The Archaeology of the Romans

To investigate any society, I believe we should start with archaeology. What do the Romans look like on the ground, here, in Roman Britain the furthermost province of the Empire? The answer is that they are very different from the societey that came before. For one thing, they are very productive. Using the crudest of all archaeological criteria, they produced very much more pottery than anyone who came before — and indeed for anyone that came after them for another thousand years. And it was very good pottery: you could drink happily from a Roman vessel or eat food prepared in Roman pots

And then look at the physical remains. The most characteristic Roman structure in Roman Britain is the villa, a country house built out in the country, undefended and clearly having no need of defence — very different from the mediaeval castle or the moated manor house. They varied very much in size too, from the great palaces such as Fishbourne or some of the villas of the fourth century, down to quite a simple farmhouse with a corridor fronting a row of three or four rooms. But almost all of them have a little luxury in the form of underfloor heating, the hypocaust.

The Roman bathhouse at Aquincum (Roman Budapest)

The other characteristic Roman building structure is the bath house. Compare this with the Middle Ages where the characteristic building is the monastery – designed to be as spartan and as austere as possible. The bathhouse was very much a place of leisure; this is where one took some exercise and met one’s friends; and it is interesting to note that bathing usually took place in the nude. This in itself is an interesting sociological phenomenon. In hierarchical societies, the different ranks are distinguished by their dress — indeed even in Roman society, the wearing of the toga was to some extent a symbol of position — such distinctions never vanish completely. But in the Roman world they were minimized, and when you are nude in the baths, such marks of status are left behind — we are all much the same status in the nude: the Roman society was one of the least elitist societies in the ancient or indeed the modern world.

Roman Colchester - the town almost full

It is interesting to consider one of the foremost towns in Roman Britain – Colchester, and compare Peter Froste’s reconstruction drawings of Colchester in AD 250 and Colchester in the Middle Ages in AD 1150. At the centre of the Roman town is the temple complex, with the forum to one side and the theatre to the top — a race track has since been discovered outside. The town was surrounded indeed by a wall but there is no sign of a barracks for any soldiers to live. There is no palace and nothing to divide off the rulers from the ruled.

Colchester around 1150 - dominated by the castle

In the Middle Ages, the temple had become the base of the Castle — which still survives as the museum — and the castle is surrounded by a moat. This is the place of the rulers, who needed to be protected from the populace

Thus in Roman Britain the evidence seems to suggest the very opposite of a militaristic society: indeed the Lex Julia de Vi forbade the carrying of arms except for hunting. Certainly in the years of conquest there were forts all over the country, but thereafter soldiers are confined to the military zone to the north. The average inhabitant of the heartlands of Roman Britain would not have seen a soldier from one year to the next — there were no forts south of the Fosse Way, no barracks for the soldiers to live except briefly in London. It is not until the fourth century that the threat of sea raiders from Germany led to the establishment of the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts along the south eastern shore of the country. But the undefended villas and the lack of barracks in the towns point to peace and prosperity as being the major aspects of Roman Britain. And these are the aspects that gave the Roman Empire its immense attraction.

Of course the Romans were not bunny rabbits: when they fought, they were a formidable fighting force. But in the years AD, it was essentially a professional army force: as fighters they were persistent and professional, and it was their persistence and their professionalism that brought them their success. But they were certainly not the militaristic despots of the modern day Classicist.

But it was not just peace and prosperity – and hypocausts and hot baths that made the Roman way of life so attractive. Let us turn to some of the more intimate benefits that Rome offered: let us turn to poetry.

On to : Sex and the Romans