From the obvious (architecture and hygiene) to the more unusual (fast food and advertising) the Romans have left their mark across the country.
We asked two of our experts, English Heritage Properties Curator Mark Douglas and Curator of Roman Collections Frances McIntosh, to explain more about what things in modern Britain we owe to the influence of the Roman Empire.
“The Romans were great trend-setters of the ancient world – what they didn’t invent they copied and adapted from others, transporting new ideas across the empire,” explains Mark. “Their impact can be seen across England, from Dover to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond, and has had a profound impact on our modern landscape and culture.”
1. Fast Food
It might seem a modern marvel, but the Romans were the first to introduce street stalls and ‘food on the move’ as we might think of it today. With 10,000 soldiers in Britain, based at forts such as Birdoswald, having access to tasty, convenient food (like burgers…) was vitally important and vendors serving fast food would have been commonplace in large towns. The Romans also introduced staple foods such as apples, pears and peas to Britain.
In the present day, we've recreated some of these Roman delicacies for you to sample. When exploring Birdoswald Roman Fort, why not try a Roman style burger in the café.
2. Advertising and Trademarks
The modern concepts of Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising can all trace their roots back to the Romans. Traders would advertise their wares with billboards and signs, while self-promotion was a major concern to the emperor, who proclaimed his military victories on his coins. 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 (inset) reads ‘OF CEN’.
OF is the abbreviation for Officina, a workshop. CEN is an abbreviation of a name, possibly Censorinus.
3. Plumbing and Sanitation
Keeping towns and forts clean through drainage and access to fresh water was a new concept to Britain. At the root of sanitation was the great engineering works of the Romans, with aqueducts bringing water in and drains to keep the streets and houses clean. The remains of Roman toilets and bath complexes can be seen across the forts of Hadrian’s Wall, especially at Chesters and Housesteads.
The latrines at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall are some of the best preserved Roman toilets in the country.
Large settlements existed in Britain before the Romans arrived, but they were the first to introduce significant ‘towns’ and administrative centres, which were planned out.
Londinium, Aqua Sulis (Bath) and Lindum colonia (Lincoln) are all examples of Romans towns that still exist as modern towns, whilst Coria (Corbridge) and Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough) are Roman towns you can visit today.
Aerial view of Corbridge Roman Town from the east
From military structures such as forts and walls (including the spectacular Hadrian’s Wall) to engineering feats such as 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.
The remains of Wroxeter Roman City are very well preserved
Everyone knows the secret to a Roman road – build wide and straight, often with paved streets. Constructing reliable transport routes was a necessity of such an expansive empire, and a huge upgrade on the primitive routes that came before in Britain. Many, such as Watling Street (the A2 and A5) and Dere Street (A59 and A1 from York) still form the basis of routes used today.
The high street of Corbridge, which was the Stanegate and runs all the way to Carlisle.
7. Our Calendar
The Julian calendar was the first to consist of 365 days, along with a leap year every four years. It forms the basis of the Gregorian calendar we use today. The names of the months derive from Roman months, reflecting the important Roman impact on our modern diaries. This is most obvious for July and August, which are named after the early rulers Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus.
Although some of the tribes in the South of England produced coins before the Romans arrived, it was not used as currency, to purchase things. The Romans brought in their own coinage, which was the same across the Empire. A denarius minted in Rome could be spent in Britain, North Africa or Turkey, such a global currency has not been seen since.
An example of a coin found at Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre.
The introduction of Latin had a profound impact on words and language within Britain. Latin became the language of religion, law and administration, and a great many modern words still derive from this language.
Did you know that plumbing is called this because the Romans made their pipes out of lead (plumbum)? Or that the Latin word sinister meant left, which the Romans considered to be bad-luck.
A Latin inscription at Chesters’ Clayton Museum.
The introduction of writing to Britain had a huge impact on our understanding of the history. Being great record keepers has left a wealth of information about life in Roman Britain. The army in particular was extremely bureaucratic and rotas, food orders and stock checks of weapons, could be filled out in triplicate!
An iron stylus, used for writing on wooden tablets filled with wax.
11. Underfloor Heating
Although the Romans didn’t have central heating, they did have ways other than fireplaces to keep themselves warm. Raised floors, laid on columns, or pilae, allowed hot air to circulate. Fires would be lit in stoke-holes, and voila, underfloor heating. In bath-houses gaps were even left when tiling a wall so that the walls would be heated too.
The remains of underfloor heating at Chesters Roman Fort.
12. Bath Houses
Bathing was an extremely important part of Roman life. Going to the baths was as much as a social event as it was a way to get clean. They were also places for exercise, gambling and catching up on the gossip. With hot rooms, both dry and wet, cold plunge pools and warm baths, they continue on in our modern Turkish spas.
The Bath House at Chesters Roman Fort is very well preserved.
13. Hadrian's Wall
Stretching 73 miles across Britain from Wallsend in the East to Bowness-on-Solway in the West, this World Heritage Site is a reminder of the impact the Romans had on our landscape. Construction began in 122 AD on the order of Emperor Hadrian and took at least six years to complete. Originally standing 4.5m high, there are 16 forts, 80 milecastles and 160 turrets along its length.
No list of this kind would be complete without Hadrian's Wall. This particular section lies near Birdoswald Roman Fort.
Find out what else the Romans did for us
Take a chronological journey through the key periods of Roman rule. Explore the Roman chapter in our Story of England series and see what else the Romans did for us.
Inspired to explore Roman England for yourselves? Visit the remains of the forts, towers, turrets and towns that once kept watch over Hadrian's Wall, and find out what life was like for the men, women and children on the edge of Roman Britain.Find a Roman Site to Visit
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