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What the Romans did for us - by David Horspool

Blog | By David Horspool | Jan 31, 2024

Hadrian's Wall by Glen Bowman

A new British Museum show proves we were a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. By David Horspool

The first big exhibition at the British Museum this year (light-fingered employees permitting) is Legion: Life in the Roman Army.

We are promised a show tracing the fortunes of a typical Roman legionary from recruitment to retirement, a career minimum term of 25 years.

The legionary in question is, thankfully, not an imaginary Roman – to be filed alongside Asterix’s would-be nemesis, Crismus Bonus, or that bane of the modern schoolkid’s Latin life, Caecilius, forever sitting ‘in horto’ while his servus does all the work.

No, the curators bring us a real-life legionary, Claudius Terentianus, a collection of whose papyrus letters survives from the second century AD, written to his ‘father’ (who may have been his godfather), Claudius Tiberianus.

Terentianus was not one of those shivering soldiers writing home from Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Glimpses of those lives are so evocatively recorded in some of the earliest surviving written records in Britain, the Vindolanda tablets, which date to roughly the same period. In a reminder of the vast scope of the empire, and its multi-ethnic, multilingual character, the Terentianus letters come from the other side of the known world, from Roman Egypt. And they are written in Greek, as well as Latin.

I look forward to seeing these fragments of a way of life almost two thousand years old, with their timeless requests for warm clothing, complaints about a bad reference ruining a job application (it’s not what you know, Terentianus was finding out). Amazingly, there is a final letter of introduction for a retiring Terentianus, looking for a decent plot of land into which to invest his pension.

There will be flashier remnants of the Roman past on show too, including the ‘sword of Tiberius’ – actually a scabbard - made of gilded bronze, with a design showing a general, Tiberius, giving a statuette of victory to the new emperor, Augustus. The sword, from the Museum’s own collection, will be joined by the likes of the Dura-Europos shield, a unique survival from Syria of a painted wooden legionary’s scutum, a metre high and decorated with lions and eagles on a gorgeous, burnt umber background. That will be loaned from its home at Yale University.

Everybody is interested in the Romans, of course. Remember the popular recent suggestion – which began on TikTok but made it out into parts of the universe more familiar to Oldie readers (and columnists) – that all men think about the Roman empire at least once a day. But I do wonder if the British are especially susceptible to the disease.

We may be ditching some of the reverence in which classics used to be held, as the subject beats a retreat from state education, in the face of the Vandal hordes of more fashionable pursuits. Quoting Latin tags is more likely to be taken as a sign of being out of touch (or deliberately incomprehensible) than cultured. But the idea of Roman Britain still has pull. The British Museum curators can be sure of a good turnout. Many visitors will want to see the finds from good old Britannia: along with the Vindolanda tablets, they’ll get the Crosby-Garrett cavalry helmet and the Julia Domna ‘facepot’ from York.

Yet our attachment to Roman Britain hardly rests on its fabulous remains here. There are reminders of Roman sophistication, as at Aquae Sulis (Bath), but Britannia was always a remote outpost. It’s no coincidence that the most famous remnant of Roman rule is a wall, built (whatever trendier recent archaeologists argue) in part to keep out the even more untameable peoples to the north of this edge of empire.

When Roger Wilson published his Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain in 1975, he had to admit, ‘There are no Roman monuments in this country which can compare with the Pont du Gard in Provence, the aqueduct at Segovia in Spain, the temples at Baalbek in the Lebanon or the amphitheatre at El Djemin Tunisia … The reason is partly that few such colossal structures were ever built here.’

We have discovered things since then, not least the Roman amphitheatre in the heart of London, beneath the Guildhall, but the fact that we have to discover them shows the difference between our buried remains and the ones that smack you in the eye in Wilson’s list. The Spanish had only stopped using the aqueduct at Segovia two years before his book came out.

Perhaps British attachment to Rome is really that of the jilted lover. The Romans left in 410 AD, but we have been missing them ever since. In the sixth century, the monk Gildas saw a non-Roman future as a divine curse. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth constructed a whole Roman mythical past for Britain, which linked the name of the country to Brutus, brother of Aeneas, legendary founder of Rome. It was all a fantasy, but it kept the dream of Romanitas alive.

Some of that dream will still be lived out at the BM this year.

Legion: Life in the Roman Army is at the British Museum, Feb 1st to June 23rd