Roman Britain

Lost and Found – A Head of Its Time

On an evening jaunt around the back roads of Suffolk, not far from Saxmundham, I happened upon the hamlet of Rendham where a local boy, years before, had discovered the head of the Roman Emperor Claudius. That autumn night I wasn’t searching for Roman history but stumbled upon it nonetheless, as one does in a country oozing history from its pores.

It was my first visit to the area and I was just getting to know rural East Anglia, where  England’s famed green and pleasant land is alive and well. Here the scenery consists of mounds of harvested sugar beets awaiting processing; fields of pigs wallowing amongst their semi-circular metal shelters scattered like so many mini porcine Quonset huts; and a rolling landscape of green hedgerows and large oaks standing out on the horizon. The aroma of freshly dug soil and spread manure hangs lightly in the air.

Image 020 piles of sugar beet
Sugarbeets in Suffolk

Winding along the country roads, I slowed down for Rendham on the B1119 that runs east from Framlingham, and noticed a standard with a colourful coat of arms. I stopped. The coat of arms, set up in AD 2000, was divided into three tableaus. The parish church tower was in the top left and the four farm animals of Suffolk (cow, pig, horse and Suffolk black-face sheep) were in the top right. In the lower middle was the bridge that crosses the River Alde and below, sitting atop the river, was a severed bronze head, looking suspiciously Roman.

Rendham Coat of Arms
Rendham Coat of Arms

Rendham is a collection of houses, farms, the Church of St. Michael and the White Horse pub. Here the River Alde, which reaches the North Sea to the east at Orford, is little more than a stream this far inland.

It was inside the White Horse Pub where I discovered the identity of the Roman on the coat of arms. Once stopped, of course the pub was the obvious next step. The landlord directed me to a book which said that Claudius’ head was found in the river by a local boy in 1907, more than 1800 years after Claudius invaded Britannia in AD 43. The original bronze head is now in the British Museum, with copies in the Ipswich and Colchester Museums.

But how did Claudius’ head get here so many years ago? There is no known large Roman settlement in the area of Rendham so it had to have come from a Roman town further away. Historians think that the bronze statue head was deposited in the river by the rampaging Iceni and Trinovantes tribes led by Boudica during the AD 60/61 rebellion, and came from Camulodunum (modern Colchester) thirty miles to the south.

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Top 3 Uses for Roman Peacocks

#3  Meatballs – Only the wealthy could afford to eat peacock. But there was nothing that the Romans cooked that they didn’t think would be improved by the addition of honey and fish sauce. Yummy!

#2 Mascot – The Peacock was the symbol for Juno, top goddess and wife of Jupiter.

Sign at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester

#1 Mosaics – Your Roman dinner guests will be so impressed with your peacock mosaic flooring as they recline and munch on their peacock meatballs.

Peacock Mosaic at the Jewry Wall Museum, Leicester

The Jewry Wall in Leicester is one of the highest Roman walls still standing in Britain at 30 feet high. It was once the wall of the exercise room in the bath complex of Ratae Corieltauvorum, the Roman town where Leicester is now located.

Jewry Wall, Leicester

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Mayhem, Mosaics and Martyrdom – Verulamium

When I took a day trip to the town of St. Albans, the site of Verulamium just twenty miles north of London, I discovered some of the best mosaics in Britain at the Verulamium Museum. I was also surprised to find the remains of the only  Roman theatre still visible in Britain.

Just ten years into its incarnation as Roman Britain’s first town, Verulamium was ravaged by the rampaging tribes of Boudica in AD 60/61. With no legions nearby to protect it, the town was devastated.

Statue of Boudica in London

But once the rebelling Britons were subdued, it wasn’t long before rebuilding began and Verulamium became one of the province’s wealthiest towns. The mosaics here are distinctive and well preserved with colourful floral and geometric designs. Over forty mosaics dating from AD 150-300 have been found in the villas and town houses unearthed in the area.

Verulamium Shell Mosaic
Verulamium Floral Roundel Mosaic
Verulamium Oceanus Mosaic

St. Albans theatre, built in AD 140, is unlike most Roman theatres with its round orchestra. It was more like a small amphitheatre and may have been used for gladiatorial games and wild beast shows as well as for dramas and pantomimes.

Roman Theatre at Verulamium

St. Alban was Britain’s first Christian martyr. A Roman citizen, he was beheaded in the late third century AD in Verulamium. The site of his execution became a pilgrimage destination and a Saxon monastery was built in AD 793. The present day abbey is a 19th century restoration of a Norman abbey built in AD 1077.

View of St. Albans Abbey from Verulamium Park

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I did it!

Hadrian’s Wall Hike

It’s been a week since we finished hiking Hadrian’s Wall Path, ending up at Wallsend near Newcastle. It was a challenging experience – some of the crags were very steep and the weather was at times very cold, wet and windy.

At Wallsend – I did it!

We took eight days to complete the 84 mile/135 kilometre hike and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any faster. The first two days I had a sore left foot and a pain in my right leg, slowing me down. Fortunately by the third day I was back up to speed, which mind you still put me at the back of the pack. We had some keeners who were always out front.

The Group Stretches Out

Though some of our group had bad blisters or lost toenails, and a couple had to visit a doctor for treatment, everyone completed the hike. What a great group!

Lunch in a Turret

By walking the entire wall, I was able to see all the bits high on the crags which I hadn’t seen before. But it was a bit of a juggle trying to coordinate the amount of walking we had to do with visits to museums and forts along the way. I did manage to see most everything I wanted, including the new exhibit at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, the new 3D film at Roman Army Museum, and the renovations at the Chesterholm Museum at Vindolanda, although I had to hurry there because I only had an hour.

An unforgettable trek.

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Women of Roman Britain

In honour of International Woman’s Day, here are a few women I’ve discovered while exploring Roman footprints in Britannia.


The most famous, or infamous, woman from Roman Britain is Boudica, the Iceni warrior who led an army of native Britons on a rampage in AD 61, destroying the Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St. Alban’s) before being stopped by the Roman army. Her story was written, from the Roman perspective, by the writer Tacitus.

Statue of Boudica in London

But there are others, not so famous, whose names have come down to us through inscriptions and other writings which give us little glimpses into their lives.

Claudia Severa and Sulpicia Lepidina

The Vindolanda wooden writing tablets were first unearthed in 1973, having survived in the anaerobic soil at this fort site near Hadrian’s Wall. They reveal correspondence from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina. Claudia lived at a fort called Briga on the northern frontier of Britannia probably not far from Vindolanda. Her husband, Aelius Brocchus, was the prefect there. It is easy to imagine her loneliness in a place populated with hostile native tribes, soldiers, slaves, merchants and very few women of her own kind whom she could befriend. But she found a friend in Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the Flavius Cerialis, prefect of Vindolanda from the late first to the early second century AD.

Her letters include arrangements for a visit and a birthday party invitation. You can read the tablets (291 and 292) at

Regina of the Catuvellauni

At Arbeia Roman Fort, located in South Shields near Newcastle, we discover Regina through a gravestone erected by her husband, Barates who had come from Palmyra (Syria) and had owned her as a slave before he freed her and married her. She belonged to the Catuvellauni tribe from southern England. She is shown sitting in a wicker chair wearing a fashionable Romano-British dress, holding her spinning on her lap and opening her jewelry box. Below the Latin is a line of Palmyrene text in Aramaic.

This is the translation of her tombstone:

To the spirits of the departed (and) of Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates of Palmyra, Catuvellauni by birth, died aged 30.

In Palmyrene the inscription says: Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas.

Funerary Stele of Regina

Hermione, Daughter of Quintus

This inscription comes from Maryport on the western coast of Cumbria. Below the translation is her story from the interpretive sign at the Senhouse Roman Museum.

To Imperial Virtue … Hermione, daughter of Quintus, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled her vow.

“Hermione was a freeborn citizen of Greek extraction who, at the time she dedicated two large altars, was probably not married. Her choice of gods for veneration, Imperial Virtue and Juno, wife of Jupiter, shows that she followed mainstream Roman religion. Hermione was unusual, but not unique, in having enough money to commission two expensive altars, and in dedicating them without involving any of the men of her family. Usually, women relied on the head of their family for public demonstrations of faith.

It might be expected that Juno, who oversaw the lives of women and offered protection during marriage and childbirth, would have been a popular choice with the women of the province. However, the Maryport altar is the only one found so far in Britain which is dedicated to Juno by a woman.”

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Ruminating on Roman Roads

Wade’s Causeway on Wheeldale Moor

I’ve always wondered where some of the names of Roman Roads in Britain came from; they’re obviously not Latin – Watling Street, Dere Street, the Stanegate, etc. Today I was doing some research and found an answer in the book, Roman Roads in Britain by Hugh Davies.

We don’t actually know what the Romans called their roads in Britain but the names we do have derive from the Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who came after the Romans. Watling Street evolved over the centuries to its present form from the Anglo-Saxon Waclinga straete, meaning road leading to the Waclinga tribe. The Stanegate near Hadrian’s Wall comes from stane meaning stone and gate, the Norse for road, so it was known as the stone road.

The section of Roman road on the Wheeldale Moor in North Yorkshire that I visited in late 2010 is part of Wade’s Causeway that travels from Whitby on the east coast. Its name may come from a Norse legend about the sea giant, Wada or Wade. The sign at the site tells us that “he is said to have built the road for his wife, Bell, to herd her sheep along the way to moorland pastures.”

Some of Bell’s Sheep on the North York Moors?

We certainly saw a lot of sheep on the moors that day, perhaps they were some of hers.

Fording the modern road on Wheeldale Moor

We also forded several streams going through the desolate, heather-covered moors. There is always lots of adventure and great scenery to discover along ancient Roman roads.

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