Fog, Drizzle and Woolly Socks: Living at the Edge of the World

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.

Portrait head from Nemi identified as Julius Caesar, Nottingham Castle Museums

Portrait head from Nemi identified as Julius Caesar, Nottingham Castle Museums

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.

The Emperor Claudius subdues the personification of Britain, from Aprodisias, Turkey. Photo David J. Lull, CC

The Emperor Claudius subdues the personification of Britain, from Aprodisias, Turkey.
Photo David J. Lull, CC

 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).

Victorian sculpture of Boadicea, Embankment, London. CC.

Victorian sculpture of Boadicea, Embankment, London. CC.

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.

A woman’s handwriting. Writing tablet from Vindolanda. CC.

A woman’s handwriting. Writing tablet from Vindolanda. CC.

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)

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:




Diana Nemorensis: Origins of the Legend

Diana at Nemi

Diana as Huntress at Nemi. Photo: © Ann Inscker


The goddess Diana was the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Artemis. She was best known as the goddess of the hunt, nature and animals. Later, she also became known as goddess of the moon. She was the daughter of Jupiter (king of the gods) and Latona, and was the twin sister of Apollo (god of the sun).

In most depictions she is shown carrying a bow and arrows while wearing a small crescent moon in her hair. Her most sacred animals were deer, bears and hunting dogs. Diana was also the goddess of birth, even though she herself remained a virgin. Both animals and humans were protected by her and their fertility was Diana’s concern.

In trying to appease the goddess, young men and women offered the goddess votives to secure healthy and strong offspring. Amongst these votives could be various jewellery objects, statuettes and figurines either of the goddess or her devotees and figurines of animals. Votives offered to Diana quite often show a very strong connection with nature in all its manifestations, relating to her nature as goddess of the hunt and fertility. This can be illustrated by looking at the votive offerings found on site, which include human body parts like the uterus.

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Diana Nemorensis

Diana was known in different characters. One of her guises was Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi). The sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis was found on the northern shore of Lake Nemi and her cult was particularly violent. The Romans frequently adopted Greek divinities and merged them with their own, which resulted in several legends that refer to the origin of the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis.

One of the legends goes that there was a large oak tree to be found in her sacred grove at Nemi. It was absolutely forbidden to break off any of its branches (some say the mistletoe surrounding it). The only people allowed to do so were fugitive slaves. Breaking off one of the branches gave the slaves the right to fight the presiding high priest of the temple to the death. If the challenger won, he could take the place, adopting the title of rex nemorensis, king of the sacred grove.

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue of Diana Nemorensis on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The tale of the rex nemorensis is told in the ancient sources. Ovid’s description (Fasti Book 3) reads:

‘one with strong hands and swift feet rules there, and each is later killed, as he himself killed before’.

According to the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, the rule of the sanctuary was that:

‘A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he himself was slain by a stronger or a craftier.’

Origins of the Legend

This bloody ritual could be explained as a variation on the story of Orestes, known in Greek mythology. Orestes (son of the king and queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) killed his mother and her lover to avenge his father. To purify himself the god Apollo sent him to Tauris. Iphegeneia, Orestes’ sister was the priestess of the local divinity, Artemis of Tauris. The cult of Artemis of Tauris was known for killing all the foreigners that came to shore.

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi.
Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

After tricking the king of the Tauric Chersonese to escape an unfortunate ending, Orestes fled with his sister to Italy. They took the image of the Tauric Artemis with them and the cult of Artemis of Tauris took hold in the woods of Nemi. This barbaric goddess was known for the bloody rituals taking place in her sanctuaries; every stranger who landed on the shore was sacrificed on her altar.

The ritual in Nemi can be interpreted as a milder form of this gruesome practice. However, the goddess still could only be appeased properly with human blood. The death of the rex nemorensis or his challenger had to be violent, ‘as the spurting blood from the loser was meant to fertilise the surrounding ground’, as Ludovico Pisani argues.

Another tradition, again of Greek origin, explains the existence of the first rex nemorensis. According to the Aricians, the priesthood would have been held by Hippolytus. Hippolytus, after being unjustly killed by his father, was resurrected by Asclepius (the god of healing, Aesculapius in Latin) with the aid of Artemis. He was named Virbius (twice man) and went on to become a king, devoting a place of worship to Artemis. Diana was also called Virbia, which helps to explain the connection between her perceived healing powers and those of Virbius, who became a minor deity himself.

Celebrating Diana at Nemi

Diana was honoured at Nemi by an annual festival on August 13th (which, incidentally, is also our Twitter guru Fundilia’s birthday!) called Nemoralia. Burning torches were carried in a procession around the lake, known as Speculum Dianae (Diana’s Mirror). Those whose prayers had been answered would attend wearing wreaths of flowers, in order to fulfil vows made to the goddess. Hounds were honoured out of respect for Diana’s role as the goddess of the hunt. The day is also known as servorum dies festus, as it was holiday for slaves.

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Ruth Léger, researcher, University of Birmingham

Don’t forget, ‘Romans’ FREE event on 5th August 2013 when standard admissions tickets are bought