Winter is taking over. Daylight is becoming scarce as the season claims more hours for the night, giving us opportunities to indulge in activities more animal than the civilized ways of the morning. It’s easy to let yourself go when there’s no danger of being found out. That’s probably why what has traditionally been called The Dark Ages seem to be especially violent and primitive.
We’re not really sure about the details of what happened to mankind from the time the Roman Empire collapsed until Michelangelo decided to decorate buildings during the Renaissance. People from the Dark Ages didn’t leave many records, as many of them seemed unable to write. It’s a pity, as it was during this time that the Anglo-Saxons displaced the truly “native” inhabitants of Britain, instead of merely concentrating on the aristocracy as the Romans did. Constant invasions of Angles and Vikings during the Great Migration would have surely left an indelible mark on both the cultural and racial make up of the country, but we don’t have enough records about this time in our history.
Archaeology has shed some light on how people lived during the 5-10th centuries, but not much on how they thought. So, it’s difficult for us to discern the culture during this era, and historians are left to make suppositions that aren’t readily corroborated. One book can say, “The Vikings must surely have felt confident as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” while another can say, “The Vikings must have been worried about the new challenges they would face as they arrived to make a new home in Britain” and the statements would be no less difficult to prove when I say, “The Vikings must have been relieved to leave their longboats and steady diet of rotting fish as they arrived to make a new home in Britain.”
The lack of cultural output led to stereotypes of a savage, barbarous and backward era, and it was easy to accept these depictions because unlike the Romans, these people did not conform to our idea of what civilization means. Literature, architectural improvements, legal systems and scientific discoveries–these are some of the things we take into account when speculating how advanced a society is. How alike are they to our civilized selves? If this is the measure of humanity, then Rome had it in spades. Togas and laurel leaves can be easily disregarded. In Corbridge, remains of a Roman town (nicknamed Coria) tell us the Romans actually introduced to us the very concept of urban settlement.
It’s the only place in Britain where you can walk on the original surface of a Roman “High Street.” Originally a fort, the town developed into a civilian settlement over the course of many centuries and emperors. Designed in the familiar form of a grid, the excavated remains reveal granaries, markets, a fountain house, workshops, military compound and temples. The site is thought to have originally housed a unit of about 500 auxiliary cavalrymen. Since a child’s grave was also found here, we can assume the soldiers lived with their families, prompting the area’s development.
You are free to explore the site, and an audio guide will suggest interesting places to look at. With appropriate background music and narration, you can walk along its main street, Stanegate, which ran from east to west between Solway Firth and the river Tyne, connecting to the only road to Scotland, and immerse yourself in all aspects of Roman life. It’s only a couple miles from Hadrian’s Wall, and it was a major regional centre in the North East. It provided entertainment, supplies, liquor and everything a weary soldier might require.
From personal letters that have been discovered, we know that soldiers requested time off from their post at Hadrian’s Wall to go to Corbridge. Things we associate with modernity, like a good drainage system, piped water and underfloor heating, were available in this Roman town.
From Apicius, we know the Romans are familiar with the concept of fast food. They even had their own version of the hamburger, only they called it Isicia Omentata because it sounds fancier. Latin was the standard/official language, so everyone sounded smart. They lived just like us, had birthday parties and made grocery shopping lists. Our version of Gladiators may lack lions and can be a bit more kitsch than theirs, but the important aspects of what we call civilization are easily recognizable in the Roman Empire. But as with any empire, whether it’s British, Roman or American, this quality of life was not enjoyed by all. Like many civilized societies, it was built on a foundation of huge inequality of wealth and exploitation. Their slaves worked in farms and villas, ours work in Vietnamese sweat shops.
The sophistication of a society provides a veneer of peace and stability over the brutality that exists within. The Roman Empire was led by murderous regimes that are comparable to any dictators today. Julius Caesar had 400,000 people massacred in his campaign in Germany. In this town, slaves were worked to death, their owners’ initials branded on their forehead, and just beyond Hadrian’s Wall, there existed the “painted people” who refuse to be vanquished. In Britain, the rebellions made fortifications a requirement for any city the Romans established. This may be accepted standards of warfare, but somehow I doubt people from 3 AD would say, “Don’t impose your modern morality on us. Things were different in our day. We don’t hate being massacred at all.”
When advancement or progress is built on snobbery and inequality, the injustice and exploitation it breeds create resentment and all those things that eventually lead to either a war or a revolution. Of these “painted people,” the Caledonian chief Calgacus summed up the Roman system thus:
“Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”
It’s remarkable how quickly Celtic life reasserted itself after the empire’s collapse. After four centuries of occupation, the Romans seemed to have very little impact on the British way of life until they were rediscovered hundreds of years later by aristocrats who made their family motto even more boring by writing it in Latin.