Roman soliders with shields

7 INGENIOUS THINGS THE ROMANS BROUGHT TO BRITAIN

The Romans were great trend-setters of the ancient world. What they didn't invent, they copied and adapted - transporting new ideas across the empire.

When the Romans invaded Britain in AD43, there was already a complicated tribal society in place - but few of the things we'd recognise in a modern civilisation. The impact of the Romans can be seen across England, from Dover to Hadrian's Wall. And they still have an impact on our modern landscape and culture.

Take a look at seven ingenious innovations that you'd find in Roman Britain.

1. We built this city

From military structures such as forts and walls (including Hadrian's Wall) to engineering innovations like baths and aqueducts, the most obvious impact of the Romans that can still be seen today is their buildings.

Most buildings in Iron Age Britain were made of timber and were often round in form. The Romans built in stone, in straight lines and in a grand scale. Large settlements did exist in Britain before the Romans arrived, but they were the first to introduce significant 'towns' and administrative centres built to a plan.

Londinium (London), Aqua Sulis (Bath) and Lindum colonia (Lincoln) are all examples of Roman towns that still exist as modern towns, whilst Coria (Corbridge) and Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough) are Roman towns you can visit today.

The latrines at Housesteads Roman Fort

2. Keep it clean

Today we understand the importance of clean water and sanitation, but it was a new concept to Britain when the Romans arrived.

Keeping towns and forts clean through drainage and access to fresh water was a feat of engineering. Aqueducts brought water in, and drains were built to keep the streets and houses clean. The remains of Roman toilets and bath complexes - like the ones at Chesters Roman Fort - were particularly innovative.

The latrines at Housesteads Roman Fort are some of the best preserved Roman toilets in the country. They were flushed by a channel running anti-clockwise, which used rainwater and draining surface water. You can sometimes see how this worked on a rainy day.

Plan a visit Housesteads
Samian pot showing maker’s mark

3. Selling yourself: advertising and trademarks

The modern concepts of PR, Marketing and Advertising can all trace their roots back to the Romans. Starting at the top, self-promotion was a major concern to the emperor. Military victories were stamped on coins, and commemorated with ambitious building projects.

Lower down the social scale, traders would advertise their wares with billboards and signs. Potters would often stamp their vessels with their name, a mark of quality. The Samian bowl was made in South Gaul and dates to c. AD 70 - 85 AD. The maker's mark inside reads 'OF CEN'. OF is the abbreviation for Officina, a workshop. CEN is an abbreviation of a name, possibly Censorinus.

Sections on the armour found in the Corbridge Hoard alongside a recreation of what the armourwould have looked like.

4. Wearable technology

Roman ingenuity extended to innovations on a smaller scale too. A key part of a Roman soldier's uniform was his segmented armour (lorica segmentata). Its design was ingenious - but until the mid-1960s, archaeologists only had descriptions and pictures to go on. No-one had found any pieces to study.

The discovery of the Corbridge Hoard in 1964 changed all this. Inside an iron-bound, leather-covered chest, armour, weapons, tools and personal items were discovered. This meant that archaeologists (finally!) had large enough pieces to be able to reconstruct how these suits were worn, made and repaired.

The chest contained remains of armour for the chest, shoulder and upper arm, and evidence of leather straps and hoops. This would have allowed the segments to flex and move with the body. And because of how it was constructed, it could be stored very compactly.

See more of the Hoard
An example of a Latin inscription in the Clayon Museum

5. For the record…

We might joke that it's a dead language, but Latin (both speaking and writing it) has had a lasting impact on the modern world - not just in England. Many modern words and phrases have their origins in Latin. e.g. if you decide to carpe diem, have an alias or need to provide an alibi (et cetera) - you have the Romans to thank.

Latin became the language of religion, law and administration in Britain, and with this came the Romans' passion for writing things down.

This has left us with a wealth of information about life in Roman Britain. The army in particular was extremely bureaucratic. Rotas, food orders and stock checks of weapons, could be filled out in triplicate! It also means that we know the names of some of the men who built Hadrian's Wall, and their wives and children, from Centurial stones and grave markers.

See more examples at Chesters
Milestone in the Clayton Museum at Chesters Roman Fort

6. Go the distance

The Romans introduced a more formalised road system to Britain, measuring distances and making more substantial roads than existed before.

Everyone knows the secret to a Roman road - wide and straight, often with paved streets. Constructing reliable transport routes was necessary for such an expansive empire. Many Roman roads, such as Watling Street (the A2 and A5) and Dere Street (A59 and A1 from York) still form the basis of routes used today.

A Roman unit of distance was the mille passum, which translates to 'thousand paces.' A pace was five Roman feet, meaning a Roman mile measured 5,000 feet. Hadrian's Wall is 80 Roman miles long, and each mile was marked by a milecastle fort. These were used for controlling the movement of people, goods and livestock along the Wall. Another (simpler) way to mark distances was with milestones, which were found all over Roman Britain. This one is on display at Chesters Musuem.

Explore Hadrian's Wall
Roman coins in the collection at Hadrian’s Wall. Top: silver denarius of Vespasian; bottom: a counterfeit coin

7. Currency

Before the Romans arrived, coinage wasn't in use in northern Britain - although parts of Southern Britain did have coins. The soldiers based on Hadrian's Wall were paid in coins, and if locals wanted to do business, then they need to be part of the Roman monetary economy.

The introduction of money was a huge change in the way people traded, paid taxes and measured wealth. A denarius minted in Rome (like the top picture, right) could be spent in Britain, North Africa or Turkey, such a global currency has not been seen since. Some people, of course, used this to their advantage - and introduced counterfeit coins to the economy.

The coin below on the right is a perfect example of innovation, albeit an illegal one! The coin it is copying was a silver one, but by making a coin with a copper core and then plating it in silver, the counterfeiters would be making money for less than it was worth. This example came from the settlement outside of the fort at Housesteads.

Quiz: Are you ingenious enough to survive history?

We want to see if you're ingenious enough to thrive in different historical periods. Starting with the Neolithic, you'll travel through time with our mini quizzes exploring Roman Britain, Medieval England, the Victorian era and finally the early 20th century. Will you make it to modern times? Let's find out.

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