Thursday, 21 July 2016

British Museum - Part Two (The Romans)

A marble head thought to be of Julius Caesar, AD50,
from the sanctuary of Athena Polias at Priene, western Asia Minor
I have featured several collections of Roman finds from my local museum in Exeter to the Roman Legion museum in South Wales and Roman Villa finds in the south of England. The collection in the British Museum compliments these collections by bringing together examples of Roman items from around Britain and other parts of the Roman Empire.

From a historical wargamers perspective, the military finds are always going to be a major attraction, that can only add to our understanding when it comes to painting and modelling our collections. In addition the personal effects of the soldiers and the portraits of their leaders only add to that understanding and those principles underpin the focus of this post.

A cavalry combat helmet forms the centrepiece of the cabinet seen above next to bridle bits and horse furniture. The helmet is dated to around 1st century AD and was found in Ely in Cambridgeshire. The crest box and one cheek piece is missing together with an inner iron head piece and neck guard that would have provided the principle protection under the decorative bronze outer shell.

Peter Dennis' picture of Roman cavalry in action captures the look of the cavalry helmet and horse furniture

In the same cabinet, spurs from Gloucestershire, a caltrop from Walthamstow in London and a wooden pugio (dagger) also from a London grave site, thought either to be a practice weapon or a child's toy.

Further along in the cabinet (picture below) could be seen to the front centre scale and mail armour, next to replica scale (see above) to illustrate. These examples come from digs in Chester and Hod Hill in Dorset, the former a major Roman garrison town and the latter, a hill fort attacked by Vespasian on his march into the South West during the Claudian invasion.

The Hod Hill site also produced the artillery bolt heads seen that Vespasian's troops would have used against the defenders and replicate the example from Maiden Castle near Dorchester, where the bolt head was found embedded in the spine of the skeleton of one of the defenders.

The two bronze shield bosses are from Papcastle, Cumbria and Kirkham in Lancashire and dated to the 2nd-3rd century AD, with one being engraved with battle images featuring Mars the god of war.

Mars the God of War engraved on the shield boss

The Ribchester cavalry sports helmet is thought to have been worn during cavalry sport events. It is made of a copper alloy and is decorated with skirmishing cavalry and infantry. Fitting for a crest box and streamer attachments can still be seen on this remarkable piece.

Another example of a cavalry sports helmet seen below dates to the 3rd century AD and is made of a light copper alloy with a decorated brow featuring Mars and Minerva.

Bronze military diploma - Malpas, Cheshire, AD 103
This bronze military diploma is a copy of the master that would have been held in Rome. It was issued in the name of Emperor Trajan to Reburrus, a Spanish junior officer (decurion) in the 1st Pannonian cavalry regiment. This precious certificate granted the bearer citizenship and the right to marry.

In my post covering the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter I spent time looking at the finds connecting the II Augusta Legion to the city and so it was a pleasure to find the home team represented here in the National museum with this commemorative stone from Hadrian's Wall

LEG II AUG - II Augusta Legion on Hadrian's Wall
The other two examples of Legionary marks are these examples of roof tiles carrying the marks of the XX Legion based in Chester and the famous IX Legion Hispana (what did happen to them, if anything) based at York.

XX Legion and boar emblem based at Chester
Roof tile from York with the IX Legion mark - LEG IX HISP
The next three pictures illustrate the items of kit of the 1st century legionary in Britain displayed to show how and where they would have been carried.

My journeys to major Roman villa sites in the south of England have allowed me to show you some stunning examples of Roman art displayed in their mosaic floors.

Though on a much smaller scale to those villa examples, this exquisite 3rd century AD square mosaic, seen below,  discovered under the site of the Bank of England in the City of London in 1805, stands as a fine example of the art.

You can generally spot the latter examples of these floor mosaics by the colour incorporated into them in comparison to the earlier black and white 1st century ones.

The Bank of England Mosaic
The messages between Romans covering daily activity really throw a bright light on to the daily concerns of its citizens and other peoples and the ever growing collection of translated tablets coming out of Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall are adding to that body of knowledge.

The tablet below is a letter of appeal from a civilian to a governor seeking redress for a beating received at the hands of a subordinate.

" he beat(?) me all the more.......goods...or pour them down the drain(?). As befits an honest man(?) I implore your majesty not to allow me, an innocent man, to have been beaten with rods and, my lord, inasmuch as(?) I was unable to complain to the prefect because he was detained by ill-health. I have complained in vain(?) to the beneficiarius and the rest(?) of the centurions of his unit. Accordingly(?) I implore you mercifulness not to allow me, a man from overseas and an innocent man, about whose good faith you may inquire, to have been bloodied by rods as if I had permitted some crime."

The remains of textiles, due to its fragility, particularly from the period of Roman occupation, are always going to be extremely rare so it was quite a thrill to see these pieces of 4th century woollen chevron pattern cloth from a well in Cleveland

4th century Roman woollen cloth
I have seen the picture of the "Sword of Tiberius" many times in books on the Roman army and their weapons and so it was really exciting to see the item close up and I hope my photo does it justice as it really is an amazingly well preserved sword considering its age and the tinned bronze scabbard is a work of art.

The Sword of Tiberius, iron sword and tinned bronze scabbard
made about 15 BC found in the Rhine river, Mainz, Germany

As mentioned previously, the writings being translated from Roman writing tablets from Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall are bringing yet more understanding of day to day life on the Roman frontier in Britain and the translations of three letters from a certain Flavius Cerialus commander of the ninth cohort of Batavians stationed at Vindolanda between about AD 95 and 105 made fascinating reading. The picture below shows the third letter from the display.

The description of the translation: A request for clothing.

Clodius Super, a centurion, asks Cerialis to send clothing to Super's 'boys' perhaps meaning slaves rather than children or soldiers. The request has already been approved by an official named Valentinus, whose return from Gaul reflects the fact that officials, merchants and many other inhabitants of Roman Britain had frequent contact with continental Europe.

"Clodius Super to his Cerialis, greetings. I was pleased that our friend Valentinus on his return from Gaul has duly approved the clothing. Through him I greet you and ask that you send me the things which I need for the use of my boys, that is the cloaks ...saga, seven palliola, six (?) tunics, which you well know that I cannot properly get hold of here, since we are ... ready (?) for the boys transfer (?)... May you fare well my dearest and ...est lord and brother.

On the back:
"To Flavius Cerialis, prefect, from Clodius Super, centurion.

These pictures are of yet more items of military kit, with a particularly striking ivory gladius or sparta handle and the ubiquitous lead bullets that would indicate a high number of slingers in Roman formations.

The British Museum also has a superb collection of sculptures of the elite of Roman society, namely the Imperial elite and as an avid listener of the History of Rome podcast it's always a thrill to put a face to the name of a great or infamous Emperor and so I chose to finish this post with a look at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Pricipate and beyond.

Augustus, 63 BC - AD 14, perhaps many would say not only the first Emperor, but certainly one of the best.
Tiberius, 42 BC - AD 37 stepson to Augustus, a useful military commander,
but a less successful Emperor, clashing with the Senate and ruling with a reign of terror

Claudius, AD 41 - AD 54 has to be up in the top five Emperors bringing much needed stability after
the disastrous reign of  terror under Caligula and responsible for bringing Britannia into the empire

Vespasian, AD 60 - AD 79, The last man standing after the tumultuous time following the overthrowing
of Nero and the Claudian dynasty. The year of the four emperors ended up with a skilled general
and statesman in command and he would definitely be in my top five. 

Titus, AD 79 - AD81 the son of Vespasian and responsible for finishing his fathers campaign against the Jewish revolt
in Judaea. His reign was short but he had to deal with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and
Herculaneum and a terrible fire that devastated Rome.

Trajan, AD 98 - AD 117, arguably the best of the bunch alongside Augustus. An excellent
politician and soldier. He defeated the Dacians and threatened to do the same against the
Parthians until his untimely death when he looked set to imitate the exploits of Alexander the Great. 

Hadrian, AD 117 - AD 138, "the Greekling" after his bringing beards into fashion in Rome,
Hadrian reined in the expansion of the Empire under Trajan, to consolidate what was held.
Spent his time touring the Empire and staying out of Rome, being a great admirer of all things
Greek, he gave his name to the monument, his defensive wall across the north of England 

Aurelius, AD 161 - AD 180 the last of the great Emperors and in my top five, he pulled the Empire
together for the last time. A great soldier and philosopher, his war weariness was ended abruptly
by an untimely death after a long illness, that ended the resurrection of a united empire 

Severus AD 93 - AD 211 not part of the Principate, Severus was
a useful soldier-emperor, strengthening the defences of the Empire
he led a punitive expedition into Caledonia (modern Scotland) accompanied
by his delinquent sons, Caracalla and Geta. He died prematurely in
Eboracum (modern day York).

Caracalla AD 198 - AD 217, reigned jointly with his father, seen above and his brother
Geta, but would see him responsible for the murder of his brother in 211. He was
himself murdered by his Praetorian commander Macrinus on the road to Parthia.
Next up the British Museum Part Three, Italian Greeks, Latin States and Early Rome.


  1. I wasn't aware M.Aurelius was assassinated ? I always thought he died from cancer, of course you can never rule out someone helping things along with a pillow but I thought it was generally believed he died from natural causes.

    1. He wasn't, I was thinking of Caracalla as I was writing and a long illness and untimely death suddenly turned into an assasination, correction to follow!

  2. Very cool and interesting!

  3. A museum I would enjoy visiting one day. Thanks for the virtual museum tour, Jonathan!

    1. Make plenty of time Jon, its a big collection.