Historian Bettany Hughes explores why Britain became part of the Roman Empire in 43AD and what it was like for the soldiers, women and the children who lived here at this time.
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Over 2,000 years ago, the Romans first arrived in Britain.
Although that was way back in the past, many clues still
survive which tell us what life was like during Roman times.
From the remains of ancient forts to the jewellery, letters
and household items still being dug up by archaeologists today.
We can find out brilliant details of what they ate,
what their homes looked like and even what they did for fun.
And thanks to a book written all those years ago by the famous
Roman Commander, Julius Caesar, we also know one reason why
the Romans wanted to come to Britain in the first place - they wanted
to make use of the amazing natural resources to be found here.
"The Britons have a huge number of cattle.
"They use gold coins or iron bars as their money,
"and produce tin and iron."
That description helps to explain why Caesar
and his army decided to pile over here to Britain to try to invade.
Rome wanted to get its hand on all those British resources to
make itself even richer.
Back then, before the Romans invaded, we didn't have one
king or queen ruling over the nation.
Britain was made up of different groups, or tribes,
known as the Celts or native Britons.
We get an idea of what the native Britons looked like thanks to
a description of them in here.
But do remember, of course, they were Caesar's enemy,
so his opinion might be a little bit one-sided.
"All Britons used woad to dye their bodies a blue colour,
"which makes them terrifying when they are fighting in battle."
The Celts also put lime in their hair to make it stiff
and thick, which made them look even more ferocious.
"They used their chariots in battle,
"steering them in all directions while hurling their weapons,
"generally causing the enemy to separate apart.
"Then one of the warriors leaps from the chariot and fights on foot."
It was all just too much for Caesar. He invaded the country twice,
but he never actually managed to take over.
That would have to wait until 100 years later
when the Emperor Claudius tried again and this time, he succeeded.
And that is how we became part of the Roman Empire.
'But what exactly was the Roman Empire?'
The Romans actually started out in life as just a small tribe in Italy.
They fought battles with local people and took over their land.
And then they wanted more, so they could become super rich.
Eventually, the Roman tribe grew to be in charge of vast areas
across Asia, Africa and Europe,
And all the land they controlled came to be known
as the Roman Empire.
This is the great city of Rome, in Italy.
It was once the capital of the Roman Empire
and this is what it looks like today.
The remains of the town, built thousands of years ago,
are still there for us to see, giving us
great clues as to how the Romans lived their lives.
At the centre of ancient Rome was the Forum - a big,
open area where markets took place and people heard the latest news,
a bit like a modern-day shopping centre.
People living and working in Rome worshipped at temples or visited
the amphitheatres to watch animals and gladiators fight to the death.
The Romans believed in this way of life so deeply
that they brought it right across the Empire,
even the gladiatorial fights.
The Romans didn't just bring their way of life to Britain,
they also brought their Roman-style buildings too,
creating whole new towns, almost like mini versions of Rome.
Many of the cities we live in today were once Roman towns
with Roman names.
The town of Corinium Dobunnorum
is now modern-day Cirencester.
This is what Cirencester looks like today.
The people living in these new Roman towns had to obey Roman laws
and pay money to the Roman Empire, known as taxes.
But it wasn't all bad.
Wealthy people and those with important jobs
lived in posh Roman houses known as villas,
with new types of decoration and sophisticated technology.
It's still possible to see some of the clever technology
they had in Roman houses.
In this museum in Cirencester,
there's an example of Roman underfloor heating.
It's called a hypocaust and it's a brilliant idea,
cos we all know how chilly it can get here in Britain.
Now, this is how it worked.
The floor was built on top of these piles of tiles and then,
down in that little hole there, a fire would be lit.
The fire would push out hot air and smoke under the ground, and up
through these kind of clay tubes that went through the hollow walls.
There'd be slaves down there keeping the fire going the whole time,
so the house stayed warm.
But they also constantly had to keep a watch out that the fire
didn't go out of control and burn the whole house down.
And in some villas, if you could afford it, then you'd have
had one of these beautiful things called a mosaic on your floor.
Now, mosaics are made up of lots of tiny little bits of coloured
stone, or sometimes glass, and they usually tell a story.
And the story that's being told here is about a man called Orpheus,
that's Orpheus in the middle there,
and he's playing an instrument called the lyre and,
as he does so, he's charming all of these animals around him.
This one was actually found 200 years ago,
very close to Cirencester.
And isn't it fantastic to think that, somewhere near you,
there might still be a Roman mosaic under the ground,
just waiting to be discovered?
Close on 2,000 years ago, the Romans arrived in Britain.
They ruled over our nation for almost 400 years,
bringing with them Roman soldiers with deadly weaponry to build
defensive walls and stone forts to protect their new territory.
We can still see the remains of some of their building work today,
including these stones, which are all that's left of the famous
Hadrian's Wall, which once stretched right across Northern Britain.
Built around 200 years after they first arrived,
the wall was protected by a number
of specially built forts, like
this one at Vindolanda, which were heavily guarded by Roman soldiers.
Hadrian's Wall marked the northern frontier,
the northernmost point of the Roman Empire.
And you mustn't forget that the Roman Empire was massive.
If you imagine you were standing here,
then you could travel 2,500 kilometres to the south,
to the Sahara Desert, in Africa,
and 4,000 kilometres to the Middle East, to modern-day Iraq,
and you'd still be in the Roman Empire.
Because the wall's so old, a lot of it has crumbled away,
and so, this is a copy, or a replica.
But it gives you a really good impression of what it would
have been like originally.
Because, when it was first built, Hadrian's Wall was
almost as wide and almost as tall as a double-decker bus.
Even more impressive was the massive Roman Army.
This was divided into groups called Legions,
which were based right across the Roman Empire, including Britain.
Each one was made up of around 6,000 soldiers, known as Legionaries.
The Legionaries didn't just fight big battles,
they had other jobs too
and one of them was to collect money called a tax
to help pay for the work of the Roman Empire.
Now, as you can probably imagine,
the locals were often not very happy about that.
They hadn't asked the Romans here in the first place,
so why should they pay them money?
But did the Romans care?
No, they did not.
If you stepped out of line, then you could have your head
chopped off and it could be stuck on the top of the fort walls,
which is exactly what happened to this poor lad here.
The fort here, at Vindolanda, was the home to 800 soldiers
and their job was to guard the wall
against people they described as "barbarians".
Now, for the Romans, barbarians were local tribes who lived the
other side of the wall in what's now northern England and Scotland.
But it wasn't the Legionaries who guarded the wall.
This was the job of auxiliary soldiers who
came from right across the Roman Empire,
places like Belgium, Spain, Greece and even as far away as Africa.
After 25 years working as an auxiliary,
you could become a Roman citizen.
And when the soldiers weren't on duty guarding the wall,
they lived here with their families.
These are their barracks and we can still see their remains today.
Barracks are soldiers' homes.
These ones at Vindolanda used to have two floors and an attic on top.
This was the main road in the middle
and it would have been humming with activity, with the soldiers coming
out and washing themselves in the morning and at the end of the day.
That big building that you can see at the end there,
that was basically the posh bit.
That was where the Centurions slept, so they were the bosses
keeping their eyes on all the soldiers down here.
This is one of the three public loos
that's been left here, at Vindolanda.
You'd have had 12 wooden seats along here, you'd sit down,
do your business straight into the drain below,
and probably have a chat with some of your friends as you did so.
And I know it looks a bit odd, but that's because, in Roman
times, people all used to go to the loo at the same time together,
so it wasn't very private.
For the last 40 years, archaeologists,
who are really like detectives,
have been digging carefully through layers of soil,
finding extraordinary evidence of the lives
of the soldiers who'd once lived here.
What we're looking for are the little things
that they dropped and left behind -
shoes, writing tablets,
little bits of weapons and armour.
And like a detective, those are the clues that we use to find
out what the Roman people were doing here all that time ago.
And what's particularly special about what's being found here?
The undoubted highlight from Vindolanda are the amazing
writing tablets that we find.
And these are tiny little postcard-sized scraps of birch
and alder wood that the Roman soldiers had written
to each other, and further afield, with an old-fashioned iron pen that
they'd dip into the ink and write straight on top of the bits of wood.
And, from those letters,
we just have an enormous amount of information about the Roman
soldiers, but others as well, and exactly what they thought
about living right at the edge of the Empire, on Hadrian's Wall.
These letters are very fragile and difficult to read,
but special infrared photographs of them show up the text,
which has been written in the Roman language - Latin.
"The Britons do not protect themselves by wearing armour..."
"Farewell, my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul..."
"I implore you not to allow me, an innocent man from overseas,
"to be beaten by rods..."
"Make sure that you send me cash, so that I may buy grain..."
"I pray that you are enjoying the best of fortune
"and are in good health."
The letters reveal the most fantastic
details about the soldiers' lives, how they missed their friends
and their families, and the good wine back at home.
But the main thing that they seem to moan about is the freezing cold
up here, in the north of England.
Luckily, some of their mates could send them supplies.
"I have sent you some pairs of socks from Satua,
"two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.
"I pray that you live in the greatest of good fortune."
Well, it's good to know that even the Romans had to wear pants.
The brilliant thing about the discoveries here
is that they don't just give you the kind of
official version of what life was like in the Roman Army.
The letters that were dug up here were written by ordinary
soldiers, men who were bothered by what they had for dinner,
how cold it was and whether or not they had damp socks.
So, these letters give us a wonderful opportunity
to read the actual words of the men who lived here with their families,
bringing their intriguing world back to life.
"Claudia Severa to her Lepidina. Greetings.
"On the 11th of September, sister, the day I celebrate my birthday,
"I send you this warm invitation to make sure you come to ours.
"I will enjoy the day so much more if you are there.
"Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper and hail."
It's incredible to think that this invitation, almost 2,000 years
old, was dug out of the ground at this Roman fort here, at Vindolanda.
It was written by the wife of one of the camp commanders.
Now, the fantastic thing about it is it tells us
that, at these Roman forts, there weren't just male,
muscly soldiers, there were also women and children here too.
This is a copy of that letter and it tells us
all kinds of useful things, that the Romans wrote in Latin, that they
celebrated birthday parties and that the woman who wrote it was obviously
rich enough to be educated, in that she could read and write.
And it's really fantastic,
cos most of this has been written by a kind of official scribe,
and then you've got her actual handwriting here in the corner.
And this is the oldest handwriting of a woman from anywhere
in the Western world.
After the Romans took control of Britain,
with the exception of a few religious roles,
a woman's job was pretty much to run the household.
Of course, if you were rich, you had slaves to help you clean,
look after your children and prepare and serve food.
Before the Roman invasion, the locals mainly ate
a kind of porridge with either vegetables or nuts or berries.
But the Romans introduced all kinds of different foods that,
funny enough, we now think of as being typically British,
things like lettuce and cabbage and apples and even peas.
Now, when they had a banquet, they really let rip.
Then they'd eat roasted swans, pig udders,
dormice sprinkled with honey or poppy seeds.
They also used to eat a really disgusting kind of fermented
fish sauce - there's actually some in here.
Ooh! Even the smell makes me want to gag.
And if you did feel a bit queasy or if you had tummy trouble,
then the Romans recommended pickled cabbage.
As well as eating new foods, women in Britain, at this time,
began to wear the latest trends that the Romans had introduced to
We know this from looking at statues, mosaics and paintings,
but we can also get clues from artefacts that have been
excavated, like this shoe.
This is such a beautiful little piece. How old is this?
This shoe is, actually, almost 2,000 years old.
It's a wonderful, wonderful piece.
It's a lady's slipper, probably used indoors, erm,
and here and here, you can just make out the stamps of the maker.
Amazing. So it's like a branding...
-..like we'd have on a trainer today.
But this is the kind of very high fashion, sort of, piece.
It would have been very expensive.
But the interesting thing is you can see, just here, it's broke,
just in between the toe
and so, she had enough money that she just threw it away.
Most of our shoes show evidence of repair,
so not everyone had the money that she did.
This is an example of one of our finger rings.
It's made of silver, and we do have a few silver rings
and a few gold rings, but not very many.
This one has been inscribed with "Matri, Patri" - mum and dad.
Ah! And that's somebody who's missing their mum and dad, is it?
Yes, yes. Well, that's what we can interpret from it.
It really makes you feel close to them,
to those people who lived all that time ago.
When you start to look at their stuff, you start to feel that
you, you begin to know them.
Archaeological discoveries also reveal
the kind of hairstyles some women had.
This stone carving is the head of a woman from Roman Britain and,
because it was made close on 2,000 years ago, it's got very worn.
So, her nose has been chipped off and her chin's gone a bit peculiar.
But just come and have a look round here.
This is just brilliant because you get a fantastic idea of what
her hairstyle would have been like.
She's got this great mass of curls up here and then the rest
of her hair has been wound round in a really elaborate kind of a bun.
I know it does look a bit odd but, believe it or not,
this was the height of fashion back then.
Women have often been written out of history because, generally,
they didn't do the big stuff, like run countries or start wars,
but the brilliant thing about the discoveries here,
at Vindolanda, is that you do feel really close to them.
And thanks to those lovely letters from women like Claudia,
here, women have written themselves back into history itself.
"To the spirits of the departed.
"Mercatila, foster daughter of Magnus,
"who lived for one year,
"six months and 12 days."
Those words were written down almost 2,000 years ago on this Roman
tombstone and they celebrate the life of a little girl who was
called Mercatila. This is just the beginning of her name here,
"Merc", who died before she was two years old.
Lots of children died back in Roman times of disease or accident,
or just because they didn't have enough to eat.
Life was pretty tough then.
Discipline for children was very firm in Roman times
as it was thought to make them strong, to improve
their character and, for boys, to prepare them for life in the Army.
Before the Roman invasion, most British children had
learnt about their histories and their tribal customs through
stories and songs shared with their families around a fire at night.
But once the Romans were here then, for the posh kids at any rate,
you had to learn to read and write.
And what they were learning to read and write was, of course, Latin.
This is a wax tablet and it's what school children in Roman Britain
would have used when they were learning to read and write.
Erm, it's really cleverly designed,
cos it's basically just two bits of wax put on top of some wood,
and they're joined together with a bit of string or leather here.
Erm, and this doesn't look like it, but this is a Roman-style pen -
it's just a bit of pointy metal.
And the very clever thing is that you could write down your word,
and I'm going to write a word, "Londinium", which is
what the Romans called London.
But, if you made a mistake,
then you could rub it out with this flat end of the pen.
So, I'm writing Londinium
and it will look like I've made a mistake at the end,
because when they were writing capitals,
the Romans didn't use a U, like we use, they used a V instead.
So, it looks like I've written Londinivm, but I haven't.
I've actually written the Roman name for London - Londinium.
Some girls were educated, but it was mainly the boys.
And if you were poor or a slave, then it was very,
very unlikely that you'd get the chance to be taught at all.
Those children privileged enough to receive an education
learnt reading, writing and maths, as well as other subjects,
such as how to speak in front of an audience, which would
prepare them for important jobs, like being in the Roman Army.
Children didn't spend all their time studying, they did have fun too.
They had plenty of games, like knuckle bones,
played using the knuckle or ankle bones of a sheep.
These were thrown up and caught on the back of the hand.
Points were given to the side of the bone that landed upwards
and whoever got the highest score was the winner.
Roman children also played with toys and there have been
some incredible discoveries at Roman sites, like Vindolanda.
Have any toys actually survived in Vindolanda?
We have two examples of toys.
This one is a Roman toy, gladius,
or a sword.
It's made of wood and, you can see, it's quite thin.
Er, and it's very, very light
and would have been quite fun for the child to use.
And this one here is a toy dagger.
And would these just be a toy, or would they be ways that
children would be starting to learn about fighting properly?
Most...most children in the ancient world would grow up
and do what their parents did.
And by handing a child, especially a boy child, a toy sword,
they were learning the basics about how to use a sword.
And is that another? Is that a little child's shoe, is it, there?
I love these.
These are children's shoes and, as you look at it,
-it almost fits in my palm. Would you like to hold it?
-I'd love to.
This child's shoe has fallen apart and now all that's left is the sole.
It would have looked a bit more like this before it broke.
It's only about the size of a hand,
probably more than likely a toddler's shoe.
It's so amazing to think that this was first worn by a child
close on 2,000 years ago and yet I can hold it in my hand today.
It might just be a little shoe, but it's also a traveller in time.
"Docilianus, son of Brucerus,
"to the most holy Goddess, Sulis, I curse him who stole my hooded cloak.
"Whether he be man or woman, slave or free.
"Goddess Sulis, inflict death and not allow him sleep, now or in the
"future, until he brings my hooded cloak back to the Temple of Sulis."
Those bloodcurdling words were scratched out onto a thin
sheet of metal and tossed into the water here close on 2,000
years ago, when most of Britain was part of the big Roman Empire.
I'm in a city called Bath and it's named after these Roman Baths,
where ancient people used to come to get fit and to get clean,
to meet friends - a bit like a modern-day leisure centre.
So why then, was somebody writing such horrible words onto a
curse tablet and throwing it into that water?
The Romans believed the naturally warm water that bubbles
up from the ground had special magical powers.
The Romans called this place "Aquae Sulis" and they named it
after the Goddess Sulis, who was an ancient goddess from Britain.
She was thought to be terribly powerful and, in a way,
her power was thought to actually live in these waters themselves.
And that's what explains these curse tablets.
So, if somebody was really cross about something,
what they'd do is they'd get one of these bits of metal,
scratch out a message to Sulis,
then fold it all up into a kind of package and throw it into the water.
'And this is that actual curse, scratched out by one very
'angry person nearly 2,000 years ago.'
The man who wrote this one had obviously come here and had a
lovely afternoon. He'd met friends, he'd gone to the baths and then
he'd got out and got himself dry, and somebody had stolen his cloak.
It was probably the only one he had and it was freezing outside.
And he was in such a rage that he thought the only creature who
could help him get it back was the Goddess Sulis herself.
This was a job for her.
And this is what they thought she looked like.
She's pretty impressive, isn't she?
This head is made of bronze and it's been covered in pure gold leaf.
Originally, there'd have been a body too and the whole
statue would be housed in a special religious building called a temple.
And people would travel for miles
and miles just to pay their respects to her.
As well as taking revenge against people who'd been wicked,
Romans believed that the Goddess Sulis could cure them of illness.
The Romans came here to be cured of all kinds of things - from skin
diseases to just feeling troubled about life, and even constipation.
In return for Sulis' help, people threw gifts,
known as offerings, into the baths.
Over 12,000 of these Roman coins were found in the water.
And now, the brilliant thing about these coins is that,
when they were made, they had the face of the emperor who
was in charge put on one side, so we know exactly how old they were.
This one's got the face of the Emperor Hadrian on it, and you might
have heard of him because he's the man who built Hadrian's Wall.
Aquae Sulis was particularly important to Roman Britons,
but public baths like this were a popular part of everyday life
all across the Roman Empire.
Although, in some ways, these places were a bit like a modern-day
gymnasium or a leisure centre,
they used very different kinds
of equipment, didn't they?
Well, they did and erm, well,
this is certainly a very strange object, isn't it?
Er, it's something called a "strigil",
but it would be something that people used to clean themselves.
The way this would work is that, first of all,
-someone would pour oil over you.
-OK, thank you.
-That's all right.
And you would then scrape down, like that, to remove the oil
but, in so doing, it would also remove all the dirt,
all the gunk, all the nastiness, all the dead skin.
That would all go, and slosh, away it would go.
And so, once you'd scraped yourself down would,
would you then end up in the water?
You would. At that point, you would go into the water,
you would rinse it all off.
And so, if lots of people were doing that,
you could end up with some pretty gunky water.
It must have been disgusting.
For people lucky enough to come here,
close on 2,000 years ago, Aquae Sulis was somewhere super special.
This was a place you came to get fit and clean,
to meet your friends, or to curse your enemies.
It was also somewhere you came to worship a great goddess,
for whom you had huge amounts of respect.
So, Aquae Sulis was somewhere you came to look after
both your body and your soul.
Subtitles By Red Bee Media Ltd
Historian Bettany Hughes explores what made Britain so attractive to the ancient Romans that they made it a province of their great empire. Bettany visits the Roman fort at Vindolanda, the sacred baths at Aquae Sulis and the Corinium Museum, to find out what life was like for the Roman soldiers, women and children who lived in Roman Britain. Looking at stunning artefacts, from a ring inscribed with 'mum and dad', to pieces of lead inscribed with sadistic curses and a beautiful piece of painted glass depicting gladiatorial fights, Bettany unravels how people lived at this time. We see archaeologists in action and find out what Romano-British homes of the wealthy would have looked like, and learn how their elaborate under-floor heating systems - known as hypocausts - worked, and were also a daily potential hazard.
Bettany has a go at writing on a wax tablet, just like the ones children would have practised on in Roman Britain, and nearly gags when she sniffs the fermented fish sauce that the Romans loved so much. We learn about the unusual delicacies the Romans loved to eat, such as dormouse sprinkled with honey and poppyseeds, as well as the foods they brought to our country, which we now think of as being so typically British - apples, peas and cabbage.
The highlight of the films is undoubtedly the postcards from the past - the Vindolanda letters. Written on slivers of birch or alder wood, these letters to and by the Roman soldiers and their families tell us of birthday celebrations and the need for underpants - the actual words of the people who lived in Britain around 2,000 years ago.
This fascinating compilation of films builds a picture of not only what life was like in Roman Britain, but also the lasting legacies of the Roman Empire.