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8. The Legacy of the Romans

The Romans have left the world a rich and varied legacy, and we do not need to look too far to find that Roman rule had an enormous impact on Britain.
Hadrian's Wall at Walltown Crags (Northumberland). Photo Simon I Hill, Roman Britain
The Romans made great changes to the British landscape. Many modern roads still follow the line of Roman roads. Most of the towns founded by the Romans, like London, York and Lincoln, are still towns today.
The surviving (southern) arch of the north gate of Roman Lincoln, now known as the Newport Arch. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Roman forts like Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall, which is shown here, have often been re-used for defence and for other purposes in the centuries since the Roman soldiers disappeared.
Reconstruction of a medieval tower house in Birdoswald Roman fort. Illustration by Kate Wilson, © Cumbria County Council
The legacy of Roman civilisation can still be seen in our architecture, engineering, law, literature, mathematics, money, religion, and writing. This is a legacy which we share with all the other European, north African and middle eastern countries which were once part of the empire.
One of the cast iron gates at Marble Arch, London (built in 1828) showing a Roman soldier. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The English language has taken many words and phrases from Latin and Latin is still used in logos and mottoes like this one which is used by Arsenal football club. The Latin words Victoria Concordia Crescit mean 'Victory springs from Unity'.
Arsenal football club crest with the Latin motto Victoria Concordia Crescit ('Victory comes from Unity'). With the kind permission of Arsenal Football Club
Did you know? The design of Britain's coinage is still based on the design of Roman coins. Some of the lettering is still in Latin. Look for D.G. which stands for Dei gratia, meaning 'by god's grace', and Regina, meaning 'queen'. Written around the edge of some £1 coins is a phrase from Vergil's Aeneid: 'decus et tutamen' which means 'glory and protection'.
£1 coin.

The Legacy of Roman Roads

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Roads still run along lines surveyed by the Roman engineers nearly 2000 years ago and we can easily spot the long straight stretches of Roman roads on maps and in the landscape. Some of these Roman roads have special names today, although they are not the names the Romans gave them.
Map of the main Roman roads in Britain showing modern names. Roman Britain
Ermine Street ran north from London. At Lincoln, it would have passed through this Roman arch which is part of the north gate of the town. Much of this Roman road is now followed by the modern A1 and A15.
The surviving (southern) arch of the north gate of Roman Lincoln, now known as the Newport Arch. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Fosse Way ran along a north-east / south-west line from Lincoln to Leicester and Cirencester before heading towards Exeter. All four towns were founded by the Romans.
Reconstruction illustration of the Roman legionary fortress at Exeter. Exeter City Museums and Art Gallery
Watling Street ran from London north-west to the Roman towns of St Albans and Wroxeter, and then on to the island of Anglesey off the north Wales coast. Much of this route is now followed by the A5.
The remains of the Roman bath house at Wroxeter (Shropshire). Photo Patrick Ottaway with the kind permission of English Heritage
Dere Street ran from York to Corbridge near Hadrian's Wall and then through the Wall into Scotland eventually reaching Cramond on the Firth of Forth. Today the Roman road is followed for much of the way from York to Hadrian's Wall by the A1.
The Roman site at Corbridge (Northumberland). Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.

The Legacy of Roman Towns

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Most towns founded by the Romans in Britain are still towns today. The Romans knew how to choose places which had good communications, a good water supply and good farmland around them.
Aerial view of York from the south-west. A.Crawshaw
You can usually spot an English town of Roman origin by its name which will have 'chester' 'caster' or 'cester' in it. These words derive from the Latin word castra meaning a camp which was used by the Anglo-Saxons for any Roman settlement. Colchester, Lancaster, Leicester, and Winchester are towns with names which give away their Roman origin, but you can find lots of others.
In Wales a place of Roman origin was often named using 'caer', a Welsh version of the Latin word castra meaning camp. It can be found in the names of the towns of Caerwent and Carmarthen as well as in Caerleon which means 'camp of the legions'.
Drain cover from the cold bath in the legionary fortress baths at Caerleon (Gwent). CADW -Welsh Historic Monuments.
In a few towns parts of the Roman walls can still be seen above ground. They may form part of the medieval town defences which in many cases follow the same line as the Roman walls. Stretches of Roman town walls can be seen at Lincoln and Roman fortress walls survive at Chester and York.
The 'Multangular Tower' at the west corner of the Roman fortress at York. The smaller stones in the lower half are Roman work and the larger stones above are medieval. Photo Lesley Collett
Some Roman walls which can still be seen above ground belonged to town buildings. In Leicester there is a wall, now called the Jewry Wall, which was part of the Roman town bath house. It probably survives because it was part of a church in Anglo-Saxon and later times.
The 'Jewry Wall' at Leicester, originally part of the exercise hall of the Roman town baths. Photo Patrick Ottaway

The Legacy of Latin

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In many parts of Europe, including France, Spain and Italy, the language people speak today is based directly on Latin. English is based on Anglo-Saxon, but has many words of Latin origin. Welsh also has words of Latin origin.
Coloured drawing by John Lickman of a mosaic found at Thruxton, Hampshire showing Bacchus, the Roman god of wine in the centre. The words at the top read QVINTVS NATALIVS NATALINVS ET BODENI who are probably the people who paid for the mosaic. Saffron Walden Museum
There are lots of English words in daily use which are derived from Latin words. Here are just five:
  • computer from Latin computare, to calculate
  • family from Latin familia, family
  • library from Latin liber, a book
  • millennium from Latin mille, a thousand
  • school from Latin schola
Notice board advertising a Millennium project. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Some Latin words are used in English to mean much the same as they did in Roman times. Here are four examples:
  • Auditorium part of a theatre occupied by the audience
  • Diploma a document giving an honour or privilege
  • Forum a meeting place
  • Stadium a place where sports are played
Reconstruction illustration of the Roman theatre at St Albans (Verulamium) Illustration by Alan Sorrell, Verulamium Museum.
Popular Latin sayings from Roman authors used today include:
  • Amor vincit omnia 'love conquers all' (the poet Horace)
  • Nil desperandum 'don't despair' (the poet Horace).
  • Tempus fugit 'time flies' (the poet Vergil)
  • Veni, vidi, vici 'I came, I saw, I conquered' (Julius Caesar)
Gilded bronze head of the goddess Minerva from the temple at Bath. Roman Bath Museum, Bath
Welsh has many words which are taken from Latin. Here are just five examples:
  • Ffenestr (window) from Latin fenestra
  • Llyfr (book) from Latin liber
  • Pont (bridge) from Latin pons
  • Porth (port) from Latin portus
  • Ysgol (school) from Latin schola
Caerleon Roman Bath Museum bilingual Welsh / English information board. Photo Simon I. Hill with kind permission CADW - Welsh Historic Monuments
One reason why we have so many words of Latin origin in English is that Latin has been used for centuries by people in professions like the church, the law and medicine. Latin was a language which could be understood by educated people all over Europe.
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 Christian church has used Latin since Roman times and it has only gradually been replaced by modern languages. Church words of Latin origin include:
  • Cathedral from Latin cathedra, a chair
  • Creed from Latin credere, to believe
  • Diocese from a Latin word for a province
  • 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
    Scientists use Latin names for all living things: plants, animals, insects, fungi, even bacteria. Most of them have no name in any other language. Do you recognise the plant in the picture and do you know its Latin name?
    Foxglove - in Latin digitalis because the flowers would fit over a finger or digit (in Latin digitus). Photo Patrick Ottaway
    Did you know? Schools, universities and businesses often have mottoes in Latin rather than English. Some of them were made up a long time ago when all educated people learnt Latin. Others are quite recent and are used because people still find Latin can express ideas clearly.

    The Architectural Legacy

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    You can see many buildings in the streets of our towns and cities today which imitate the buildings of the Roman world.
    The Royal Exchange in the City of London, built 1841-4, with a façade in the style of a Roman temple. Photo Patrick Ottaway
    A basilica has a central nave with aisles on either side. A basilica was originally used in Roman towns and forts as a meeting place, but has been used for Christian churches ever since Roman times.
    Reconstruction illustration of the drill hall at the Roman fort at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. Illustration by Kate Wilson, © Cumbria County Council
    Most theatres today use the so-called proscenium stage found in Roman theatres and the seats face banks of seating in a semi-circular auditorium.
    Reconstruction illustration of the Roman theatre at St Albans (Verulamium) Illustration by Alan Sorrell, Verulamium Museum.
    The Roman amphitheatre is the model for many sports arenas because the oval plan allows everyone to get a good view. You can see this at Wembley Stadium which is shown here or the well-named Oval cricket ground in London.
    Wembley stadium, London from the air. Wembley Stadium
    Triumphal arches in Roman style came back into fashion in the 19th century as you can see at Marble Arch in London or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
    Marble Arch, London, designed by John Nash in 1828 to resemble a Roman triumphal arch (moved to its present site in 1851). Photo Patrick Ottaway
    Buildings like Roman temples have been used as churches since the 18th century and also as banks and other places of business. This picture shows part of the Bank of England which is a copy of part of the Emperor Hadrian's villa at Tivoli in Italy.
    Tivoli Corner, part of the Bank of England, built in about 1800 to a design by Sir John Soane based on Emperor Hadrian's villa near Rome. Photo Patrick Ottaway
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