Welcome to Britannia: Roman Britain in AD 130

Bronwen Riley takes the pulse of Roman Britain in AD 130 and finds that, 80 years after the conquest, tensions are still simmering – especially in the borderland around Hadrian’s Wall...

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The patrons of a tavern enjoy a drink in this second-century AD relief. (© Getty)

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Britannia lay at the north-westernmost boundaries of an empire so vast that it encompassed “the ocean where the sun god rises to the place where he sinks”. Although an imperial province for more than 80 years, ever since the emperor Claudius, accompanied by elephants, claimed it for Rome, in AD 130 Britannia and her inhabitants remained a byword for a remote land and distant people.

For anyone making the perilous journey across to Britannia’s shores, expectations, as far as we can tell, were low. The natives were considered to be uncultured and generally unpromising, though their plain clothes were of most excellent quality wool and their hunting hounds were deemed to be effective, if unprepossessing in looks. The climate, too, left much to be desired. Here was a place where the rain fell, the sun was seldom seen, and a thick mist was said to rise from the marshes “so that the atmosphere in the country is always gloomy”.

Although the crossing from Gesoriacum (Boulogne) to Rutupiae (Richborough in Kent) was comparatively short (somewhere between six and eight hours), the symbolic distance was immense. For to set foot on a ship bound for Britannia was to venture into Oceanus, that immeasurable expanse of sea, full of monsters and perilous tides which led to a land of unfathomable people.

Although the tentacles of Roman administration via the army had, by AD 130, reached into the furthest corners of the province and the island had been scrupulously measured and recorded, in terms at least of potential revenue, Britannia represented the untamed and unknown.

Tattooed bodies

Censuses may have been carried out for tax purposes, records made of landholdings, distances measured between places, roads built to Roman standards and all rivers and crossing points marked down, but this didn’t mean that the Romans felt any more sympathetic towards the island’s inhabitants. The Britons were regarded as somewhat uncouth, their bodies tattooed with patterns and pictures of all kinds of animals.

Serving officers on Hadrian’s Wall, who referred to Britons disparagingly as Brittunculi or ‘Britlings’, clearly had not progressed very much in their outlook since the days of Cicero who, when writing about his brother on campaign in Britain during Julius Caesar’s expedition there in 54 BC, joked that none of the British were expected to be accomplished in literature or music. The stereotype persisted into the fourth century, when poets were still portraying Britannia with cheeks tattooed, “clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast”.

By AD 130, many provincials from elsewhere in the empire had made it to the top of Roman society (two successive emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, hailed from Spanish families, the Ulpii and the Aelii) and the Gauls were making vast fortunes in trade, and clawing their way into the senate. There is no record of any Britons doing the same at this period, though many were serving as auxiliary soldiers in far-flung places, such as the cohort of Britons then in Dacia (modern Romania).

British exports tended to be rather unglamorous – tin, lead, hides and slaves. If asked what British products they had bought recently, shoppers on the streets of Rome may have been pushed for an answer. Blankets or rush baskets, perhaps? That said, anyone keen on hunting may have known of – or even possessed – one of their famously ugly but skilful hounds, and the gourmands among them tasted oysters shipped in from Kent.

Having arrived in Britannia, visitors may have had to adjust their literary preconceptions, for by AD 130 the main towns and cities of Britain conformed more or less to a Roman model with some idiosyncratic flourishes. Although houses in both the town and country were generally modest in size – the age of great villa building in Britain had yet to come – the province boasted some magnificent civic architecture.

The gateway to Britannia was the port of Rutupiae on the Kent coast, where passengers alighting on the British shore were greeted by a monumental arch, in gleaming Italian marble, one of the largest in the empire.

The legionary baths at Isca Augusta (Caerleon) also rivalled those anywhere else, while the brand new basilica in the forum at Londinium was the largest north of the Alps. These buildings were all state-sponsored – the British aristocracy did not indulge in the sort of competitive public munificence displayed elsewhere.

In Britannia, London led the way in terms of wealth and fashion, and even modest shops and workshops in the city were being enhanced by reception rooms with painted walls and cement floors. Although the precise civic status of the city in AD 130 is unknown, London was the province’s undoubted epicentre, the place where all major roads passed through or originated. It was the seat of the provincial governor and the imperial procurator whose job it was to oversee the collection of revenues on behalf of the Fiscus (the emperor’s personal treasury).

Trouble ahead

In AD 130, Britannia was an imperial province, which meant that its new governor, Sextus Julius Severus, ruled it on the emperor’s behalf, taking his orders and instructions straight from Hadrian and corresponding directly with him while abroad. Severus, who came from Dalmatia but completed his education in Rome, was said to be one of Hadrian’s best generals and had also proved himself an able administrator. The fact that he had been sent to Britannia at this point may indicate that there was serious trouble there and that Hadrian planned for him either to fight a war or carry out a major reorganisation of the province.

A large number of soldiers were garrisoned in Britannia, and its governorship was one of the two most senior posts available. While no one visited Britannia for the culture, doing a stint in a tough place like this could do no harm to a military or political career.

Many who came to Britannia as governors, procurators and commanding officers were able and affluent men who went on to enjoy remarkable careers. L Minicius Natalis, a slick and wealthy Spaniard, arrived here at about this time. Fresh from winning a four-horse chariot race at the Olympic Games in AD 129, he took up the command of the Legio VI Victrix based in Eboracum (York). Senior cavalry officer M Maenius Agrippa from Camerinum (in the Italian Marches), who was personally known to Julius Severus and Hadrian, was shortly to assume command of the classis Britannia, the British fleet. This was one of the most important of all provincial fleets, with bases at Gesoriacum (Boulogne) and Dubris (Dover), in addition to several (presumed) outposts around the British coast. Agrippa would excel at his new job, later being made procurator of the province.

These newcomers to Britannia would have expected to communicate in Latin but would have needed to get used to the peculiarities of the British accent. While upper-class Brits spoke very correct, textbook Latin “better than the Gauls”, some of their vowel sounds were rather affected.

British Latin also developed its own insular peculiarities – such as the use of the word hospitium to mean house or home, which ultimately derived from the word for an inn or lodging. Their native tongue was Brittonic, a Celtic language, similar to those spoken in Gaul. After the Romans arrived, the British adopted many Latin words into their vocabulary to describe aspects of daily life for which there was no existing equivalent.

Strolling around the streets, the newcomer to AD 130 Britannia would have heard many other languages, such as Gaulish, Greek and Palmyrene – spoken by the thousands of foreign soldiers, slaves and traders now based here. Observant travellers would have noticed everywhere small signs that they were somewhere far from home. They may have remarked upon how keen the British were on cleaning their nails, and how attached they were to personal grooming sets, which included scoops for cleaning out their ears.

Finest fish sauce

Excellent supply networks meant that people could obtain imported food and drink in all parts of the province, such as Spanish olive oil, Gallic wine and Lucius Tettius Africanus’s “finest fish sauce from Antibes”. Men such as Tiberinius Celerianus, a merchant shipper from Gaul, clearly felt so at home here that he declared himself boldly to be Londoniensium primus – ‘first of the Londoners’ – on an altar he dedicated at Southwark.

Outside London, one of the most cosmopolitan places in the country was Hadrian’s Wall, base of thousands of Roman troops. Tensions here ran deep. Hostility simmered within and without the borders the Romans had imposed, among the unconquered tribes of Caledonia, among disaffected and uprooted peoples who had moved further north – and among those within the frontier zone itself.

The wall had hacked a brutal and in many ways unimaginative course across the country – one that severed Britons’ ancestral homes in two. Those living north of the frontier would have suddenly found their access to lands or family or markets to the south of it severely restricted.

Not only were the soldiers and their military installations all too visible in the landscape, but the taxes required to pay for the troops’ upkeep were now being extracted from people whose land had been confiscated to accommodate the garrisons.

If crack soldier and trouble-shooter Julius Severus had to be sent out to Britannia in response to recent serious unrest, then it almost certainly took place up here. The rebuilding of the turf section in stone and construction of new forts on and around the frontier at this period suggests that the situation was tense and unpredictable.

Roman soldiers could be heavy-handed, and many Britons would have felt the force of a centurion’s hobnailed boot. A letter of complaint survives from Vindolanda from a man who was outraged that he, an innocent man from overseas, had been flogged by centurions savagely enough to draw blood (the inference being that if he were a native Briton, that would be a different matter).

In Cumbria, at the wall’s western end, people continued to live in traditional roundhouse enclosures into the fourth century. Some people in the wall’s eastern sector, however, seemed to have succumbed to the blandishments of Roman life, or at least just decided to make the best of it.

By AD 130, villas and settlements similar to those of small towns in the south had begun to appear in the wall’s environs. Some provincials seem to have adopted an idiosyncratic, ‘pick and mix’ attitude to Roman culture. Down at Faverdale in County Durham, some 25 miles south of the wall, one family group continued to live in a roundhouse but had adapted Roman methods of stock-rearing, producing bigger specimens of cattle, sheep and pigs. They had acquired an impressive number of imported Samian ware drinking vessels, while continuing to use handmade pottery of an ancient, Iron Age form. They maintained ancient rituals, such as the careful burial of broken quernstones, but had acquired new ones, including a miniature bathhouse, startlingly painted in red, white, green, yellow, orange, black and pink.

Although containing two heated rooms and a waterproof (opus signinum) floor, it may have struck a visitor used to traditional baths as a little odd, as there was no sort of pool or basin here. Instead, the occupants seemed to have enjoyed intimate shellfish sauna parties – the six people who could comfortably fit into this space snacked on cockles, mussels and oysters as they soaked up the heat. Welcome to Britannia, cAD 130.

In context: The Roman empire in AD 130

In AD 130, Publius Aelius Hadrianus, a complex and energetic man, had been emperor for 14 years. Like his role model, the emperor Augustus, Hadrian adopted a policy of consolidation, defining the boundaries of empire, of which Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia was its most dramatic expression. The wall was begun at his instigation, during a visit to the province in AD 122, following a serious war in the north. In AD 130, Hadrian was also attempting to raise standards of morality and discipline in public life, and was keenly aware of the power of architecture in projecting a political message.

By AD 130, Hadrian’s magnificent 900-room palace at Tivoli was all but completed, as was the newly rebuilt Pantheon in Rome, its massive concrete dome an astonishing feat of engineering. While Rome was still the centre of imperial power, Hadrian was careful not to neglect the provinces and he supported building projects wherever he visited.

Hadrian travelled a great deal. He was particularly attached to Greece, where he spent much of AD 129. That winter he stayed in Antioch, before visiting Palmyra (Syria), Arabia and Judaea the following spring, and arriving in Egypt in summer AD 130 with his wife Vibia Sabina. Here, he was also accompanied by his male lover Antinous, who drowned in the river Nile in October, causing the emperor intense grief. 

Ruled Britannia

Nine nerve centres of Roman Britain in AD 130

1) Rutupiae (Richborough, Kent)

The port from where Claudius launched his invasion in AD 43, and still the province’s key point of entry. Glistening in Italian marble and adorned with bronzes and sculpture, a gigantic monumental arch represented the accessus Britanniae, the symbolic gateway to Britannia. It aligned with Watling Street, so connected with the network of roads penetrating the whole province.

2) Dubris (Dover)

British base of the classis Britannia (British fleet). Ships were guided into the harbour at the narrow mouth of the river Dour by two lighthouses, one on each of the headlands of the chalk cliffs. Their fire beacons were visible far out to sea – even, on a clear day, as far as Gaul.

A Roman lighthouse (Pharos), in Dover, 1st century. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This lighthouse guided ships into the harbour at Dover. (© Getty)

3) Londinium (London)

Britannia’s most important city attracted international trade and a cosmopolitan population. On the boundary of several ancient kingdoms, the city held a pivotal position at the head of a tidal river and at the intersection of key routes into the heart of the province. The provincial governor and procurator were based here.

4) Isca Augusta (Caerleon)

Headquarters of the 2nd Augusta Legion. The fortress occupied a 50-acre site on the right bank of the Usk, at the river’s lowest bridging point before it enters the Severn estuary. It boasted a superb baths complex, 41 metre open-air pool and 6,000-seater amphitheatre. Most legionaries, though, were now stationed further north, deployed on the wall.

5) Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester)

First settled by an exiled Gallic chief, Calleva was the administrative centre of the Atrebates and the first major town west of London. Standing in an open landscape of pasture, hay meadows and heathland, it lay at the junction of main roads leading to other significant towns in all directions.

6) Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire)

Capital of the cattle-rearing Cornovii, this town’s brand new forum and basilica were possibly instigated by Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122 and completed and dedicated in AD 130. At this time, plans for baths with a leisure hall were yet to get off the ground.

7) Aquae Sulis (Bath)

This was Britannia’s premiere tourist attraction. The thermal waters were hugely popular, attracting many soldiers on leave and visitors from far and wide. The steaming spring sat in a precinct with classical temple and adjoining baths dedicated to Sulis Minerva – Sulis being a Celtic deity joined with the Roman goddess Minerva.

8) Banna (Birdoswald, Cumbria)

In AD 130, big changes were afoot at this fort, which sat astride Hadrian’s Wall high on top of an escarpment with magnificent views to the south over the river valley and Cold Fell. The old timber fort was about to be replaced by a large stone one with a rare basilica exercitatoria, or indoor drill hall.

9) Fanum Cocidi [?] (Bewcastle, Cumbria)

Six miles north of Banna, this outpost fort – which may have been called Fanum Cocidi – was manned by a cohort of Dacians (from modern Romania). Their job was to patrol the troubled no man’s land north of the wall.

When in Londinium…

From sleeping with their hounds to gambling away their wages, how Roman Britons lived their lives in AD 130

The thrill of the chase 

At Hadrian’s Wall, hunting was the officers’ most eagerly anticipated pastime. They wrote to each other about their hounds and sent their friends requests for kit: “If you love me, brother, I ask that you send me hunting-nets,” wrote Flavius Cerialis from Vindolanda to his fellow officer Brocchus in the early second century.

Hunting hounds were well looked after. A contemporary writer recommended that they were fondled after a good chase and given a soft warm bed at night where, he advised: “It is best when they sleep with a man so that they become more affectionate and appreciate companionship.”

No-frills fashion

Anyone coming from the Mediterranean, and especially from places like Egypt and Syria, would have been struck by the plainness of British clothes. Although cloth was dyed – red with imported madder or bedstraw, purple with local lichens, blue with woad, and yellow with weld – there were none of the fancy weaves or brocades to be found further east.

In these damp islands people sported eminently sensible – and excellent quality – medium-weight diamond, herringbone and plain 2/2 twill. While there were those who wore imported damask silks, diamond twill and checks were the distinctively north-west European Celtic look.

A curse be upon you

“Lady Nemesis, I give thee a cloak and a pair of Gallic sandals; let him who took them not redeem them (unless) with his own blood.” This curse, written in Latin on a lead tablet in Wales, was typical of hundreds found in Britain. The British did not curse rival lovers as elsewhere in the empire but instead were obsessed with theft and property rights.

Nemesis was a goddess who could distribute both good and bad fortune, success or failure, even life and death. She is often associated with amphitheatres and the Welsh curse quoted above was found at the amphitheatre at Caerleon.

Beer, dice and knife attacks

Italian and Greek wine was available in Britain but most of it came from Gaul, imported in wooden barrels. Soldiers of the ranks enjoyed beer, and snacked on shellfish in the taverns while playing games such as ludus duodecimo scriptorium perhaps, which was a bit like backgammon but played with dice.

Taverns were louche places, where barmaids were notorious for offering more than just drinks. Buried under the clay floor in the back room of an inn at Vercovicium (Housesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall are the carefully concealed bodies of a woman and a man, the latter with the tip of the knife that killed him still wedged between his ribs.

Blood sports

Alongside the crocodiles, lions and antelopes shipped to Rome to appear in the arena were bears and stags from Britain and wolfhounds from Ireland. The logistics of capturing the animals and transporting them overseas were considerable and many died en route or arrived in a miserable condition.

In the amphitheatres of Britain there is no record of imported animals but evidence for wolves (in Wales), bulls and bears. Travelling schools of gladiators, sponsored by the state, appeared in Britain while on tour through Gaul, Spain and Germany.

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Bronwen Riley is a historian and author who is series editor of the English Heritage Red Guides.