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Life in Roman Britain

Life under the Roman occupation: an overview

The influence of the Romans brought about many changes in lifestyle. Prior to the Roman occupation the Celtic tribes of Britain had focused their daily life around the hillforts. These hillforts were simple defended camps on higher ground, in which the chieftain or king of the local tribe would live along with many of his animals, plus bodyguards, slaves and some members of his tribe. Within these camps were a number of simple roundhouses in which separate families lived. Other members of the tribe would live outside the hillforts, in small villages or isolated farmhouses. After the Roman invasion, "towns" and villages began to spring up on lower ground, often close to a river. These towns were simple in design with a main street running through the centre, and shops, houses and public buildings built alongside.

The houses of the Roman period were very different to the simple thatched roundhouses of the Iron Age. Roman houses were normally rectangular and built of a timber frame with wattle and daub inserts. They were often of two storeys and the roofs would be tiled. Inside the house there would be a cement floor, and sometimes highly-decorated tessellated mosaic pavements with geometrical designs. Some of the larger houses were equipped with under-floor heating (hypocausts), which consisted of a floor raised on brick pillars and a furnace built under the floor to allow heat to spread throughout the space between the ground and the raised floor. A system of flues would carry the heat from the basement to other parts of the building. In Herefordshire, we have evidence of mosaic floors and hypocaust systems from the Roman town at Kenchester.

Public buildings were also a feature of Roman towns. In Herefordshire we do not have much evidence of public buildings, but Kenchester does appear to have had a bath complex. The baths were an important part of Roman daily life, as men would go there to socialise, exercise and relax. Most baths consisted of three baths at different temperatures: the frigidarium (cold room); thetepidarium (warm room); and the caldarium (hot room). The rooms were heated by the hypocaust system explained above. The men would work their way around these three rooms, taking a dip in each to invigorate the mind and body. Rich men would spend whole days at the baths, being waited on by their servants, playing games and socialising. There would often be people on hand to give massages and to cleanse the client's body by rubbing in olive oil and then scraping it off with an instrument like a blunt knife, known as a strigil. In ancient Rome women were also permitted to use the baths, but had their own bath day separate from the men so that the two would never mix. Evidence from sites such as Caerleon in Monmouthshire suggests that at least some women in Roman Britain also used the public baths.

The richer members of Romano-British society, and those men who worked for the Romans, began to wear the Roman toga style of clothing. This consisted of a loose wrap-around piece of cloth. Many men also shaved and wore their hair short, like Romans. The poorer men of Roman Britain continued to wear the older Celtic style of clothes, consisting of a woollen tunic and trousers.

The greatest influence of the Romans was seen in trade and industry. Up until this time the Iron Age people had produced enough crops to feed themselves, and markets had been small, local affairs with not much cross-country trading. The influx of the Roman army meant that there was now an increased and permanent demand for crops, meat, leather and horses, all of which had to be provided by the local community. The larger the industry became, with new roads, public buildings and houses, the more need there was for engineers, carpenters and masons and the greater the need for raw materials. The Iron Age community began to learn new skills in order to create a romanised Britain. The system by which the local people provided the corn for soldiers was known as Tribute Tax. This would have caused an increase in the clearing of land for arable cultivation and resulted in the use of more rotary querns and corn-drying ovens.

Continental products were also being brought into the country. High-quality pottery and tableware was a feature of ordinary life for the Romans, and soon Britain was creating a demand for similar goods. One typical and easily-recognisable style of Roman pottery is known as Samian ware. This was red glazed pottery that was highly decorated with scenes depicting scenes of hunting and fishing. It was not an everyday kind of pottery and was only used at important banquets, due to the expense and time spent creating it. Samian ware was made in Roman Gaul (modern France), and extensive study of its clays and decoration has led to the identification of individual workshops that produced it. Wine was also being imported from Italy and other parts of the empire as Britain was being opened up to the world beyond her shores.

The Romans are famous for their road building, and they were quick to set up a network across the country enabling troops to travel quickly from A to B - usually in as straight a line as possible. Roman surveyors would plot a route between two points using a groma, four weighted strings hanging from a cross on a pole. The path of the road would then be cleared and a route cut into the ground. Foundations of chalk or gravel would be laid, and on top a layer of paving stones or cobbles would have completed the road surface. To prevent the build-up of surface water the Romans often dug drainage channels on either side of the road to carry the water away. Roman roads also had quite a pronounced camber (the curve of the road surface) to encourage the water to run off into the drains.

The Roman occupation brought about many changes to life in Britain, but these developments mainly affected the upper classes - those who could afford to build heated villas and visit the baths. For the ordinary farmer of Iron Age Herefordshire, the Roman invasion did not affect his day to day living to any great extent, and for some time he continued to wear his Celtic woollen clothes, live in his thatched roundhouse and feed his family on the food that he himself had grown.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]