TIMES REMEMBERED – Roman Britain
The Belgae, who were numbered among the Brythons, appeared in Hertfordshire during the first century BC, travelling up the Lea Valley to their first major settlement at Wheathampstead. They were called ‘Belgic’ or ‘the Belgae’ because Caesar later wrote that they came from Belgium. The men wore shirts and knee length trousers and striped or checked cloaks fastened with a pin, possibly the forerunner of the Scottish tartan and dress. These people were a tribal, warrior class which later became known as the Catuvellauni. The Cassii tribe were among the most powerful and their chief Cassivellaunus had his headquarters near St. Albans. By the time the Romans came to Britain they had driven the previous Celtic dwellers northwards and controlled all the south east of the country.
The Celts were responsible for the first uninscribed coins in Hertfordshire which were minted at Verulamium (St. Albans) suggesting that although the Belgae were essentially farmers they also carried on trade in and outside Britain. Their social organisation was not unlike the Scottish clan system, with minor chieftains and their followers owing allegiance to major chiefs. The lowest ranking was that of a slave. They spoke a language similar to Welsh.
In 55 BC the Romans arrived briefly in Britain. Our country’s name is derived from the Greco-Roman word ‘pretani’, which is what the Romans called the inhabitants of our island. By this time Britain was a major food producer and British farmers were supplying the Gauls, whom the Romans were fighting. The Romans put a stop to this by conquering the food producing part of our country which then supplied their Roman armies with corn and cattle in exchange for wine, pottery, glass and furniture. Julius Caesar after defeating the Cassii tribe at Wheathampstead in 54 BC left for Gaul and it was not until AD 43 that the Emperor Claudius set about making Britain a Roman province.
About 20 BC Pirton people would have found a new design on the coins they were offered for corn. Imagine a man turning one over in his hand and thinking “Well, it looks like good money, there’s the horse; but what are these strange marks?” He would not have seen Roman letters before. The horse was a symbol of religion in all the tribes of south-east Britain. The Greek idea that a horse drew the sun across the sky, the Valkyries horses and hobby horses are probably linked to the same belief. Many of the henges, such as Stonehenge were in the shape of a horseshoe. From about 2 BC to the 5th century coins bore the head of the Roman Emperor.
Following the defeat of the beautiful Boadicea, queen of the Iceni tribe in AD 61 and the sacking of Colchester, London and St. Albans by the Romans, Verulamium became one of the headquarter towns from which the Romans ruled Britain. Far from driving out the Celts the Romans established a Romano-British culture among them from the Humber to the Severn.
Outside the towns, the biggest change during the Roman occupation was the growth of “villas”. These were usually situated close to towns so that crops could be sold easily. One such was situated at Baldock where I spent my childhood in the early nineteen thirties. We lived on ancient farmland and one of our fields was excavated for Roman remains. My sisters and I were more interested in using the trenches to play war games than in the artefacts which finished up in Letchworth Museum. When Pirton school playground was being made, sharp eyes found Roman workmanship in some of the objects turned up by the spade. What other treasures lie beneath the soil of Pirton?
What was a villa? Not your desirable semi-detached. The Roman villa was more like a large farm complex within one enclosing wall, containing a house, offices, farm sheds and quarters for the workers. The villas belonged to the richer Britons, who like the townspeople became more Roman than Celt in their manners, speaking Latin rather than their own language. In fact any children born in a province of the Roman empire were automatically Roman citizens
By AD 270 there was a growing difference between the rich and those who did the actual work on the land. Most people still lived in the same kind of round huts that the Celts had lived in for 400 years. What of the worship of the locals here, at their little Celtic shrine? The Romans did not discourage them from doing so but they could not guess that in another 50 years a young Roman officer, Constantine by name, would not only become Emperor but would be converted to Christianity and make the practice of it legal.
In some ways Roman Britain seems very civilised but life was still hard except for the richest. Half the entire population died between the ages of twenty and forty, while fifteen per cent died before reaching the age of twenty.