Went today to see the lovely Roman ruins at St Albans, or Verulamium as it was known from C1 AD when the Romans were rampaging about making a nuisance of themselves/in cahoots with the locals (depending on which academics’ arguments/the evidence you find most persuasive).
Now I’m spoilt when it comes to ruins, having lived three years in Rome, but I thought I should support my local(ish) remains, which are actually important ones, if less visually impressive. I’m glad I did too, as they are very interesting. Even Regular Phil, my OH, thought so after being promised a pub lunch and an ice-cream if he came with me.
First up though, was a sign pointing us to Romeland!
Now Verulamium has basically a Roman theatre – the only one (I think) visible still in the UK – a mosaic-covered hypocaust (underfloor heating), bits of town wall, and two museums.
We started with the theatre, whose visible remains are second century and helpfully labelled, although I found some of it a bit confusing. At the entrance is said to be a ‘Triumphal Arch’. I know very little about Roman theatre architecture, and ‘Csapo & Slater: The context of ancient drama’ is silent on the subject of such arches in context of a theatre. Can anyone enlighten me?
The staging also seemed odd, having a definite focal point which, as Dr Niblett points out in her guide, is in the middle and if performances were on the stage, half the audience wouldn’t be able to see. This picture is taken from ‘stage right’, and the columns would have been at the back of the stage. To me this suggests lots of interesting questions about different types of performances and audiences, which I’m not even going to guess at the answers!
From the back. The entrance to the orchestra – the round pit – would have been under seating, and it isn’t centred. Some Greek theatres have stages that are similarly off-centre, I’m not sure why. Regular Phil suggested that in this case, as it curves round, the sight line might conceal performers entrances better to give more of a surprise when they appear?
And from ‘stage left’ for completeness. The orchestra (middle bit) is too small for beasts – Regular Phil thought too small for even a proper bullfight (“the bull would have no chance to get a decent run up”) – although in the entrances from the back and sides they’ve found the remains of sturdy wooden gateposts – the kind you’d use to contain something large and fierce. We also tried to decide where you could keep a bull on hand ready – the Colosseum at Rome, as well as being enormously larger, has whole subterranean galleries for animals, gladiators and the workforce (aka ‘slaves’) but nothing even vaguely similar here. There was a structure on this side, near the ‘dressing room’, which seemed accessible enough, but I mucked up photographing it – it’s to the right of this picture…
These are very famous ruins of wooden shops – remains of bread ovens, iron and bronze working and even a wine shop, sadly perished, are suggested, and it is claimed that these were destroyed when Boudicca sacked Verulamium. However, I’ve seen no explanation of the evidence either previously or today to show that these particular shops were were in fact burnt down when the town was sacked – if anyone can point me to this evidence, I’d be interested to know. Even if the shops turn out not to have been destroyed by Boudicca they are no less fascinating.
It’s not exactly clear why Boudicca attacked – her daughters being raped and herself beaten by soldiers, a dispute with the Romans over whether she could inherit as per her husband’s will, and the recalling of enormous loans made by Seneca – have all been suggested in the ancient histories. I found it surprising that no explanation of Boudicca’s actions was given in either the guidebook or the museum – or if it was, I missed it.
We couldn’t reconcile the plan of this grand second century house with the picture in the guidebook, so I’m including the picture for completeness.
Out away from the theatre and there are some remains of the town wall, which is around AD 275 – walls come after towns, sequentially – and show nicely the red tiling used as a bond. Points go to Regular Phil for puzzling that one out, before we saw it in the museum.
Our next stop was the mosaic-covered hypocaust.
The floor had collapsed in one corner, giving a bit of a view inside.
If you look closely at the overall mosaic design, the flowers vary a little rather than repeating the pattern exactly. These are said to be mistakes. Regular Phil wasn’t convinced – he thought the work looks too skilled. I wonder if it’s something like the serial imagery that used to appear on non-Roman coins issued around here – they vary subtly and deliberately in their design. The mosaics are a lot later – perhaps 150 years – so it may not be, but it seems it could perhaps be a continuing local taste for subtle variations? The flower motifs themselves are a local specialty.
We had time for only one of the museums, so we went to the Verulamium one. And saw proof that here were people making fine and skilled things before the Romans ever arrived. Stuff like these brooches – I want one of the hare ones. These people didn’t write about themselves though, like rich Roman men did.
Now I’m going out on a limb and saying this is a pen. Ignore the museum case label. It’s not a toasting fork, or a stick to drive off encroaching animals.
Here is it’s nib. And here’s another one.
And some seal boxes, which I’ve never seen before and like a lot. Going with the label on this one as I know nothing about seal boxes and it sounds reasonable.
And finally, a lovely bit of wall plaster from one of the fine rooms in the oh so fine houses the Romans built hereabouts. The museum has a lot of these large plaster fragments, which don’t usually survive well – or didn’t ever exist, again depending on who you read and what you believe. There are also plenty of other mosaics, and lots of small finds – just room here for a few of the highlights we saw on our day out.