Open Eye: I came, I saw, I built a wall and some swimming pools

Simon Newton previews the OU's latest prime-time television series. The Romans in Britain begins tomorrow on BBC2
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The Independent Online
Many of the Roman imperial army who conquered Britain never passed along the Appian Way. Signatures on stones found around Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland have African, Syrian and even Hungarian origins. The melting pot of Empire ensured a cosmopolitan invasion force who in turn became Brits.

At the time of the successful Roman invasion in 43AD, Britain was on the edge of the known world - a land of swamps, forests and small settlements.

The invasion led to an extraordinary political and cultural transformation of Britain. "The Romans were the first to understand systems on a grand scale," says writer and broadcaster Guy de la Bedoyere. "They introduced the blueprint for the modern state based on tiers of administration and delegation of power."

Touring around the key Roman sites on his latter-day two-wheeled chariot (a Kawasaki), Guy de la Bedoyere presents the prime-time three part series Romans in Britain on Friday evenings starting tomorrow. Exploring the archaeological evidence and using period re-constructions, he looks at the meaning of the Roman symbols of power and conquest.

By the time of the invasion, the Roman Empire stretched from the Sahara in the south to Syria in the east. Britain would become the northern edge of Empire.

Known to be rich in resources such as iron and with the new emperor Claudius needing to prove himself (with or without his TV stammer), Britain was the target for the best fighting machine known to the world.

Entering Britain at the site of the now landlocked Richborough Castle in Kent, 50,000 Roman soldiers proved themselves to be the equivalent of Panzers against pea-shooters.

Marching up to 30 miles a day, and carrying 50 pounds of equipment and digging trenches at night, the Roman soldiers were able to over-run the elaborate earthwork defences of Maiden Castle which sheltered the indigenous families and their animals.

Once a land of competing tribes, Britain was treated by the Romans as a single country.

With the exception of the brief resistance of Boudicca, the Roman invasion brought peace, unity and a transformation of life for the native inhabitants. Colchester, York, St Albans, Cirencester, Bath and London became key mercantile centres.

The straight roads of a conquering army became key channels of trade and communication, many of them enduring to the present day. Sanitation, irrigation and the first steps in public health and urban living were also Roman legacies.

"Roman culture exerted an attraction like American culture does today," argues de la Bedoyere. "Bath itself was an extraordinary entertainment complex - a Roman Disneyland!" With basilicas in every town, the Romans were relentless builders of symbols of conquest. Buildings said "We are here and we are here forever!"

The grand Roman basilicas and bath-houses made a formidable contrast to the surrounding clay and wattle shelters of a conquered people. The city of Bath itself became a mix of shrine, temple, market and steam-room. It was a place of gatherings, market-trading, business transactions, food- buying and off-duty frolics.

Riding his motorbike down the straight Roman roads, de la Bedoyere reaches Cirencester and Fishbourne to learn of Roman gardens and cooking.

Romans created gardens not just for produce but for pleasure and relaxation. With echoes of the modern trattoria, Roman cooking used garlic, chives, onions, shallots and fennel often cultivated in the private gardens of country houses. Coriander, peppers, honey and wine were the regular flavourings for Roman dishes.

The now tranquil county of Sussex became the site of the Roman industrial heartland.

Iron works were strung across the county with clear archaeological evidence of slag heaps. Forests were cut down and the rolling downs became sites of smoke, noise, furnaces. Lives were short and hard. The iron works became an essential part of the machinery of Roman Britain.

Striding through the silted mud of the banks of the Thames, de la Bedoyere discovers the evidence of Roman trading power.

The amphorae or great storage jars which contained olive oil, fish sauces and dates are the remaining fragments of a formidable capital city import- export trade throughout the Empire.

Completing his journey at Hadrian's Wall, Guy de la Bedoyere re-creates the experience of Roman life in Britain at the frontier of the known world.

This compelling series is linked to the Open University course Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire due to begin in 2000.