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Life in Roman Britain

The Roman invasion and conquest of ancient Britain brought about many changes - through trade of goods, mixed marriages, and the physical Roman occupation of British territories.


The struggle between the ancient Romans and the Britons lasted for more than a century: the Romans’ first explorations of the territory began under Julius Caesar in 55BC, and the actual completion of the colonising campaign was only solidified in 87AD. After the Romans eventually conquered ancient Britain, the two cultures mixed together - mostly, Roman customs and law were enforced upon the locals, along with Roman architecture, the Latin language itself, even religion, and of course Roman law. Many locals were enslaved, or had no other choice but to work for the Romans - trading, farming, serving in the army, etc.


The whole process was not a peaceful one, and as a result, the Romans definitely left their mark in Britain: many of the changes that they brought over still have an effect today; for example language (many words we use in English have Latin roots), architecture, customs, etc. Modern Britain would look very different, had the Romans not conquered it all those centuries ago.


Below is a brief overview of the main ways in which Rome affected life in ancient Britain.


VILLAS AND FLATS


Depictions and remains of big Roman villas, owned by the wealthy aristocracy, are quite common and famous - there is many stunning examples remaining in Pompeii, and all over Italy. These opulent buildings made their way to Britain, too; the most striking example is perhaps Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, owned by a local pro-Roman chieftain called Cogidubnus, who was put into power by the Romans after their conquest.


(Below: Remains of Villa of The Mysteries in Pompeii, and a rendering of Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex).








However, most people could not afford such luxurious houses. Ancient Roman authors like Juvenal and Seneca, tell tales of how common folk would live in crammed flats, called insulae, mostly built of wood, built on top of each other. These structures were very unstable, and at incredibly high risk of being destroyed by fire and collapses. Indeed, most of these structures have not survived the test of time, and have been destroyed.



An example of remains of Roman insulae, in Rome




FROM MILITARY CAMPS TO TOWNS



Here’s a trick to recognising modern British cities and towns that were born as Roman settlements: many of their names end in “-chester”! For example, Chester itself, Manchester, Chichester, etc. “-Chester” is the modern version of “castra”, which is the Latin word for military camp. Indeed, many modern British cities first started out as Roman outposts and strongholds, which then expanded into proper towns, buzzing with life and civilians.


A rendition of the Roman military camp in modern Chester, then called Castra Deva



Roman castra were traditionally built as a fortified square shape, with two main roads (one north-south, the other east-west), crossing each other in the middle. As the military camp grew and expanded, other important buildings started to arise, such as theatres, public spaces like the forum (the main square, for business and politics), temples, etc. In the picture above, you can see a round theatre in the bottom left corner - its remains are still visible in Chester today!



The remains of the ancient Roman theatre in Chester



However, not all Roman towns in Britain are identifiable through the “-chester” trick; London itself is Roman! It used to be called Londinium. Cambridge also expanded from a Roman stronghold.



BATHS


Some of the most famous ancient Roman buildings still remaining in Britain today are the baths. The city of Bath itself is thusly called because of the prominence of its Roman baths complex. In Latin, Bath was called Aquae Sulis. It is interesting to note that Sulis is a Celtic deity which was more or less “annexed” to the identity of the Roman goddess Minerva: there is plenty of evidence of worship of local gods and goddesses continuing under Roman rule, but the Romans spread and encouraged their own religious practices to encourage cohesion and enforce social control across the empire.



The remains of the Romans baths in Bath. The water comes from a natural mineral spring.





A local man dedicated this altar to the goddess “Sulis Minerva” (in the Latin: “Sulim Minervae”): this is direct evidence of the attempt by the Romans to “Roman-ify” local deities, in order to further establish their political and cultural control over the territories.







Ancient Romans liked to attend the baths regularly, not only for leisure and hygiene, but also to socialise, discuss politics and business, and practice some sports. Sometimes, if the baths were too small to accommodate a large quantity of people, women and men would attend the baths separately at entirely different times. In bigger bath complexes, men and women occupied completely separate areas of the building.


The ancient Roman author Seneca writes a very funny piece where he complains about all the noise he is subjected to by living next to a bathhouse: masseurs slapping their clients during massages, men grunting as they lift weights that are too heavy, splashes and yells rising from the pools, and loud, incessant chatting. Some things never change!

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