The complete guide to...Roman Britain

Two thousand and fifty-five years ago last Saturday, Julius Caesar invaded Britain. His hope of converting the locals to the joys of central heating and very straight roads did not enjoy instant fulfilment and he was unceremoniously turfed off the south coast. Just 88 years later, the Romans were back and Britain was never quite the same again.

Two thousand and fifty-five years ago last Saturday, Julius Caesar invaded Britain. His hope of converting the locals to the joys of central heating and very straight roads did not enjoy instant fulfilment and he was unceremoniously turfed off the south coast. Just 88 years later, the Romans were back and Britain was never quite the same again.

WHAT MADE THE ROMANS FORSAKE TUSCANY FOR THE TYNE?

In the first century BC, Britain was split into various, warring, territories, each controlled by different Celtic tribes. These tribes were more sophisticated than they're given credit for but, when Aulus Plautius led 50,000 Roman soldiers onto British shores in AD43, society and landscape were to be dramatically transformed. Out went wooden roundhouses and in came flamboyant villas, aqueducts, amphitheatres, arrow-straight roads - and, much later on, Christianity.

The Romans are often portrayed as toga-wearing poseurs who spent their days marching around in shiny armour or lounging on day-beds eating grapes and drinking wine, but they were actually a ruthlessly ambitious people. And, 2000 years ago, Rome's new emperor, Claudius, saw an opportunity in Britain. As well as new resources, a successful invasion offered Claudius the chance to prove himself - winning some new lands would look good on his CV and gain him some respect back in Rome.

DID THEY MAKE A STYLISH ENTRANCE?

In due course. The first attempted invasion had been unsuccessful thanks to both the cunning battle tactics of the British and the foul British weather. However, in AD43, the Romans were better prepared. Having battled their way through the south-east of the country within a year, they set about constructing lavish buildings and whipping the locals into shape.

At Richborough, their landing site in eastern Kent, a giant triumphal arch was constructed overlooking the sea and soon there were villas, baths, temples and roads streaking through the countryside from Richborough right up to Chester: the line of Watling Street.

As the locals were gradually either persuaded to join the Romans or beaten into submission, a new era began - an era of exotic goods, exotic people and exotic customs.

VENI, VIDI, VICI AND ALL THAT...

Well, not exactly. Understandably, the Britons got a bit fed up with this one-sided relationship with their colonists. Forced to accept heavy taxes and stand back while their lands were stolen, they revolted a couple of decades after occupation. Under the command of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni (see box), the native Britons indulged in an early bout of road rage along Watling Street in AD60, destroying the first three Romano-British towns along the way: now known as Colchester, London and St Albans.

That wasn't the end of the story, however. As Boudicca and her army battled their way north they were met by a force of Roman soldiers marching south. Just outside St Albans, the Romans triumphed and, for the next 350 or so years, Britain became conclusively Roman.

THAT'S A BIT HARD TO IMAGINE

The simple way to ignite your imagination is to catch one of the Roman re-enactment societies in action. The Ermine Street Guard, for example, puts on excellent Roman battle reconstructions using equipment and clothing that has been painstakingly produced in as authentic a fashion as possible.

For further information on forthcoming displays, most of which take place at Roman sites in Britain, contact Chris Haines at Oakland Farm, Dog Lane, Witcombe, Gloucestershire, GL3 4UG (01452 862235, www.esg.ndirect.co.uk).

ARE THERE ANY LESS VIOLENT ATTRACTIONS?

Plenty. The best thing to do is do as the Romans did and start at Richborough Roman Fort (01304 612013). The fortified walls and foundations for the 25m-high triumphal arch are still visible today and the on-site museum provides plenty of information about Romano-British life.

Next up, you should definitely see Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland (01434 605225, www.tynedale.gov.uk). A 73-mile long boundary, it was built from coast to coast across northern England on the orders of Emperor Hadrian between AD122 and AD128. Today you can still make out the remains of forts, temples and turrets along and around it and, if you have time, stop off at the various visitor centres and museums along its path, including Vindolanda and Housesteads Fort.

Another Roman site is Wroxeter Roman City (01743 761330, www.english-heritage.org.uk), near Shrewsbury, which has recently been explored in detail under the Wroxeter Hinterland Project (www.bufau.bham.ac.uk/newsite/projects/wh/base.html). The fourth largest city in Roman Britain, Wroxeter was a frontier town and home to thousands of soldiers and traders. The most impressive sight here is the huge wall that once separated the municipal baths from the exercise hall.

The Romans never colonised the hilly lands to the west of Wroxeter - modern-day Wales - although several defensive forts were built there. The remains of one can be seen at Segontium in Caernarfon (01286 675625; www.nmgw.ac.uk).

If it's the joys of the open road that draw you to the Romans, you might want to see Wheeldale Roman Road, a mile long stretch of road, still with its drainage ditches, that runs straight across the moorland in North Yorkshire (more information from North York Moors National Park, 01287 660654). Or you could make a modern-day journey down two of the Romans' greatest roads, either retracing Watlingstreet along what is now the A2 and A5 or crossing the country via the Fosse Way, which ran between Lincoln and Exeter, on what is now partly the A46.

Finally, spare some time to put these sites in perspective by getting a glimpse of Iron Age Britain and a better idea of what life was like before the Romans arrived, at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire (02392 598838, www.skcldv.demon.co.uk/iafst.htm).

WHAT IF THE WEATHER'S BAD?

Step indoors. Until January at the Museum of London (020-7600 3699 or visit www.museumoflondon.org.uk), you can visit "High Street Londinium", a walk-through reconstruction of the "via decumana", London's main shopping street in AD100. To complement the exhibition, the museum is also hosting a series of talks and walks.

At the Verulamium Museum at St Albans (01727 751810, www.stalbans.gov.uk/ museum), you can see recreated Roman rooms, some of the finest mosaics in Britain and hands-on discovery areas or else wander down to the nearby Roman Theatre. At Canterbury Roman Museum (01227 785575; www.canterbury.co.uk/en/guides/canterbury/places/roman) you can peer at a Roman townhouse, with its mosaic floor and hypocaust or wander around a reconstructed market place and temple. And, at the Dewa Roman Experience in Chester (01244 343407), you can meander along the city's reconstructed Roman streets, see the work of an archaeological dig or try on some Roman armour for size. Five minutes down the road are the partially excavated remains of Britain's largest Roman amphitheatre.

Alternatively, make a nod to the hedonistic side of Roman life and strut your stuff on the dancefloor of the Emporium nightclub (62 Kingly Street, London, 020 7734 3190). Enjoy a Roman-sized banquet in the dining area first and then roll your way out to boogie.

WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE UNDER THE ROMANS?

That all depended on who you were. Slaves, like Roman women, would have had very few rights. If you were wealthy, however, you might have enjoyed all manner of luxuries - the comforts of central heating via a hypocaust (a system of underfloor heating, with fires spreading warmth out under a room), beautiful furniture to recline on, so much food you might be sick and the benefits of a full beauty regime (apparently one popular spot remedy included bird droppings).

It is also useful to remember that, for the most part, the "Romans" in Britain weren't from Rome. Rather, they were Romanised peoples from every corner of the sprawling Empire; and Romanised Britons too.

For most of these people, keeping clean was the major daily concern. Public toilets were kept fresh with a constant flow of water and most people were regular visitors to the baths. A social as well as hygienic phenomenon, the idea was to catch up with friends or make deals whilst taking a turn in the gym, plunging into various hot and cold pools and scraping the dirt off your skin with olive oil.

The most famous of Britain's Roman baths are probably those in the city of Bath (01225 477785, www.romanbaths.co.uk). The Romans noticed that the natural hot spring here seemed to do good things for their health and spurred them into building a spectacular bathing complex. Today the complex's high, vaulted roof has gone but you can wander happily around the excavated remains with an audio-tour machine clutched to your ear.

If this still doesn't help you to get a grasp on Roman life, make your way to Tyne and Wear. At Wallsend (0191 236 9347), you can get an interesting overview of an excavated Roman fort from a 35m tower, make your way through a museum and then take a steamy stroll through the site's newly reconstructed military bathhouse. Visitors can currently walk around the baths, which even boast a working hypocaust, but soon you will be able to hire them out and bathe in them too.

And, while you're in the area, don't miss Arbeia Roman Fort at South Shields (0191 456 1369). This was once a supply base for troops along Hadrian's Wall, visitors are welcome at the on-going excavations. Here, too, there are reconstructions in progress: a sumptuous late Roman Commanding Officer's residence and a barrack block.

Although you won't actually be able to get inside them until the end of next year, they're still pretty impressive from the outside.

DID THEY HAVE CHANGING ROOMS?

Yes, if you mean the bathhouses. No, if you mean the worst of British interior design.

While the Romans were here they built around 1,000 villas. Most of these would have had intricate mosaic floors, inlaid with small coloured stones to form various designs, according to the skills and fashions of the time.

If you like mosaics, make sure you visit Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester (01243 785859, www.sussexpast.co.uk). This is one of the largest Roman residences that has so far been discovered, it includes some of the most impressive mosaics in Northern Europe, as well as a well-preserved section of hypocaust and bathhouses.

If you have the stamina for several days on the tiles, other sites well worth a visit include: Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex (01798 869259, www.pyrrha.demon.co.uk), Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire (01242 890256), Lullingstone (01322 863467) and Crofton Roman Villas in Kent (020-8462 4737, www.aboutbritain.com/ CroftonRomanVilla.htm).

WHAT ABOUT FOOD? CAESAR SALADS, PRESUMABLY...

Er, not exactly - the Caesar salad was invented by a Mexican, called Cesar, in Tijuana in the 1930s.

When the Romans were in Britain, people probably ate a fairly healthy, simple diet with foods such as chicken, apples, blackberries, bilberries, hazelnuts, eggs, pork, geese, honey and herbs.

Pork and apple casserole was big, apparently, but the Romans might also have introduced the British palate to the delights of fish sauce, olives, tomatoes, beans and lentils - not forgetting figs.

The Romans can also be credited with introducing us to wine, though whether they would actually enjoy the English wine produced today is debatable.

If you want to do some in-depth research, make your way to the English Wine Festival, which takes place today and tomorrow in the grounds of Plumpton College in East Sussex (details on 01273 890454 or at the website www.englishwine.co.uk). For just £9.50 per person you can sup and graze your way around over 50 wine exhibitors.

WHY AREN'T THERE MORE REMAINS?

Eventually the Roman Empire had grown too big for its boots. Unable to support or control such a whopping territory, the great decline began and Rome began pulling out of its Western colonies. After the Romans left Britain in 410AD, remaining Roman architecture was largely ransacked during the 600 ensuing years that have been branded the Dark Ages.

In Wroxeter, remnants of the Roman city are scattered throughout the present-day village. Roman foundation stones mark out the boundaries of flowerbeds, an upturned column serves as a font in the church and so on.

This explains, in part, why the traces of Roman Britain aren't more obvious but it also illustrates that, the closer you look, the more Roman evidence you'll find.

CAN I GO ON A ROMAN HOLIDAY?

English Heritage has organised "From Roman to Royal Dorchester", a two-night break focusing on Dorchester's Roman heritage. The fully-inclusive trip, between 27 and 29 April 2001, costs £209 per person and can be booked through Brookland Travel (01305 259467).

However, there are few organised tours around the sights of Roman Britain. A good alternative is to engage a Blue Badge Guide to lead you around some of the sights. The Guild of Registered Tourist Guides (020-7403 1115) can provide a list of archaeological specialists among its many members. The Guild suggests a rate of £120 for a day, though this is negotiable.

In West Sussex, Nigel Brown (01243 575751) will take people on a tailor-made tour of Chichester and its surroundings. "This was a very prosperous part of Roman Britain, and I try to give a sense of what life was like. I do a walking tour of Chichester itself, and link it in with the Fishbourne Roman Palace. I cover Stane Street as an example of a Roman road, which leads us to Bignor. There's also the option of visiting the posting station at Pulborough, on Stane Street before the crossing of the River Arun. There was one of these posting stations, every 16 miles or so, a day's march, along Roman Roads, and the one at Pulborough is well preserved. To the west, at the fort at Portchester, you get a dramatic sense of what the Romans were defending. And across on the Isle of Wight, there are Roman villas in Brading and Newport."

In Bath, Maurice Hopkins-Clarke (01225 464877) is your guide: "The Roman Baths is the main complex, but we give background about the way the Romans occupied the valley. There's archaeology going on the whole time in the city, and we give a sense of the discoveries that are being made."

Most of London's Roman remains are to be found in museums, and a combination of the British Museum (020-7636 1555), where everything is well laid out in sequence, and the Museum of London, is a good start.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

A good place to start you inquiries is with English Heritage (020-7973 3434; www.english-heritage.org.uk) and the National Trust (020-8315 1111; www.nationaltrust.org.uk), since these two organisations own or manage many of the mentioned Roman sites.

The Internet is also a good source of information. A couple of useful sites are: www.vicb.fsnet.co.uk (which gives a good, if lengthy, run-down of the Romans in Britain, as well as a fairly comprehensive list of Roman attractions in the country) and www.roman-empire.net (which lets you send a Roman-style greeting card via the web).

If you find yourself wanting to know more about a particular site, you might want to contact the National Monuments Record Centre (01793 414600), which holds a vast stock of photographs, texts and historical documents.

For general archaeological information, however, the Council for British Archaeology (01904 671417, www.britarch.ac.uk) is very hard to beat. Ask for a free copy of its magazine, British Archaeology, look out a list of archaeological digs you could get involved in, find some details on next year's National Archaeology Day (provisionally scheduled for 21 and 22 July) or just pick their experts' brains.

WHAT HAS BOUDICCA EVER DONE FOR US?

Under the Romans, Britons were paying hefty taxes and having to sacrifice their land. Unsurprisingly the Britons rebelled. And Boudicca (right) led the revolt.

Boudicca was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe. After Prasutagus's death, however, the Romans moved in and attempted to seize her lands. When Boudicca protested, the Romans reacted by flogging her and raping her daughters. In revenge, she encouraged the Britons to fight back against these cruel oppressors.

By AD60 Boudicca had rounded up a group comprising some 100,000 rebels, and tore into Camulodunum, the town which was once Britain's capital and is now known as Colchester, razing it to the ground and massacring its Roman inhabitants. Next in line for destruction were St Albans and London - and here too Boudicca showed no mercy. The Roman historian, Tacitus, recorded that the British took no prisoners during the uprising but simply stabbed, burnt, hung or crucified their enemies.

The Roman Governor and his army, meanwhile, had been otherwise occupied destroying the Druids on Anglesey. Hearing of Boudicca's success, they marched south, aiming to meet the Britons at a site best suited to Roman battle tactics. So confident were the Britons of victory that they brought their families with them - but glory was not to be theirs. By evening, the Romans had beaten the Britons, showing no mercy on the battlefield.

Not prepared to appear as prisoners of war in Rome, Boudicca and her daughters committed suicide by poisoning themselves. While the Romans gradually regained their supremacy over the Britons, Boudicca became a folk heroine.

To find out more, you could join the British Museum Traveller's three-night trip around East Anglia later this month (020-7436 7575, www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk). Following in the chariot-tracks of Boudicca herself, the trip costs from £350 per person.

...AND FOR ALL YOU WANNABE GLADIATORS

Six ways to spark some Roman-style fighting talk:

1. Seek out the gladiator's lucky charm at the Yorkshire Museum in York (01904 629745), inscribed in Latin "Lord Victor, may you have a lucky win".

2. Join a Boxercise TM class at your local gym. The punchiest style of aerobics, it'll soon get you fighting fit.

3. Take the £8 tour of Old Trafford stadium (0161-868 8631), home of Manchester United, and get a feel for the crowds of the Colosseum (which would have had about 17,500 fewer seats).

4. Forget the big thumbs down, visit the website www.thumb.com/wtw and try World Thumb Wrestling, if you dare.

5. Check out the British Museum's gladiator-themed exhibition (21 October-21 January 2001, 020-7323 8599), with its original weapons and tips on fighting styles to a corresponding film programme.

6. Need another excuse to see Russell Crowe in Gladiator? Then catch the Museum of London's own gladiator fight on 16 September and compare and contrast (020 7814 5776).

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