Monday 9 November 2015

The Joy of Roman Britain by Caroline Lawrence

In 2014, my publishers suggested that I write a series of books for children set in Roman Britain. My first series, The Roman Mysteries, came out over ten years ago and although the books are still used by schools studying the Romans, there is now a whole new generation of children. So the idea of a new Roman series in a different setting was very appealing, especially as Roman Britain is now on the curriculum. 

But how could chilly Britannia compare with sun-soaked Italy? And how would I find historical events as exciting as the eruption of Vesuvius, the opening of the Colosseum and the mysterious death of the Emperor Titus? 

To inspire myself, I sat down and made a list of fun and exciting things about Roman Britain:

1. Julius Caesar’s brief invasion
He came, he saw, he nearly got conquered. Twice in quick succession. As much by the weather as by the half-naked, tattooed warriors. Both times, Caesar managed to get back to Gaul (France) safely. Apart from a flash visit by Caligula in AD 40, Roman soldiers were not to set foot on the soil of Britannia for nearly another century.

Mural of Claudius and elephants at the Museum of London
2. Claudius’ conquest, with elephants!
The doddery emperor Claudius needed to gain the respect of the senators and citizens of Rome. So he decided to do what even the great Julius Caesar hadn't managed: conquer Britannia, the mysterious land at the edge of the world. He did it by sending his best troops. It was the great achievement of his life, and he named his son Britannicus in honour of it. 

3. Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni
Whether her hair was red or not, Boudicca has fired the imagination of women and men since she led her troops to destroy three Roman towns in Britain and slaughter as many as 70,000 people. Much has been written about her but this warrior queen will run and run, not least because she has become a historical poster girl for Ginger Power.

4. Mystical, mysterious Druids
As the spoof band members in the cult movie This is Spinal Tap say: "Nobody knows who they were or what they were doing..." Because we know so little about the Druids, you can do almost anything with them. The more I ponder them, the more I suspect they must have a lot in common with nature-loving Native Americans. Especially spooky is the idea of the burning wicker man. 

5. Legionaries, forts and battles
There's lots of fun to be had detailing the life of a legionary, the structure of the Roman army and some exciting battles. And there are thousands of well-informed re-enactors eager to tell us what it feels like to take off chain mail after a long march or how to spark a fire.

6. Famous for hunting dogs and prowling wolves!
Kids love animals and Roman Britain was famous for them, not least for the fact that one of Britannia's major exports were hunting dogs. 

7. Blue tattooed warriors with twisty gold torcs
The current Celts exhibition at the British Museum shows us the type of bling the Britons loved. Gold torcs, silver and enamel brooches, chariots of leather, iron, hide and wood. On all of them animals and faces are hidden in mystic swirls and spirals, once again attesting the Britons' passion for living creatures.

8. Bath Spa
With its creative use of coloured lights and holograms around the ancient ruins and artefacts of the thermal springs, The Roman Baths Museum is probably my favourite in the world. Sometimes you will even find actors dressed as ancient Romans eager to tell you about their lives in Aquae Sulis. The steamy green water would have been clear in Roman times but the place is still wonderfully atmospheric. 

9. Fishbourne Roman Palace
Discovered in the 1960's, Fishbourne is an opulent Italian villa built on the south coast near Chichester. Built in the early days of the Roman occupation of Britain, its garden might possibly be the first on this island, as the natives did not have the Roman concept of imposing order upon nature. Often the site of re-enactment displays and Roman craft workshops, Fishbourne Roman Palace is another great site for schoolchildren to visit.

10. Londinium’s amphitheatre
Underneath London's guildhall are the remains of an amphitheatre for beast fights, gladiatorial combats and other Roman hijinks. Sometimes you can even attend gladiatorial combats performed by enthusiastic re-enactors. These include appearances by various emperors in horse-drawn chariots, period instruments and plenty of fake but realistic blood. Great fun for the whole family. 

11. Roman Wall Blues
A decade or so before the extraordinary Vindolanda tablets came to light, the poet and classicist W.H. Auden wrote a poem from the point of view of a Roman auxiliary soldier serving on Hadrian's wall. It's so good that I am going to insert it below. You can even hear the great man reciting his own poem here


Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

Although I decided to set the books in AD 94-96 – after Caesar, Claudius and Boudicca and before Hadrian's wall – I can still use elements of the the three earlier stories and also have my characters visit Vindolanda. 

12. Perhaps the best aspect of writing books set in Roman Britain is that almost every region in England and Wales claims a Roman presence. There are some superb museums with Roman collections, ranging from the British Museum and Museum of London to medium sized collections like that at the Corinium Museum and the Ashmolean to small gems like the Roman Museum in Canterbury. I can't wait to discover more museums and sites, and more of this island's heritage, as I immerse myself in the world of Roman Britain. 

Caroline Lawrence's first Roman Quest book, Escape from Rome, launched in May 2016. 


Ann Turnbull said...

I've always loved that poem! And on the same theme, different style, A. E. Housman's "On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble".

And as you say, there are Roman ruins everywhere here. I live near Wroxeter (Viroconium) which was always fascinating to visit but has recently had new reconstructions and interpretive centre.

Ann Turnbull said...

Sorry, that should have read "AND has recently had new reconstructions..." They do make it even better!

Sue Purkiss said...

I love that Auden poem too!

Becca McCallum said...

I loved (and still love) The Eagle of the Ninth - partly because it was set in a landscape that I recognised.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for nice comments, gals!