many Iron Age Britons, ancient Celtic identity was even more important in death

0:37:300:37:37

than in life.

0:37:370:37:39

This is the skeleton of a man who was around...

0:37:450:37:50

19, 20, 21 at the time of death.

0:37:500:37:55

He was buried in a very particular way -

0:37:550:38:00

he was buried in a crouched position, with the knees drawn up to the chest, like a baby in the womb.

0:38:000:38:06

A Roman in death would have been laid out, lying flat.

0:38:080:38:14

And furthermore, would have been buried far away from any settlement, in a dedicated cemetery.

0:38:140:38:20

It's fascinating to speculate that while in life,

0:38:230:38:27

this young man might have...

0:38:270:38:30

taken that on certain aspects of Rome -

0:38:300:38:32

he was using the same tableware, he might have worn a pendant,

0:38:320:38:37

ate the Roman way but in death,

0:38:370:38:40

he showed his true colours.

0:38:400:38:42

In his heart and in the heart of the people

0:38:420:38:45

who put him in the ground, he was no Roman, he was a Briton.

0:38:450:38:50

Rome might have established Britannia as a single entity

0:39:050:39:09

but behind the administration, this was a diverse, even fractured land.

0:39:090:39:14

The urban hordes and their mass entertainments, the villa'd elite

0:39:170:39:22

and all their luxuries, the serfs and slaves who worked for them...

0:39:220:39:26

..and the lives of the countless thousands of self-sufficient farmers.

0:39:270:39:31

And that's just counting the part of Britain that was actually under Roman control.

0:39:330:39:39

We're talking about the territories that would one day be called England and Wales.

0:39:390:39:43

Cos up here in Northumberland, beyond the edge of Empire,

0:39:430:39:47

there was an awful lot of Britain that the Romans never did control.

0:39:470:39:50

Ever since 136 AD, a defensive wall had stretched like a ribbon from coast to coast.

0:39:540:40:00

From Carlisle to Newcastle, guarded by 40,000 Roman soldiers.

0:40:000:40:05

This wall marked more than the limit of Empire.

0:40:090:40:12

For Rome, it was the very edge of civilisation itself.

0:40:120:40:16

Far beyond the wall, the Scottish Highlands still remained under the control of Celtic Iron Age tribes.

0:40:240:40:31

Pictish peoples, who were as fiercely resistant to Roman rule as they'd ever been.

0:40:320:40:37

And at the National Museum of Scotland,

0:40:410:40:44

there's a relic of a proud and fiercely independent Britain.

0:40:440:40:47

This fragment is the earliest, the oldest piece of tartan cloth ever found.

0:40:560:41:03

And for us in the modern world, it's also a potent symbol of Scottishness.

0:41:030:41:10

The people who made this, used this, wore this...

0:41:100:41:15

had their own culture, customs and traditions.

0:41:150:41:19

It wasn't by choice that Rome had drawn a line across Britain.

0:41:250:41:29

It had tried to conquer Caledonia a number of times.

0:41:300:41:33

But the Picts had repelled them again and again.

0:41:350:41:38

The name "Picts" means "painted people"

0:41:400:41:44

and when it came to battle, the warriors were in the habit of stripping off naked

0:41:440:41:48

to reveal these tattoos or painted designs on their skin.

0:41:480:41:53

The theory goes that they believed that the gods would look down upon them,

0:41:530:41:57

see the designs and confer their protection upon them.

0:41:570:42:02

The Picts generally avoided engaging the Roman army in set-piece battles,

0:42:050:42:11

preferring instead to employ guerrilla tactics,

0:42:110:42:14

striking fast and then disappearing into the forbidding landscape of mountains and forests.

0:42:140:42:20

And you can easily see, in terrain like this,

0:42:200:42:23

even a small group of lightly armed men, who understood this landscape,

0:42:230:42:27

could use it to turn it to their advantage so that they could harass and even damage a much larger force.

0:42:270:42:34

In the end, for the Romans, it simply wasn't worth the effort

0:42:370:42:41

and the tribal lands of Scotland always remained unconquered.

0:42:410:42:45

Even in second and third century AD, here in the north,

0:42:480:42:51

the customs, the traditions,

0:42:510:42:53

the lifestyle of ancient Iron Age Britain continued stubbornly beyond the reach of Empire.

0:42:530:42:58

Rome still needed to make sure the Picts couldn't cause any trouble further south, though.

0:43:050:43:10

And back in Edinburgh, there's evidence of how they managed

0:43:130:43:16

the slightly friendlier tribes of southern Scotland and Northumberland.

0:43:160:43:21

Look at this.

0:43:250:43:26

It's a tiny part of a huge hoard of Roman silver that dates from around 400 AD.

0:43:260:43:32

The whole horde, the whole collection would fill several museum cases.

0:43:320:43:37

It's thought that all this was a massive bribe

0:43:400:43:44

from the Romans to a local tribe called the Votadini.

0:43:440:43:48

You can see how it's been crudely cut up with shears of some kind.

0:43:480:43:53

Experts believe that before the Romans handed the silver over,

0:43:530:43:58

they themselves cut it up so that it was only going across as scrap silver.

0:43:580:44:03

Now, the Romans weren't bribing the Votadini because they had trouble with them.

0:44:030:44:08

Rather, they were determined to keep that tribe on side

0:44:080:44:13

because with the Votadini inside the tent, as it were,

0:44:130:44:16

the Romans were free to concentrate their attentions on the tribes,

0:44:160:44:21

the people further north in Scotland.

0:44:210:44:24

People considered potentially more dangerous.

0:44:240:44:26

It's about undermining inter-tribal allegiances.

0:44:260:44:31

This is classic divide and conquer.

0:44:310:44:35

Much of the success of Rome was down to the number of levels on which it operated.

0:44:430:44:47

At first, military might could crush you.

0:44:470:44:50

And then a finely tuned administration would control you.

0:44:510:44:55

The trappings of Roman civilisation could seduce you and turn you Roman yourself.

0:44:580:45:04

And if all that failed, well, the Empire could simply exclude you.

0:45:040:45:10

When Rome came, it changed your land.

0:45:120:45:15

It changed your entire way of life.

0:45:150:45:17

But the Romans were used to dealing with culture clash.

0:45:170:45:20

After all, they'd been doing it all across Europe, in parts of Africa and in the Middle East.

0:45:200:45:25

But they were also past masters at dealing with something much more personal -

0:45:250:45:29

religion and the clash of beliefs.

0:45:290:45:32

Rome might have transformed the land of Britain

0:45:400:45:43

and the lives of many of its people

0:45:430:45:44

but religion was something else altogether.

0:45:440:45:48

Ancient and heartfelt Celtic traditions and beliefs.

0:45:480:45:52

Every tribe might have had its own set of gods,

0:45:540:45:57

controlling a specific part of the countryside. Their hills, their woods, their rivers.

0:45:570:46:03

And then between the individual tribes were the druids,

0:46:030:46:08

the great priesthood of the Celtic world,

0:46:080:46:11

trying to make sense of it all.

0:46:110:46:12

The Romans worshipped very different gods - Jupiter and Mars,

0:46:160:46:20

Apollo, god of the sun

0:46:200:46:23

and Saturn, god of time.

0:46:230:46:26

Powerful supernatural beings that held sway over the mortal world.

0:46:260:46:32

The Romans had imposed all sorts of ideas on Britain.

0:46:340:46:37

Would they impose their gods on the people as well?

0:46:370:46:41

The city of Bath offers clues to how the Romans dealt with the most sensitive cultural invasion of all.

0:46:550:47:01

Because it was here that a spring,

0:47:040:47:06

producing a magical flow of hot water,

0:47:060:47:08

was sacred, venerated by the Britons.

0:47:080:47:12

As far as we can tell, the ancient Britons believed

0:47:140:47:17

that this spring was the domain of a goddess called Sulis

0:47:170:47:21

and she was all about wisdom and healing and insight.

0:47:210:47:24

And she had to be appeased with gifts and offerings.

0:47:240:47:29

When the Romans conquered Britain, they were presented with a choice.

0:47:290:47:33

Either they could leave the local gods and goddesses alone

0:47:330:47:37

or they could seek to obliterate goddesses like Sulis

0:47:370:47:42

and replace them with their own Roman deities.

0:47:420:47:45

The Romans found a pragmatic solution.

0:47:500:47:53

Often, they chose one of their own Roman gods

0:47:530:47:57

who seemed similar to the local British god and combined the two.

0:47:570:48:01

This is a depiction of the Roman goddess Minerva

0:48:050:48:09

but what's happening here is something very interesting.

0:48:090:48:12

It's really about the union of two goddesses -

0:48:120:48:16

one British and one Roman.

0:48:160:48:18

The Roman goddess, Minerva, here, is all about healing and wisdom, particularly military wisdom.

0:48:180:48:24

That made her the perfect partner for the British goddess, Sulis,

0:48:240:48:29

who was responsible for a lot of the same areas of business.

0:48:290:48:33

So what you've got here is a combination

0:48:330:48:36

and when it came to naming the goddess of the spring here in Bath, they called her Sulis-Minerva.

0:48:360:48:42

This combined deity inhabited the sacred spring

0:48:490:48:53

and continued to attract acolytes, who communicated with the goddess Sulis-Minerva

0:48:530:48:59

through mysterious lead tablets that give a rare insight into their beliefs.

0:48:590:49:04

Classicist Roger Tomlin has been studying them for 25 years.

0:49:060:49:12

Exactly what are these, Roger?

0:49:120:49:15

In very crude terms, they're called curses.

0:49:150:49:19

They're a specialised sort of curse.

0:49:190:49:21

They're really letters written to the goddess,

0:49:210:49:23

asking for ill health and misfortune to people who've done someone wrong.

0:49:230:49:27

This one...

0:49:270:49:29

is this woman, Basilia, who's lost her silver ring,

0:49:290:49:33

tells the goddess, "I've lost my silver ring.

0:49:330:49:36

"Curse the thief who did it.

0:49:360:49:39

"The thief should lose his eyes.

0:49:390:49:40

"He should have his intestines utterly eaten out."

0:49:400:49:43

This wonderfully exotic phrase "intestinis ex comesus",

0:49:430:49:47

"his intestines utterly eaten out" and so on.

0:49:470:49:49

-This for the theft of a ring?

-Yes.

0:49:490:49:52

You couldn't be certain the ring's going to come back.

0:49:520:49:54

You tend to overreact.

0:49:540:49:56

If it was certain the ring was going to come back, you might say, "I'll give him dinner afterwards,"

0:49:560:50:00

but there's always an element of uncertainty whether the god will react,

0:50:000:50:04

so people come out with this horrific language.

0:50:040:50:07

Also it's a bit like letting blood.

0:50:070:50:09

It reduces the pressure a bit.

0:50:090:50:11

Right. OK.

0:50:110:50:12

This one is written backwards in a rather peculiar way.

0:50:120:50:17

Each word is written backwards but the whole text isn't written backwards.

0:50:170:50:21

It makes it a devil to read because you never know where the word is ending.

0:50:210:50:25

And what's the logic?

0:50:250:50:26

I suppose it's to encrypt the text, to make it personal between you and the goddess.

0:50:260:50:31

No-one else can read it.

0:50:310:50:32

That's why you fold these things up, you throw them into water, you put them into graves.

0:50:320:50:37

They turn up in all sorts of places but particularly in this hot spring.

0:50:370:50:40

It doesn't really sound like religion.

0:50:400:50:44

It smacks more of an appeal to the authorities.

0:50:440:50:48

It's almost like a...

0:50:480:50:49

Trying to sue someone or seek legal redress rather than something to do with faith.

0:50:490:50:55

I think there's a strong element of legalism. The Roman world is somewhat under-policed

0:50:550:51:00

and if earthly authorities can't work, you appeal to a heavenly authority instead.

0:51:000:51:05

And using the language you might well use in addressing your patron.

0:51:050:51:10

Those healing pools and the temple to the combined gods of Sulis and Minerva

0:51:120:51:17

are a good illustration of how to handle a clash between religions.

0:51:170:51:21

And the twinning of gods would be tried again and again, all across Roman Britain.

0:51:210:51:25

But that cosy religious relationship that had served the Roman Empire so well

0:51:250:51:30

was about to be seriously disrupted.

0:51:300:51:34

In the first century AD, far away in the Middle East,

0:51:440:51:48

a new religious cult had started spreading that many Romans found absurd,

0:51:480:51:54

because this religion demanded faith to just one god -

0:51:540:51:59

a Christian God.

0:51:590:52:00

Look at this dazzling collection.

0:52:050:52:09

All of these spectacular items.

0:52:090:52:13

The finest early Christian artefacts found anywhere in the Empire

0:52:130:52:18

all come from Britain.

0:52:180:52:20

Look at this magnificent, glorious, silver...

0:52:220:52:27

cup, silver vessel.

0:52:270:52:29

It's quite possible that it was made and used for the quintessential Christian act,

0:52:290:52:34

that of turning wine into the blood of Christ,

0:52:340:52:37

and if that's what this was for,

0:52:370:52:39

then it's the earliest such vessel found anywhere in the world.

0:52:390:52:44

But as Christianity expanded, it was outlawed

0:52:460:52:50

and its followers had to practise in secret.

0:52:500:52:54

Look at this piece.

0:52:540:52:55

The symbol here is called the Chi Rho.

0:52:550:52:59

It was like a secret sign that let early Christians recognise one another.

0:52:590:53:05

Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christ's name.

0:53:050:53:09

Also within the symbol are the letters alpha and omega,

0:53:100:53:16

showing that the person who used this or made this

0:53:160:53:19

believed also that Christ was all-powerful, from first to last.

0:53:190:53:24

Part of its popularity was the central tenet

0:53:240:53:27

that anyone who believed in Christ would never die,

0:53:270:53:31

would have everlasting life -

0:53:310:53:33

even slaves, and that was a truly subversive thought.

0:53:330:53:39

Despite the threat of persecution, there was no stopping such an enticing message.

0:53:400:53:45

Nevertheless, it wasn't until AD 313 that Christianity was finally legalised.

0:53:450:53:52

The Roman Emperor Constantine was sympathetic to Christianity

0:53:520:53:57

and then there came a day when his army secured a key victory

0:53:570:54:02

and while doing so, they had carried at their head a cross,

0:54:020:54:07

a Christian cross, as a symbol to bring them good fortune.

0:54:070:54:10

From that moment, Constantine decreed

0:54:110:54:14

that Christianity would be tolerated throughout the Roman Empire.

0:54:140:54:19

It was actually another political move.

0:54:210:54:24

With Christianity within the fold,

0:54:240:54:27

a religious hierarchy could be established,

0:54:270:54:29

controlled by the state.

0:54:290:54:31

Look at this ring.

0:54:320:54:34

Like the plaque here, it has on it the Chi Rho symbol.

0:54:340:54:38

Whoever wore this was obviously a Christian, a believer.

0:54:380:54:42

He may even have been a bishop...

0:54:420:54:45

in the country, while Christianity was spreading.

0:54:450:54:48

Look at that. Beautiful.

0:54:510:54:53

Christianity continued to flourish

0:54:550:54:57

and in AD 391, it was the old pagan religions that were banned.

0:54:570:55:03

The ancient spring of Sulis-Minerva was abandoned,

0:55:050:55:08

left to become silted up and to overflow,

0:55:080:55:12

its temples left to collapse.

0:55:120:55:15

It was the end of yet another ancient prehistoric tradition.

0:55:150:55:20

Tens of thousands of years ago,

0:55:330:55:34

the first nomadic hunters came to Britain.

0:55:340:55:37

Ever since, its people and the land they inhabited had been entwined.

0:55:420:55:48

Mountains holding up the sky...

0:55:530:55:55

..the seas that made our land an island...

0:56:000:56:03

..and the sacred springs and rivers that were so central to ancient religious beliefs.

0:56:050:56:12

All had shaped our history.

0:56:140:56:16

But with Rome and the modern world it brought,

0:56:190:56:22

a new world had been forged.

0:56:220:56:24

Not of nature's making...

0:56:240:56:27

but of man's.

0:56:270:56:28

The rule of Rome couldn't and didn't last forever.

0:56:370:56:42

By 410 AD, the Empire was collapsing and the Roman rule of Britain was at an end.

0:56:420:56:48

The cities decayed and people in many ways returned to the rural lives of the past.

0:56:480:56:55

But some of the ideas that had emerged under Rome couldn't be undone.

0:56:550:56:59

Christianity, writing, the very idea of Britannia.

0:56:590:57:04

Ideas that are still very much alive with us today.

0:57:040:57:07

When the Romans arrived, we didn't just start a new chapter.

0:57:100:57:14

We started a whole new story.

0:57:140:57:16

One that would be written down in the history of our land.

0:57:160:57:20

And when people look back 1,000 or 2,000 years from now,

0:57:200:57:25

perhaps they'll see the beginning of our world in that sudden break with prehistory,

0:57:250:57:31

in the coming of Rome.

0:57:310:57:32

And here we are, occupying this fleeting moment of time,

0:57:380:57:42

with our hopes and fears, pasts and futures, living our lives,

0:57:420:57:48

just one more generation in a story that continues.

0:57:480:57:52

The story of Britain and her peoples.

0:57:520:57:56

If you want to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, go to...

0:58:050:58:13

to find out how to connect with ancient Britain in your area.

0:58:130:58:17

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:240:58:27

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:270:58:29

Neil Oliver completes his epic journey through thousands of years of ancient history with the modern marvels of Rome. He digs beneath a London tower block, discovers building work from a massive stadium, and encounters the remains of an African woman who lived in York 1800 years ago - all evidence of the extraordinary multicultural modern world of Rome.


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