SPQL: A Glimpse of Life at the Edge of the Roman Empire

The second of two blog posts by University of Leeds PhD student Luke Daly-Groves. 

Echoes of the Roman past can be found all over Liverpool. In St. George’s Hall, the grand gates which secure the great hall boast the acronym ‘S.P.Q.L.’. This imitates the ‘famous Roman catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’’(1). But here, the ‘R’ for Rome is replaced with an ‘L’ for Liverpool. Along London Road, an equestrian statue of King George III in the style of Marcus Aurelius can be found and the Duke of Wellington still stands atop his column overlooking visitors to the city, as the Emperor Trajan once stood on his column in Rome (2). It is clear that the Georgians and later the Victorians wished to use elements of the Roman past for their own purposes. But what of the actual Roman past? What was so important about 43-410AD that over a millennium later imposing buildings and monuments in Liverpool would harken back to it? To understand much of the present, and see through the propaganda of the recent past, we must understand our ancient history.

At the Museum of Liverpool, my display, entitled ‘Britannia Inferior? A Glimpse of Life Around Roman Merseyside’ is giving visitors the chance to explore how their ancestors may have lived under Roman occupation. Thirty years ago, the display case which exhibits a variety of ancient artefacts discovered in and around Merseyside would have been empty. As F. Walbank claimed in the 1950s, Merseyside was ‘…a blank space on the map of Roman Britain’(3). Nothing yet was known of the Roman tile factory at Ochre Brook, of the surrounding Roman settlements or the coins buried below St. Helens, highlighted by recent metal detector finds. Indeed, most of the items on display were discovered from the 1990s onwards, some as recently as 2018. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has played a significant part in revealing new evidence of Liverpool’s Roman history by enabling researchers to literally fill in the blanks on the map of Roman Merseyside. Recording finds through the PAS enables researchers to plot the locations where they were found, thus enabling them to be analysed in their appropriate context and revealing a larger image of Roman Merseyside. Each of these items tell a story. When considered together, they provide a snapshot of life on the edge of the Roman Empire. So, what do these objects tell us about Merseyside’s Roman past?

Radiate of Claudius found in St Helens, Merseyside

The oldest object on display is a coin showing the bust of Emperor Claudius. It was found in St. Helens. Claudius invaded Britannia in 43AD, thus beginning the historical era commonly known as ‘Roman Britain’. What inspired this invasion? In 27BC, according to one Roman poet, ‘[o]nly the Briton remains, still undefeated by Rome’s might…’(4). This fact was probably irritating many Romans who prided themselves on their conquering abilities. Julius Caesar had invaded Britannia but did not  properly conquer it, Augustus debated it and Caligula’s men refused to carry out his orders to invade (5). Claudius knew that a successful invasion of a mysterious, frightening, far away land on the edges of the Roman world would increase his popularity at home and help secure his political position (6). Whilst this early period of Roman occupation was characterised by tribal warfare, particularly in the North, archaeological evidence suggests that Merseyside may have provided a relatively peaceful and stable area for the Romans, as will be seen.

So how did a coin depicting Emperor Claudius end up in St. Helens and how did the native population of Ancient Merseyside react to Claudius’s invasion? It is highly likely that Meols once served as a Roman port and possibly as a launching point for Roman soldiers during and after the reign of Claudius (7). A considerable amount of Roman coins, including some of the oldest found in Merseyside, have been discovered at Meols, thus supporting this conclusion (8). Moreover, the Cornovii tribe, who likely controlled this area, made peace with the Romans swiftly (9). Perhaps the coin depicting Claudius made its way to St. Helens from Meols, owing to trading activity at the port.

Roman coins have been found all over Merseyside, thus demonstrating the fact that coin use expanded greatly in Britain with the arrival of the Romans. 10 Roman coins are on display in Britannia Inferior? dating from 41AD to 383AD. This shows the longevity of the Roman presence in ancient Merseyside. Aside from their economic usage, coins were also an important propaganda tool for the Romans because they informed people throughout the Empire with whom power lay, what the language of power was and which gods to worship (10). For example, one coin on display depicting the Emperor Trajan also bears the famous Latin acronym SPQR. Coins also helped to disseminate the Roman religion. According to Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, ‘…religion appears to have permeated all aspects of life in Roman Britain’ (11). Whether the same can be said for Roman Merseyside is uncertain. The fact that such uncertainty exists is just as exciting as it is frustrating. As Professor Mary Beard notes, ‘history is about…challenging certainty’ (12). Several of the coins displayed in Britannia Inferior? depict Roman gods, suggesting that Roman religion may have been practiced in Merseyside. It is impossible to say what local people thought of such political and religious messages. The excitement lies in the knowledge that further archaeological discoveries may provide more answers to these questions. One coin on display depicting Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, was found at Meols. By this time, Meols had likely evolved from a military focused harbour into a marketplace with a road connecting the latter to the Roman fortress at Chester (13). But what exactly were the Romans selling, and, perhaps more importantly, who was buying?

Wirral brooch from Merseyside

A significant number of Roman earrings and brooches have been found at Meols which, according to archaeologist Robert A. Philpott, suggests that the latter may have been manufactured at the site (14). Brooches are one of the most common Roman era objects found throughout Merseyside. The eight displayed in Britannia Inferior? vary in shape and size. The majority were found in Wirral by metal detectorists. One of these, with its square panel design, is called a Wirral brooch due to the large amount of this type found in the local area (15). Arguably the most spectacular item on display is the still shiny silver zoomorphic brooch which was found near Speke in 2006 and declared as treasure. It depicts a hare in the grasp of a rather strange looking hound. Clearly, as Vanessa Oakden suggests, brooches could demonstrate the wealth, social status and identity of the wearer (16). The fact that so many have been found in and around Merseyside shows that Romano-Britons, just like the Romans in Italy, appreciated beauty. Such appreciation extended beyond brooches and earrings as demonstrated by the finding of a remarkably preserved copper alloy armlet or bracelet which could have been worn by a lady in Merseyside, almost two thousand years ago (17).

The great majority of the brooches found in Merseyside and of those which feature in this display are found in Wirral. According to Philpott, this provides further evidence to support the idea that ‘…the division of the province into Britannia Superior in the South and Britannia Inferior, in the early 3rd century, probably had its frontier along the Mersey’ (18). Although in Latin (the language of the Romans), inferior simply means ‘lower’, its modern context still begs the interesting question, to whom was the North inferior, compared to what, and why? The items on display can help answer these questions.

Although Wirral brooches ‘…did not tend to cross the Mersey’, the Romans certainly did (19). In AD 167, a trader by the name of Aulus Viducus established a tile production centre at Ochre Brook in Tarbock (20). Viducus probably headed a family enterprise known to historians now as the ‘Viducus firm’ (21). We know this because several tiles unearthed at Ochre Brook, some of which feature in the Britannia Inferior? display, are stamped with his name. Moreover, the format of the tile stamps found here are unusual for Britain (22). This suggests that the Viducus firm probably had links with Germania (modern day Netherlands) where such stamps were more common (23). Tiles manufactured at Tarbock have been found at the Roman fortress in Chester, suggesting that the tiles could have been made to re-roof barracks there in anticipation of the return of some Twentieth Legion soldiers from Scotland in AD 167 (24). But what does this evidence tell us about the local Romano-Britons? Or, to use a completely historically inaccurate but catchy term, what were the Roman Scousers up to?

Three Wirral brooches discovered in Flintshire

If the civilian Viducus firm employed locals to work on its production site, then it can be argued, from the presence of a mortarium (used for grinding food into pastes), that local Romano-Britons would have sampled new Roman foods. Mortaria found at other Roman sites in Merseyside such as Irby, support this conclusion (25). A mortarium with white quartz grits, found at Ochre Brook, is featured in the Britannia Inferior? display. The Romans did not just introduce new foods such as onions and carrots to Britain but also significantly increased the spread of pottery making (26). Visitors to the Museum of Liverpool can view a fragmented dish found at Ochre Brook which was used for cooking (as indicated by the still visible soot marks). Moreover, an almost completely intact Roman jar found at Leasowe beach in Wirral, is also on display. It is quite possible that native Britons, not just the invading Romans, could have used jars like this too (27). But all the evidence available suggests that they did not live in houses rooved with tiles such as the ones made at Ochre Brook (28). Indeed, the surrounding rural settlements indicate that Romano-Britons continued to live in round houses, as they had done before the Romans arrived (29). This demonstrates the limits of Romanisation and the desire, for whatever reason, to preserve local customs which was also evidenced by the slow adoption of Roman table manners (30).

Small probable Roman vessel

So what should historians make of all this? The discovery of stamped Roman roof tiles and other pottery at Ochre Brook demonstrates that even in the remote corners of Empire, native Britons would have been very aware of the Romans. Nevertheless, as archaeological evidence suggests that such tiles were not used for building in local British settlements we need to be cautious before drawing broad conclusions about the pervasiveness of Roman culture. That elements of Roman culture were adopted by Britons in and around Merseyside is arguably undeniable. But this culture was not adopted to the same extent everywhere in England and certain aspects of Roman culture were emphasised more in different areas (31). There clearly was some sort of a North-South divide (32). In comparison to the variety of gold and silver hoards unearthed in the South of England, the jewellery dug up in Wirral can seem modest in comparison (33). But even these modest finds reveal differences of status in society and can tell us something of the people who wore them. In fact, they often tell us everything we know, as Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard point out, ‘[t]he written sources are very quiet about northern Britain…’ (34).

So, did the dividing line of Superior and Inferior fall across the Mersey? And what of the modern context of this label, ‘Inferior’. Could it, perhaps unwittingly, have influenced the persistent view that Merseyside is an ‘archaeological backwater’ (35)? In many ways, Roman Merseyside was not inferior, in the modern sense of the word, but simply, different. When attending a local primary school, I was taught nothing of the Romans in Merseyside but much about their activities in Chester, including a memorable visit to the amazing Roman ruins there, guided by a man dressed in the full kit of a Roman soldier. But Philpot (‘Roman Merseyside: Twenty five years on’, Journal of the Merseyside Archaeological Society, Vol. 12; 2008) notes that the Romans arrived in Merseyside before they arrived at Chester and peaceful relations with the Romano-British tribes around the Mersey arguably played an important role in facilitating the construction and maintenance of the Cestrian fort (36). Although today, large Roman constructions often leave the most lasting impressions in peoples minds, it is important to remember that the surrounding, more rural areas, with their work force, trade and peaceful social relations are, to some extent, what made the marvels of the Roman period possible. The ‘ordinary people’, whose stories are often forgotten, facilitated the achievements of the ‘great men’ (37). Perhaps then, the question we should now be asking is not ‘what did the Romans do for us?’ but rather, what did we do for the Romans?

Notes:

  1. Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Profile Books, 2015), p. 16.
  2. Liverpool City Record Office, 731 GEO/4, J. Gore, ‘Equestrian Statue of His Late Majesty George the Third, Erected in London-Road’ (01/10/1822).
  3. A. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside: Twenty five years on’, Journal of the Merseyside Archaeological Society, Vol. 12 (2008), p. 27.
  4. Tibullus III, Roman Poet, quoted in Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard, The Romans Who Shaped Britain (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012), p. 37.
  5. Moorhead and Stuttard, Romans, pp. 36, 41.
  6. Ibid, p. 42.
  7. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 33.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain (London: The British Museum Press, 2016), p. 70.
  11. Ibid, p. 117.
  12. Dan Snow Interviews Mary Beard: Clip II, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiovJREr33k [Accessed: 16/10/2018].
  13. Vanessa Oakden, 50 Finds From Cheshire: Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2015), p. 27.
  14. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 39.
  15. Vanessa Oakden, 50 Finds From Manchester and Merseyside: Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016), p. 70. See also Oakden, Cheshire, p. 25.
  16. Oakden, Manchester and Merseyside, p. 70. See also Oakden, Cheshire, p. 25.
  17. Oakden, Manchester and Merseyside, p. 73.
  18. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 53.
  19. Ibid, p. 53.
  20. Vivien G. Swan and Robert A. Philpott, ‘Legio XX VV and Tile Production at Tarbock, Merseyside’, Britannia, Vol. 31 (2000), p. 65.
  21. R.W. Cowell and R.A. Philpott, Prehistoric, Romano-British and Medieval Settlement in Lowland North West England: Archaeological Excavations Along the A5300 Road Corridor in Merseyside (Liverpool: National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, 2000), p. 94. See also Swan and Philpott, ‘Legio XX VV’, pp. 56, 59.
  22. Swan and Philpott, ‘Legio XX VV’, p. 58.
  23. Ibid, pp. 58-59.
  24. Ibid, pp. 55-56, 64-65.
  25. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 46.
  26. Hobbs and Jackson, Roman Britain, p. 86. See also Moorhead and Stuttard, Romans, p. 241.
  27. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 47.
  28. Ibid, p. 44.
  29. Ibid, pp. 44, 54.
  30. Ibid, p. 48.
  31. Hobbs and Jackson, Roman Britain, pp. 9, 46.
  32. Ibid, pp. 9, 46.
  33. Ibid, pp. 150-151.
  34. Moorhead and Stuttard, Romans, p. 216.
  35. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 27.
  36. Ibid, p. 37.
  37. Dr Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum, ‘Foreword’ in Oakden, Manchester and Merseyside, p. 7.