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 Populus Que 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, a temporary 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. F. Walbank claimed in the 1950s, Merseyside was ‘…a blank space on the map of Roman Britain’(3). However this is not the case as shown from subsequent excavations in the region, including a Roman tile factory at Ochre Brook, and chance finds such as Roman coins from St. Helens. Many of the items on display were discovered from the 1990s onwards, The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has played a significant part in revealing new evidence of Liverpool’s Roman history, filling in some blanks on the map of Roman Merseyside. Recording finds through the PAS enables researchers to study and interpret wider evidence from 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 II found in St Helens, Merseyside

One of the objects on display is a coin showing the bust of Emperor Claudius II. It was found in St. Helens. So how did a coin depicting Emperor Claudius II end up in St. Helens and how did the local population react to the Roman presence? Roman coins have been found across Merseyside, 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? Aside from their economic usage, coins were also an important propaganda tool for the Romans because they informed people throughout the Empire about their rulers, about the language of power and which gods to worship (4). One coin on display depicting the Emperor Trajan also bears the famous Latin acronym SPQR.

Coins also helped to tell people about Roman beliefs. According to Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, ‘…religion appears to have permeated all aspects of life in Roman Britain’ (5). Whether the same can be said for Roman Merseyside is uncertain. As Professor Mary Beard notes, ‘history is about…challenging certainty’ (6). Several of the coins displayed in Britannia Inferior? depict Roman gods. 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, on the North Wirral coast. 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 (7). But what exactly were the Romans selling, and, perhaps more importantly, who was buying?

Brooches are one of the most common Roman 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 (8). 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 (9). Romano-Britons, just like the Romans in Italy, appreciated beauty. Such appreciation extended beyond brooches and earrings as demonstrated by the finding of a copper alloy armlet or bracelet which could have been worn in Merseyside, almost two thousand years ago (10). 

Three Wirral brooches discovered in Flintshire
Three Wirral brooches discovered in Flintshire

Many 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’ (11). 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?

In AD 167, a trader by the name of Aulus Viducus established a tile production centre at Ochre Brook in Tarbock (12). Viducus probably headed a family enterprise known to historians now as the ‘Viducus firm’ (13). We know this because several tiles unearthed at Ochre Brook, some of which feature in the Britannia Inferior? display, are stamped with his name. The format of the tile stamps found here are unusual for Britain (14). This suggests that the Viducus firm probably had links with Germania (modern day Netherlands) where such stamps were more common (15). 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 (16). 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?

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 could have sampled new Roman foods. Mortaria have been found at other Roman sites in Merseyside such as Irby, (17). 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 (18). 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). An almost completely intact Roman jar found at Leasowe beach in Wirral, is also on display. It is quite possible that local Britons, not just the invading Romans, could have used jars like this too (19). But all the evidence available suggests that they did not live in houses rooved with tiles such as the ones made at Ochre Brook (20). Indeed, the surrounding rural settlements indicate that Romano-Britons continued to live in round houses, as they had done before the Romans arrived (21). This demonstrates the limits of Romanisation and the desire, to preserve local customs (22). 

Small probable Roman vessel

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 (23). There clearly was some sort of a North-South divide (24). 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 (25). 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…’ (26). 

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 Philpott (‘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 (27). Although today, large Roman constructions often leave the most lasting impressions in people’s minds, it is important to remember that the surrounding, more rural areas, with their work force, trade and social relations are, to some extent, what made the marvels of the Roman period possible. 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? 


  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. Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain (London: The British Museum Press, 2016), p. 70. 
  5. Ibid, p. 117. 
  6. Dan Snow Interviews Mary Beard: Clip II, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiovJREr33k [Accessed: 16/10/2018]. 
  7. Oakden, 50 Finds From Cheshire: Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2015), p. 27. 
  8. 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. 
  9. Oakden, Manchester and Merseyside, p. 70. See also Oakden, Cheshire, p. 25. 
  10. Oakden, Manchester and Merseyside, p. 73. 
  11. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 53. 
  12. Vivien G. Swan and Robert A. Philpott, ‘Legio XX VV and Tile Production at Tarbock, Merseyside’, Britannia, Vol. 31 (2000), p. 65. 
  13. 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. 
  14. Swan and Philpott, ‘Legio XX VV’, p. 58. 
  15. Ibid, pp. 58-59. 
  16. Ibid, pp. 55-56, 64-65. 
  17. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 46. 
  18. Hobbs and Jackson, Roman Britain, p. 86. See also Moorhead and Stuttard, Romans, p. 241. 
  19. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, p. 47. 
  20. Ibid, p. 44. 
  21. Ibid, pp. 44, 54. 
  22. Ibid, p. 48. 
  23. Hobbs and Jackson, Roman Britain, pp. 9, 46. 
  24. Ibid, pp. 9, 46. 
  25. Ibid, pp. 150-151. 
  26. Moorhead and Stuttard, Romans, p. 216. 
  27. Philpott, ‘Roman Merseyside’, Ibid, p. 37.