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5. Life in Roman Britain

The native people of Britain who were conquered by the Romans are usually known as the Britons. They were descended from people who had lived in this country for many generations. They were also related to the native people of Gaul and Germany. All of these people are sometimes referred to as 'Celts' and they spoke similar Celtic languages.
An artist's impression of native British man and woman at about the time of the Roman invasion of 43. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
After the Roman conquest people from many different parts of the empire, most of them speaking Latin, came to live in Britain. Some of the men were soldiers, some were government officials and others were merchants. Many of them brought wives and families.
Tombstone of Victor the Moor (a North African) from South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Victor is shown lying on a couch holding a cup and is offered another by his servant. Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums
The Romans built the first towns in Britain. They were linked to one another by good roads and were centres of trade and government. The Britons had never seen anything like a Roman town before and they would have been quite amazed to see the great stone buildings and paved streets.
Reconstruction of the centre of the Roman town at Wroxeter (Shropshire), the capital of the native British Cornovii people. You can see the bath house (upper left) and the forum and basilica (upper right). Illustration by Ivan Lapper, English Heritage
Most people in Roman Britain lived in the countryside in small villages or isolated farms, but the owners of large, rich estates built themselves a new type of house in Roman style known as a villa.
Reconstruction illustration of Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
As time went on the Britons adopted Roman customs and ways of life, and they began to think of themselves as Romans.
A Roman family group. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Did you know? The bones of animals such as cattle, sheep and pig tell us about what meat people ate in Roman Britain. Archaeologists also find other food remains such as cereal grains and even vegetables, like leeks and beans. It is thought that the poor ate a lot of bread and porridge, but soldiers and rich people could afford imported delicacies like figs, grapes and olives.
Animal bones from Roman excavations in York. York Archaeological Trust

The People of Roman Britain

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After the Roman conquest the soldiers, officials, merchants and their families who came to Britain from many different parts of the empire brought with them Roman ideas about art, architecture, government, religion, food, dress and many other things.
Sculpture of a Roman boy charioteer from Lincoln. Photo Simon I. Hill, City and County Museum, Lincoln
We know the names of people who lived in Roman Britain from inscriptions such as those on tombstones or altars. Other names appear in documents like the Vindolanda writing tablets.
Detail of the inscription on the altar from Corbridge (Northumberland) dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus and other gods. Wording shown here reads: 'to the sky gods of Brigantia' (CAELESTI BRIGANTIAE) 'and to Salus' (ET SALUTI), the god of health, by the centurion Julius Apolinaris of the Sixth Legion. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
The names of most inhabitants of Roman Britain are unknown, but we come face to face with them when we find their graves or tombs. Careful study of skeletons can tell us such things as how tall they were, how old they were when they died and sometimes what diseases they suffered from.
Roman grave with skeleton (4th century) from Winchester. Winchester Museums
Did you know? Careful measurement of the skeletons found in graves and tombs tells us that on average adults were only very slightly shorter than they are today. The average height of Roman men was about 1.68m (5 feet 7 inches) and of Roman women about 1.57m (5 feet 2 inches).
A specialist in human skeletons examining a Roman skull from a burial in York. York Archaeological Trust

Roman Citizens in Britain

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At the time of the Roman conquest the top people in the Roman empire were the citizens of Rome, although being a citizen did not mean that you actually lived in Rome itself. People with the rank of citizen were found all over the empire, including Britain.
Illustration of a Roman wearing a toga by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
At first there were very few Roman citizens in Britain, but gradually the numbers increased. Some native leaders were made citizens to ensure they stayed loyal to Rome. If a Roman citizen married a British woman their children would be citizens themselves.
Tombstone of Marcus Aurelius Nepos, a centurion of the Twentieth Legion, and his wife, found at Chester. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
A Briton who served as an auxiliary soldier in the army became a Roman citizen when he retired and was usually given land to farm. This made serving as a soldier a popular occupation.
Tombstone of an auxiliary cavalry soldier from Ribchester Roman fort (Lancashire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Ribchester Museum Trust
The reason there are so many Romans called Aurelius (or Aurelia) is that this was the family name of the Emperor Caracalla. In the year 212 Caracalla made everybody in the Roman empire who was not a slave into a Roman citizen and many people took the emperor's name in gratitude.
Altar from Caernarfon Roman fort (Gwynedd), Wales dedicated to Minerva by Aurelius Sabinianus, a clerk (actarius). © National Museums & Galleries of Wales

Cogidubnus : a Native King

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Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus (or Togidubnus) was a native British king who probably ruled part of southern England including what is now the county of Sussex in the second half of the 1st century AD. Cogidubnus's three names mark him out as a Roman citizen. He took the first two (Tiberius and Claudius) from the names of emperors of the time. His third name (Cogidubnus) is a native name which has been made Roman with '-us' at the end.
An artist's impression of Cogidubnus, the native British king. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
It is thought that Cogidubnus was allowed to go on ruling his people after the Romans invaded Britain as long as he supported them against rebels like Boudicca. Cogidubnus's reward for loyalty may have been the great Roman palace at Fishbourne which is one of grandest buildings of Roman Britain.
Model of Fishbourne Roman palace (Sussex) in about 75. The entrance hall is in the foreground and the north wing, of which remains can be seen today, is on the right. Fishbourne Roman Palace
Fishbourne had luxurious rooms arranged around all four sides of a great garden courtyard and some of the finest Roman mosaics in Britain. The mosaics which Cogidubnus probably saw have simple, but graceful black and white designs.
Roman (late 1st century) mosaic with a black and white pattern from Fishbourne Roman palace (Sussex). Fishbourne Roman Palace

Immigrants in Roman Britain

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Not all the people who came to Britain after the Roman conquest were soldiers. Others came to settle and become merchants or farmers, and they often brought their families and slaves with them. These people came from all over the empire to seek a new life and make their fortunes.
A man called Barathes came to Britain from Palmyra in Syria and made his living selling flags. We know this from his tombstone at Corbridge which also tells us that he died aged 68. We know about Barathes' wife Regina because her tombstone was found at South Shields. This tells us that Regina was British and had once been Barathes' slave.
Tombstone of a Roman lady named Regina, once a British slave from the Catuvellauni tribe (who lived in Hertfordshire and Essex) , who married her Syrian master, Barathes. On her right is her jewellery box and on her left balls of wool. Found at South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums
Victor was a young man from the province of Mauretania in north Africa. His tombstone was found at South Shields and it tells us that he came to Britain as the slave of a soldier named Numerianus. Victor was given his freedom, but the poor fellow was only 20 when he died.
Tombstone of Victor the Moor (a North African) from South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Victor is shown lying on a couch holding a cup and is offered another by his servant. Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums

Slaves in Roman Britain

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Roman slaves were often prisoners captured by the Romans in their wars or else they were the descendants of prisoners. A slave was the property of his or her master just like an animal and had no freedom at all.
The distance slab from Hutcheson Hill (Bearsden, Glasgow) on the Antonine Wall commemorating the construction of 3000 feet of the Wall by the Twentieth Legion. In the centre a standard bearer is crowned by the goddess Victory and on either side are tied-up native prisoners. Hunterian Museum, Glasgow
Many slaves did hard manual work in the mines or on farms. Other slaves worked for rich people in their houses doing things like cleaning, washing and cooking. Women slaves sometimes became maids to the mistress of the house.
A Roman lady and her maid. Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service
Just because a slave had no freedom does not always mean that he or she lived a miserable life! There is a tombstone from London of a woman named Claudia Martina who was married to a slave named Anencletus. He was a government slave and probably had a good job as a clerk. Surprisingly, his wife was a free woman and not a slave herself.
Tombstone of Claudia Martina (written as CL MARTINAE in first and second lines) who married the slave Anencletus (his name is in the middle). Found in London.
Slaves could get their freedom, usually by buying it with their savings. After getting their freedom slaves would remain under their master's protection as a 'freedman' or 'freedwoman'. Freedmen often inherited their master's business.
Silver coins of the late 1st century AD from the legionary fortress at York. York Archaeological Trust

Roman Family Life

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At the head of a Roman family was the husband and father, known in Latin as the paterfamilias. He thought of his family as not only his wife, children and other blood relations, but also the household slaves, and the law gave him great power over them.
Roman tombstone showing a family group from Ilkley (West Yorkshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Olicana Museum.
Roman wives were expected to obey their husbands and had little independence compared to what is normal today. A wife handed over all her property to her husband when she was married and her main duty was to run the household.
Tombstone of a Roman lady, Curatia Dinysia, found in Chester. She is shown reclining on a couch - notice the two pecking doves above her which are symbols of peace. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
A marriage was usually arranged by the parents of the girl and boy. A girl might be engaged as young as 12 years old or even less, although she did not actually marry until a few years later.
Tombstone of a Roman girl named Vacia from Carlisle. The inscription records her age as three years although the relief is of an older child. Notice that she holds a bunch of grapes in her right hand. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Just like today, an important part of Roman family life was the evening meal. The family would also gather together at a shrine to worship the household gods known as the lares and penates.
Reconstruction of a Roman household shrine. Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service
Roman family groups can be seen on some of the tombstones from Britain. There never seem to be more than two children, but it is thought that some Roman families were much larger.
Roman tombstone of Flavia Augustina and her family from York. Yorkshire Museum, York

Children in Roman Britain

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The sort of lives that Roman children had depended a great deal on whether they came from rich or poor families. This is the tombstone of a little girl named Vellibia. The inscription tells us that 'she lived most happily for four years and six months'.
Tombstone of a Roman girl named Vellibia shown holding a ball. Found at Corbridge (Northumberland). Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Roman children did not have much education unless they came from wealthy families and even then boys got more than girls. The main subjects were reading, writing and public speaking which prepared pupils for careers in the army and the government.
A Roman teacher and schoolchildren. Illustration by Jonathon Potter, Roman Britain.
At home Roman children had family pets just like today. Dogs, birds and hares were very popular. Here you see a Roman boy stroking a bird on his mother's lap.
Detail of the child shown on the tombstone of the 'lady with the fan' from Carlisle. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Roman children's toys included dolls and model animals made of wood, clay or bronze.
A group of clay models of people and animals found in a grave, possibly that of a child, at Colchester. Colchester Museum
Roman children would have drawn and painted pictures like children do today. This carving on a sheep bone could be a child's work. It seems to show a person, a dog and some houses.
As they grew up children played sports and games like they do today. This sculpture shows a young boy charioteer who performed at the local race track known as a circus.
Sculpture of a Roman boy charioteer from Lincoln. Photo Simon I. Hill, City and County Museum, Lincoln
If babies and children became ill in Roman times they were in much greater danger than they are today. Because so many diseases were incurable they often died.
A Roman boy on the tombstone of 'the lady with the fan' from Carlisle. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle

Women in Roman Britain

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The lives of women in Roman Britain were very different to women's lives today Roman women had much less independence and their duty was to manage the home and care for children.
Tombstone of a woman of the Cornovii people (who lived in Cornwall) found in Ilkley (West Yorkshire) with her hair in plaits. Photo Simon I. Hill, Olicana Museum.
Wealthy Roman women did not usually work, although if their husbands ran a business they might help them out. However, if her husband died, a widow was able to inherit his business and property.
Tombstone of a Roman lady, Curatia Dinysia, found in Chester. She is shown reclining on a couch - notice the two pecking doves above her which are symbols of peace. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
Poor women in Roman Britain would have worked in the fields or the workshops alongside their men folk. Slave women worked in the houses of the rich.
Relief of a Roman lady (left) with her maidservant from Chester. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
Women in Roman Britain usually wore a woollen tunic gathered at the waist and belted. Over their tunics they wore a longer robe or tunic called a stola which came down to their feet. Around their shoulders they wore a shawl or mantle called a palla. The woman in this picture holds a fan to keep her cool.
Tombstone of the Roman 'lady with the fan' from Carlisle. She has the fan in her right hand and on her left is her little boy who is reaching into her lap for his ball. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Roman women enjoyed social gatherings with friends and the first invitation to a party from Roman Britain was written by a woman. It was found on one of the Vindolanda writing tablets and is an invitation to a birthday party from a woman called Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the fort commander.
Wooden writing tablets with ink writing from Vindolanda Roman fort. (Northumberland). The fragment of a tablet at the top is a passage from Book 9 of Vergil's Aeneid, possibly a schoolboy's exercise. The pair of tablets in the centre reads '…the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.' The pair of tablets at the bottom is a birthday invitation from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina (wife of the commander at Vindolanda). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum

Roman Marriages

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Weddings in the Roman world were happy events with feasting, music and dancing.
An artist's impression of a Roman banquet. Illustration by Wayne Laughlin (Gloucester City Archaeological Unit)
When they got engaged a couple often exchanged tokens such as this medallion showing a man and woman. It is made of jet, a black stone thought to have magical qualities.
Medallion made of jet showing a betrothed couple, from York. Yorkshire Museum, York.
A Roman bride wore a bright yellow hooded cloak known as a flammeum and held a bouquet of flowers just as brides do today.
A Roman bride wearing a flammeum. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
Marriage in Roman Britain often brought native people and immigrants together. The tombstone of Regina from South Shields tells us that she was British and originally a slave from the Catuvellauni tribe who lived in Hertfordshire and Essex. She had belonged to a man named Barathes from Syria. It seems that Barathes fell in love with Regina and married her!
Tombstone of a Roman lady named Regina, once a British slave from the Catuvellauni tribe (who lived in Hertfordshire and Essex) , who married her Syrian master, Barathes. On her right is her jewellery box and on her left balls of wool. Found at South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums

Town Life in Roman Britain

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In the Roman empire towns were centres of trade, local government and social life. In Britain before the Romans there were no towns, but the Romans built towns in most parts of the country. Many towns we live in today, like York and London, can trace their history back to Roman times.
Map of the towns and regions (civitates) of Roman Britain. Roman Britain
It was towns which introduced Roman ways of life to Britain. It was in the towns where you would have seen the great public bath houses in Roman style and large private houses built around courtyards or gardens like those in Mediterranean countries.
Three of the new towns in Roman Britain - Colchester, Gloucester and Lincoln - were built on the sites of what had been legionary fortresses and they were given to retired soldiers to live in.
Most Roman towns in Britain were capitals of a region inhabited by one of the British tribes. The Britons were encouraged to live in these towns so that they would become proper Romans!
Reconstruction of the Roman town at Canterbury. The theatre is the large semi-circular building in the centre and a temple in the centre of a courtyard is on the right. Illustration by John Bowen, Canterbury Archaeological Trust.
Roman towns in Britain were very small compared to towns today. The population of even a large town like London probably never reached more than 10,000. Rome, however, had over one million inhabitants - about the same as Birmingham or Glasgow today!
Reconstruction of Roman London in about the year 120. Illustration by Peter Froste, © Museum of London
Almost everything we know about the Roman towns of Britain has come from archaeology. A few of the Roman towns of Britain are mentioned by Roman writers, but there are no descriptions of any of them written in Roman times.
Archaeological excavation in progress on a 2nd century Roman stone building at York (Wellington Row site). York Archaeological Trust
Did you know? The Romans loved their towns so much that they even had designs showing town walls and gates on their mosaic pavements.
Part of a mosaic showing a town gate at Fishbourne Roman palace (Sussex). Fishbourne Roman Palace

The Layout of a Roman Town

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Towns in Roman Britain, like towns almost everywhere else in the Roman empire, had very regular street plan which was laid out on a criss-cross grid. Here is an artist's impression of Roman York in about the year 200.
Reconstruction of Roman York in the late 2nd / early 3rd century. The town (colonia) is in the foreground and the fortress is at the top beyond the River Ouse. Illustration by Tracy Croft, English Heritage
The forum and basilica. In the middle of a Roman town there would be the forum which was a large open market place and on one side of it was the basilica, a sort of town hall.
Reconstruction of the centre of the Roman town at Wroxeter (Shropshire), the capital of the native British Cornovii people. You can see the bath house (upper left) and the forum and basilica (upper right). Illustration by Ivan Lapper, English Heritage
The town bath house was an important social centre as well as a place to wash. People visited the baths to meet friends and discuss business.
Roman women in a Roman town bath house. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Every town had many temples for the worship of the gods and goddesses. The picture shows an artist's impression of the great temple by the hot springs at Bath, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis or 'waters of the goddess Sulis'. The temple was built in a style which had been used for hundreds of years and was first designed by the ancient Greeks.
Reconstruction of the Roman temple and its surroundings at Bath. The temple is in the background, the altar in the centre and entrance to the baths on the left. Illustration by John Ronayne, Bath Archaeological Trust.
Most Roman towns in Britain were surrounded by defences which often took the form of great stone walls with high towers and splendid gates.

The Forum and Basilica

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The forum and basilica lay at the centre of every Roman town. The forum was a large open courtyard where markets and public gatherings were held. Around three sides of the forum there was a covered passage known as a portico and behind it were rows of small rooms which could be used as shops. On the fourth side was the basilica a great hall used for public meetings.
Plan of a typical Roman town forum and basilica with a cross-section to show the probable height of the buildings (based on evidence from Silchester, Hampshire). Illustration by Lesley Collett Roman Britain
Rooms at the back of the basilica were used as offices but in the centre was the shrine (known to the Romans as the aedes), in which there would have been statues of the emperor, and of important gods and goddesses. The picture shows the head of a statue of the Emperor Hadrian which may have stood in the basilica at London.
Bronze bust of Emperor Hadrian - part of a larger than life size statue found in the Thames at London. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
The town council was made up of men known as decurions. These decurions - or town councillors - only got the job if they were wealthy. They were not elected by the townsfolk. Decurions collected taxes and saw that justice was done. They were also responsible for the streets and water supply, and organised the games at the local amphitheatre.
Part of a Roman stone coffin from York bearing an inscription referring to a decurion (town councillor) of the colonia at York (Eboracum). Look for the shortened words: DEC COL EBOR. York Archaeological Trust.

At the Baths

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Every Roman town had a bath house. This was not just a place to get clean, but was a bit like a local leisure centre. You could play sports and games in the baths and meet friends to gossip and discuss business.
Roman women in a Roman town bath house. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
When you went for a bath in Roman times you first took your clothes off in a special changing room and left your slave to look after them. You then worked up a sweat by sitting in a heated room known as the caldarium which was a bit like a sauna bath.
Niches for statues in the changing room of the Roman baths at Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Sweating opens up the little holes in your skin known as pores, and brings the dirt out. Sweat and dirt were scraped off with a metal tool called a strigil. The Romans did not wash with soap like we do!
Bronze strigil from Carlisle. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
After a good scrape with the strigil you could go and have a warm bath in the tepidarium or plunge into a cold bath called the frigidarium. The cold water closed up the skin's pores again and got the blood circulating. A Roman bath gave you a pleasant tingling feeling afterwards.
Second Legion soldiers taking a cold shower at the Roman fortress baths at Caerleon (Gwent). Illustration by John Banbury, CADW - Welsh Historic Monuments
After your bath you rubbed yourself down with nice smelling oils and scents. Some people had a professional masseur to do it for them.
Glass scent bottle from Corbridge (Northumberland). Photo Simon I. Hill with kind permission of English Heritage

Roman Town Houses

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The smallest houses in Roman towns were long and narrow with a shop or workshop at the front, and a room for eating and sleeping at the back. They are sometimes called 'strip houses'.
Large Roman town houses were built around three or four sides of a courtyard or garden and had many different rooms.
The best room in a large Roman house was usually the dining room where the master and mistress received their guests. When they were eating they all lay on couches propped up on one elbow while the slaves brought them their food.
An artist's impression of a Roman banquet. Illustration by Wayne Laughlin (Gloucester City Archaeological Unit)
Wealthy people heated their houses by what is known as a hypocaust system. The floor was raised on little walls or pillars which allowed hot air from a furnace to circulate below it and make the room warm. The hot air could also be taken up channels or flues set into the walls.
Reconstruction drawing to show how a Roman hypocaust worked. By Mark Barden, Winchester Museums.
The Romans did not have wall paper, but house walls were plastered and painted. The designs were usually simple, but sometimes there were elaborate patterns with landscape scenes or pictures of the gods and goddesses.
Replica Roman living room in Exeter museum. Exeter City Museums and Art Gallery.
On the floors in the main living rooms of a large Roman house there were usually tiles or even highly decorative mosaics. In less important rooms and in poor people's houses the floors were made of concrete, clay or just earth.
Part of a mosaic floor from Cirencester showing the huntsman Actaeon being torn to pieces by his dogs after seeing the goddess Diana bathing. Corinium Museum
Did you know? At night Roman houses were very dark. Light was provided by little pottery lamps. A wick - the part which burnt to give off light - stuck out at one end and the lamp was filled with olive oil or fat.
Roman pottery lamps from York. York Archaeological Trust.

Roman Gardens

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Large Roman town houses and country villas usually had a garden in the central courtyard. They were laid out in a very regular way with straight paths and there were often statues of the gods and goddesses as well as plants.
Replica Roman garden at Newport Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Newport Roman Villa
The paths and beds of a Roman garden were often lined with hedges. Box was very popular for hedges because it is evergreen and has a pleasant smell.
A box hedge. Photo Patrick Ottaway
A very popular tree in Roman gardens was the bay which is evergreen. The leaves were used in cooking to give a pleasant taste to food and were also burned to give a sweet smell which was thought to help sick people to sleep.
Leaves and flowers of the bay tree. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Romans loved roses for their colour and their scent. Roman roses were probably more like the wild dog rose we know in Britain than the modern cultivated varieties.
Wild dog rose (Latin rosa canium).
Ponds for fish and ducks were popular in Roman gardens and there was often a fountain as well. The water spirits, known as nymphs, were worshipped in a special garden temple called a nymphaeum.
The nymphaeum - shrine to the water spirits - at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire). In the centre is a water basin which originally held a fountain. Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa.
You can still see how a Roman garden was laid out at Fishbourne palace where hedges have been replanted in the original trenches dug by the Romans for their hedges. The trenches were found by archaeologists.
Box hedges in the reconstructed Roman garden at Fishbourne Roman palace (Sussex). Photo Patrick Ottaway with kind permission Fishbourne Roman Palace.
Did you know? Bay, which belongs to the laurel family, had a special meaning for the Romans because it signified victory and peace. Victorious generals wore a wreath (in Latin corona) of bay and a bay branch was used as a sign of truce between enemy armies.
Relief of soldiers carrying a wreath on a building stone from South Shields fort (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I. Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums

Roman Town Walls

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When they were first laid out most Roman towns had no defences. At Colchester this was to be a disastrous mistake at the time of the revolt of Boudicca in the years 60-61. There was nothing to prevent her troops getting in and burning the whole town to the ground.
It was only after the revolt of Boudicca that Colchester was given a town wall. This was the first town wall in Britain. It is nearly 2000 years old and quite a lot of it still survives!
Britain's first town wall: part of the Roman wall of Colchester, built 65-80. Photo Patrick Ottaway
By the middle of the 3rd century most of the Roman towns in Britain had stone walls built around them. There were stone gates to guard the entrances.
The surviving (southern) arch of the north gate of Roman Lincoln, now known as the Newport Arch. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Town walls would have protected the townspeople against attack from barbarian raiders, bandits or even wild animals, but they were also expensive status symbols. We can imagine the towns of Roman Britain competing with each other to have the best walls and gates!
Did you know? You can still see spectacular remains of town walls built by the Romans in places like Chester and Lincoln.
Remains of the lower west gate of Roman Lincoln looking from inside the Roman town towards the outside. Originally there would have been an arch over the roadway in the centre of the picture. Photo Patrick Ottaway

Londinium: the Roman capital

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London became a centre of trade soon after the Roman invasion of Britain because it stands on the River Thames and was easy to get to by ship from the rest of the Roman empire. After the revolt of Boudicca in the years 60-1 London replaced Colchester as the capital of Britannia. By the early 2nd century London was the largest town in Roman Britain and its forum was the largest Roman building in the empire north of the Alps!
Reconstruction of Roman London in about the year 120. Illustration by Peter Froste, © Museum of London
On the Thames waterfront great timber wharves have been found. They had vertical plank walls facing the river and on top, running back to the river bank, there were level platforms on which goods were unloaded and warehouses were built.
Model of the late 1st century Roman waterfront in London with Roman London Bridge in the background. Museum of London.
The warehouses of Roman London were used to store goods which had been shipped from all over the empire. Archaeologists have found vast quantities of pottery, glassware and many other objects which were imported to London in Roman times.
One of the most important temples in Roman London was dedicated to the sun god Mithras who was worshipped by soldiers and merchants.
Relief from the London temple of Mithras showing the god Mithras slaying the bull - notice the snake and dog leaping up to drink the blood of life from the bull's neck while a scorpion nips the bull's testicles. On the circular band around the central scene are the signs of the zodiac. In the upper left corner is the sun god (Sol) driving his horses across the sky and upper right is the moon goddess Luna. In the lower left and right corners are two wind gods. The inscription refers to a vow made by Ulpius Silvanus, veteran of the Second Legion. © Museum of London
Did you know? The remains of Roman London are buried many metres below what is now the City of London. The great timber wharves on the River Thames are very well preserved because the river level has risen since Roman times. When timber becomes saturated with water it does not rot away as it does when it is just damp.

Country Life in Roman Britain

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Although the Romans built towns in Britain, most people in Roman Britain lived in the countryside. The lives of the country dwellers only changed very slowly after the Roman conquest.
Harvesting on a Roman farm. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Most farms in Roman Britain grew crops and kept animals as well. Good weather was vital to farmers and if it was too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet the crops failed and people and animals starved.
Threshing and winnowing grain on a Roman farm. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
The owners of large country estates in Roman Britain built themselves villas. A villa is a luxurious Roman country house which usually had stone walls, mosaic floors, under floor heating and a bath house.
Hypocaust (under floor heating) system at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa
All farmers from rich villa owners to humble peasants prayed to the gods and goddesses for good crops and healthy animals. Religious festivals were held at times of the year which were particularly important for agriculture.
Mosaic showing Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, and a farmer holding what is probably a hoe. From Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust
Some Roman writers described country life, but in Italy and not in Britain. Our knowledge of country life and agriculture in Roman Britain comes from the work of archaeologists who find the remains of farm buildings, the bones of farm animals and sometimes the seeds of crops, like wheat and barley.
View of Rockbourne Roman villa (Hampshire). Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service

Roman Farms and Fields

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Most farms in Roman Britain were just a cluster of small buildings with thatched roofs. They had a small piece of land which was worked by one man and his family. They produced just enough food to keep them alive.
Replica Iron Age British round house from Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm.
In their fields farmers usually used a simple wooden plough. Only the tip of the part which actually went into the ground - the plough share - was made of iron. The Roman plough created a furrow in which the seed could be sown, but it did not turn the soil over like a modern plough.
Reconstruction illustration of ploughing with oxen on a Roman farm. Drawing by Trevor Stubley, Sussex Archaeological Trust and Lund Humphries
For harvesting their crop farmers used simple iron tools like scythes and sickles. There was no machinery and the work was very hard.
Iron scythe blade from Newstead (Trimontium) Roman fort (Borders), Scotland. National Museums of Scotland.
Roman fields can still be seen from the air in a few places in England where they have not been destroyed by modern agriculture. This photographs shows some small Roman fields divided up by banks of earth.
Burdrop Down (Dorset). Aerial view of fields of Iron Age or Roman date defined by earthen banks. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for England
In some parts of Britain, including Cornwall, Scotland and parts of Wales, the native farmers had houses with dry stone walls. This is a reconstruction of the village at Chysauster in Cornwall which you can still visit today.
Reconstruction of part of the Roman native settlement at Chysauster (Cornwall). Illustration by Judith Dobie, English Heritage

Roman Farm Animals

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The Romans had cows, sheep, goats, pigs and hens on their farms just as we have today, but they were much smaller than the animals we are used to seeing. Since Roman times careful breeding has greatly increased the size of all farm animals.
Diagram showing comparative sizes of cattle, pig and sheep in modern (black) and Roman times. By Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
Roman cattle. There were cows which gave milk and oxen which pulled carts and ploughs. When cattle were no longer any use they were killed and eaten. Today cattle are killed for eating when they are about 18 months old, but in Roman times they were killed when they were about 4-6 years old and so the meat was sometimes a bit tough!
Dexter cattle (with their horns removed), a breed the same size as Roman cattle. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Roman sheep were small with a brown fleece and prominent horns. In Roman times farmers kept sheep for their wool and their milk. The wool was plucked from the sheep and not sheared as it is today. Farmers only killed their sheep for eating when they were 2-4 years of age compared to 8 months in our own time.
Soay sheep at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). They resemble breeds which would have lived in Britain in Roman times. Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm.
Pigs in Roman Britain were probably small and hairy like the wild pigs which still live in the forests of eastern Europe. The Romans thought that piglets, or 'sucking pigs' as they are called, were a great delicacy.
Wild pigs. Photo Paul Halstead
Did you know? Animal dung was very valuable in Roman times. It was used for fertilising the fields and it was dried and used for fuel. It could also be mixed with clay and used for building walls.
Dung cakes prepared for use as fuel in modern Iraq. Photo Keith Dobney

Roman Crops

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The main crop in Roman Britain was wheat which was made into bread, but it was usually what is called 'spelt wheat' which is different from our 'bread wheat'. The Romans also grew oats, used partly for animal feed, and barley which could be used for making beer.
Spelt wheat (Latin triticum spelta). © Allan Hall.
When the crop was ripe it was harvested. There was no machinery so everybody on the farm had to work hard throughout the day to bring in the crop.
Harvesting on a Roman farm. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
After harvesting the crop had to be threshed to extract the grain from the ears at the top of the stalks. Threshing involved beating the stalks on a hard surface with a tool called a flail. After threshing the grain was winnowed to remove any remaining husks. This involved tossing the grain in the air to let the lighter husks, known as chaff, blow away and the heavier grains fall to the ground.
Threshing and winnowing grain on a Roman farm. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
After winnowing the grain was ready to be ground into flour. This could be done in a mill powered by water or by hand with a quern which consists of two round stones, known as quern stones, placed one on top of the other. The grain goes into the hole in the top and you then turn the upper stone with the wooden handles and grind the grain on the lower stone. The flour comes out from between the stones.
Replica quern stones used for grinding corn at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm.
Did you know? One of the main field weeds in Roman times was the corncockle which has a fine pink flower. It is now very rare now due to weed killers. Corncockle seeds are poisonous and so too many of them ground up in flour would have given the Romans a bad stomach ache after eating their bread!
The corncockle (Latin agrostemma githago), a common cornfield weed in Roman times. © Allan Hall.

Forests and Woodland in Roman Britain

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When the Romans came to Britain some parts of the country were much more wooded and forested than they are today. Many Roman farmers were also woodmen who chopped down trees and cut up the timber. Their main tool was an iron axe.
A Roman woodman. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
The Romans needed a lot of wood both for fuel, and for building and furniture. In the early years of Roman Britain wood was used for almost all the buildings in the forts and towns before stone became more popular.
Replica timber gateway at the reconstructed Roman fort at The Lunt, Baginton, Coventry. Photo: Simon I. Hill, Coventry Museums and Art Galleries
Trees familiar to the Romans in Britain included most of those we know today including oak, ash, and elm.
Oak, the wood preferred by Roman carpenters for buildings. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Romans probably introduced some new trees to Britain including the sweet chestnut and an unusual fruit tree called a medlar.
Sweet chestnut tree (castanea sativa). Photo Patrick Ottaway
Wattles are wooden rods which were used for fences and the walls of timber buildings.
Replica wattle fence at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm.
Wickerwork is made from small branches, often of willow, plaited together. It was used to make baskets and chairs.
Wicker work as used in a reconstructed Iron Age British round house at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm.
Apple trees in Roman Britain were probably like crab apple trees or wild apple trees which you can still find in the countryside today. There were no cultivated varieties like our Coxes or Granny Smith's!
Crab apples (Latin malus sylvestris) growing on the tree. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Did you know? The silver fir tree grows in central Europe, but not in Britain. However, the Romans brought the wood of the silver fir to Britain to make writing tablets, buckets and barrels because it can be easily cut and shaped.
Small bucket made of silver fir, a wood imported from the Mediterranean. Found in York. York Archaeological Trust

Roman Villas

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A Roman villa was a rich man's country house usually set in the middle of a large estate.
View of Rockbourne Roman villa (Hampshire). Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service
Villas in Roman Britain were usually in lowland areas where the land was fertile and agriculture was profitable. They were sited close to the main roads and waterways leading to the towns. Villa owners had to be able to get their produce to the town markets quickly and easily.
A Roman carter. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
In the 1st and 2nd centuries villas were usually quite small, but in the 3rd and 4th centuries many of them became very large, growing into country houses where the owners lived in great style and luxury.
Reconstruction illustration of Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
Two of the best-known villas in Roman Britain are Chedworth in Gloucestershire and Bignor in Sussex. Their buildings were arranged around great courtyards with a garden in the centre. They had heated dining rooms with highly decorative mosaics.
Bignor Roman villa (Sussex): the water basin in the summer dining room (triclinium) surrounded by a mosaic floor. Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
In a world where so much depended on agriculture it is not surprising that many Roman mosaics depicted the spirits of the four seasons. Here is winter at Chedworth wearing a woollen hooded cloak. He carries a bare branch and a hare caught for dinner.
Mosaic at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire) showing the spirit of winter wearing a woollen cloak and carrying a hare and a bare branch. Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa

Marking the Seasons

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Changes in the seasons were marked by important religious festivals. In the middle of February the Romans celebrated spring's awakening at the festival of Lupercalia. The Romans worshipped the god Pan at Lupercalia. He was also known as Faunus and he guarded flocks and shepherds.
The spirit of spring on a mosaic at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa
In May the Romans celebrated the beginning of summer at a festival called Floralia. This was when the Romans worshipped Flora, the goddess of flowers and crops.
The spirit of summer on a mosaic at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa
At the beginning of autumn the people of Roman Britain celebrated the grain harvest and gathered fruit like apples which grew in their orchards or wild in the hedgerows.
Crab apples (Latin malus sylvestris) in a 4th century Roman bowl. Photo Patrick Ottaway
In the middle of December there was the winter festival of Saturnalia when the god Saturn was worshipped and prayers were said for the sowing of seed.
Mosaic showing the spirit of winter at Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust

Crafts and Trade in Roman Britain

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Although native British craftspeople were very skilled in their work, the Romans introduced new techniques for making things in materials like pottery, metal and glass to Britain.
The Romans set up markets in Britain where goods were bought and sold using money. Some of the British tribes did have coins, but they were mostly made of gold and silver and were not used as small change for daily buying and selling. The Britons had usually exchanged goods without money.
Silver coins of the late 1st century AD from the legionary fortress at York. York Archaeological Trust
Roman town markets took place in the forum courtyard or sometimes a specially built market hall called a macellum. You could also buy almost anything straight from the person who made it in the shops lining a town's main streets.
A Roman market scene. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Trade was not just in goods made locally. As a result of the Roman conquest there was a huge increase in trade between Britain and the rest of the Roman empire, especially Gaul which was just across the English Channel.
Artist's reconstruction of 'Asterix', a 3rd century Roman ship about 25m long from St Peter Port, Guernsey which sank after a fire on board. Illustration by the late Lady Penny Dorey, Guernsey Maritime Trust

Craftspeople in Roman Britain

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The craftspeople of Roman Britain worked in a great variety of materials including stone, metals, wood and clay. Their tools were simple compared to those used today, but still capable of making things which were useful and sometimes extremely beautiful.
Bronze lock plate from the Roman villa at Brading (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust
Stonemasons worked on the great buildings of the towns, forts and villas. They also made sculptures and tombstones.
Roman stonemasons at work. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
Metalworkers produced everyday items like tools, nails and horse harness, but also made weapons and jewellery. Metalworkers, especially blacksmiths, were thought to have magical powers because they could make things by controlling the fires in their hearths and forges.
A Roman blacksmith's shop. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Carpenters worked in wood with iron tools like axes, chisels and saws. They made the timbers which were used in buildings and fortifications. They also made smaller objects like bowls and cups, and sometimes carved figurines and statues.
A Roman woodman. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
Potters made clay into pots used in the dining room and in the kitchen. They might also make small clay models of the gods and goddesses.
A Roman potter's workshop. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
The making of woollen cloth for clothes involved a number of different craftspeople. Some prepared the wool for spinning into thread and the weavers made the thread into cloth. There were also dyers who gave the cloth the bright colours the Romans liked.
Roman woman spinning. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

Roman Merchants

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Most of the things on sale in a Roman market, especially the foods, were locally produced, but some merchants brought goods to sell over long distances from other parts of the empire.
A Roman market scene. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
A busy merchant used an abacus to make calculations about prices and profits.
The Roman abacus in use. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Small items were weighed in a hand-held balance with weights put in one pan and the object to be weighed in the other.
Small bronze balance. Scale pans would have been suspended from each arm when in use. York Archaeological Trust
A merchant weighed large items on a steelyard. A steelyard has a bar on which there is a scale of weights marked out. The bar is hung on a chain and on the shorter part is a hook and a pan either of which could be used to hold the item to be weighed. A weight hung on the longer part of the bar was moved up and down until the bar was level. You could then read off the weight from the point on the scale which the weight had reached.
Reconstruction of a Roman steelyard in Tullie House Museum, Carlisle. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Grain and liquids were measured by volume in specially marked vessels. The picture shows a brass corn measure found at Carvoran fort on Hadrian's Wall which was intended to take 17 ½ sextarii ( a sextarius = 0.546 litres).
Brass vessel used for measuring corn from Carvoran Roman fort (Northumberland), now in Chesters Roman fort museum. Inscribed with the name (later erased) and titles of the Emperor Domitian (81-96). It held 17 ½ sextarii of grain. © English Heritage

Imports and Exports

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When Britain became part of the Roman empire she became part of a great international trading market. Because Britain is an island all foreign trade came by ship. London was the most important port and archaeologists have found great riverside wharves and warehouses in excavations on the bank of the Thames.
Although pottery was made in Roman Britain, good quality pottery was imported from Gaul and the Rhineland. It was loaded onto ships in the great Roman towns of Cologne and Trier (both now in Germany) before being brought across the Channel to Britain.
Pottery jar in colour-coated ware made in Trier (Germany) and imported to York. It is called colour-coated because the pot was made in clay of one colour and then finished with a coating in clay of a different colour. York Archaeological Trust.
Olives and olive oil came in large pottery jars known as amphorae from an area of southern Spain around the Roman city of Cordoba on the River Guadalquivir.
A bridge with Roman stone piers over the River Guadalquivir at Cordoba (Roman Corduba), Spain. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Wine came to Roman Britain in amphorae from southern Gaul. Some ships carrying wine left for Britain from Lyon or Arles, great Roman towns on the River Rhône. Others ships travelled from Bordeaux on the west coast of Gaul.
Roman amphorae for wine and olive oil from St Albans (Verulamium), Verulamium Museum.
Roman Britain exported grain like wheat and barley, and metals like lead, iron and silver to the rest of the Roman empire.

Roman Money

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Money in Roman times meant coins; there were no bank notes. The Romans had a very complicated system of coinage which included gold and silver coins. There were also bronze and copper coins of low value which could be used for daily shopping in the market place.
Gold coin of the Emperor Claudius (41-54). The emperor wears a laurel wreath around his head. On the reverse is the arch built in Rome in 51 to mark the conquest of Britain. It is inscribed DE BRITTANN(IS) - 'for Britain'. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
All Roman coins have the head of the ruling emperor or a member of his family on one face ('the obverse') along with his or her name and titles. On the other face ('the reverse') you will find an amazing variety of images, often of gods and goddesses, which represent the emperor's virtues such as bravery, wisdom or generosity.
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). Wording on the reverse reads VIRTUS AUG meaning 'bravery of the Emperor'. Photo: Simon I. Hill, Yorkshire Museum
Roman coins often have small letters on them to tell you where they were made or minted. These letters are known as a 'mint mark'. Most Roman coins used in Britain were minted in Gaul at the cities of Lyon or Trier, but some coins were minted in London.
Bronze coin of the Emperor Constantius I (305-6). The wording on the reverse reads GEN POP ROM, short for Genio Populusque Romanum, which means 'to the spirit of the Roman people'. The spirit, or genius, is shown holding a patera (vessel with a handle) and cornucopia (horn of plenty). The mint mark PLG means the coin was minted at Lyon (Lugdunum), in Gaul. York Archaeological Trust
Low value Roman coins were made of copper or bronze. At the time of the Roman invasion in the year 43, one of the lowest value coins was the as and 4 asses equalled 1 sestertius.
Bronze coin (sestertius) of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138). On the reverse is a Roman warship.
The high value Roman coins were made of silver and gold. The main silver coin was the denarius equal to 4 bronze sestertii. 25 denarii equalled 1 gold aureus.
Gold coin (aureus) of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79).On the reverse is a chariot drawn by four horses. Berlin
It is difficult to know what Roman coins would be worth today, but it has been calculated that in Italy in the 1st century AD a bronze sestertius was probably worth about 20 pence. It has also been reckoned that 500grams (a little over 1lb) of bread or two large loaves, cost 1/4 sestertius which is about 5 pence. It is thought that a person could live on about 60 sestertii or £12 per month.
A loaf of bread in Roman style in a 2nd century pottery bowl from York with replica Roman flagon alongside. Photo Patrick Ottaway
An ordinary legionary's pay was about 225 silver denarii a year at the time of the Roman invasion in the year 43, but by the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus it was about 450 silver denarii. Centurions and men with special duties got a lot more, but everyone had to pay for their own food and equipment.
Silver coins of the late 1st century AD from the legionary fortress at York. York Archaeological Trust

Food and Drink

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People in Roman Britain usually ate food which was produced locally. They ate bread and porridge made from cereals all the year round, but they also ate meat, fish and seafood when it was available. Fruit and vegetables were eaten when in season.
Replica Roman kitchen in Exeter museum. Exeter City Museums and Art Gallery.
After the Romans conquered Britain people came to live here from all over the empire. They wanted to have foods which they had at home, but were unknown in Britain. There is archaeological evidence that figs, grapes and olives were imported from Mediterranean countries.
Figs. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Britons probably drank a lot of beer, but after the Romans arrived people started drinking more wine which was usually imported from Gaul.
Roman flagon from York. York Archaeological Trust
We know a lot about what people ate and drank in Roman times from cookery books, and accounts of meals which the Romans wrote themselves, but only archaeology provides evidence for Roman food in Britain itself. Bones from cattle, sheep and pig and other animals tell us what meat was eaten. Cereal grains, fruit pips and fragments of vegetables like leeks and beans have also been found.
Animal bones from Roman excavations in York. York Archaeological Trust
Did you know? The undigested part of your food becomes faeces - poo! Archaeologists sometimes find Roman 'poo' in Roman lavatories and sewers. Specialists who analyse it can tell us a lot about what the Romans ate. As well as the remains of food they often find the eggs of parasitic worms which lived in the Roman people's guts!
Mineralised human excrement - 'poo' - from an archaeological excavation at York. York Archaeological Trust

The Daily Diet

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If you were able to visit a Roman kitchen, especially a rich person's kitchen, you would have seen all kinds of different foods being prepared by the household slaves.
Replica Roman kitchen in the Corinium Museum, Cirencester. Corinium Museum
The Romans had so many different kinds of bread that the writer Pliny said 'It seems pointless to describe the different kinds of bread', but we do know that the Romans had white and brown bread like we have today.
A loaf of bread in Roman style in a 2nd century pottery bowl from York with replica Roman flagon alongside. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The meat eaten in Roman Britain came mostly from cattle, in other words it was beef, but people also ate lamb and mutton, and pork. The Romans were particularly fond of young piglets, known as 'sucking pigs', which were boiled in milk.
Shoulder blades (Latin scapulae) of Roman cattle showing holes made when they were hung up as joints of meat on a butcher's hook. © Environmental Archaeology Unit, University of York
The Romans ate chickens, ducks and geese and also kept them for their eggs. Chickens were small like our bantams and a common type of goose was what we call a Greylag Goose.
Grey Lag goose. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The fish the Romans ate came largely from rivers and streams, and not from the sea. Salmon, pike, eels and herring were popular, but the Romans did not eat much cod or haddock.
Fish bones from archaeological excavations in York. York Archaeological Trust
The Romans loved sea food such as mussels and crabs, but oysters were a special favourite. Oysters grew in the estuaries of rivers, like the Colne near Colchester, and were transported all over Roman Britain.
Roman oyster shells from York. York Archaeological Trust
To make their food taste better the Romans used lots of different herbs including basil, thyme, rosemary and sage.
Thyme. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Some people in Roman Britain had orchards where fruits like apples, cherries and plums grew, but most people ate fruits like blackberries, sloes and raspberries that could be gathered in the fields and hedgerows.
Blackberries (Latin rubus fruticosus). Photo Patrick Ottaway

Drink

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The Romans quenched their thirst and washed down their meals with a variety of different drinks including water, beer and wine.
Detail of an artist's impression of a Roman banquet. Illustration by Wayne Laughlin (Gloucester City Archaeological Unit)
To get water the Romans dug wells. They also brought water into towns from springs in the countryside in pipes which supplied street fountains and the homes of the rich.
Roman timber-lined well from York looking down from the top. York Archaeological Trust
The Britons made beer from water and barley or wheat which had been fermented to make it into malt. Flavour would be added with hops.
Spelt wheat (Latin triticum spelta). © Allan Hall.
Before the Roman conquest only wealthy people in Britain drank wine. After the Roman conquest the people of Britain drank a lot more wine which was mostly imported from southern Gaul. It is thought that Roman wine was quite sour and had to be watered down and sweetened with honey.
Roman flagon from York. York Archaeological Trust
Some grapes for making wine were probably grown in Britain, but people would also have made their own wine using fruits like elderberry. Elderberry seeds are very common finds on archaeological sites.
Elderberry bush with berries. Photo Patrick Ottaway

A Roman Banquet

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This is an artist's drawing of what a Roman banquet was like. Let us have a look around the dining room, called a triclinium in Latin, and learn about some of the things which made it a really special occasion.
An artist's impression of a Roman banquet. Illustration by Wayne Laughlin (Gloucester City Archaeological Unit)
When people were eating they lay on couches propped up on one elbow while the slaves brought them their food from a table in the middle of the room. Everyone ate with their fingers and washed them in special bowls.
The family's best tableware is being used to impress the visitors. There are jars, bowls and cups made of silver, glass and the finest quality pottery.
You can be sure that the food includes some fairly exotic dishes such as boiled partridge, stuffed hare, honey cakes and pomegranates.
Everyone is obviously drinking lots of wine which would probably have been red wine from Gaul sweetened with honey and watered down a bit to make it taste better.
While the guests are stuffing themselves they are entertained by a musician playing a lyre, a stringed instrument like a harp.
The entertainment for the diners includes a girl who dances to the tunes played by the musician, but is she a professional dancer or one of the guests who has had too much to drink?
Did you know? Satyrs were mythical creatures who were half man and half goat. They loved drinking wine and are often shown in Roman art with Bacchus, the god of wine.
Roman gold belt buckle and buckle-plate from Thetford (Norfolk) dated to about the year 380. On the buckle-plate is a figure of a dancing satyr holding a bunch of grapes. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum

Lavatories and Latrines

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In Roman times private houses did not usually have lavatories and people used pits dug in the garden or pots which were emptied by their slaves. There were lavatories for all to use in the public baths and soldiers had them in their forts and fortresses.
Reconstruction illustration of the latrines found in the barracks at Caerleon Roman fortress (Gwent). Illustration by John Banbury after Howard Mason, CADW -Welsh Historic Monuments.
Roman Britain's best preserved Roman lavatory - or latrine as it is usually known - is at Housesteads fort on Hadrian's Wall.
The latrine at the Roman fort at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall. Originally there was wooden seating above the drains. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
The Housesteads fort latrine originally had wooden seats along the walls. Cleverly designed water channels flushed the system There were no partitions and the soldiers were not shy about sitting next to one another! Pieces of moss on a stick were the Roman equivalent of 'loo paper.'
Part of the drainage system in the latrine at Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.

Diseases, Doctors and Medicines

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People in Roman Britain suffered from many of the same diseases as we do today, but there were also epidemics of infections such as cholera and typhoid which we do not have any more. These infections killed a lot of people because, unlike today, the Romans had no effective cure for them.
Aesculapius, the Roman god of doctors visiting a patient. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
The Romans thought that cleanliness was a good thing, but they did not understand that germs spread disease and can easily infect food and water. The Romans did not know that germs can be carried by insects like mosquitoes or animals like rats.
Drawing of a black rat (rattus rattus). York Archaeological Trust
Because there was no cure for most diseases, the Romans did not expect to live nearly as long as we do. The inscriptions on Roman tombstones and the scientific evidence from skeletons suggest that most people in Roman Britain died before they were 50. Today most people expect to live more than 70 years.
Roman grave with skeleton (4th century) from Winchester. Winchester Museums
Roman babies were particularly at risk from disease. It is thought that about one quarter of them died before they were 18 months old and infant burials are frequently found by archaeologists.
The skeleton of an infant found in a coffin lined with lead. The white dots show where the iron nails which held the coffin together were found. York Archaeological Trust.
We know about some of the injuries, such as broken arms and legs, suffered by people in Roman Britain from studying their skeletons. We also know that there were surgeons in Roman Britain because their tools and implements have been found.
Roman grave with skeleton (4th century) from Winchester. Winchester Museums

Roman Doctors

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Roman doctors used herbal medicines to treat most illnesses and diseases. They had medical books written by Greek doctors who were famous throughout the Roman world.
Rue plants. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Roman doctors had special instruments including forceps, tweezers, eye-droppers and spatulas. Roman doctors could do simple operations, but had no proper anaesthetics, except alcohol, to put the patient to sleep. Amputation of diseased limbs was a bit of a last resort and the patient rarely recovered.
Roman doctor's equipment including tweezers (extreme right), large spatula (next right), small spatulas, tweezers, probes, a spoon for medicine, a palette (extreme left) on which to grind up ointments and above it a maker's stamp for ointments. Verulamium Museum
Eye diseases which sometimes caused blindness seem to have been common in Roman Britain and there were doctors who specialised in making eye ointments and eye drops.
Face plaque from a Roman pot found in York. York Archaeological Trust.
The Romans did not have dentists, but examination of their teeth shows they were usually in good condition because they did not eat foods full of sugar like we do today.
Roman human skull showing the teeth. York Archaeological Trust
The special god of doctors was Aesculapius. He is often shown with a snake because it was believed that snakes had the power of discovering healing herbs.
Aesculapius, the Roman god of doctors visiting a patient. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

Herbal Medicines

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The Romans extracted medicines from many different herbs. Some of them were drunk as a kind of tea. Others were ground up in a special mixing bowl called a mortarium and made into ointments which were put on a bandage and wrapped around wounds or sore places.
Roman mortarium or mixing bowl of 4th century date showing the internal grit. York Archaeological Trust
Bay leaves were burned to give a sweet smell which was thought to help the sick to sleep. Bay leaves were also put into baths to relieve muscle ache.
Leaves and flowers of the bay tree. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade is very poisonous, but in small quantities it could be used to ease pain in the stomach or to improve blood circulation.
Leaves of Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna). Photo Patrick Ottaway
Holly berries in wine were thought to be good for stomach upsets. Holly was also thought to keep away the evil spirits which cause illness.
A holly tree (Latin Ilex). Photo Patrick Ottaway
Hyssop tea was used for chest illnesses, colds and throat infections.
Hyssop. Photo Simon I. Hill, Butser Ancient Farm
Pennyroyal has a strong smell and it was made into a drug which calmed sick people down and allowed them to sleep. Pennyroyal is a very rare plant these days.
Pennyroyal growing at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire). Photo Simon I Hill, Butser Ancient Farm
Rue was made into a drink to relieve eyestrain and headaches. It could also be made into an ointment for eyes.
Rue plants. Photo Patrick Ottaway

Clothing, Jewellery and Hairstyles in Roman Britain

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People in Roman Britain usually wore tunics and cloaks which were made of wool. Underclothes were made of linen.
Tombstone showing a family group from Ilkley (West Yorkshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Olicana Museum.
The Romans introduced the toga to Britain. This was the traditional garment worn by a Roman citizen. The toga was simply a semi-circular piece of white wool, but putting it on involved a lot of complicated folding and the assistance of a slave. You ended up with something like a long cloak with lots of loose folds.
Illustration of a Roman wearing a toga by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Roman fashions in clothes, shoes, jewellery and hairstyles were keenly followed in Britain. There were no fashion magazines, but people found out about new styles at the court of the emperor from statues and coins which showed them what the emperor or empress looked like.
Statue of a Roman empress shown as the goddess Juno with a cow beneath her feet. Found at Chesters fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Before the Roman conquest the Britons probably dressed like the Gauls who are described by a Roman writer as having brightly coloured clothes with check patterns. He adds that women in Gaul wore their hair long and held it up with pins. They also wore bracelets, anklets and necklaces, but not rings or earrings.
An artist's impression of native British man and woman at about the time of the Roman invasion of 43. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
We can find out about what clothes and jewellery people wore, and how they did their hair after the Roman conquest of Britain from sculpture, paintings and mosaics. Some pieces of clothing, as well as lots of leather shoes and many beautiful pieces of jewellery, including brooches, buckles and necklaces, have been found by archaeologists.
Roman tombstone of Flavia Augustina and her family from York. Yorkshire Museum, York
Did you know? The writer Tacitus tells us that the 'toga was frequently seen' in Britain, but, because it was so awkward to put on, it seems unlikely that anyone except a few wealthy men ever wore one.
Illustration of a Roman wearing a toga by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

Everyday Clothes in Roman Britain

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Both men and women in Roman Britain wore a woollen tunic with a belt around the waist. Some tunics had sleeves and others did not. Tunics of different thicknesses were worn according to the weather. Men usually wore shorter tunics than women, especially if they did manual work.
A blacksmith - possibly representing the Roman god Vulcan - shown on a stone monument from York. Yorkshire Museum, York.
Over their tunics Roman women wore a long sleeveless garment called a stola which came down to their feet. Around their shoulders they wore a shawl or mantle called a palla.
Tombstone of the Roman 'lady with the fan' from Carlisle. She has the fan in her right hand and on her left is her little boy who is reaching into her lap for his ball. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
For outdoors people wore woollen cloaks of various kinds which were usually hooded and fastened at the neck.
Mosaic at Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire) showing the spirit of winter wearing a woollen cloak and carrying a hare and a bare branch. Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa
Sometimes people wore a hooded cape known as a cucullus which just covered the shoulders. The mysterious gods shown here are known as the Cucullati meaning the 'hooded ones' because of what they are wearing.
Sculpture of three hooded gods, the Cucullati, at Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Did you know? The Romans did not approve of trousers and thought they were only suitable for barbarians!
Illustration of an Anglo-Saxon warrior by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain

Roman Shoes

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The Romans in Britain wore an amazing variety of leather shoes ranging from army boots to sandals and slippers, but they only survive in a few places like London where the ground is wet enough to preserve them.
Soldiers usually wore boots called caligae. They looked a bit like sandals and were held on to the soldiers' feet with thongs - long strips of leather - wrapped around the ankle up to the calf. The sole was made up several layers of leather nailed together. The nails scraping the ground would have made quite a noise when the soldiers were marching!
Roman leather shoe soles from York. York Archaeological Trust
A common type of Roman shoe was made of a single piece of leather and was a bit like a bag. The shoe was held on to a person's foot by thongs which passed through holes cut out of the top.
Leather shoe - now unstitched and laid out flat - which had been tied on to the wearer's foot by a thong which passed through the loops along the top. York Archaeological Trust
This is a Roman sandal which had a band of leather which covered the top of the wearer's foot while leaving the toe and heel bare.
Drawing of a Roman sandal with its sole stamped by the maker. York Archaeological Trust
A woman's slipper found in London has a very elaborate pattern cut into it and would have been very fashionable!
Drawing of a leather slipper from London.
At the feet of this skeleton found in a Roman grave in York you can see the iron nails from two pairs of boots. The leather has all decayed, but the pattern of the nails has hardly been disturbed.
Foot bones of a 4th century Roman skeleton and the nails from two pairs of boots in a grave at York. York Archaeological Trust

Roman Jewellery

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The Romans made beautiful jewellery items like brooches, rings and necklaces out of the metals gold, silver, bronze and from other materials like jet and bone.
Gold bracelets from the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Brooches were used as fastenings, particularly on cloaks. Some brooches worked a bit like a safety pin and were known to the Romans as fibulae. This one is shaped like a dragon.
Roman (1st century) dragonesque brooches in bronze with enamel inlay from Winchester. Winchester Museums
Brooches often had decorative heads with the pin and catch on the underside. Animals and birds were very popular designs.
Roman bronze brooches in the form of a cockerel, hare and lion. Yorkshire Museum, York
A brooch shaped like cupid's bow may have been worn as a love token.
Bronze brooch in the form of a cupid's bow. Found in York. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust.
Finger rings were not worn in Britain until they were introduced by the Romans. This is a bronze ring which probably had a coloured glass bead set in it.
Roman bronze finger ring from York. York Archaeological Trust
Gemstones known as intaglios were set in what are known as seal rings. The intaglios are made of semi-precious stones, such as carnelian and jasper, carefully engraved with gods, goddesses, religious symbols or animals. The engravings were all done as mirror images - back to front - because the gem was used to stamp the wax seal closing a letter or document.
Intaglios (gemstones used in seal rings) showing the goddess Fortuna (stone is cornelian, 18mm high) and god Mars (stone is jasper, 15mm high) from York. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust.
Roman women wore lots of necklaces made of beads and chains. The beads were made from many materials, but coloured glass was very popular.
Necklaces made from glass beads and a carved bone dolphin from St Albans (Verulamium). Verulamium Museum.
As well as necklaces a Roman woman might also wear a heavy necklet, often made of gold or silver, known as a torc.
Bronze torc or necklet from Carlisle. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Earrings were usually made of gold. They were sometimes simple loops, but there were many other shapes such as the teardrop which is one of those shown here.
Roman gold earrings found in York. York Archaeological Trust
Did you know? Jet is a black material a bit like coal. It was very popular for jewellery and often made into rings, pins, bracelets and medallions. Jet can be given a shiny surface when it is polished and the Romans thought it had magical properties.
Roman jet hair pins. York Archaeological Trust

Roman Hairstyles

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the Roman conquest British men had beards and moustaches, but the Romans who invaded in the year 43 were clean shaven. In the early 2nd century the Emperor Hadrian made beards fashionable again because he thought a beard made him look like a Greek philosopher!
Bronze coin of Emperor Hadrian. On the reverse letters SC stand for Senatus Consulto meaning 'on behalf of the Senate'. Photo: Simon I. Hill, York Archaeological Trust
Women's hairstyles followed the fashions set by the empresses. In the late 1st century a very elaborate hairstyle became fashionable which involved rows of curls rising above the forehead supported by wire and padding while at the back there was a coil of plaits.
Bone hairpin with a woman's head which has an elaborate hairstyle of the late 1st century AD. Found in London. © Museum of London
In the middle of the 2nd century it became fashionable for women to have their hair parted in the centre. It was waved on either side of the face before being pinned into a bun or plaited up at the back.
Head of a clay figurine of a Roman goddess. York Archaeological Trust
Native British women probably had less elaborate hairstyles than the wealthy Roman women. This tombstone shows that some of them wore their hair in simple plaits.
Tombstone of a woman of the Cornovii people (who lived in Cornwall) found in Ilkley (West Yorkshire) with her hair in plaits. Photo Simon I. Hill, Olicana Museum.
Women used pins to keep hair in place. These pins were frequently made of bone and the simplest ones have a ball-shaped head. Other pins were made of metal or jet. Some pins had little figures or busts at the head which represent Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
A selection of Roman bone hairpins from York. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust

Roman Cosmetics

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We know that Roman women and some men used make-up. The maid of a wealthy Roman woman had to be as skilled in putting on her mistress's make-up as in doing her hair.
A Roman lady and her maid. Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service
Powder made of chalk was used to whiten a woman's face. A mineral called red ochre was used to tint her lips and cheeks. The Romans had no mascara so powder made of ashes or a mineral called antimony was used to make dark eyelashes. Antimony is poisonous and it would have made women ill after a while!
Face plaque from a Roman pot found in York. York Archaeological Trust.
The ingredients for make-up were kept in little jars made of pottery or glass. They were mixed on a palette and applied with a long thin tool called a ligula.
Roman make-up items: notice the stone palette for mixing cosmetics, the ligula at the bottom and the tweezers on the left. At the top is a balance for weighing cosmetics. Verulamium Museum.
Scent was used by both men and women in Roman times and was kept in a little jar, usually made of glass, called an unguentarium. Favourite scents included lavender and sandalwood.
Glass scent bottle from Corbridge (Northumberland). Photo Simon I. Hill with kind permission of English Heritage

Roman Sports and Games

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The Romans introduced amphitheatres to Britain. An amphitheatre was an oval arena often used for bloodthirsty contests between armed men known as gladiators.
Reconstruction illustration of the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon (Gwent) as it may have appeared in the late 1st century. Illustration by Dale Evans after R. A. Anderson, CADW - Welsh Historic Monuments
The Romans loved hunting and found that much of Britain was great hunting country. There was a lot more open land and forest in Roman times than there is today which meant there were plenty of wild animals like deer and wild boar.
A wild boar. Photo Lesley Collett
The Romans were very keen on board games and used to gamble on the results. Gaming counters are common finds on archaeological sites.
Counters made of bone, glass and pottery used for Roman abacus and board games. York Archaeological Trust
We know a lot about sports and games from Roman writers. For example, the Roman poet Martial wrote of bears taken from Britain to Rome for contests in the amphitheatre. Archaeologists have excavated amphitheatres and found mosaics, pots, glass bowls and other objects showing hunting scenes.
4th century carved glass bowl showing a hunting scene. Found at Wint Hill (Somerset). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Did you know? The Romans did not have horse racing like we do with jockeys actually riding the horses, but they were very keen on chariot racing which took place in what was known as a circus.
Mosaic from the Roman villa at Horkstow (Lincolnshire) showing a chariot race. Kingston upon Hull Museums.

At the Amphitheatre

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Amphitheatres in Roman Britain were modelled on the famous Colosseum in Rome. They were oval in plan and had a central arena surrounded by rows of seating supported on the outside by very strong walls.
The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon (Gwent). Photo Simon I. Hill with kind permission CADW - Welsh Historic Monuments
A popular type of contest matched a man with a sword and shield, known as a mirmillo, against a man known as a retiarius who had a net and three-pointed spear. In the end either the first man was netted and stabbed to death or the second man was killed by the first man's sword!
Detail of gladiators - a swordsman and a retiarius - on a mosaic at Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
Gladiators were often criminals and slaves. If he was successful, however, a gladiator became a well known star rather like footballers today and his name would be well known. If a gladiator was a slave he could win his freedom by fighting bravely.
Detail of gladiators - a swordsman and a retiarius - on a mosaic at Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
A defeated gladiator was usually killed unless the crowd demanded his release because he had fought bravely. The most important person in the amphitheatre would give a thumbs up if he was to be killed and thumbs down if he was to be spared.
Gladiators prayed to Nemesis the goddess of fate before they went out to fight.
Altar dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, dedicated by Sextus Marcianus, at the amphitheatre at Chester. © Grosvenor Museum, Chester.

Hunting

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Hunting with hounds was one of the most popular sports in Roman Britain. Hunting scenes are often shown on mosaics, pots, and glass vessels.
4th century carved glass bowl showing a hunting scene. Found at Wint Hill (Somerset). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
We know that British hunting dogs were highly prized by the Romans. These dogs were probably like the deerhounds or wolfhounds of today. The animals the Romans hunted included hares, foxes and deer, but they also hunted animals which no longer live wild in Britain such as bears, wild boar and wolves.
An Irish deerhound. Encyclopaedia Britannica
Keen huntsmen worshipped Silvanus, the god of forests and wild places. On this little sculpture from Chedworth villa you can probably see a hound on the left and a stag on the right.
Relief of a hunter god from Chedworth Roman villa (Gloucestershire). There is a hound on the left and a stag on the right. Photo Simon I. Hill, Chedworth Roman Villa

Games and Pastimes

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People of all ages in Roman Britain seem to have played board games and other sorts of games whenever they had a bit of spare time.
Bone counters and a die used in Roman board games. Photo Simon I. Hill, York Archaeological Trust
A popular Roman board game was a sort of chess called ludus latrunculorum which means the 'game of thieves'. The board usually had 64 squares and each player aimed to take the other player's pieces by trapping them with his or her own.
Roman gaming board and counters. From Corbridge (Northumberland). Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
A Roman children's game called tabula lusoria was a bit like our noughts and crosses. The rules are: 1. each player needs three counters; 2. place your counters as shown on the edge of the circle; 3. taking it in turns each player moves a counter to the centre or to a point on the circle; 4. two counters cannot be at the same point at the same time. The winner is the player who gets his or her counters in a row.
The Tabula Lusoria board.
A very simple game played by Roman children was knucklebones. It was played with the knuckles or ankle bones of sheep and there were a number of different ways of scoring. This is one way of playing: 1. take three knucklebones; 2. each bone has four faces which were called dog, vulcan, eagle and caesar; 3. take it in turns to throw the bones up and catch them on the back of your hand; 4. see which side up the bones have landed and add up the points: dog = 1, vulcan = 3, eagle = 4, caesar = 6; if you drop the bones you score nothing. First to 100 points wins.
Roman children playing knucklebones. Illustration by Jonothan Potter, Roman Britain

Roman Religion

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Both the native Britons and the Romans worshipped many different gods and goddesses. Each of the gods and goddesses was thought to have the power to control human life in some way.
Relief of the goddess Minerva from Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
The Britons did not usually make images of their gods and goddesses. The Romans introduced the idea of making sculptures, models and pictures showing gods and goddesses as human beings.
The Roman god Hercules with his club on a stone block from Corbridge (Northumberland). On the left is the Greek goddess Athena, equivalent to the Roman Minerva. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
The Britons adopted the Roman gods and goddesses and worshipped them alongside their own. There are many altars from Britain which are dedicated to gods or goddesses who have both a Roman and a British name.
The god's head on the gable of the Roman temple at Bath. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
Ancient Roman religious ceremonies often took place out of doors and in public. The temples were places which only the priest could enter. However, new religions, like Mithraism, gradually spread through the Roman empire and needed temples with plenty of room for worshippers.
The Roman temple, built in about AD3 at Nîmes, France and dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons of the Emperor Augustus. It is now known as the Maison Carrée. Photo Patrick Ottaway
In Roman times worship of the gods and goddesses was based on a fair exchange. If you sacrificed an animal or brought a gift to the temple you expected the god or goddess to do what you asked. For example, you might have asked a god to cure your backache or find the person who stole your money. If you got what you asked for you had to say thank you in some way or you would be punished!
Detail of the distance slab from Bridgeness on the Antonine Wall showing a sacrifice to the goddess of Victory. Four men watch a man in a toga - probably the legionary commander - who is about to sacrifice a pig, sheep and bull. To accompany the ceremony there is music from a flute player. National Museums of Scotland
Jesus Christ was born in the Roman empire at Bethlehem in the province of Judaea. Jesus and his followers, the Christians, were persecuted because they refused to worship the emperor or any of the Roman gods and goddesses. Evidence for Christian worship in Britain, including churches, has been found by archaeologists in many parts of the country.
Reconstruction illustration of the 4th century Roman church at Colchester. The apse is the right hand end of the building. Illustration by Peter Froste. Peter Froste and Colchester Archaeological Trust
There is a lot of evidence for religious beliefs in Britain in Roman times. There are inscriptions on altars and religious subjects can be seen in sculpture, mosaic and wall painting. Archaeologists have studied temple buildings and can work out how religious ceremonies were performed.
Wooden model of the Celtic goddess Epona from Winchester - notice the keys in her left hand. Photo John Crook, Winchester Museums

Native Religious Beliefs

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It is thought that the Britons, like the Romans, had religious festivals at times of the year when important tasks like sowing and harvesting were carried out. According to some Roman writers the Britons had priests called druids.
Mosaic showing Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, and a farmer holding what is probably a hoe. From Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust
The Britons believed that everything in nature, the animals, the trees, the rivers, the mountains and so forth, had its own guardian spirit which should be treated with respect. The Romans also believed this and a spirit was called a genius in Latin. You can see that this one is holding a 'horn of plenty' (in Latin a cornucopia).
Statue of a genius from Carlisle. He holds a dish over an altar in his right hand and has a cornucopia (horn of plenty) in his left hand. Photo Simon I. Hill, Tullie House Museum, Carlisle
Before the Roman conquest the Britons usually worshipped in the open air at special places like forests, springs or wells. After the conquest people still did this at places like a famous well near Hadrian's Wall dedicated to the goddess Coventina.
Stone relief of three nymphs holding beakers and pouring water. Found at the site of Coventina's Well at Carrawburgh Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall, now in the museum at Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
One way in which the people of Roman Britain tried to ensure the fertility of the land was by praying to the Mother Goddesses who were known in Latin as the Matres. They are usually shown on statues as three women holding fruit or corn.
Sculpture of three mother goddesses (Matres) at Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
According to Julius Caesar the chief priests of the Britons were called druids. He wrote: 'The druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions'. The druids believed that oak trees were magical and holy.
Oak, the wood preferred by Roman carpenters for buildings. Photo Patrick Ottaway

The Gods and Goddesses of Rome

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The Romans believed that if they showed their gods and goddesses respect they would be protected against their enemies and rule the world for ever. Seven of the most important Roman gods and goddesses had the same names as planets which orbited the earth : Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, Sol (the sun, thought by the Romans to be a planet) and Luna (the moon). Other well-known gods and goddesses include Minerva, Apollo, Bacchus, Diana and Neptune.
Mosaic showing the head of the Roman goddess Venus at Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
Jupiter, the king of heaven, was regarded as the god of storms and thunder, and so he always carries thunderbolts. Juno was the queen of heaven and the Romans believed that she protected the women of the world.
Altar dedicated to Jupiter at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria) by Caballius Priscus, the commander (tribunus) of a cohort of Spanish auxiliary soldiers. Jupiter is referred to by the letters IOM meaning Jupiter, best and greatest (IUPITER OPTIMUS MAXIMUS). Photo Simon I Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport
Mars was the Roman god of war. It was believed that he was the father of Romulus who founded Rome.
Statue of the Mars, the Roman god of war from York. Yorkshire Museum, York
Mercury was the god of merchants and also the messenger of the gods. Mercury always carries a special sort of staff called a caduceus representing an olive stick and two snakes which Mercury had prevented from fighting each other.
Illustration showing the Roman god Mercury, holding his special staff, the caduceus, and presenting a dead soul to Pluto, the god of the underworld (left) and his wife, Persephone by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
Saturn was thought to be the oldest god and the father of Juno and Jupiter. The Romans believed that Saturn introduced agriculture and civilisation to the world. The festival of Saturn, Saturnalia, was celebrated in December when it was time to sow seeds for the next year's crops.
Mosaic showing the spirit of winter at Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust
Venus was the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Roman brides sacrificed a lock of their hair to Venus on their wedding day.
Clay figurine of the goddess Venus, found in York. York Archaeological Trust
Minerva, the daughter of Jupiter, was an important Roman goddess who was the patron of wisdom, arts and crafts. She is usually shown with an owl, the symbol of wisdom. Minerva wears a helmet and carries a shield because the Roman army needed her help when fighting its battles.
Relief of the goddess Minerva from Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Apollo was the god of prophecy who could foretell the future, but in Britain he is often shown on Roman mosaics as a god of song and music.
Relief of the Roman god Apollo, shown with his lyre, from Ribchester Roman fort (Lancashire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Ribchester Museum Trust
Bacchus was the youthful god of wine. He is often shown enjoying himself amongst groups of wild women known as maenads and creatures known as satyrs who were half man and half goat.
Bacchus, the Roman god of wine holding his special kind of wand called a thyrsus. A coloured drawing by John Lickman of a mosaic at Thruxton, Hampshire, now in Saffron Walden Museum. Saffron Walden Museum
Diana was the goddess of the flocks and the hunt. She is usually seen with a bow and arrow, and a hunting dog or a stag.
Sculpture of the goddess Diana at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Neptune was the god of the sea. He is usually shown with a dolphin and a spear with three points known as a trident which he used to cause storms.
Statue of Neptune as the god of the River Tyne from Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Did you know? The Romans loved dolphins. The writer Pliny noted that ' they come to meet vessels at sea and play and leap around them'.
Dolphin on a mosaic at Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa

Roman Religious Ceremonies

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Roman religious ceremonies often took place in the open air in front of a temple building. Making gifts to the god or goddess and the sacrifice of live animals, such as bulls, sheep or goats, was at the centre of most ceremonies.
Detail of the distance slab from Bridgeness on the Antonine Wall showing a sacrifice to the goddess of Victory. Four men watch a man in a toga - probably the legionary commander - who is about to sacrifice a pig, sheep and bull. To accompany the ceremony there is music from a flute player. National Museums of Scotland
The picture shows a Roman temple in France, but we know there were a few temples like this in Roman Britain. The temple stands on a platform known as a podium, reached by a flight of steps. At the top of the steps there are columns supporting a triangular gable which has rich carvings on it. Behind the columns is the mysterious shrine which only the priests could enter.
The Roman temple, built in about AD3 at Nîmes, France and dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons of the Emperor Augustus. It is now known as the Maison Carrée. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Roman religious ceremonies took place at altars which had dedications to the gods and goddesses inscribed on them. An altar had a dished area on the top known as the focus. This was where a fire of pine cones or pleasant smelling wood was made to attract the attention of the god or goddess.
Replica of an altar dedicated to Mithras at the fort at Carrawburgh on Hadrian's Wall showing the focus . Photo Simon I. Hill
Did you know? After an animal had been sacrificed, a man known as a haruspex, studied its guts. It was believed that this allowed him to foretell the future. The picture shows a statue base dedicated by a haruspex - can you see the letters H A R VS P ?
Roman Bath: the temple forecourt with the reconstructed altar (top) and an inscribed statue base dedicated by a haruspex or augur (bottom). Photo: Roman Bath Museum, Bath.

The Divine Emperor

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As the supreme ruler of the empire the Roman emperor was treated like one of the gods and was thought to become a god when he died.
Cameo in the semi-precious stone sardonyx of the Emperor Caracalla (211-217) dressed as Hercules with a lion's skin around his neck. From South Shields Roman fort (Tyne and Wear). Tyne and Wear Museums.
After an emperor died the Romans made him into a god. They thought that if the emperors were thought of as gods the people of the empire would be frightened of rebelling! Most of the major towns in the empire had temples dedicated to the emperors.
Roman temple dedicated to the Emperor Augustus and Empress Livia at Vienne, France. Photo Patrick Ottaway
In Britain the first temple dedicated to the emperor was at Colchester. It was dedicated to the Emperor Claudius after he died in the year 54, but was burnt down by Boudicca during her revolt in the year 60.
Bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Claudius, found in the River Alde in Suffolk. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Some emperors were a bit doubtful about whether they really would become a god after death. The Emperor Vespasian's dying words were ' I believe I am becoming a god', said in such a way as to show that he did not believe it.
Gold coin (aureus) of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79).On the reverse is a chariot drawn by four horses. Berlin
Did you know? The Roman emperor Commodus (ruled 180-192) believed he was the god Hercules. In the end he became so crazy he was murdered by his courtiers.
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Commodus (180-92). The reverse shows the goddess Minerva with a javelin. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust.

Demons and Evil Spirits

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The Romans were terrified of demons, devils, ghosts and other evil spirits which were thought to bring bad luck and even death if they were not respected.
Fragment of a small jet plaque from York showing a human figure in relief. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
The three gorgons were evil demons who had wings, sharp teeth and hair covered in hissing snakes. One of the Gorgons was named Medusa and if she looked at you, you would be turned to stone.
The gorgon Medusa on a mosaic at Bignor Roman villa (Sussex). Photo Simon I. Hill, Bignor Roman Villa
Images of the gorgon Medusa worn as an amulet or charm were popular in the Roman world as a way of protection against bad luck brought by a witches' 'evil eye'.
Jet medallion with the head of the gorgon Medusa. Yorkshire Museum, York
Pluto, also known as Hades, was the evil god of the underworld where you went after death. Only a black sheep could be offered to him in a sacrifice and while the priest killed the animal everyone had to turn away for fear of sudden death.
Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
Did you know? The Romans believed that the erect penis (often called a phallus) was protection against evil spirits. You will often see it carved on buildings or made into charms.
Erect penis (phallus) carved on stone slab in the headquarters building of Chesters fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.

Bath: A Sacred Spring

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At Bath there is a spring with hot water which has healing powers. Both the native Britons and the Romans thought it was sacred and magical. The spring was the home of a British goddess called Sulis and the Romans called Bath Aquae Sulis meaning 'the waters of Sulis'.
Bath (Aquae Sulis). Reconstruction of the Roman baths and sacred spring (in the building left of centre at the top). Illustration by John Ronayne, Bath Archaeological Trust.
Large numbers of objects have been found in the spring which were gifts to the goddess by people hoping for special favours.
Offerings to the goddess Sulis Minerva from the sacred spring at Bath. They include coins, handled vessels (paterae), flagons and, at the top, a mysterious face mask. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
Amongst the objects in the spring were a number of curses written on small lead tablets. People usually asked the goddess to curse someone who had done them wrong and promised her a reward if she gave them revenge. One of the curses reads: 'The person who has lifted my bronze vessel is utterly accursed. I give him to the temple of Sulis, whether woman or man, whether slave or free, whether boy or girl, and let him who has done this spill his own blood into the vessel itself'.
Lead curse tablets from the sacred spring at Bath. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
The Romans built a large reservoir around the sacred spring to contain the water and then piped it to an enormous bath house. People believed that they would recover from illness by bathing in the water and they probably drank it as well.
Detail of a reconstruction illustration of the baths and temple buildings at Bath showing the 'Great Bath'. Illustration by John Ronayne, Bath Archaeological Trust
Alongside the bath house stood a temple to the goddess Sulis who was linked to the Roman goddess Minerva. In the gable above the entrance there was a carving of a man's face. This is in a partly Roman and partly native British style. Notice the wild strands of hair and a beard. Around the face are two wreaths of oak leaves. The Romans wore oak wreaths when making sacrifices to their gods and goddesses.
The god's head on the gable of the Roman temple at Bath. Roman Bath Museum, Bath

Christianity in Roman Britain

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The first Christians in Britain worshipped in their own homes to avoid persecution. At Lullingstone Roman villa the walls of a private chapel were painted showing richly dressed people praying. They are standing with their arms outstretched as was usual in Roman times.
Painted wall plaster from the Christian chapel at Lullingstone Roman villa (Kent) showing people at prayer. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
At a villa in Dorset a mosaic was found which shows a person who is thought to be Jesus Christ because of the 'chi-rho' symbol behind his head. The orange fruits are probably pomegranates which are symbols of plenty because they have so many seeds.
The head of Jesus Christ on a mosaic from the villa at Hinton St Mary, Dorset. The round orange-coloured fruits are probably pomegranates which have many seeds and symbolise fertility. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
In the 4th century Roman Christians began to build churches and a few have been found in Britain. They usually have a small semi-circular area called an apse at the east end where the altar stood
Reconstruction illustration of the 4th century Roman church at Colchester. The apse is the right hand end of the building. Illustration by Peter Froste. Peter Froste and Colchester Archaeological Trust
To become a member of a Christian community you have to be baptised with water blessed by a priest. The scene shown on this lead tank are probably shows people waiting to be baptised.
Detail of the 4th century Roman lead tank from Walesby (Lincolnshire) used for Christian baptism showing figures who are probably preparing for a baptism. Photo Simon I. Hill, City and County Museum, Lincoln.
An important part of Christian worship is Holy Communion in which it is believed that the priest changes wine and bread into Jesus Christ's blood and flesh. A number of Roman silver vessels, spoons and other objects have been found in Britain which were probably used in the communion service.
Part of a hoard of Roman silver vessels and plaques of early 4th century date, probably church plate, found in the Roman town at Water Newton (Cambridgeshire). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
We can identify objects used in Christian worship because of what is known as the Chi-Rho or Christogram which looks like an X over a P. X and P are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek.
Part of a 4th century Roman lead tank used for Christian baptism found at Walesby (Lincolnshire). Notice the chi-rho - P over X - symbol. Photo Simon I. Hill, City and County Museum, Lincoln.
Did you know? In the year 312, the Emperor Constantine the Great allowed Christians in the Roman empire to worship freely for the first time. He did this because he had a vision of Christ before defeating a rival in battle.
Bronze coin of Emperor Constantine I - known as 'the Great' (306-37). York Archaeological Trust

Death and the Afterlife

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The Romans were very worried about what happens after death and were very frightened of being haunted by people who had not been properly buried.
Antefixes (roof edging tiles) with frightening faces found at Exeter. Exeter City Museums and Art Gallery.
The Romans had a lot of different ideas about what happened after death, but many people believed that the dead travelled to a shadowy underworld ruled by the god Pluto.
Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. Illustration by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain.
To get to the underworld the dead had to take a ferry across the River Styx steered by a sinister ferryman named Charon. Once they arrived in the underworld they had to get past the gates guarded by fierce gorgons and a many-headed dog called Cerberus.
Mosaic showing the head of the gorgon Medusa at Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust
The letters DM can be found on the tombstones of many of the people of Roman Britain. DM stands for Dis Manibus which means 'dedicated to the Manes' who were spirits of the underworld.
The letters DM meaning Dis Manibus on the top of a Roman tombstone from South Shields fort (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I. Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums
Christian beliefs about the afterlife are quite different from ancient Roman ideas. Christians believe that they will have an eternal life in heaven as long as they observe God's laws. A hope of eternal life was one reason why Christianity attracted many followers in the Roman world.
Painted wall plaster from the Christian chapel at Lullingstone Roman villa (Kent) showing people at prayer. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum

Death and Burial

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In the Roman world people were usually buried in cemeteries which lay alongside the main roads leading out of towns, forts and other settlements.
Illustration of the Roman cemetery at York showing tombstones lining the main road approaching the city from the south-west. Note that Roman tombstones were originally painted in bright colours, but the paint does not usually survive today. Patrick Ottaway
Most people were buried in simple grave pits, but sometimes they were put in coffins made of wood, lead or stone.
Drawing of a stone coffin (or sarcophagus) from London with the face of the dead man carved on the side.
The grave of an important or wealthy person was sometimes marked by a tombstone which had an inscription giving his or her name, age and other information.
Tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus, a standard bearer of the Ninth Legion, found in York. Yorkshire Museum, York.
We know about death and burial in Roman Britain because archaeologists have excavated cemeteries where they have found the skeletons of the dead still lying in their graves.
Roman grave with skeleton (4th century) from Winchester. Winchester Museums
We can get some idea of how the people of Roman Britain thought about the sadness of death from inscriptions like this one on the coffin of a dead child from York. It reads: 'To the spirits of the departed (and) of Simplicia Florentina, a most innocent soul (ANIME INNOCENTISSIMAE), who lived ten months (QUI VIXIT MENSES DECEM); her father, Felicius Simplex, made this: (soldier) of the Sixth Legion Victrix'
Inscription on a stone coffin from York dedicated to Simplicia Florentina by her father. She was only aged ten months when she died. © Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest, Oxford University

Burial of the Dead

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In the 1st and 2nd centuries the bodies of the dead in Roman Britain were usually cremated. While the body was burning it was thought that the soul escaped. After burning the ashes were collected and put into an urn or box for burial in the ground.
Roman cremation burial in a pot within a stone-lined pit found at South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums.
By the end of the 2nd century cremation had gone out of fashion and dead people were put straight into the ground in a grave which was usually a roughly bath-shaped pit.
Roman male skeleton (4th century) from York. York Archaeological Trust
Some people were given a wooden coffin, but wealthy people often had a lead or a stone coffin, known as a sarcophagus. Occasionally the stone coffins have an inscription giving the dead person's name and other information about him or her.
Drawing of the stone coffin (or sarcophagus) of a man named Valerius Amandinus (VALER AMANDINI) from London.
The Romans sometimes placed objects in graves with the dead body. It is most common to find pots which may have been used to contain food or wine given as offerings to the gods or, perhaps, to feed the dead person on his or her journey to the underworld.
Roman cremation burial (late 1st century) from Winchester. The burnt remains of the body were in the central grey pot and there are 22 other pottery vessels. Photo Patrick Ottaway Winchester Museums
A few Roman tombstones show people eating a meal. This was probably a way of showing that the spirit of the dead person was present at the funeral feast with all the friends and relatives.
Tombstone of a Roman lady named Julia Velva found in York. She is shown reclining on a couch at a family meal. Yorkshire Museum, York.

Roman Tombstones

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It was usually only soldiers and wealthy people who had proper tombstones in Roman times. They were set up in cemeteries close to the main roads so that passers-by would see how important the dead person had been in life.
Tombstones of Philus (left), a man from Gaul who was buried in Cirencester, and the cavalryman Rufus Sita (right) who was buried in Gloucester. Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery.
A soldier was usually shown in his best uniform on his tombstone and we can see details of his armour and his weapons. Cavalrymen are shown riding on their horses and spearing an enemy.
The tombstone of the Thracian cavalryman Sextus Valerius Genialis from Cirencester. Corinium Museum
The dead person is often shown in his or her best clothes with some favourite possessions. In this picture of a lady called Regina, she wears a fine cloak and you can see her jewellery box and balls of wool for knitting
Tombstone of a Roman lady named Regina, once a British slave from the Catuvellauni tribe (who lived in Hertfordshire and Essex) , who married her Syrian master, Barathes. On her right is her jewellery box and on her left balls of wool. Found at South Shields (Tyne and Wear). Photo Simon I Hill, Tyne and Wear Museums
Tombstones may show a dead person with members of his or her family. They would probably be buried in the same place when they died.
Roman tombstone showing a family group from Ilkley (West Yorkshire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Olicana Museum.
Inscriptions on tombstones always give the dead person's name and often give his or her age at death. The tombstone shown here is of a lady from Lincoln named Claudia Crisis who lived to be 90 years of age. She is the oldest woman known from Roman Britain!
Tombstone of a lady from Lincoln named Claudia Crysis who lived to the age of 90 (LXXXX). Photo Simon I. Hill, City and County Museum, Lincoln
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