The Romans in your town?

The view of Roman life purveyed in this piece from This is Hampshire may be excessively lurid, but at least the paper/website is using the interest aroused by 'Rome' on BBC2 to tell its readers about the Romans in their own neck of the woods. Have you got a similar story you could give to your local paper?

What was life like in Roman Southampton?

A BLOOD-SPATTERED Roman brandishes the severed head of the man who killed his wife and children, a woman bathes in the blood of a slaughtered bull and hundreds of soldiers meet a grisly end on the battlefields.

Stabbings, severed limbs and slit throats are a common occurrence as bloody battles and brutal violence – ranging from crucifixion to public rape – erupt in and around the city.

Yet this is a time of excess and pleasure as much as violence. Behind the blood-soaked walls of ancient Rome, an exhausting amount of enthusiastic bed hopping is taking place – and it's not confined to the beds.

Events in the public bathhouse – where dozens of men and women can indulge in a communal bath – are getting decidedly steamy.

Viewers are lapping it all up as the second series of BBC2 epic Rome gallops towards its bloodthirsty conclusion.

Made by the same people who brought us The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, Rome charts the birth of the Roman Empire through the eyes of ordinary citizens – and it is something of an eye opener!

It may be the most expensive BBC drama in history but the scenes of debauchery and brutality threaten to make it one of the most controversial.

Some critics dismiss the programme as a macho gore-fest or liken its racy shenanigans to Carry On. Others praise it as a jolly exciting romp (quite literally in some episodes) through a fascinating part of history.

Experts assure us the programme was meticulously researched and much of the goings on we see on screen are based on historical evidence telling us the Romans were a brutal lot.

But did the sex and violence spill over from the capital to the rest of the Empire?

“You have to remember the Romans came to Britain to exploit it,” says Karen Wardley, curator of archaeology at Southampton's Museum of Archaeology.

“One of the main exports was slaves. We look back now and see beautiful Roman villas and have an image of how things were, but in reality the Romans were brutal and nasty.”

Southampton could certainly be a lethal place during Roman times says the museum's archaeology manager, Andy Russel.

“We have plenty of records of armed gangs,” explains Mr Russel, an expert on Southampton's largest Roman settlement, Clausentum.

“There was no national police force so crime depended on having a strong right arm.”

Clausentum was built on a promontory on the east side of the River Itchen – now known as Bitterne Manor.

The site, which began life in AD 43 as a military base for the invading Romans, was an important port and later became a defensive fort.

Excavations have revealed traces of a bath-house, warehouses, roadways and tracks, and defences in the form of banks and walls.

While Hampshire was generally quite friendly towards the invading Romans, Mr Russel says things were not always so peaceful.

And, he reveals, the city may even have been the setting for a bloody battle to rival those played out on BBC2 every Wednesday and Sunday night.

“There may have been a battle of tooth and claw in Southampton,” he says. “There was a period when Britain declared itself independent from the rest of the Empire and a fort may have been built in Southampton in the AD 280s.

“The Roman Emperor wasn't very impressed with this and put together a fleet to reclaim Britain.

“We think they landed off the coast of the Isle of Wight and might have attacked the fort in Southampton before marching through to London.”

The Isle of Wight would have been used to conflict. Violent battles frequently erupted between the Romans and the tribes on the island, says Mr Russel. The result? Mass slaughter.

In the early days of the Roman invasion Clausentum was an important stopping-off point for the soldiers.

A huge warehouse was built here to store weapons and food for the troops.

Later the site began to grow into a civilian town and its location by the sea made it a perfect trading point.

“We know lead was being exported so there would have been lots of chunky dockers wandering around Southampton who were able to lift and move the heavy ingots around,” says Mr Russel.

And if the excesses of Rome weren't readily available in Hampshire, they were soon being shipped in via Southampton.

“It was very important to follow the Roman way of life. You had to have the right kind of house, the right clothes and the right food. Luxurious items were imported from Rome such as fancy pottery and olive oil, wine and fish sauce which was so important in Roman cuisine.

“Housewives in Bitterne would have armed themselves with a Roman recipe book written by a man called Appicius.

“It would have included dishes such as roast dormouse and lark's tongue pie. Some of these dishes and ways of life would be direct copies of the kind of excesses seen in Rome.”

12:00pm Sunday 8th July 2007

By Paula Thompson

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