All hail Britain's Roman festivals

Ever wondered what they wore under their togas? Want to see a ballista pierce armour at 600 yards? Adrian Mourby joins one of English Heritage's summer events and steps back in time 2,000 years

Many, many years ago, my parents took me to Wroxeter in a vain attempt to bring Roman Britain alive in a schoolboy's imagination. We stood in our plastic macs looking at a single wall set in the middle of a wet Shropshire field. Then we went in search of a Lyons tea house.

How things have changed. The bath-house wall is still there but today Wroxeter is alive with centurions and auxiliaries marching to and fro. The 14th Vexillatio Legion (otherwise known as the Roman Military Research Society from Coventry) clinks past with big blue scutums (shields to you and me) and Paul from Roman Tours of Chester is demonstrating what the Romans wore under their togas. There are even two men practising to be gladiators.

John is immediately attracted to the swords. His eyes light up in a rather worrying fashion. Keen to inculcate any enthusiasm for the National Curriculum in my 15-year-old, I do what I can to persuade Paul to let us handle his gladius. This is the classic short-handled sword we saw Russell Crowe wielding to such effect as Maximus in Gladiator.

It's reassuringly heavy. Paul decides I should try the full legionary experience, not just the sword and armour but the marching pack - spears, bedding, wine bottles, the lot. "And you can bend in it too," says Paul, insisting we give it a try. I can see there is no doubt in his eyes that the Romans were an amazing bunch.

However, John has already moved on to a fully working ballista, something between a giant crossbow and a machine gun. It used to fire metal-tipped bolts behind enemy lines, one every 15 seconds.

It could pierce armour at 600 yards. "What happened to the bolts after a battle?" John asks hungrily. "They were expensive to make," says the Batavian auxiliary in charge, whose name is Ken, "so legionaries would go across the battlefield and pull them out of the corpses."

"Can we see it fire?" John asks. This is his kind of history. "One thirty this afternoon," says Auxiliary Ken. Unlike Maximus, English Heritage clears the field before unleashing hell.

It's all very impressive and owes a great deal to the ever so slightly obsessive men and women who spend their weekends living the Roman way of life as authentically as they can. Last night, many of these modern-day Romans camped here round the Wroxeter ruins just so they could get an early start. One of them, who gives his name only as Theodorus, is striding round with a large circular Roman military bugle (known as a cornu), about which he is singularly knowledgeable. He can also play Glenn Miller when no one's looking.

It's beginning to drizzle, which is something that the Romans always complained about in Britannium, but the enthusiasm of the organisers is undiminished. "Ladies and gentlemen, there will now be a demonstration of charioteering," announces an organiser through a decidedly modern PA system and little Theodorus backs this up by blasting out with some suitably bellicose notes.

We all crowd over to the field, under which the rest of Wroxeter lies these days, and Tony, a film stunt man, enters grappling with four huge black horses that look in danger of tearing apart his very small chariot, made of bent wood and leather

"This was the traditional racing chariot," says the voice on the PA. "The ones with sides you see in Ben Hur were only used for ceremonial processions."

Tony tears up the field at 15mph, balancing carefully and using his body weight to keep his feet on the chariot, rather like a skateboarder.

He controls the horses via linked reins that culminate in two, large leather handles - he has nothing to hold on to whatsoever. It's impressive to see the four great beasts carrying out the will of a man on such a flimsy pair of wheels - and evidently in Circus Maximus they did it at twice that speed.

"Charioteers were stars in Rome," says the PA. "But very few lived over the age of 30. Most died on the racetrack."

John nods enthusiastically, imagining huge, gory pile-ups at the Circus's first set of metae (turning posts). To his disappointment, Tony leaves the field in one piece but it's been impressive.

"Well, shall we look at the falcons?" I ask. "Or there are some mosaics in the museum and there'll be a cavalry display later..." But John's only interest is in buying a sword. He negotiates an advance on his birthday money for a great, heavy blade that's available from the gift shop, and I have a feeling his mother is not going to be happy about this.

As we drive home, I can't help feeling that my son has taken away only the more sensational aspects of Wroxeter's Roman Festival. But then at his age all I got was wet feet from standing looking at a wall.

English Heritage (0870 333 1183; english-heritage.org. uk/romanfestivals) has organised Roman festivals at Scarborough Castle, North Yorkshire, on 5 and 6 August, and Corbridge Roman Town, Northumberland, on 27 and 28 August. Prices vary

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone