Today Britain is a major economic world player with a proud history. It is easy to forget that in the eyes of the ancient Romans she was a marginal place at the edge of the world, among the last parts of the Roman world to be conquered and the first province abandoned as the empire crumbled.
The majority of the objects on display at the Treasures of Nemi exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum date from period long before Britain was ever on the Romans’ radar. They may have heard of its existence, but, over the channel from the European mainland, it must have seemed a mysterious, exotic and frightening place: a land of dense forest and torrential rain, inhabited by a ferocious race of blue-painted warriors.
The first direct contact between the Romans and Britons came in the summer of 55 BC, when the Roman general Julius Caesar landed on the Kentish shore. He had been campaigning in Gaul (modern France) when he decided to tackle the ultimate challenge of this remote island. But the expedition could easily be regarded as a military failure: no territory was conquered, and no troops left behind to hold it. After a few inconclusive battles with the locals (who had a habit of riding terrifying chariots), and with his supply lines stretched and ships battered by horrific British gales, Caesar admitted defeat, and retreated back to Gaul. A year later he tried again, but again he failed. Nevertheless, the Senate back in Rome proclaimed a 20-day holiday in honour for his ‘success’ at tackling this inhospitable place. Thus began the myth of Britain, the remote island, a place at the edge of the world where Roman leaders could achieve political prestige.
The first Roman emperor, Augustus, is said to have planned his own invasion of Britain, but it remained an unfulfilled dream. Strabo, a Greek geographer who wrote late in Augustus’ reign, described the distant land of Britain. He said it was overgrown with forests and perpetually covered by drizzle and fog so thick that there was only three hours of sunlight a day (an accurate description of British weather?). He claimed that British people stood almost a foot taller than the average Roman, and made bad slaves due to their barbarous natures (though they were allegedly not as bad as the inhabitants of neighbouring Ireland, who had a penchant for cannibalism and incest). Strabo concluded that the rainy island of Britain was not even worthy the cost and effort of invading.
Eventually the emperor Claudius undertook the conquest of Britain in AD 43, almost a hundred years after Julius Caesar had set foot on its shores. It was a war of prestige rather than necessity: Claudius, an obscure member of the Roman imperial family, needed a glamorous military victory to secure his throne against opposition back home in Rome. Taming the dangerous and foggy island of Britain was the ultimate achievement. Claudius’ victory was advertised as far away as Aphrodisias, in modern Turkey on the opposite side of the Roman world, where a sculptural relief portrayed the emperor subduing a wild and Amazon-like personification of Britain (above).
In the years following Claudius’ invasion, Roman control was consolidated and distinctive Romano-British culture developed. The tribes of some regions saw the advantages of siding with the Romans; other areas (such as Wales) took decades to subdue. Though Britain was now officially part of the Roman Empire it remained a problematic place. In AD 60-1 the infamous rebellion of Boadicea, the queen of the Iceni tribe, resulted in the razing of the Roman cities of Camuldonum (modern Colchester) and Verulanium (modern St. Albans), and almost London itself, with an estimated 80,000 casualties. Nero, the Roman emperor at the time, even considered abandoning the island altogether.
The emperor Hadrian visited this remote part of his empire in around 120 AD and ordered the construction of a defensive wall – Hadrian’s Wall – to divide Roman Britain from the untameable regions in modern Scotland. The writing tablets which survive from Vindolanda, one of the Wall’s forts located in modern Northumberland, provide remarkable and vivid evidence for the lives of ordinary people living at the edge of the Roman Empire. One (above) is an invitation written by a woman inviting her friend to a birthday party: a unique example from the Roman world of woman’s own handwriting. Another was written by a young soldier, hundreds of miles from his family, sending them a letter asking them to send him some woolly socks and warmer underwear to cope with the British drizzle. Much like a modern university student, some things never change.
Rebecca Usherwood, Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham.
To learn more about Roman Nottinghamshire:
Blog by Mark Patterson, author of Roman Nottinghamshire (2011) http://romannottinghamshire.wordpress.com
The University of Nottingham Museum, located at Lakeside Arts Centre, has a variety of archaeological artefacts from the Roman sites of Nottinghamshire, including towns, such as Margidunum and Ad Pontem, cemeteries and villas: