From Rome to Britannia – a journey with Bronwen Riley

This November, it was a pleasure to welcome author and journalist Bronwen Riley to the Association and back to her roots on the Fylde Coast, as she led us on a fascinating ancient journey from Rome to Britannia. Classics Ambassador Caroline summarises her excellent talk:

Bronwen began her lecture by setting the scene and establishing that most ancient visitors to Britain came for business, not pleasure! Not least because such a journey was not an easy undertaking – according to the second century CE jurist Ulpian, the hazards of journeying for a soldier, trader or traveller included being killed by bandits, having your inn collapse on top of you, and being run over by a cart! The traveller to Britain, however, would also have to face crossing Oceanus, thought to be filled with monsters and situated at the end of the earth. Hence, expectations for a lovely trip to Britain seem to have been low. The natives were considered uncultured, a view which was maintained throughout Roman history, from Cicero to St Jerome. Their clothes were of high quality wool but plain whilst their hunting hounds were effective but unprepossessing in looks. Even the climate was unpleasant with heavy rain, limited sun and thick mist, meaning ponchos and socks and sandals were very much in vogue (see below). However, for many soldiers, Britain was an important career move and, for those appointed general or even governor, could mark a prestigious promotion.

After setting the scene, Riley discussed how a visit to Birdoswald Roman Fort sparked her interest in Roman Britain. Her discovery that a cohort of Dacians had been stationed there meant that the site united her two interests: Classics and Romania. This raised questions surrounding what life in Britain would’ve been like for these soldiers as well as how they would have preserved memories of home. Riley also considered Birdoswald’s layout, as most Roman sites in Britain are displayed so that all the different phases of history can be viewed as if contemporaneously. This can, however, make it challenging to visualise what it would have looked like during a certain period. With Roman Britain changing so much between when Caesar first made his incursions in Britain in 55/54 BCW to Roman rule supposedly ceasing in CE 410, Riley decided to reconstruct what travel would have been like at a specific time: CE 130 during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

Riley explained her reasoning behind choosing CE 130 in particular. It was a time after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and was the year that Sextus Julius Severus, a great general, was appointed by Hadrian to be the new governor of Britain. He was sent from the province of Moesia Inferior by the Black Sea to Britain, despite having spent almost his entire career east of Rome. Alongside him were sent Maenius Agrippa and Minicius Natalis. Agrippa was head of a cohort in Moesia and would become head of the Classis Britannia. Natalis, on the other hand, would go on to be head of the 6th Victrix Legion stationed at York. He was from an incredibly wealthy family who had recently commissioned a huge spa complex in his hometown Barcino, or Barcelona, and he had just won the four horse chariot race in the Olympic Games – a successful guy! Natalis was likely personally appointed by Severus as he had been a junior officer at the time Severus was serving in Pannonia.

Riley described how Severus would have been directly answerable to the Emperor as he held an imperial post. Therefore, when appointments were made in the spring, he likely would have taken his leave personally from Hadrian, who was somewhere around Ephesus at the time, before travelling to Rome and taking a ship from Ostia using the three months new governors were given to reach their posts. The preferred method of transport would be ship and although many descriptions capture a Roman fear of sailing, it was often the cheapest and most direct way to travel. Ships generally hugged the coast as there weren’t many navigational aids and it is likely that they stopped each night somewhere along the coast, making journeys even longer. The one navigational aid that did exist were lighthouses, a famous one of which still stands at Dover Castle. 

Riley explained how although Dover later became the main port, Richborough, or Rutupiae, was seen as the symbolic gateway to Britain and so it was likely that Severus arrived and was greeted there in July. Travelling through Britain would have been the next challenge as Severus worked his way up to the north and towards Hadrian’s Wall. Ship travel was always preferred, and it is likely this was the same in Britain, however the coastline has changed to such an extent that it is difficult to establish where there might have been Roman ports or not. Road travel also would have posed a difficulty as roads would have been in a poor state with extensive mud, making them impossible to navigate with mule carts or carriages. 

Hadrian’s wall began construction in CE 122, when Hadrian came to Britain, and took almost ten years to build with many modifications made. Riley discussed how the wall completely tore apart huge ancestral holdings, leading to huge disaffection and trouble with tribes. Life on the wall was difficult as the weather was rough, terrain tough and hard work required to maintain the fort at the frontier. Despite very few British exports being valued in Rome, woollen cloaks and cloth demanded a high price in the empire suggesting the high quality that was necessary for the soldiers on the frontier. Shoes were also incredibly important and Vindolanda houses an immense collection of them. Female sandals also serve as a reminder that there were women on the wall, despite being few in number. Until the 3rd century, the average soldier couldn’t legally marry and within the fort the number of women was restricted as only the commanding officer and centurions brought their womenfolk, making for an isolating experience as an officer’s wife. In terms of diversions, there is no evidence on the wall of any amphitheatres although legionary forts, for example Chester, had them. 

Riley concluded her presentation by looking at Aquae Sulis (Roman Bath). Bath was the only place in Britain to become a summer tourist destination as tombstones and various records show that people came from other Western provinces to visit whilst some veterans retired there. Items that could act as souvenirs, besides wool, were also produced as a cup has been found showing crenelations which depict Hadrian’s wall and the names of some of the forts. Bronwen brought the highs and hazards of ancient life vividly to life, focusing on religion, economics and culture as well as individual stories such as the famous tombstone to Regina by Barates of Syria who had travelled half way across the empire before his marriage and later death in Britain.

Huge thanks to Bronwen for such a brilliant talk and for a really interesting Q&A afterwards too. You can find out more about her work and how to purchase her books here. We look forward to our next lecture – the first of 2023 – which will be with our President, Professor Michael Scott. We hope you will join us at AKS Lytham for his Presidential Lecture on Thursday 5th January at 7pm. You are all very welcome!