Roads and Bricks: Why study the Romans?

Angharad Derbyshire

It’ll help you learn other languages.”

A good proportion of English comes from Latin.”

It might help you if you want to become a doctor… or a gardener.”

These are the top three reasons given for learning Latin upon a quick Google search. All of these are perfectly legitimate reasons. Latin, like all other modern and ancient languages, will better your understanding of language in general. It will give you an insight into the ways in which many modern languages developed. So, if you’re lucky enough to have the privilege of learning Latin, it’s an excellent option that opens several doors.

However, these explanations have always seemed to me slightly disenchanting in a way that is difficult to articulate: it appeared to me that they were quite superficial, and didn’t quite cut to the core of why a lot of Anglophone people are drawn to Classics in particular, over, say, Modern Foreign Languages or English Literature.

A more compelling answer can be found when we examine how else we interact with ancient people (particularly the Romans, for those of us who are based in Britain), leaving any linguistic interaction aside. It seems that all branches of the subject we’ve come to call “Classics” involves getting incrementally closer to an understanding of people from the past. Perhaps it is this promise of ‘closeness’, a promise of familiarity with people living some 2,000 years ago, which Classics uniquely offers through a variety of angles and sub-disciplines.

Medusa mosaic, 2nd cent. AD, Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex, UK.

Humans have a fascination for objects with a past: that’s why people are so willing to spend such large amounts of money on celebrity memorabilia. There is, after all, a sense that these objects bear witness to the past, and if we can touch them and interact with them, by proxy we touch fingers with whoever owned or crafted that object.

Objects from antiquity are no exception to this. A common genre of artefact in Roman Museums is the imprinted roof-tile, where fingerprints, footprints, and pawprints are visible on the ceramic surface, proving to us that the Romans do not just exist in our own minds, but were living, breathing (and in some cases, barking!) populations who once communed (read: stepped on) objects we can also commune with. However, most readily accessible objects which share a ‘touch-history’ with the Romans are (rightly or wrongly) stored behind glass in various museums, inaccessible to the shared touch of the modern-day visitor.

A Roman roof-tile with the imprints of bare and shod feet, 1st cent. AD, Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex, UK.

This perhaps gives a false impression of how regularly we interact with the Romans, in that it might be easy to assume that we can neatly partition our interactions with the Romans off into day trips to Roman sites such as Fishbourne (near Chichester, West Sussex), Vindolanda (by Hadrian’s Wall, near Bardon Mill, Northumberland), or Lullingstone Villa (near Eynsford, Kent). These are, without doubt, brilliant resources for teaching and learning about the history of Roman Britain, but they might suggest that the presence of the Romans is confined to these spaces alone, and that the modern world and modern buildings continue their separate existence, unaffected, outside the boundaries of English Heritage fencing.

Instead, the Romans are built (pun intended) into our buildings and our topography: brick shaped by Roman hands is still in everyday use. Such brick, discarded in the ruins of Verulamium, for instance, was repurposed to build St Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, and the same process can be found in many other ecclesiastical buildings throughout the country. This phenomenon is, understandably, more common in mainland Europe, where it is not confined to ecclesiastical buildings. Aside from the spectacular reuse of the Pantheon in Rome, and its neighbour San Lorenzo in Miranda – a church inside the Roman Forum which incorporates the cella and portico of the Roman Temple of Antoninus and Faustina – remains of the Servian Wall (erected in the 4th century BC) also feature inside the McDonald’s in the Roma Termini station!

San Lorenzo in Miranda, standing where the Roman Temple of Antonius and Faustina once did, of whose materials it partially consists (Rome, Italy).

This juxtaposition allows us to feel close to the past: we’re able to exist in a space that was, in some part, created by ancient hands – a space where the intentions of Roman architects mix with those of medieval and modern architects. Although this might not convey the continued ‘touch’ of the Romans as intensely as a dog-print tile, these buildings should carry a similar effect. We are once again reminded that the Romans do not just exist on the pages of Virgil or Tacitus, but instead seem to haunt our own material surroundings.

St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, UK.

It’s also important to note that our interactions with the Romans are not a direct communication, but instead one that has been interpreted by the intervening generations, who also interacted with the Romans and in turn left their own traces on Roman buildings. To give an example, the Norman crossing-tower of St Albans Cathedral is made of Roman stone, but shaped by Norman hands in the 11th century into distinctive semi-circular arches and columnar piers. When we see and interact with this tower today, we’re part of a growing collaboration of peoples and cultures through time. Understanding the presence of the Romans in our cities and buildings through studying Classical architecture, history, or literature allows us to understand the dynamics of these collaborations better, and to understand where we fit in too.

However, buildings are not the only traces the Romans left behind on our topology: Roman roads, in their vast network spanning England, Wales and roughly half of Scotland, are today the vestiges of the Roman material world that we encounter most often today.

In his book The Old Ways, the nature writer Robert Macfarlane emphasises that paths are “consensual”. Through treading and re-treading the same ground, humans collaborate and cooperate to create the physical markings in the soil that indicate the way to go. Each time we follow a way, whether it be a footpath or a motorway, the markings in front of us on the ground indicate that we are not the first to get there; they preserve an indication of earlier travellers, as we too leave traces for others in our own wake.

Perhaps this phenomenon shares similarities with the notion that objects and buildings hold memories and impressions of earlier users: when we travel along a Roman road, we travel in the footsteps of the Romans themselves, who lived and breathed and walked just as we do. Although the roadside buildings, and the surface of the roads themselves, will have changed immeasurably from when the surfaces of these roads were first laid, the very act of Roman road-building has dictated how we interact with the topography of Britain.

Map of the major Roman roads, a century after conquest.

If we were to walk any of the modern Watling Streets, the Fen Causeway (today the A1122), or the parts of the Fosse Way and Dere Street that are accessible today, our movement across the surface of the Earth would not be wholly of our own volition. Instead, by travelling, we habitually imitate the movements of the Romans themselves, perhaps now several metres above where they would have walked themselves. Indeed, if we were to travel between St Albans and London, between Lincoln and Norwich, or between Caenarfon and Catterick, our choice to travel between these places in our landscape would have been made for us already, by the Romans who chose to place Verulamium, Londinium, Lindum, Venta, and Segontium where they did, and to build durable structures in these locations.

However, it is also clear that, although our lives and our experiences of the material world are predicated around the Romans in ways that we might not expect, we are of course not the Romans. Despite the fact we interact with the same structures and building materials, when we walk along the Roman roads we should understand that they were the infrastructure that allowed the Romans to make literal inroads into Britannia for their empire – an empire which was ultimately built around structures of coercion and repression.

A denarius of the Emperor Claudius from AD 49–50. The reverse shows the triumphal arch celebrating his conquest of Britain: DE(VICTIS) BRITANN(IS) means ‘The Britons now being defeated’. Atop the arch stands an equestrian statue of Claudius, between trophies made of captured armour.

If we’re only starry-eyed about touching the brick a Roman citizen touched, or standing sandal-to-sandal with them, it might be worth thinking again. As immediate as the Romans might be, there are still lots of questions whose answers are not as immediate, and not as simple as palm-to-palm contact. Where did the legions stop on their march north? Who was in these legions? What languages did they speak? Where were they from? What did they think of Britannia? How did the inhabitants of their conquered lands feel about Roman occupation? How has the presence of the Romans been used by later generations, and why?

Recognising the modern presence of the Romans in the buildings and landscape of the lands they inhabited doesn’t fill a gap, but rather signals to a gap that needs to be filled by finding answers to these questions. It prompts us to reanimate the ghosts in our landscape, and to understand the processes that brought an empire which started in a small town on the west coast of Italy to South Shields on the River Tyne.

This is why studying Classics is such a rewarding and fulfilling pursuit: to understand how our lives, lands and journeys have been shaped by the Romans, it is important to ask why, and to what end, they manipulated these spaces in the first place. The answers may not make us feel ‘close’ to the Romans as a civilisation, but they will certainly help us to understand the structures that the Romans and their empire operated under, and the structures that have left such imprints on us today.

Angharad Derbyshire is a Classics undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. 

Further Reading

This is clearly quite a wide-ranging topic, but The Old Ways (Penguin, London, 2012) by Robert MacFarlane is an excellent place to start in thinking about path-making and walking as an instantiation of our ties to history and to the landscape.  For a more technical examination of Roman roads, Ray Laurence’s The Roads of Roman Italy: Mobility and Cultural Change (Routledge, London, 1999) is a very interesting book which touches on roads not just as infrastructure, but also as imperial monuments.  In terms of the adaptive reuse of Roman buildings, as far as I know no survey exists on this topic in Britain or Italy, but it’s always worth keeping an eye out in your everyday life: Roman ruins can pop up where you least expect them to. Among online resources, there is plenty to read about Roman roads in Britain at (run by the Roman Roads Research Association), and Roman road networks across Europe can be explored via Stanford University’s ORBIS project.