The Real Roman Britain, Much More Sophisticated Than We Think.
Some historians tend to lump “Roman Britain” in with the “Ancient Britain” era of that country’s history, which is somewhat unfair. Just because parts of the Roman Britain era were into the BCE section of history, doesn’t mean Britons were all hairy people living in caves, wrapped in badly cured animal skins, with bad teeth and body odour.
Even though the historians are technically correct – Roman Britain is just a period and Ancient Britain is the era it belongs to, I tend to avoid the term “ancient” and use “Roman Britain” to describe the period I write in instead – it’s the same period, but it sounds more flattering. The Romans were incredibly sophisticated, with a degree of culture, engineering and medicine that made life comfortable, healthy and refined that for the time was absolutely mind-boggling.
They extended that comfort and ease to every culture and society they came across. Romans didn’t so much conquer as they seduced: Who wouldn’t trade in mud and grass huts for a padded couch, hot bath and scented oils? In this way, the Roman influence extended across half of the globe by the fifth century A.D., spread via flat Roman roads that saw traffic teaming back to Rome by the cartload.
We like to portray the Romans in films and books as barbaric pagans who slaughtered cows for their gods, had sex with their family members, gave their daughters to their friends in marriage contracts, kept slaves, held orgies, thought nothing of homosexuality, human sacrifice, gladiator fighting, and more.
And it’s true, they had their ruthless side.
But they did bring a settled influence upon more than half the world, that was far more progressive than any other civilization up to that point in time. For instance:
- They used indoor and outdoor plumbing, and kept human waste separate from clean drinking water.
- They practised dentistry, including the use of coloured false wooden and metal teeth to replace missing permanent adult teeth.
- They created and used prophylactics (condoms) to prevent unnecessary childbirth.
- They used the most admired engineering the world has ever seen to build roads, buildings and other civil works that in some parts of the world are still intact even today, over two thousand years later. Many of those engineering works were built without mortar, and they had an ability to cut stone with such preciseness that despite a lack of mortar, the stonework fit together almost seamlessly and can carry water without spilling a drop.
- They used aqueduct systems to pipe water from long distances to towns and cities – a public water works. The systems always used natural slopes and the fact that water runs downhill to maintain themselves. They did not need outside energy to keep the water running like our modern water systems do today.
- They used a hypocaust system – a system of indoor crawl spaces to carry hot air plus a central furnace – to keep their houses heated in winter. In other words: central heating.
Around the fifth century A.D. the Romans began to turn their attention inward upon their own internal strife and political turmoil. They withdrew their troops and legions from the extremes of the Roman Empire, including far flung lands like Britain. The Romans named them Britannia, and it is the name that eventually stuck.
The Saxons swept through the land the Romans deserted, seeing only farmlands rich for the picking. The native Celts and the Romano-British that had been born in Britain but raised in the Roman ways fought hard to keep their island to themselves. It is this troubled time when Arthur, if he existed, would have stepped to the fore and lead the people that Rome deserted, against the invading Saxons who were desperate for arable land to feed their hungry families, too. History shows that the British did hold back the Saxons for a time, but only briefly. Then the Saxons won, and Britain became England and the civilized culture that Rome left behind was superseded by the mores and society that the Anglo-Saxons stamped upon their new land.
But the influence of the Romans is still felt even today. Did you know that the British drive on the left side of the road (and Australians and other British Commonwealth countries) because Julius Caesar never personally visited that country? In the days when chariot driving and whips were first developed, everyone drove on the left, in order to avoid accidentally whipping foot traffic (you hold the reins in your left hand, and the whip in your right). But Julius Caesar was left-handed and insisted on driving on the right, so whatever country he visited changed the rules to suit his driving habits.
The United States first started out with traffic driving on the left, as the English did. It was only after the Declaration of Independence that all states switched over to driving on the right.
There’s a lot of habits we take for granted today that originated with the Romans and survived despite repeated invasions of Saxons, Normans, punk rock, and the Spice Girls.
I know I’ll be grateful forever just for the idea of bathing in hot water, for instance.
Diana By The Moon
HISTORICAL ROMANTIC SUSPENSE
He is Arthur’s man. His duty is his life. She fears and mistrusts him. The only way they will survive is to work together.
Finalist, Emma Darcy Award.
Diana — a fiery kitten of a Roman woman, who hides a terrible past, and struggles to lead her people on a desperate quest for survival against famine and Saxon raids, unable to trust anyone.
Alaric — proud Celtic warrior and trusted lieutenant to the upstart British leader, Arthur, who must overcome his hatred of Romans if he is to fulfill Arthur’s ambitions in the north.
A haunting tale of two lives touched by the coming of King Arthur, and two hearts & souls struggling to come together against odds as great as those against Britain itself. Only together will they survive, or else be sundered…forever.
Verus rested his hand on her shoulder in sympathy. He reached under his cloak and withdrew something, which he held out to her. “Here.”
It was his knife with the bronze and jeweled hilt. Eboracus, the Bishop of Eboracum, had given him the knife upon his christening. Diana had seen it in his hand at every meal she had ever shared with him.
“I want you to keep it, Diana. That little thing of yours has long passed the time when it should have been replaced. This knife has a good blade and it is long enough to reach any vital organs.”
Diana had reached out to take the knife but recoiled at his words, shocked.
Verus laughed. He picked up her hand and placed the knife in it. “Keep it as a reminder of me if you prefer, my gentle Diana. And when you think of me, remember that I made you a promise.” He straightened up and put his hand on his chest, over his heart. “If you need me, send word. I will come.”
Diana weighed the knife in her hand. “Where you are going, you will need every blade you have.”
“The jeweled hilt gets in the way and holding it throughout a whole day of fighting…” He reached for his belt again and withdrew a long, heavy knife with a plain hilt. “This is a much better tool for my needs.”
Diana stared at it. “Where did you get it?”
“Spoils of war,” Verus said offhandedly. His casualness told her how much Verus had truly changed. He meant he had killed the previous owner of the knife in combat. She swallowed.
Verus held out his hand. “Come, I’ll walk you back to the villa.”
“Where are you going?” She accepted his hand and stood.
“I’m meeting some of the men tonight to tell them tales of my glorious life in Arthur’s army. Bedivere the Great!” He laughed and started down the hill with her.
“Bedivere?” It was the Celtic rendering of Verus. “You call yourself Bedivere too?”
“It goes easier on most men’s tongues,” he said with a shrug. “There are no benefits in being from a Roman family there. Every man is equal.”
“Equal?” Diana gave a startled snort of laughter. It was another revolutionary idea, one that kept her occupied all the way back to the villa.
* * * * *
The screaming woke her.
Diana lay blinking away sleep and listening, puzzled, when the door curtain was thrown aside.
“Diana!” It was Lucilla’s voice. Diana sat up.
“What is it?” she asked her sister’s shadow.
“Wake the children and bring them to the triclinium. Hurry!”
Diana automatically reached for her cloak and girdle, while her mind dealt with a thousand questions. The screaming was coming from outside. Beneath the shrieks was a low heavy booming that filled her with foreboding, even though she did not recognize it. She shook Minna.
“What is happening? Why are the women screaming?” Diana asked Lucilla.
“Saxons!” Lucilla hissed, then spun away and was gone.
Coppery fear flooded Diana. Saxons! Here! She shook Minna harder, her own body trembling violently. She now knew what the booming noise was.
The Saxons were ramming the gates to the villa.
As soon as Minna roused, Diana pulled her out of bed and threw her cloak around her shoulders. She scooped up Titus, the smallest and pushed him into Minna’s arms. Diana picked up Marcus, who snuggled sleepily on her hip, then pushed Minna out of the room ahead of her.
Predawn light filled the sky. By the stout villa gates, short Roman sword in hand, Ambrosius stood with Lucilla. As Diana and Minna hurried along the verandah to the dining room, Lucilla turned and ran for the wing where she and Ambrosius and their boys lived.
Diana pushed open the heavy door and they moved inside.
Her father was standing at the main table, his arms up in the air, while her mother buckled the fastenings of his grandfather’s old legionnaire armor. At the sight of the polished chest plate, Diana felt dizzy. Her father was too old to be fighting!
Yet he had to fight.
Diana put Marcus on his feet and pushed him toward the divan, where Minna curled up with Titus. The little boy ran over and climbed up with his siblings and sat watching, his eyes enormous.
Ursula stepped back from her husband and picked up the short sword from the table. Her eyes met Diana’s and Diana saw tears glistening there. Ursula turned back to strap the sword around Marcellus’ waist.
“Hurry, woman!” her father hissed, his voice trembling.
Lucilla came into the room weeping, shepherding her three boys with her.
Marcellus’ jaw clenched. “No tears, daughter. We are Romans. Have Verus and the others gone to defend the gate?”
“Oh, Father! He’s not here! Verus has gone and so have nearly all the men—slaves, freedmen, even the farmers! Gone!”
“Sosia told me—they left last night. They’re going to join the Pendragon. Ambrosius is out there alone. Father, we’re completely defenseless!”
Marcellus’ face grew gray and mottled. “Gone? Left us? All of them?” he whispered.
“Mama!” Minna wailed, reaching for Ursula who pulled her daughter into her arms.
“Hush, child.” Ursula looked to her husband expectantly.
Alarmed Diana stepped closer. “Father?” she whispered. She saw his lips working but no sound emerged.
Outside, the heavy pounding on the outer gates was punctuated by sharp cracking and a strange tearing sound. Triumphant cries sounded.
“The gates have been breached,” Lucilla breathed.
“Mother of God save us!” Ursula invoked.
Lucilla whirled and slammed the door shut. She pushed the bolts home, weeping again.
Diana caught her father’s hand. “Father?”
His hand suddenly clenched hers, mashing her fingers together and a rictus of pain contorted his face. His right hand grabbed at the metal over his breast.
“Mother!” Diana cried out in warning as her father began to fall.
Ursula pushed Minna aside and leapt to help Diana lower Marcellus to the floor. His whole body was contorting with pain.
“The armor! Get it off!” Ursula ordered.
Diana worked frantically on the old leather buckles, her fingers trembling and unwieldy.
Shockingly, the door to the dining room shuddered under an almighty blow.
Ursula looked up, her eyes wide with fear.
“Lucilla!” Minna screamed.
Diana whirled around to Lucilla. Her sister had Marcellus’ sword and as Diana turned, Lucilla pushed the sword deep into her body and sagged to the floor. “I go to join Ambrosius,” Lucilla whispered weakly. “They will not reach me there.”
Minna screamed again, a wordless cry of protest.
Another blow on the door dislodged the bolt and the door quivered aside. Diana leapt to her feet and backed away from the doorway, away from the warriors with horned helmets who stood on the other side with their bloody battle axes glinting in the rays of the rising sun.
They boiled into the room, dozens of them and the smell of hot blood came with them. The women and children, all who were alive in the room, shrieked and fell back.
From between their ranks stepped the tallest of them all. He was a huge man with a horned helmet and a dirty beard, which curled over his thick belt. He looked around, sizing up the room.
Diana looked to her mother for it was Ursula’s place to stand before their attackers.
But her mother lay across her husband’s body, her eyes glazed and empty. From beneath her glinted the handle of her husband’s sword.
Diana held back her cry of dismay and horror. They had deserted her and the younger ones—all of them had escaped and left her alone to face her fate.
She glanced at Minna, who held Lucilla’s three boys and Titus and Marcus. They were shivering, watching her.
If Diana had ever doubted how insignificant her place was in the family—her place and the place of those trusting children she looked at now—then she doubted it no longer.
She barely hesitated. With a cry that sounded like an animal in pain, a cry she would never have thought herself capable of sounding, she spun and rushed at the Saxons. She had no idea what she intended.
The leader dealt with her with an ease that astonished her. She was flung across the room to smash against the wall with a solidness that stopped her breath and made her groan. Knowing there was no other choice, she turned and rushed back at him again.
He grabbed her arm and she froze as his knife pushed against her throat. He laughed, showing foul teeth amid the hairy lips.
He spoke a badly accented Latin. “Peace, woman. Dead I do not want you yet. There is fun to be had first.” And again he roared with laughter, his men laughing with him. As he laughed, his glance took in Minna and the boys and his laugh grew louder.
Fear grabbed Diana’s throat and clenched her stomach. But cold reason whispered to her.
I am alive. I’m alive and while I breathe still I will do whatever I must to keep us all alive. I, Diana, swear this by whoever listens.
And from the corner of her eye she saw the old wall fresco of the moon goddess, Diana, smiling upon her.
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