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

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
  • Get to the point
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

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence