Legacy of an empire

Not the British Empire. The Roman one!

Lasting for over 1000 years, from the time of the first Emperor Augustus (Gaius Julius Octavius, 63 BC – AD 14) in 27 BC, its physical legacy can be seen all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Julius Caesar

Eventually Britain (Britannia) came under the sway of the Romans. In 55 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) led an expeditionary force to this island, returning the following year. But that did not lead to conquest, taking almost another 100 years to complete, under the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, 10 BC – AD 54) in AD 43.

What is remarkable in many ways, is that the Roman occupation of Britannia lasted less than 400 years. By AD 410 they had upped sticks and departed.

Less than 60 years after the conquest of Britannia, the Romans built a road network of almost 8000 miles, and in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus, AD 76-138) ordered the construction of a wall across the narrowest part of northern England, from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea coast in the east.

Twenty years later, under the Emperor Antoninus Pius (Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionus Arrius Antoninus, AD 86-161), the Antonine Wall was constructed from turf on a stone foundation, coast to coast, about 40 miles north from Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was abandoned less than 10 years later.

Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

Hadrian’s Wall is surely one of the most conspicuous of all Roman remains, anywhere. It still stands proudly, although somewhat diminished, where once it guarded the most northwestern frontier of the empire against barbarians to the north. It was a remarkable achievement, and even today inspires wonder at the effort it took to construct the Wall over the wildest of landscapes.

And we can also wonder about the lives of the men (and women) who were stationed along the Wall and where they came from. It’s not just the physical legacy of the Wall (and other settlements around the country) but also the genetic legacy that the Romans left behind, in their offspring from relationships with local women, legitimate or otherwise. Romans didn’t just come from Rome, but from all corners of the empire even from the easternmost provinces of the Middle East and beyond. The ‘Roman’ genetic signature has obviously been diluted by successive waves of invasion into these islands.

The Romans have left a huge legacy for us all to wonder at. They were road builders par excellence. Roads were needed as the Romans spread out across the country, to maintain communications between towns and military garrisons, to allow troops to travel more effectively and rapidly, and to facilitate commerce. And their roads have endured even today, and some of England’s principal arteries follow the routes of former Roman roads, and are known, in part, by the same names.

I recently came across this stylized map (in the format of the iconic map of the London Underground created by Harry Beck) of the Roman road network that connected towns and cities, and military installations all over.

The author of the map, Sasha Trubetskoy, has also produced a second version with modern place names.

Even today, Roman roads are still being uncovered. There was a report recently in The Guardian of a road in west Wales that indicated the Romans had ventured deeper into Wales than previously appreciated.

As far as I can recall, the only Roman road I have walked was the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors near Goathland. The exposed part is only about a mile long. The first time was in 1968 when I was at university, and then about 20 years later with my wife Steph and daughters Hannah and Philippa.

We now live in North Tyneside, just 3 miles north as the crow flies from Segedunum, the fort at the the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall. And with Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman remains so close, we have made quite a number of forays into the Northumberland countryside to explore them.

It’s quite remarkable just how much of Hadrian’s Wall remains, after 2000 years, despite much of the stone having been removed.

Hadrian’s Wall at Sycamore Gap.

The Wall was much higher than remains today, and the Mileposts and Turrets (or observation towers) have been reduced to shells of their former imposing structures.

Milepost 39 near Sycamore Gap.

However, further west beyond Birdoswald, where the Wall was built from turf, the signature of the Wall can still be seen as depressions in the landscape.

Even at forts like Chesters, Housesteads or Birdoswald, Corbridge Roman Town or Vindolanda in Northumberland, extensive as they are, it’s really just the foundations that have survived.

This is a panorama across Corbridge Roman Town.

At Wroxeter, in Shropshire, one part of a basilica wall still stands, and at Portchester the impressive outer curtain wall of the original Roman fort is still intact, 20 feet or more tall. Typical Roman concrete, just like I have seen in Rome itself.

The surviving 7 m high basilica wall (‘Old Work’) at Wroxeter, the largest free-standing wall in England.

The Roman walls of Portschester Castle.

And then there are the civil remains like Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester in West Sussex (that I haven’t visited) and Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire that we have.

And Roman remains are still being uncovered all over England. Not only hoards of coins, but also a beautiful mosaic that was discovered in a farmer’s field in eastern England a couple of years ago, with images of Homer’s Iliad, a unique find. Roman archaeology is thriving.

Then there are all the various artefacts, from jewelry to household items, monuments and statues that were left behind that allow us to paint a detailed picture of life in Roman Britain. Here are some kept in the museums at Corbridge Roman Town and Chesters Roman Fort.

And, in particular, the Vindolanda Tablets, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in this country, have provided a commentary of the lives of soldiers and their families.

The world-famous Vindolanda Tablets

These are some of the most important relics from the period of Roman occupation. And these, and other sites and remains from that time will keep archaeologists busy for years to come.