When someone suggested our topic for this month: “Places/Eras we’d like to write about, but haven’t,” I immediately knew what I would say: Roman Britain. I’m not quite sure what draws me to that time and place, but maybe it’s in my blood. My maiden name was Romano, and my maternal grandmother claimed a British heritage.
The history of Roman Britain is a long one, since the Romans first invaded in AD 43 and took control of the southeast, then slowly spread west and north. There was resistance time and again, such as that by Boudica and her people, but they were defeated. By AD 100, there were 50,000 Roman troops in the province. The Romans didn’t completely depart until nearly the end of the fourth century, leaving behind roads, buildings, and art, among other things. In some cases, Roman beliefs and traditions were incorporated into customs. Sometimes influences went the other way. “British Latin” was spoken, especially by the elite in the more Romanized south and east.
Initially, there were legal restrictions on intermarriage, and later social constraints. There was, of course, some mingling of the groups, but perhaps not as much as might be expected in almost four hundred years. An interesting DNA study of the modern-day white British population found that the Romans didn’t leave a genetic “calling card” behind. Complicating it all is that the rank and file of the Roman army came from all over the Roman empire, so they would hardly be a homogenous group.
My husband and I love to visit the UK, and there are still remnants there of the Romans. In Bath, we walked through the original baths below street level. (While we were there, of course we also checked out the Jane Austen sites.) In London, known as Londinium under the Romans, we visited a Temple of Mithras, which has been relocated a couple of times, but which contains many of the artifacts found at the original archeological site. Nowadays some special effects have been added, which might seem a bit hokey, such as the sound of “worshippers” arriving, and a dramatic manipulation of the lighting, but what a way to get you into the mood of the time!
In visits to museums in England, I’ve been struck by the mosaics from the Roman period. There are even examples that can be visited in the original Roman villas where they decorated floor or wall. There are about 150 mosaics still in existence, but it is believed that during the Roman period there were 2,000. The mosaics often reflected the religious and philosophical debates of the time. A mosaic might show the Roman goddess Medusa, or a depiction of the mythical figure of Summer. There are Christian themes in some of the mosaics, such as one from Dorset showing Christ surrounded by personifications of the Four Winds.
Novels set in that time period are a definite draw for me. For some reason there seem to be a fair number of mystery series set in ancient Rome, and some of those books are set in Roman Britain. Lindsey Davis’s The Silver Pigs (i.e. silver ingots), the first book in her series with Marcus Didius Falco, the smart-mouthed informer and imperial agent, is set there. Ruth Downie’s Medicus series, about a down-and-out Roman army medic who solves mysteries is also set in Roman Britain.
I haven’t decided what period, specifically, I would choose to write about, or who my characters would be. I don’t think I would focus on Roman soldiers or the people who resisted the invasion. I would rather set my tale in a later time, and imagine how Roman and native beliefs and people both merged and clashed. One thing I’ve learned in this brief sojourn into Roman Britain: I would have to do a lot more research.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.