Iter Romanum: A Roman Journey – in Britain

Peter Hulse

We went on a Roman Journey the other day. It began in Vigornia (Worcester) but ended in Gloucestershire not far from the Fosse Way at Chedworth Roman Villa:

Chedworth Roman Villa.

All the way down the modern motorway, I couldn’t get the words of a song out of my head, learned long ago but not forgotten:

“Oh when I joined the Eagles
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away
A long march, a long march
And twenty years in store
When I left my girl at Clusium
Beside the threshing-floor…”

It’s the song of Guern the Hunter from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth[1] in which the main character Marcus Aquila is invalided out of the army after his first command is overrun by tribesmen stirred up by druids into a holy war; he undertakes to travel north in an attempt to retrieve the Eagle emblem of the vanished Ninth Legion, lost when under his father’s command ten years before.

This cast bronze figure of an eagle, known as the Silchester Eagle, was found in the Basilica of the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester in Hampshire, on 9 October 1866 during excavations undertaken by Revd J.G. Joyce; Rosemary Sutcliff said that it inspired her novel (now in Reading Museum, UK).

With him goes Esca his body servant and the two of them must pass beyond Hadrian’s Wall to try to track down the lost eagle. They find their first clue in the ruined fort of Trinomontium (now Newstead in Scotland), where they meet Guern the Hunter, a man of the Painted People, singing a Latin marching song he claims to have learned from the Legionaries. Later it becomes clear that Guern was a centurion of the lost Ninth Hispana. This is the moment when they first meet:

Marcus listened and felt a small unpleasant chill trickling up his spine… somebody – or something – was whistling the tune of a song that he knew well. He had marched to it more than once, for though an old song… The familiar words joined themselves to the tune in Marcus’s head, as he rose silently, and stood getting his stiffened leg into marching order. The whistling was drawing nearer, becoming every moment more clearly recognizable:

A long march[2]
a long march,
and twenty years in store…

Rounding the end of the barrack row, they came face to face with the singer, who was standing in the Sinister Gate. Marcus had not known what he had expected to see – perhaps nothing, which would have been worst of all. But what he did see pulled him up in astonishment, for the man – it was no ghost – standing with his hand on the bridle of a rough-coated pony, was one of the Painted People, such as he had lived among all summer…

The learned reader may well ask: “what’s the connection with Chedworth Roman Villa?” Two answers come to mind. Later in the trilogy of books that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote about the Aquila family, they live in a Villa that seems to bear a considerable similarity to Chedworth.[3] Perhaps more importantly, however, and, on a more personal level, I suspect reading this story and hearing it on Children’s Hour might have constituted a strong propellant into a lifetime of studying the Romans and the Greeks. I’m sure I’m not the only one!

But on with the Roman Journey. There were a lot of wonderful things at Chedworth, among which was this fine mosaic:

Personification of Winter (Hiems) wearing his birrus Britannicus mentioned in Diocletian’s Edict on Prices of AD 301 as a woollen product from Britain.[4]

Also available on site in this format:

The education area at Chedworth Roman Villa.

It so happened that I was busy completing this splendid jigsaw when I was approached by a patrician-looking man (he had the look of a Roman about him), who began to question me closely. It all reminded me of Horace Satires 1.9. In that poem he poet is taking a morning stroll, minding his own business, when someone whom he only vaguely knows comes up and pesters him with a lot questions that he doesn’t really want to answer:

Ibam forte Via Sacra, sicut meus est mos
nescio quid meditans nugarum, totus in illis.
accurrit quidam notus mihi nomine tantum.

I happened to be heading along the Sacred Way, as is my custom, contemplating some trivial matter, completely absorded in it. Someone known to me only by name runs up to me. (Satires 1.9.1–3)

In my case, this man asked “Why are you doing that?”

“I used to teach about it.”



“Ancient Greek?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

Then, desperate to get my attention and drag me away from my wonderful jigsaw: “Sanskrit?”

“Hmmmm. Never taught it but I did study it for a while, before I switched to Hellenistic Greek.”

No time to finish the jigsaw but, at that moment, a crowd of school children came into the education room… sic me servavit Apollo! (“Thus I was saved by Apollo.”)[5] But before we go, to balance Winter in his warm cloak, here is Spring holding a basket and a swallow:

Personification of Spring (Ver).

Corinium: Cirencester

We journeyed on and in the Museum at Cirencester we found the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius Pius Felix Invictus Augustus,otherwise known as Carausius:

Coins of Carausius in Cirencester Museum (L) and British Museum (R).

 … and another echo of the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff; this time the Silver Branch. Carausius, who seized power in AD 286 and declared himself Emperor in Rome and Northern Gaul (Imperium Britanniarum), appears in that book and, although a bit of a tough guy (judging by his appearance on his coinage) with a dubious reputation, inspires a considerable degree of loyalty in the main characters, Marcellus Flavius Aquila and a young army surgeon called Tiberius Lucius Justinianus:

The Emperor had halted at the upper end of the room, his gaze moving over the faces of the men gathered there; and his eyes under their thick bar of brows met those of the young surgeon. ‘Ah, a new face among us,’ said the Emperor, and crooked a finger. ‘Come here, boy.’ He heard the Camp Commandant speak his name and position quickly to Carausius. Then he was saluting before the man who had risen from a Scaldis river pilot to be Emperor of Britain; and suddenly he knew that he had been wrong. He had never seen the like of this man before.”

Could Carausiushave been the charismatic figure that Rosemary Sutcliff imagines? Two additional pieces of evidence strengthen the possibility that he was more than an old ‘seadog’ who took his chance:

BM 1972-7-17-1 (British Museum, London).

Here on the obverse we have the Emperor in all his British Imperial Splendour, and on the reverse we find, apart from the figure of Victory crowning Carausius, in the exergue the letters RSR. There is more:

BM 1967-9-1-1 (British Museum, London).

On the left we again have the Emperor but this time the exergue for Victory are the intials I. N. P. C. D. A. What to make of this string of seemingly unconnected initials? In fact, Carausius (or someone close to him, perhaps the Roman equivalent of a ‘spin-doctor’[6]) turns out to have been a considerable Vergilian scholar: the poet’s fourth and so-called “messianic” Eclogue reads:

                         … Redeunt Saturnia Regna,

Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto

‘The Saturnian kingdoms return (or ‘The Golden Age returns’), now a new generation descends from heaven above.’ (Verg. Ecl. 4.6–7)[7]

There is, of course, evidence of Vergil’s popularity throughout the Roman World: from a late 1st-century written exercise at Vindolanda quoting Aeneid 9.473,[8] to the scratched inscription conticuere omnes (“All fell silent”), from the opening of Aeneid 2 on a flue-tile found at Silchester. When, however, one adds in this silver denarius:

BM 1900-11-5-10 (British Museum, London).

with its adapted Vergilian tag of Expectate Veni (“Come, long-awaited one”), it seems to be clear that there was a distinctly literary flavour about Carausius’ propaganda machine. Honorius (r. 393–423) and Stilicho (guardian of Honorius, 395–408) had the poet Claudian (c.370–c.404) as their publicist. Perhaps, therefore, Carausius was better read than one might imagine from the little that we know of his personal history; or perhaps there were manuscripts of Vergil at his court, such as the owner of the Roman Villa at Low Ham (Somerset) might have possessed:

As well as Emperors who perhaps knew their Eclogues, there is also sweet music in the galleries at Corinium – “Thus sang Orpheus to his strings…” – and indeed the master musician is engaged in his magical work in a wonderful room at the museum’s centre:

This is the Barton Farm mosaic, originally reported by antiquaries, Newmarch and Buckman, in the following charming description, expressed in elegant prose of a bygone age:

The only remaining pavement we have now to describe, as having been discovered prior to 1849, is the one at the Barton. It was exposed in 1824, and is found to form the floor of a room, twenty-one feet square…  it consists of a central circle, which is occupied by Orpheus,

… who is habited in a Phrygian cap, studded with jewels, his body being covered with the tunic, fastened round the waist by a girdle; and from the left shoulder is wildly flowing a variously striped toga; the legs are covered by pantaloons, which reach a little below the knee, and on the feet are shoes; he is represented in a leaning posture, with the left knee elevated as a rest for the lyre, which is here a curious and rudely formed instrument. The only other figure in this circle is a dog, which is depicted as dancing on its hind legs. Around the central medallion is a circle devoted to birds…

… here the duck, goose, hen, peacock, the common and silver pheasant are all represented, walking around the circle with rapid strides, the birds being well brought out by some scrubby trees, with dark olive-green foliage, which occupy the fore and back ground of this scene. Then follows another and larger circle, separated from the former by an elegantly formed wreath of bay leaves; this, as indeed is also the whole of the pavement, is much injured by the growth of a walnut tree, the roots of which pressed and broke down the pavement, so that that which 1s not absolutely destroyed, is thus rendered very uneven; enough, however, is left to show that this larger circle was occupied by pictures of animals, in which the lion, panther, leopard, and tiger are spiritedly pourtrayed; these beasts are all walking in that measured pace befitting the solemn strains of the “Phrygii cantus,” they are subdued, not maddened, by the musician.”

The music fades…

It only remained to sample entertainment of a very different kind. Although the winding lanes of Cirencester belie, to some extent, its Roman past, Quern Lane and Lewis Lane have some connection with the Fosse Way and take us towards what remains of one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in Britain. It doesn’t look like this any more:

An artistic reconstruction of the amphitheatre at Cirencester (courtesy of Cirtencester Museum).

By night, the ghosts of long-dead gladiators may range abroad and the cries of a bloodthirsty crowd still echo. But when we arrived the scene was a tranquil one: we had to rely on the imagination to replay the combats of long ago:

Cirencester amphitheatre in its present state.

However, maiores umbrae cadebant (“longer shadows began to fall”): it was time to begin a return…

Peter Hulse is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has made a special study of Apollonius of Rhodes but has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the Classical world. He has written previously for Antigone about a medieval Latin poem about chess, about the tale of some American Argonauts, about the arrival of the celebrity Caecilius in Blighty, about the Helen Episode of Aeneid 2, and about Prudentius’ Psychomachia. He used to teach Latin, Greek and IT.

Further Reading:

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth (Oxford UP, 1954).

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Silver Branch (Oxford UP, 1957).

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Lantern Bearers (Oxford UP, 1959).

Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (Vintage, 2014).
A sound recording of the Eagle of the Ninth is available here.

Tom Holland, when discussing his favourite novels about Ancient Rome in The Times of 6 July 2023, described The Eagle of the Ninth as “Rosemary Sutcliff’s most celebrated novel, written for children in 1954 and still influencing blockbusting HBO fantasy series decades on.”

Channing Tatum in The Eagle (2011), based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth.


1 It was first published in 1954. The BBC Home Service produced a radio dramatisation which was first broadcast in six parts in Children’s Hour between 27 February and 3 April 1957.
2 Click the link to hear the sound of Rome: the song is about two minutes in.
3 “Aquila halted on the edge of the hanging woods, looking down. Below him he could see the farmstead under the great, bare swell of the downs; the russet-roofed huddle of buildings, the orchard behind, making a darker pattern on the paleness of the open turf, the barley just beginning to show its first tinge of harvest gold, the stream that rose under the orchard wall and wandered down the valley to tum the creaking wheel of the water-mill that ground their corn…” The opening passage of The Lantern Bearers; the Aquila in question, is a descendant of Marcus of the Eagle of the Ninth.
4 This decree was an attempt to fix maximum prices for a comprehensive list of goods and services and survives in the form of fragmentary inscriptions at various locations in the eastern Roman Empire. In a list of textiles, fourteen types of birrus are mentioned, one of which was associated with Britain and set at a maximum price of 6,000 denarii (!).
5 These are the final words of Satires 1.9.78.
6 Or, in Latin, Doctor Veritatis Versatilis??
7 The discovery of what the initials stand for is owed to Guy de la Bedoyere, “Carausius, Vergil and the marks RSR and INPCDA,” in N. Crummy (ed.), Image, Craft and the Classical World. Essays in Honour of Donald Bailey and Catherine Johns (Éditions Monique Mergoil, Montagnac, 2005) 187–95.
8 interea pavidam volitans pennata per urbem. But why would anyone on Hadrian’s Wall have been reading and practising writing this? For more on the Vindolanda Tablets, see this Antigone article.