A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 2

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Circa B.C. 55—A.D. 410


"And left their usages, their arts and laws
To disappear by a slow gradual death,
To dwindle and to perish one by one,
Starved in these narrow bounds: but not the soul
Of Liberty."


WITH the invasion of Julius Cæsar and the occupation of England by the Romans a hundred years later, a very highly developed civilisation was brought to our shores. And though we no longer regard the dwellers in this land at that period as half-naked savages, painted blue and madly hurling immense stones at the orderly Roman legions as they endeavoured to step on to British soil, yet there is no doubt the newcomers were very far in advance of the inhabitants of the island they sought to conquer. Arrayed in short tunics of cloth or linen, with bare heads and legs, armed with broadswords and lances, standing in war-chariots drawn by well-trained ponies accustomed to the roughest country, each tribe under its own chief—these ancient Britons gallantly defended their land against the foreign foe. But very different were the organised legions against which they had to fight Each Roman soldier was armed with a well-tempered blade of steel, each head was protected by a lofty-crested helmet, while mail breastplates, greaves, and shields embossed with plates of iron, completed the equipment. Commanded by men chosen for their military skill, it is small wonder that they conquered the British tribes, even as those very British tribes—the Celts—had triumphed over the Iberians of old by means of a superior metal weapon.

The Britons fought with true courage, and for the first time in this land's social history we get glimpses of individual heroes rejoicing in elaborate names, few of which are less than four syllables. Stronger than his fellow's, Cassivelaunus, King of the Catuvelauni, keeps a large tract of country* free from the Roman, while his descendant Cunobelinus—the Cymbeline of Shakspere— defends his stronghold of Camalodunum, on the site of our modern Colchester, as some maintain. The defence of the old country was carried on by his son Caractacus, the stirring account of whose defeat and subsequent appearance in Rome are well known. Women, too, sprang up to defend the land against Roman invaders, and amongst them we get a mention of one of the first-named Queens in old British history. A glimpse of her conduct illumines for a moment these barbaric times.

Boadicea, the widowed Queen of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe, inhabiting Norfolk, burned with indignation at the insults offered to herself and her daughters by the Roman governors. Her own fierce courage inspired her people, and she proudly led the tribes, over which she still held sway, against Colchester, the headquarters of the Romans in the east. Her ranks were soon swollen by other discontented Britons, until she found herself at the head of something like 80,000 native warriors. A vivid picture of the Queen before the battle has been handed down by a Roman historian, as, standing up in her war-chariot, where sat her weeping daughters, her bare arms raised on high, her long, yellow hair floating over her shoulders, from which hung a tunic of many colours, her golden necklace and bracelets glistening in the sun, she resolutely addressed her faithful troops:

"Not as a Queen, the descendant of noble ancestors, possessed of great riches and wealth, but as one of the community, I lead you to avenge the loss of our liberty. The Roman army now opposed to us will never stand the shouts and clamour of so many thousands, much less their shock and fury. To-day, we conquer or we die. This is the last resource for me—a woman. Let the men live—if they please—as slaves."

The angry hosts made their way to Colchester, which was, as yet, unwalled, burst in and slaughtered the Romans with savage fury, and hastened on to further destruction. It was not until the Roman Governor himself advanced against the British Queen that the massacre was stopped, and at the last it is said that some 80,000 Britons lay dead on the battlefield, including women and children.

The tragic end of Boadicea, by suicide, throws a lurid light on her strength of character. Impulsive and fearless, with a passionate love of liberty, we learn that in those days of small opportunities there were women of this type in early Britain, a type which survived the Roman assimilation as well as the Teutonic invasions that swept over the country in later days.

The conquest more or less complete, the Romans found it easy to introduce into the newly acquired country all that had made life comfortable in their far-off Italian homes.

Their first great work was to convert the old British tracks into broad military highways, thus enabling their soldiers to march easily from one end of the island to another, as well as simplifying commercial intercourse. These roads were carried over the rivers by an extensive system of bridges built of timber on stone piers. Distances were made known by means of milestones, which were stone pillars on which were engraved the distance in numbers, the places between which the road extended, the name of the constructor, and the Roman Emperor in whose reign the stone was erected. At regular intervals of a day's journey were posting stations, where refreshments were obtainable. Indeed, the County Councillor of to-day might well make a study of the very complete system of road communication inaugurated by the Roman of old. The roads were the property of the State, which had entire control and supplied funds for their construction and maintenance. Each main line of road was under an inspector-in-chief, who held an important office, one filled by many a Roman princeling of repute. Nevertheless we get glimpses of fraudulent contractors and negligent magistrates prosecuted for the bad condition of the roads, which were finally so well constructed that many of them remained in England till the sixteenth century.

It is interesting to note that the country roads were under the control of the rural authorities, maintained by assessments, and that the city streets had to be repaired by the inhabitants, each householder being responsible for the portion immediately opposite his own house.

On or near the great main roads which freely intersected the island were the famous walled towns of the Romans. Boadicea had taught them a lesson at Colchester, and henceforth every city of repute was strongly walled, however advantageous its natural position. These walls were tremendously strong, for amid their many accomplishments the Romans were excellent masons. With tiles and bricks and well-cut stone bound together with durable mortar, they built, not for a day, but for eternity, and many of their weather-beaten walls have already stood the storm and stress of 1400 years. The towns were approached by gateways with rounded arches, inside which the streets were determined by the form of the Roman camp or of a British town. They had their public buildings like a miniature Rome: each had its temple, its theatre, its court of justice, and its public baths. With regard to the latter it may be instructive to remark that when the Roman civilisation was swept away in the fifth century, it took Englishmen 1400 years to re-learn the lesson that it is necessary to provide public baths for the inhabitants of our large cities. This, initiated in 1846, is but partially fulfilled now.

The construction of the Roman villa is too well known to need repetition here. How badly these foreigners from the sunny South felt the damp and cold of our island home is revealed by the elaborate warming apparatus in their houses as well as in their bath-rooms. The floors of their largest sitting-rooms were supported on rows of short thick pillars. This space was filled with heat issuing from a furnace without, which also fed the flue pipes introduced into the walls. Thus the houses were well warmed, though no fireplace or heating arrangement was visible, and it is interesting to note that, for warming the last and newest Sanatorium in England, this system has been adopted. The floors were elaborately pieced together in mosaic. The foundation was composed of concrete, made of pounded lime and bricks, sometimes nearly a foot thick. The mosaic patterns were composed of cubes of various colours in stone, terra-cotta or glass. Thus the floors were fire-proof, durable, beautiful, and easy to clean.

Not only was there a feeling for warmth and cleanliness among the Romans and Romanised British, but sanitary arrangements were carefully made. There was a regular water supply: large leaden mains were laid under the paving of the streets, branching off to the houses. These led to cisterns, from which descending supply pipes were laid on to various parts of the house, as in our systems of to-day. Neatly finished watercocks and draw-taps facilitated the supply, while the turncocks in the mains had movable key handles which rivalled those in modern use.

And the people who lived in these well-equipped houses: what of them? Their dress was at once simple and serviceable. They rejoiced in the yellow cloth toga of Roman fame, a semicircular garment with folds ample enough to cover the head in bad weather. Though worn in its natural colour for the most part, various officials had the toga bleached, while in times of mourning it was dyed black. Later the toga gave way to the tunic, women wearing theirs long and adorned with fringe. But the only part of Roman dress that has descended to us entire is the leathern shoe or sandal. This was often of superb workmanship, rich in ornament, and proportionately costly to buy. The soles were cut for right and left feet, as they are to-day.

Some maintain that, unlike the Britons, the Romans ate little beef or mutton. As a medicine, roast beef or beef tea was used, but not as food. Poultry, originally brought from Rome, fish and game, pork and venison, were the food of the wealthy, while the more common food consisted of vegetables flavoured with lard or bacon.

The following record of a Roman supper party is illuminating. The first course consisted of sea-hedgehogs, raw oysters, and asparagus; then came a fat fowl, more oysters and shell-fish with dates, roebuck, and wild boar. The third course was made up of wild boar's head, ducks, a compôte of river birds, hare, and cakes resembling our modern Yorkshire pudding.

Here is a Roman receipt called "Pig with Stuffing":—

"Clean out interior of pig and fill with the following stuffing. Pound an ounce of pepper, honey, and wine, make it hot; break a dry biscuit into bits and mix. Stir with a twig of green laurel and boil until the whole is thickened. Fill the pig with this; skin, stop up with paper, and put it into the oven to bake."

Receipts for boar and pig are numerous, for pork was a passion with the Romans. They would feed their pigs on figs and cook them with fifty different savours, for the Roman "cook was a poet."

Their fancy bread contained oysters, and was sold at about three shillings a peck loaf. Nor must it be forgotten that the Romans introduced into this country cherries, peaches, pears, mulberries, figs, damsons, medlars, quinces, walnuts, and vines. They likewise brought over the first fallow deer, pheasants, geese, fowls, and rabbits, while there were no limes, planes, sycamores, or sweet chestnuts before the Roman occupation.

They established extensive pottery works in various parts of the island; specially famous were those which stretched some twenty miles along the banks of the river Medway, where at least 2,000 men were employed. They must have astonished the ancient Britons by the beauty and ingenuity of their work in this as in many other branches of industry, and one can imagine their surprise at the Roman looking glass of polished metal, tooth combs, padlocks, thimbles, baby's bottles, glass jugs, &c.

These civilised peoples taught the ancient Briton to write letters on tablets covered with wax with pointed bronze pens. The letter finished, the tablet was closed, tied with thread, and sealed. It was then despatched by hand to the person to whom it was addressed. Having read the message, he rubbed it out, wrote the answer on the same tablet, and returned it.

But, with all their advanced civilisation, the amusements of the Romans were horribly cruel. One of their great delights was to set fierce animals to tear one another to pieces—not only bears and bulls, but elephants, tigers, giraffes, and even serpents. Three or four hundred bears might be killed in a single day. Criminals would be thrown to maddened bulls—"butcher'd to make a Roman holiday"; possibly in Britain also.

As in the case of the Stone Man and the Celt, we look into the tombs of the dead to learn the manners and customs of the living. The Romans dealt with their dead either by cremation or burial in wooden, clay, or lead coffins placed in stone sarcophagi The Christian ideal was dawning slowly, and the old superstition was still deeply rooted in the minds of the people that articles of various kinds buried in the tombs would add to the comfort of the departed spirits. The dead were clothed in full dress with their jewels and personal ornaments, while in their mouth was placed a coin for the payment of Charon, the ferryman of the nether regions. Often wine and food were placed on or near the coffin, and the idea of action in the future life is manifested by

the attention paid to the sandals, which were invariably placed by the dead body. Pathetic enough are the Latin inscriptions on some of the little tombs:

"To the gods of the shades.
To Succia Petronia, who lived
three years, four months, nine days
Valerius Peroniulus and Tuictia Sabina,
to their dearest daughter, made this."

Or again:

"To the gods of the shades.
To Simplicia Florentina
a most innocent thing
who lived ten months
her father of the sixth legion, the Victorious,
made this."

The traces of Christianity are of the scantiest description.

Nevertheless, to the Romans we owe the organisation of Christianity in our country, for they never forgot the distant province they had governed for over three hundred years, and when the time was ripe, they sent their little band of Benedictine monks to teach their brethren beyond the seas that Gospel that they themselves had learnt to love.

At last Rome called her legions home to defend their own country from the barbarians already knocking at her gates. And the Romans hurried from their island home in England to obey the call of duty. They left their splendid roads and bridges, their walled cities, luxurious villas and spacious baths, their extensive mines and manufactures, their temples and Christian churches, and the little lonely graves of their dead.

Yet something of despair seized the Romanised Britons as the last shiploads of Roman invaders waved farewell. They had grown to depend entirely on their conquerors for municipal government and defence along the Saxon shore, and three centuries of official protection had sapped away the very strength of their manhood and the vigour of their independence.

True, the wealth of the island had grown rapidly during the Roman occupation, which had secured three centuries of unbroken peace: her mineral resources had been explored; commerce had increased everywhere, owing to improved communication; agriculture had been developed until, after supplying her own needs, England could export corn in considerable quantities to other lands; and cities had sprung up connected by an elaborate network of roads. But all these developments were necessarily costly, and the land was crushed by a heavy system of taxation.

At the same time, though doubtless Britain was a more comfortable place to live in than of yore, the old tribal patriotism had vanished under the despotism of the Roman government. The Britons were not called on to defend their land; thus there was no national organisation, no cause to call forth the sacrifice of life, so potent a factor in the vigour of a nation.

Hence a certain dependence and effeminacy characterised the people, and no sturdy patriots of the Caractacus and Boadicea type are forthcoming at this period of the nation's social history.

Most of the advanced Roman civilisation was swept away wherever the barbaric Saxon secured a footing, but much remains to this day.

Do not all our months bear Latin names, July and August perpetuating the great Julius Cæsar and Augustus Cæsar? Do not our pennies bear the stamp of the Roman Britannia? Did not the Roman teach us to put on mourning for our dead? They discovered our oyster-beds, they constructed our roads, they bridged our rivers. To use the words of a modern historian: "Rome left few traces on our language, none on our early laws, little on our blood, but … wherever a civilised language is spoken, men think in the forms and speak the grammar, reason on the principles, and are judged and governed according to the standards of law and good government, which have descended to them from Imperial Rome." So that to-day we are all, "in the best sense of the word, children of the Roman Empire."