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The man who discovered what the Romans in Britain were really like

Blog | By Harry Mount | Oct 18, 2018


In 1973, Robin Birley made the find of a lifetime - the first of hundreds of writing tablets near his family home in Northumberland, the site of old Roman Vindolanda.

There was an invitation to a Roman birthday party written in around 100 AD - thought to be the oldest document written in Latin by a woman. In other letters, Roman legionaries long for fine Italian Massic wine, garlic, fish, lentils, olives and olive oil. And they complain about the food the Picts eat - pork fat, cereal, spices, roe-deer and venison.

What’s more, these Mediterranean legionaries, marooned at the northern edge of the Roman Empire, were freezing cold the whole time. One letter from southern Gaul - the blissfully hot south of France - is addressed to a poor shivering legionary at Vindolanda, listing the contents of the accompanying package: "Paria udonum ab Sattua solearum duo et subligariorum duo" - socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.

Just like the rest of us, Roman soldiers needed underpants and thick socks in the frozen north, particularly if they were sun-kissed, olive-skinned Italians and Frenchmen.

In 98 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus said of England, "Caelum crebris imbribus ac nebulis foedum; asperitas frigorum abest" – "The sky is obscured by constant rain and cold, but it never gets bitterly cold." Tacitus was right - our climate is a temperate, rainy one. While London only gets 1,500 hours of sunshine a year (and Glasgow and Belfast, 1,250 hours), Rome basks in 2,500 hours of annual sun. Northumberland – where those shivering legionaries were stationed – gets just 1,350 hours.