Rome, Heart of Empire

Ἄγεται δὲ ἐκ πάσης γῆς καὶ θαλάττης ὅσα ὧραι φύουσιν καὶ χῶραι ἕκασται φέρουσιν καὶ ποταμοὶ καὶ λίμναι καὶ τέχναι Ἑλλήνων καὶ βαρβάρων· ὥστε εἴ τις ταῦτα πάντα ἐπιδεῖν βούλοιτο, δεῖ αὺτον ἢ πάσαν ἐπελθόντα τὴν οἰκουμένην οὕτω·θεάσασθαι ἢ ἐν τῇδε τῇπολει γενόμενον.

Here is brought from every land and sea all the crops of the seasons and the produce of each land, river, lake, as well as of the arts of the Greeks and the barbarians, so that if someone should wish to view all these things, he must either see them by travelling over the whole world or be in this city.

(Oration XXVI.11)


IT IS APRIL, AD 130. Rome is the teeming capital of an empire that stretches from the blustery north-western shores of Britain to the fringes of Mesopotamia, 2,500 miles to the east, and as far south as Africa and the desert of the Sahara. The Roman Empire’s boundaries extend from the ocean where the sun god rises to the ocean where he sinks.1 Publius Aelius Hadrianus, a most complex and compelling man, has been emperor for fourteen years.

All over Rome, as all over her empire, people, animals and produce are on the move. Along roads, rivers and seas—a vast network stretching tens of thousands of miles—men and women of every age and class are travelling through towns, ports, provinces and continents. Many are soldiers, employed in their manifold imperial duties, or merchants and craftsmen, off to sell their goods or services abroad. Other people are travelling at leisure, full of expectation for the marvels they are to see in two of the empire’s most popular tourist destinations: Egypt and Greece. The Emperor Hadrian is particularly attached to Greece, where he spent much of the past year. This summer he is due to arrive in Egypt, where he will stay for the rest of the year. Hadrian travels the empire constantly. This year alone, he wintered in Antioch, visited Palmyra in early spring, and is currently making his way through Arabia and Judaea.2


Less happy to be travelling are the slaves being brought to market, to be bought and sold in shame; and the wild animals, captured as far away as Caledonia and Africa, being shipped in great numbers to meet their miserable fates (together with condemned criminals) in amphitheatres around the empire. Performers of various types and abilities are also on the road—bands of hired gladiators, celebrity charioteers and the imperial troupes of approved pantomimi or dancers and mime artists, who are off to play Italy and the provinces.3 Groups of slave prostitutes are being taken to ply their trade at religious festivals, where carefree tourists, with holiday money in their bags and belts, offer rich pickings for their pimps. Touts, pickpockets, dodgy guides and souvenir-sellers, who congregate around temple boundaries in large numbers on high days and holidays, are also the hopeful beneficiaries of the sightseers’ largesse.

Among those travelling to more legitimate purpose is Sextus Julius Severus, who has been appointed the new governor of Britannia. Rated as one of Hadrian’s best generals, he will need to travel across the entire continent to take up his post, for he has been serving as governor of Moesia Inferior, a province that has the shore of the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) as its eastern border.4 One of the most dashing young men to take leave of Rome for Britannia at this time is L. Minicius Natalis the Younger. He has been appointed legionary legate in command of the VI Victrix Legion at Eboracum (York).*1 Now in his early thirties, he was born in Barcino (Barcelona), in the province of Hispania Tarraconensis, where his fabulously rich family has recently erected a large public baths complex.5 He is a keen sportsman who, only last year, won the four-horse chariot race at the 227th Olympic Games.

Minicius Natalis also holds a number of offices in prestigious religious colleges, including that of augur, which holds huge social cachet. He is of senatorial rank (for which there is a property qualification of 1 million sestertii) and his family move in the highest social circles. As a teenager, he served on one of the most socially prestigious boards of magistrates in Rome, the tresviri monetales, which oversees the mint, and his early senatorial appointments were marked by the emperor’s favour. Natalis’s family have an estate less than 20 miles east of Rome, at fashionable Tibur (Tivoli), where Hadria has nearly finished building his own breathtaking 900-roomed palace, the Villa Tiburtina.6


Most people, especially those embarking on a journey, get up early to make the most of the daylight hours. In Rome at this time of the year, the first hour of the day is about 6.30am. In winter, the first hour, which is reckoned by the time the sun rises, will be nearer 7.30am—although no one can give you the precise time, should you stop to ask. It is true that some people carry pocket sun-dials and have water-clocks as status symbols (and the fancier the better); but it is rare to find one device that runs to the same time as another, and most people find the position of the sun in the sky and the length of the shadows enough to guide them through the hours of the day. Everyone, rich or poor, needs to make the most of daylight hours when artificial light comes only from the flicker of an oil lamp or a smoking torch.

Time may be measured imprecisely, but there is still a sense of urgency and a huge amount of noise. With a million inhabitants, Rome is the largest city in the world. The majority of its populace lives packed together in the 46,000 or so apartment blocks (insulae) that glower over narrow streets.7 The insulae in the poorer areas look—and are—distinctly unsafe, jerry-built by unscrupulous landlords who cram in the tenants but fail to maintain the properties, which are constant fire hazards. This is despite the best efforts of successive emperors to at least limit the heights of buildings in Rome—to 21 metres (70 feet), by Emperor Augustus, and more recently to 18 metres (60 feet), by Emperor Trajan, enough for a four-storey apartment block plus attic space.8

The streets are already busy. Among the earliest to rise are schoolchildren, accompanied by slaves. If it is the Ides of the month—the 13th or 15th day (depending on whether it is a short or long month; April is short)—they will carry money to pay their impecunious teachers. Other Romans hurry, tickets (tesserae) in hand, to the Portico of Minucia, hoping to get there before the queue for the privilege of the corn dole becomes too big.9

The elaborate litters of the rich, carried by six or so bearers who are skilled at barging their way through the throng of pedestrians, have not yet surfaced; but the crowds on the street still have to compete for space with laden mules and wagons dangerously overloaded with building materials—wood and brick and marble. Although there is a ban on vehicles in Rome during the day (which makes for rather noisy late afternoons and evenings), wagons carrying material for work on public buildings are exempt.10 Since Hadrian came to power, in AD 117, he has instigated enormous architectural projects in the city and elsewhere, building monuments to assert his taste, authority and vision of imperial rule as quickly and as magnificently as possible. For the past hundred years or so, emperors keen to leave their mark and assert the validity of their dynasties on the Senate and populace have transformed Rome. The first emperor, Augustus (r. 27 BC to AD 14), claimed to have found the city made of brick and left it made of marble; his (at times) deranged successors have all tried to emulate or outdo him.

Hadrian’s immediate predecessor, Trajan, built his grand forum at the very heart of Rome. This magnificent complex of buildings includes baths, markets, a library and the famous column (over 38 metres/126 feet high), whose frieze tells the dramatic story of Trajan’s campaign against the Dacians which ended in crushing victory in AD 106. Hadrian has at present no wars to commemorate monumentally. Instead, he has been creating a landscape all over Rome, and across the empire, that affirms him not only as Trajan’s heir—and his family as worthy rulers—but as a successor to Augustus, whom he emulates above all. Hadrian uses a portrait of Augustus as his personal seal and keeps a small bronze bust of him as a boy among the images of household gods in his bedchamber.11 As Augustus did, so Hadrian is adopting a policy of consolidation in the empire and is attempting to raise standards of morality and discipline in public life. He is, likewise, keenly aware of the power of architecture in projecting a political message, and nowhere does Hadrian demonstrate the promotion of his family more strikingly, not to say surprisingly, than in the construction of a gigantic new temple to his deified mother-in-law, Matidia, who died in AD 119.

As new monuments are erected, the legacy of former emperors is swept away. It took twenty-four elephants to remove Nero’s 9-metre (30-foot) bronze statue of Helios the sun god, which had been erected outside the entrance to his notorious Domus Aurea (Golden House), for which Nero had demolished countless people’s houses and businesses.12 Now, up on the Velian Hill at the eastern end of the forum, and just north of the Via Sacra (Sacred Way), the Temple of Venus and Roma is rising in its stead, on a massive platform measuring 145 by 100 metres (475 × 330 feet). Although it was inaugurated nine years ago, in AD 121, it will not be completed for several years.

To accompany the temple, Hadrian has also transformed an ancient festival, the Parilia, into a new one, the Romaia, a cult to commemorate Rome’s birthday (Natalis Urbis Romae).13 The event is celebrated on 21 April, just one of the 159 days a year when one can expect to see processions and games in the city marking one cult or other. It is an anniversary celebrated throughout the empire, nowhere more solemnly than by the army, which steadfastly maintains Rome’s traditions wherever stationed. Every year, in celebrating this birthday, dutiful soldiers dedicate altars and carry out sacrifices in honour of Roma Aeterna, even in the remotest parts of distant Britannia, in outpost forts north of Hadrian’s great Wall.14

Of all the innovation in building and engineering now taking place, Hadrian’s newly rebuilt Pantheon is pre-eminent. Its massive unreinforced concrete dome is twice as big as any other in existence. Lying south-west of the new temple to Matidia, and abutting the elegant Saepta Iulia shopping district, it is approached across an exquisite square paved in travertine and surrounded by raised porticoes with columns of grey Egyptian granite, crowned with white marble capitals. The Pantheon itself is raised on a platform above the square and approached up two flights of steps, with a fountain on either side. The monolithic columns supporting its portico are 40 Roman feet high (almost 12 metres), made of marble quarried in the eastern desert of Upper Egypt. The interior dazzles with coloured marbles and stones: porphyry from Egypt, serpentine from the Greek Peloponnese, giallo antico from Numidia (Tunisia). Here are statues of the imperial family and the gods, arranged in such a way that the beam of light pouring through the central oculus is said to highlight each one on their feast day.15

Hadrian has also been making his architectural mark outside Rome. On visiting Britannia for a few months in AD 122, he seems to have sparked something of a building boom there as well. Ambitious fora and basilica are now being constructed throughout that province, mini-Romes going up in this far-flung place—not only in Londinium (London), the province’s main city, but also at smaller towns such as Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter). And, stretching across the northern boundaries of Britannia is the great Wall bearing Hadrian’s name, which separates the Romans from the barbarians.16 During the course of his reign, over a hundred cities throughout the empire east and west, north and south, will benefit from his personal attention, most notably his beloved Athens. From sweltering Africa to shivering Britannia, architecture serves everywhere to reinforce the union of state, religion and soldiery.

In the next month or so in Judaea, very possibly with Hadrian present at its foundation ceremony, a new and highly controversial city, Colonia Aelia Capitolina, will be instigated at the site of the legionary fortress built on the destroyed city of Hierosylma (Jerusalem). It will take Hadrian’s family name, Aelius, and that of the god he closely associates with, Capitoline Jupiter, for whose great temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome the Jews have been paying the levy they once contributed to their own temple until it was razed when Jerusalem was sacked in AD 70. There will soon be far-reaching repercussions for the Jews, for the Romans—and for Britannia’s newly appointed governor, Sextus Julius Severus.

To service the current building boom, huge quantities of construction materials are being transported in ships, barges and wagons throughout the empire. In Rome, cranes and scaffolding can be seen everywhere. Workshops have sprung up all over the place, some of them specialising in different types of marble, others in specific architectural details: three alone are devoted to producing capitals for public buildings in the city, and skilled craftsmen have been brought in from Greece and Asia Minor to help.17

The vast quantities of white and coloured marble that are needed for Rome’s imperial and other building work are shipped in from Turkey, Greece, Tunisia and Egypt. They arrive at Rome’s great harbour at the mouth of the Tiber, Portus Ostiensis. The marble is transported by barge as required, first on a canal, the Fossa Traiana, which links Portus with the Tiber, and then up-river to the foot of Rome’s most southerly hill, the Aventine. Here, vessels arrive at Emporium, the ancient river port of Rome. Boats and barges moor along the whole 500-metre (1,640-foot) length of its wharf,18 which is accessed by steps and ramps that descend to the river. Behind it stands the massive Portico of Aemilia, which serves as a monumentally splendid depot for the huge number of goods arriving here. The entire plain is crammed full of buildings, especially warehouses storing the food, such as grain and olive oil, that serves the voracious and subsidized appetites of the population of Rome.*2

At the southern end of the Emporium, behind the Portico of Aemilia and the state warehouses, carts laden with broken pots can be seen ascending the ramp up the Mons Testaceus (Monte Testaccio). This ‘mountain of potsherds’ is a gigantic rubbish dump of discarded olive-oil amphorae.19 Olive oil—a fundamental ingredient of Roman culture—is used not only for cooking but also as fuel for lamps, and it takes the place of soap in the baths. Up to 95 per cent of the broken pots being deposited here come from Baetica, in south-western Spain. Smashed up after their contents have been decanted into other vessels, they are then doused in lime to disguise the smell of the rancid oil seeping into the clay, which makes them useless for recycling.20

Many Spanish olive-oil merchants have amassed great wealth and considerable power, organizing themselves into formidable trade organizations complete with influential patrons in Rome.21 For some time now, the Spanish elite, such as Minicius Natalis and his family, have done much more than set up advantageous business deals and trading associations. They have used their vast fortunes to wield political power and influence. Even by the time of the Italian Flavian dynasty (emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian), at the end of the first century AD, something like a quarter of the Roman Senate was of Spanish origin. And now two successive emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, have themselves come from Spanish families, the Ulpii and the Aelii.

Although many senators now come from outside Italy, they are nevertheless expected to keep official residences in Rome and are required to gain permission from the emperor should they wish to travel abroad.22 Trajan decreed that all Roman senators had to invest one-third of their property in Italy, so it is no surprise that rich provincials like Minicius Natalis’s family, with their place near Hadrian’s palace at Tibur, have acquired considerable estates, especially in the area around Rome.23


Unlike Spanish goods, British products of any description are a rare sight in the empire’s capital. Shoppers are daily seduced by dazzling wares for sale from within the empire’s borders, and even from beyond them too—exquisite Chinese silk, Arabian spices, jewels from India; Rome is awash with Greek and Gallic wine, and Romans can choose whether Belgian or Spanish ham makes the better accompaniment.24 But if asked whether they can identify any British products, Roman consumers might be stumped for an answer. Slaves, blankets or rush baskets (bascaudae)25 perhaps? Roman gourmands are said to enjoy oysters from Kent but this may be a poetical joke at their expense rather than proof that British shellfish is readily available in Rome.

Curiosities and collectors’ items from the remote island are few. In the first century BC, Propertius the poet described Augustus’s friend and ally, the rich aesthete Maecenas, riding around in a painted British chariot outside Rome.26 If such vehicles are still on the market, they will surely appeal to a dashing character like Minicius Natalis, for his passion is breeding and racing horses, which he does with great success: he is the first (known) Spaniard to have won at the Olympic Games. Following his triumph there last year, he made a votive offering of his victorious chariot and had it mounted near the Hippodrome at Olympus.

When Julius Caesar first landed in Britain, in 55 BC, he marvelled at the British charioteers who were able to run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke and then jump back into the chariot with lightning speed.27 He admired, too, their ability to retain control of their horses at full gallop down a steep slope and to rein them in and turn them in an instant. But that was some 170 years ago, and although chariots were used against the Romans by the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83 it is unlikely that the warriors of conquered Britannia were allowed to retain their war chariots for anything other than ceremonial use. Despite their literary fame, neither British horses nor their riders appear on Rome’s racetracks. Most of the successful horses to race in the city come from countries where the climate is dry and the going is sandy or rocky—conditions that produce the hard hooves that are essential for racing.28

So many foreigners have settled in Rome—often creating their own distinctive neighbourhoods—that it can sometimes seem as though whole populations have emigrated here en masse. The British, however, seem to be less successful than other provincials at cultivating contacts and patrons in the capital. As with their exports, few of these immigrants come from Britannia.29 Thus, while men such as Minicius Natalis or Julius Severus will have encountered in their careers plenty of Britons serving as auxiliary troops in the army, scattered across the empire, the British remain a much rarer sight on the capital’s streets than the large numbers of rich Spaniards, learned Greeks, or Gallic and Syrian merchants who have settled in the city or who trade with it. Rarer still—practically non-existent—are Britons who have made it to the top rungs of Roman society as senators.30

Years ago, before Britannia’s conquest by Emperor Claudius in AD 43, certain British kings sent embassies to Augustus and paid court to him in Rome, even setting up votive offerings on the Capitoline Hill.31 Augustus received two British kings: Tincommius, who ruled territory south of the River Thames; and Dubnovellaunus, whose kingdom lay north of the river, with a major centre at Verulamium (St Albans) and stronghold at Camulodunum (Colchester).*3 In the end, Augustus wisely decided to leave Britannia alone, although connections were maintained. As was the custom with other peoples from the fringes of empire, during those embassies and submissions to Rome the British probably left their sons as hostages in the great city, where they would have acquired a smattering of Roman tastes, manners and language and received training in the Roman army. Southern British rulers benefited from all manner of imported goods: food, drink and olive oil, as well as luxurious items of clothing, decoration and furniture. They also gained some knowledge of Latin, if only enough to write their names and status (rex) on the coins they began to mint.

It was the flight of Verica, a client king from southern Britain, to the court of Claudius in AD 41 that provided the emperor with a pretext for invasion. Claudius himself, accompanied by elephants, spent all of sixteen days in Britannia during the conquest two years later, arriving conveniently in time to capture Camulodunum and thereafter receive the submission of many kings.32 On his return to Rome he celebrated his magnificent triumph, to which he invited the governors of all the provinces. Among the proudest tokens of his victory was a naval crown: he set it on the gable of the Palatium (Palace) next to the civic crown, to show that he had not only crossed the terrifying Oceanus but also conquered it.33 He and his son were awarded the title ‘Britannicus’, a title by which his son became known.34

The conquest of Britannia was also celebrated in more concrete terms. Within a year or so of Claudius’s triumph, few citizens of the Roman Empire could have been unaware of his victory. In Aphrodisias, in the province of Asia (Turkey), Britannia’s fall was commemorated in a marble relief depicting Claudius—in a pose of heroic aggression—brutally tugging back the hair of a distraught, personified Britannia, who lies on the ground, her face staring pitifully at the viewer. Her short slave’s tunic has come adrift, rising up her bare legs and exposing one of her breasts; in vain she tries to adjust it with her one free arm.35 Commemorative coins were also struck throughout the empire, some no doubt still in circulation in Hadrian’s time. In Rome, a series of aurei and denariiwas issued with Claudius’s portrait on one side. A victory arch surmounted by a rider with trophies and the words ‘de Britannis’ running across the architrave of the arch appeared on the reverse.36 In Caesarea, in Cappadocia, a silver didrachm was struck with Claudius riding a triumphal chariot on the reverse and that phrase ‘de Britannis’, below it.*4

Two arches were constructed to commemorate Claudius’s victory, one in Gesoriacum (Boulogne), from where he had set sail to Britannia, and the other in Rome. Unusually, the Arch of Claudius in Rome was integrated into the structure of the Aqua Virgo aqueduct, which Claudius had restored magnificently.37 The arch was erected at the point where the aqueduct crossed the Via Lata (Broad Way).*5 The dedication of the Roman arch, some nine years after the conquest of Britain, took place in the same year, AD51, as the spectacular capture of the British leader Caratacus, son of King Cunobelinus, who was brought in chains to Rome. During the time of Claudius’s invasion, Caratacus had become the dominant British leader, providing a focus of resistance to the Romans. His tactics of guerrilla warfare had proved so effective that he had managed seriously to harass the Romans for nine years. In the end, however, he had been forced to make a desperate last stand in the territory of the fierce Ordovices in North Wales.

Here, he was decisively defeated by the Roman governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, and his wife, daughter and brothers were captured. Caratacus himself managed to slip through the net one more time. He fled further north, seeking refuge with Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes—who promptly threw him in chains and handed him over to the Romans. His story seized the Roman imagination. The historian Tacitus related the whole gripping episode, describing how the fame of Caratacus ‘sailed over the islands and travelled through the neighbouring provinces to Italy… Everyone wanted to see the man who had defied us. The name of Caratacus was even known at Rome.’38

When the captive Caratacus and his family arrived in Rome, Claudius, who never needed an excuse to put on a show, invited the populace to see this notorious prisoner. Soldiers of the Praetorian Guard stood at arms outside their camp, while booty from Britain was put on display—horse trappings and torcs, typically barbarian Celtic items of treasure, guaranteed to send a shiver down the spines of the populace of Rome.39 Next, Caratacus’s brothers, wife and daughter were brought forward. They were extremely frightened and showed it. But when Caratacus stood before the emperor’s tribunal (platform), he did so proudly and delivered the following speech, according to Tacitus:

If my moderation in prosperity had been equal to my birth and fortune, you would not have thought it beneath your dignity to receive a descendant of illustrious ancestors, ruling over many peoples. My present fate is as repugnant to me as it is magnificent to you. I had horses, men, arms and wealth. How astonishing is it, that I was unwilling to lose them? For if you wish to rule over everyone, does it follow that everyone is to accept servitude? If I had immediately been given up and handed over, neither my ill fortune nor your glory would have found fame and my death would have been followed by oblivion: but if you were to save me unharmed, I will be an eternal example of your clemency.

It is not known what Caratacus’s exact words were, nor whether he spoke Latin or through an interpreter.*6 But whatever Caratacus really said, upon hearing his words Claudius pardoned him, together with his wife and brothers.40

Tacitus implied that Caratacus was exhibited outside the Praetorian Camp, in the north-eastern part of the city; but Claudius’s new victory arch surely played a part in the proceedings. It would have provided a theatrical architectural backdrop, its friezes of Romans fighting barbarians and a procession of the Praetorian Guard mirroring the living tableaux below of conquered natives, barbaric treasures and stalwart Roman soldiers.

It is not known what then happened to Caratacus, but another no-doubt apocryphal story describes him wandering about the city after being pardoned. Beholding Rome’s size and splendour, he is said to have exclaimed: ‘How can you, who have such possessions and so many of them covet our poor tents?’41 It is unknown how long Caratacus stayed in the capital and where he died; but in Hadrian’s time it is conceivable that there are still people in Rome who, even if they were too young to remember Caratacus’s appearance in chains 75 years before, came across him in subsequent years.

With so few Britons apparently in Rome, and Britannia so far away, travellers to the province, such as its new governor, must rely for information on the eyewitness accounts and written reports of returning officials, merchants and soldiers. Julius Severus has no previous personal connection with the north-western provinces. All his foreign postings to date have been east of Rome—although he will have encountered Britons serving in Dacia while governor of Dacia Superior in AD 119–125. Dacia, like Britannia, has proved a troublesome place, dangerous because of its position on the edge of empire, with barbarian forces to its north and east.42

Now in his early forties, Severus comes from the colony of Aequum (near Sinj), in Dalmatia. His family are evidently of senatorial rank and well connected in Rome.43 In common with other boys of his background, he was very likely sent to the capital to finish his education and ensure an early introduction into Roman society, so that he could meet eminent patrons to put forward his name for the right sort of job.*7 Despite his obscure origins, the strategy evidently worked. Severus was elected, aged about seventeen or eighteen, to one of four boards of minor magistrates of the city. He was a quattuorviri viarum curandarum, one of four magistrates who, together with the more senior aediles, were responsible for the maintenance and cleanliness of Rome’s streets.*8 While this job may not have been quite as socially prestigious as the mint on which Minicius Natalis served, it was nonetheless a route to high office.44

Severus has enjoyed imperial favour from early in his career. He served under the governor of Macedonia as quaestor, the first office available to young men on taking up their place in the Senate at the age of twenty-four. As a ‘Candidate of Caesar’, Severus was again backed by the emperor for the prestigious post of Tribune of the Plebs, a position that required him to be based in Rome. At around the age of thirty, he returned as praetor to command the Legion XIV Gemina, stationed at Carnuntum on the banks of the River Danube in Pannonia Superior (Lower Austria, between Vienna and Bratislava), a legion he had served as a callow military tribune. Few men return to command their old legions—perhaps because unforgiving career soldiers, signed up for twenty-five years, are all too ready to reminisce about any slip-ups they made as junior officers.*9

The XIV Gemina ‘Twin’ Legion took part in the invasion of Britannia, where its men helped to destroy the Druids and their sacred groves on the isle of Anglesey in AD 61. Their victory over Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, in the same year—following her butchery of the inhabitants of Camulodunum, Londonium and Verulamium—earned the legion its title of ‘Martia Victrix’ (Victorious by Grace of Mars), and later Nero singled it out as his best legion.45 By now, unless there are some ninety-year-old veterans of the legion still around, there will be no one left alive who witnessed those bloodcurdling scenes in Britannia, and Severus will need to familiarize himself with the province through official records and first-hand accounts from those men who have served there more recently.

One man with such insight is Marcus Maenius Agrippa. Originally from Camerinum (Camerino, in the Italian Marches), Agrippa has been commanding a British auxiliary unit, the Cohort II Flavia Brittonum, in Severus’s current province of Moesia Inferior; he also has first-hand experience of Britannia itself. Agrippa served as tribune of the Cohort I Hispanorum at Alauna (Maryport), a fort on Britannia’s north-west coast, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, and earlier took part in a military campaign on the island, almost certainly in the north. He is personally acquainted with Hadrian, and three years ago even acted as host to the emperor, probably at Camerinum.46 Severus may well have had a hand in the promotion of Maenius Agrippa to prefect of the British fleet.

Despite the insights that can be gleaned from old hands like Maenius Agrippa, general background information about Britannia’s native population seems to be patchy, poetic and neither particularly well informed nor up-to-date. Romans have a disconcerting habit of recycling old information and perpetuating stereotypes in their geographies and histories. The attitude seems to be that if a topic has been covered by writers in the past, then the research has been done and all that remains is to collate it.47

For the educated Roman who reads his Horace and Virgil, Britannia represents the remotest shore, the untamed and unknown; there is a frisson of danger about it. Although the tentacles of Roman administration—via the army—have now reached into just about every corner of the province, and the island has been scrupulously measured and recorded, at least in terms of potential revenue, the inhabitants of the island are not necessarily more deeply understood.48 Occasionally, the British are represented in literature as proud and noble as a means by which writers can criticise contemporary Roman life, with its taste for unmanly vices, excessive consumption and spoiling luxury. But the Britons are always presented as almost impossibly remote and somewhat uncouth, their bodies tattooed with patterns and pictures of all kinds of animals.49 This viewpoint is more than a literary topos and is reflected in reality. Serving officers on Hadrian’s Wall refer to the British disparagingly as ‘Brittunculi’ (or ‘Britlings’) in the second century.50Clearly they have not progressed very much in their view of the native inhabitants since the days of the orator Cicero, who joked during Julius Caesar’s expedition to Britannia in 54 BC, ‘I don’t suppose you’re expecting any of them to be accomplished in literature or music.’ 51


With such thoughts in mind, cultured travellers bound for Britannia might well be keen to take some decent reading material with them, not to mention those small treats and necessary luxuries that they would be assured of in other, more civilized, parts of the empire. The Letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113) were available in the bookshops of cosmopolitan Lugdunum (Lyon), in Gaul, during his lifetime; but who knows what will be on offer—if anything—in Britannia? 52 As this is not the kind of place to which friends can pop over easily, and it takes at least a month for letters, let alone packages, to arrive in Britannia from Italy, it may be advisable to stock up before you go. Affluent travellers from Rome can choose to make a last-minute trip to the luxurious shops in the huge porticoed piazza of Saepta Iulia, east of the Pantheon, adorned with paintings and sculptures. Selecting what and how much to take can be tricky. It is not done to be too overladen or flashy, of course. Having the kind of luggage which looks as though it has been around a bit and can be jostled without harm is better than being seen with the excessive bags of the novus homo (nouveau riche).53

A basic traveller’s requisites can still, though, be considerable. During the First Jewish War (AD 66–73), the senior officers’ baggage train formed a separate part of the Roman army’s marching order and included members of their private households—slaves, freedmen, family members—as well as a change of horses, pack animals, portable bathing equipment and mobile kitchens.54 For a serving army officer or government official, it is certainly important to have the right clothes. Officers are expected to have a proper mess kit, which includes dining capes and scarves, being required to wear appropriate attire at dinner, even in that most remote outpost of Britannia.55

Men of the world, such as Minicius Natalis and Julius Severus, can be relied upon to be properly equipped; but as the new governor of Britannia, Severus is subject to certain specific rules and allowances. Years before, in order to cut down on extravagances and make savings on the public purse, the Emperor Augustus introduced a fixed ‘mule-and-tent’ allowance for provincial governors. This replaced a system by which they contracted baggage handlers and then charged them to the Public Treasury.*10 56 While away on tour, especially for a posting that will be for three years or more, the prudent should also think about what they will leave behind. They need to put items into storage for safe keeping, including furniture, clothing and medicines.57

As well as rules about what to pack, there are certain regulations about when to go. Emperor Claudius had decreed that governors who were appointed by lot (that is, to senatorial provinces) should leave Rome before 1 April, though this deadline was extended to mid-April; governors had apparently been in the habit of hanging about in Rome too long.58 Perhaps, in their tardiness, some had missed the official start of their posting on 1 July.59 An April departure from Rome should give everyone plenty of time to reach even far-off provinces comfortably, as well as the opportunity to make diversions to see friends, or visit estates, on the way. Unless there is an emergency, imperial governors going to distant provinces will set out at the same sort of time in spring, when the sea is officially open again after the winter.60

Governors travelling to an imperial province such as Britannia, however, are subject to different rules to those of senatorial provinces, as the former take their instructions from the emperor. A new imperial governor such as Severus is appointed formally by letter, in a codicillus issued directly by the emperor,61 and the new incumbent will correspond directly with his emperor while abroad, ruling the province on his behalf. In Julius Severus’s case, he may conceivably have taken leave of Hadrian in person while the emperor was wintering in Antioch.*11

All returning governors and procurators are obliged to leave their provinces as soon as their successors arrive and to travel to Rome without delay, to arrive back within three months of departure.62 Leaving a province in early July will enable them to get back in time to oversee the grape harvest at their estates in September, when the majority of the Senate is absent from Rome.63 Quaestors and other officials follow the same sort of timetable, leaving their posts in the provinces at the end of the ‘proconsular’ year (that is, at the end of June/start of July).64 Governors of senatorial provinces—who wear civilian clothes and are not permitted to carry swords at their belts—assume the insignia of their office as soon as they leave the pomerium, the boundary of Rome, and continue to wear them until they return. Imperial governors, on the other hand, who are operating as the emperor’s deputies, may only adopt the military uniform and badges of office on entering their appointed provinces.65 It would be potentially provocative and destabilising—for the emperor as much as anyone else—to give them such privileges before they are safely confined within their provinces, where they are expected to stay until finishing their terms of office.

Setting out (profecto) on a journey and returning (reditus) from it are momentous events, charged with personal, religious and—if you are an important person—political significance. Emperors understandably expect from Senate and people overt demonstrations of respect and loyalty on their own departures, complete with prayers, sacrifices and libations for a safe journey.66 Even if you are young and relatively unimportant, the start of a journey is marked in several ways, especially when it is as significant as a voyage to Britannia across the unpredictable Oceanus. In the weeks leading up to departure there is formal leave-taking, of patrons, older relations and important family friends, and in turn there will be visits from dependants and clients.

Everyone, of whatever rank and travelling for whatever purpose, has to be extremely flexible about the date, time and method of transport for the entire length of the journey. All travellers are dependent on the elements and the tides, not to mention in some cases the whim of the emperor, and must be prepared for delays and changes along the way. No one travels alone. High-ranking officials and their families will be escorted by a retinue of friends, family advisers, freedmen and household staff; and those close friends, family and clients who stay behind will make the effort to accompany them at least to the city’s boundaries to bid farewell.67

*1 The position of legionary legate, or commander, was reserved for those of senatorial rank (except briefly under the Emperor Commodus, in the later second century, when equestrians became eligible).

*2 The area later acquired the name ‘Marmorata’, from the huge quantities of marble (marmor) that were once unloaded and stored here.

*3 Tincommius was also known as Tincomarus ( fl. c.25 BC to AD 5). The kingdom of Dubnovellaunus ( fl. c.30 BC) was centred on Hertfordshire and the Chilterns.

*4 One gold aureus = 25 silver denarii; 1 denarius = 4 brass sestertii; 1 sestertius = 2 brass dupondii; 1 dupondius = 2 bronze asses. In the eastern part of the Empire, the drachma was used: 1 silver didrachm = 2 silver drachma.

*5 Later known as the Piazza de Sciarra.

*6 The words that Tacitus gave him are stirring pieces of rhetoric, reflecting this conservative upper-class writer’s concerns about the demoralizing effects of imperialism and the decline of noble and dignified behaviour: that quality of virtus which he feared was now so lacking in Roman citizens.

*7 Sons of senators could begin to wear the broad stripe (latus clavus) on their togas, which signified senatorial status, shortly after formally entering manhood at the age of sixteen or seventeen. They were allowed to attend meetings in the Senate but could not officially take their seats there until the age of about twenty-four. They were expected first to gain experience in civil administration in Rome and complete service in the army abroad.

*8 The others were concerned with the coinage, the Centumviral Court (Court of Chancery), and capital cases.

*9 Although most military tribunes were aged only nineteen or twenty, in their first military posting they were technically second in command of a legion. It may seem remarkable that someone so young and inexperienced should be put in such a position, but the idea was that a young man of promise should gain experience at the very top by shadowing the person whose role he would one day take up. See Birley (1981), xx.

*10 The specifics of what a governor setting out for his province was allowed to take in Hadrian’s time is unclear, but a century later, during the reign of Severus Alexander, it is recorded that governors could expect to be provided with 20 pounds of silver, 6 she-mules, 1 pair of mules, a pair of horses, 2 ceremonial garments for use in public, 2 sets of clothes for private use, 1 set of clothes for bathing, 100 gold aurei, a cook, a muleteer and—if the governor did not have a wife—a concubine. On returning from his governorship, all the mules and horses, the muleteer and cook had to be returned to the central office, but the rest could be kept—according to the sometimes untrustworthy source—if he had conducted himself well. If he had performed badly, the ex-governor would have to pay back fourfold, in addition to being condemned for embezzlement or extortion.

*11 Julius Severus could well have travelled to Rome prior to taking up his governorship in Britannia, somewhat in the manner of a modern diplomat returning to his country’s capital before a new posting. He might well have had business or political matters to attend to in Rome, too. But it is also possible that he travelled to Britannia direct from Moesia along the Rhine, or via Dalmatia if he had family estates there.

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