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Sex slaves, executions in Roman London

Roman mourners recreated in Spitalfield, a scene from the Museum of London's Streetmuseum Londinium.

Roman mourners recreated in Spitalfield, a scene from the Museum of London's Streetmuseum Londinium.

Published Nov 2, 2013


London - At a cemetery on the eastern fringes of Roman London in 100AD, a sombre, yet grand ceremony was taking place. A prosperous citizen was being buried just outside the city boundaries — no Roman, however rich, could be buried within the city walls to prevent the spread of disease.

Mourners muttered prayers to the sun god, Mithras, as the body was laid to rest in its dark mausoleum.

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Overlooking the body, at the far end of the tomb, loomed a majestic stone sculpture of a Roman eagle clutching a writhing snake in its beak. This noble eagle would guarantee the protection of Jupiter, king of the gods, in the afterlife.

After nearly 2 000 years buried under the silt and mud and rubble of London, that eagle has been resurrected. If it hadn’t been for a keen-eyed archaeologist, it might have remained hidden for many centuries more.

On the last day of a dig in the East End, archaeologist David Sankey came across a clump of muddy stone, clogged with clay.

He and his team had been excavating the earth beneath a planned development of a 16-storey hotel near the Tower of London. The developers were due to begin construction the next day.

The team had found a few interesting artefacts in the dig — a bit of pottery, some animal bones — but nothing as spectacular as what they were about to unearth.

“I couldn’t tell what it was at first,” says Sankey. “I washed it and came across a beak, then a gap, then a wing. And I realised it was an eagle.”

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It was no ordinary eagle. It was a Roman eagle, from the first or second century AD, in mortal combat with a snake. More than that, the eagle is the most sophisticated piece of Roman sculpture ever found in London — almost complete except for a chip on its wing.

The eagle — on show in the Museum of London — symbolises Jupiter, the greatest of the Roman gods. And it adds another crucial layer to our understanding of Roman Britain.

At the time the eagle was carved, Londinium — as it was then known — was far from being a remote backwater of the Roman Empire. Colchester, or Camulodunum, may have been the capital of Roman Britain, but the 330 acres of Londinium — enclosed by three miles of Roman wall, much of which survives today — made it the biggest town in the country.

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Not long after the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD, Londinium began its journey to becoming the metropolis it is today. We are discovering more and more about everyday Londinium life, largely thanks to the development of new, modern buildings.

Earlier this year, 10 000 finds were excavated on the site of the new headquarters of the Bloomberg media empire near Mansion House Tube station in central London.

Among the discoveries, 23ft below ground level, were 250 leather shoes, pewter dinner plates, wooden writing tablets, copper brooches and lead plaques of prancing bulls. Not to mention the biggest collection of phalluses from a single Romano-British site. These phalluses were used as good-luck charms, carried as aides to sexual potency and even used as decorations on horse harnesses. The Romans had a much more easy-going approach to sex — and its public display — than we do today.

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Brothels abounded in Roman London. Young girls were often captured and forced to work as sex slaves. It was one brutal way the Romans sought to subjugate the people they had conquered.

Coins and tokens depicting sexual positions have been found in the mud of the Thames. Roman legionaries would have handed these to the brothel-keeper as payment for the act they desired. The poor girl who served them would never have seen any of the money.

Juvenal, the Roman poet, wrote that the politicians in Rome kept the city’s people under their thumb through “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses. The same went for the residents of Londinium. Give them food and entertainment, the thinking went, and they won’t rebel.

In 1987, London’s Roman amphitheatre was unearthed in the City. Among the discoveries was a timber sliding trapdoor, used to release wild animals into the arena.

Top of the bill would have been shows in which animals were set against each other, public executions and gladiator battles.

If they were successful in the ring, gladiators could become pin-ups. One Roman cup, discovered by archaeologists, is signed by a gladiator and a glamorous dancing girl, perhaps at the request of an early autograph-hunter.

But even if they won the adulation of the crowds, gladiators and dancing girls were still slaves.

If you were lucky enough to be a free Roman, life was sweet. When the Romans arrived, they set about importing their home city’s luxuries to this damp and ill-provisioned island. Archaeologists have found elegant furniture such as marble tables, cabinets and chairs with delicately carved lion’s claw feet.

Londinium jewellery was as finely worked as anything on Bond Street today. Finds include an amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet and exquisite hairpins.

The Romans were great shoppers and party-givers. Archaeologists have found wooden tablets inscribed with extensive shopping lists or invitations to lavish dinner parties. Those tablets also reveal the names of Londinium’s inhabitants — showing a mixture of Latin names and Celtic ones. Invaders lived right alongside the invaded.

Tacitus — the Roman historian whose father-in-law, Agricola, was Governor of Britain from 77 to 85 AD — wrote about how striking the British natives were. The Scots had red hair and big limbs; the Welsh had dark skins and curly hair. The British were a superstitious lot, he added, given to aggression.

When they settled in Londinium, the Romans transformed the stodgy diet hitherto eaten in the city’s taverns, introducing exotic imports from the Mediterranean.

Amphorae, or urns, were brought over loaded with spices, wine and olives. Pheasants — now the most common bird in the British countryside — were introduced by the Romans, who had encountered them in south-west Asia.

Differences persisted, though, between the Roman and the native diet. In 100AD, Roman legionaries, serving at the Vindolanda fort in Northumberland, wrote home to their families, asking for food packages: garlic, fish, olive oil, olives, lentils and wine. They didn’t care for the northern stodge favoured by the Scottish Picts — venison, cereal and pork fat.

What really got the Roman invaders down was the weather. In 98 AD, Tacitus said of our climate: “Caelum crebris imbribus ac nebulis foedum” — “The British sky is obscured by constant rain and cloud”.

Still, their oppressed Imperial subjects had a lot more to be grumpy about: there was no doubt they were second-class citizens.

No wonder that, in 61 AD, a great revolt against the Romans was led by Boudicea, Queen of a Celtic tribe. During the rebellion, Londinium was burnt down. The revolt was suppressed by Roman military might — and Boadicea died, either through illness or taking poison.

The Romans subsequently changed their tactics, finding more subtle ways to control the natives.

Tacitus explains how Governor Agricola set up Latin schools for the sons of the native British upper class and introduced them to “things with a touch of sinfulness to them”: drawing rooms, hot baths and elegant dinner parties.

As Tacitus writes: “In their stupidity, the British called this civilisation when it was all part of their servitude.”

The Romans didn’t just introduce us to baths, but also the gym. Fragments of thermae — public baths combined with gyms — survive in the City of London.

We can thank them, too, for the Roman roads that head out of London. For all their brilliance, those roads left one unfortunate legacy to the modern commuter: the narrowness of train and Tube seats.

The first Victorian trains were built to the same width as horse-drawn wagons, which had themselves been designed to fit the ruts left by Roman chariots.

The standard British rail gauge — 4ft 8½in — still mirrors the specification for a Roman war chariot. That figure, the Romans thought, reflected the size of a horse’s bottom, with a little wriggle room on either side. As our own bottoms have grown bigger, those seats have become more and more uncomfortable.

So next time you’re tightly packed into the 5.37 from Waterloo, you know who to blame: the Ben Hurs of Roman Londinium. - Daily Mail

* Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat And All That — How To Become A Latin Lover (Short Books).

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