Why are Pompeii and Herculaneum
relevant to Britain?

Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, soon after Britannia became part of the Roman Empire. By exploring what remains of Pompeii we can glimpse what life was like in Britannia at that time.

Rome first showed interest in Britannia when Julius Caesar, having subdued Gaul, led exploratory expeditions against the island in 55 and 54 BC. Caesar suspected the Celtic-speaking tribes of Britannia of having supported their Gaulish cousins on the mainland against Rome; "I knew that in almost all of our campaigns in Gaul our enemies had received reinforcements from the Britons. Even if we should not have enough time for conducting a campaign that season, I thought it would be very useful merely to have visited the island, to have seen what sort of people lived there, and to get some idea of the terrain and the harbours and landing places". Caesar added that almost no one but traders went to the island, but found that even they knew nothing of the interior or even the size of the island.[1] Both his incursions met heavy resistance, and he realized that the conquest of Britain was going to be long and difficult.

Children at Arbury Primary School dress as Roman soldiers, complete with staffs and shields.

Roman occupation of Britannia began in 43 AD and lasted nearly four centuries.

It was not until 43 AD - after Rome had otherwise stopped expanding - that Emperor Claudius decided to invade the island in earnest. Claudius, a relative unknown, had inherited the throne after the Emperor Caligula was assassinated two years before, and conquering Britain seemed the best way to display his new power.

As the Romans spread across Britannia, the Great Ouse Valley proved to be a convenient way to access East Anglia, opening the area for settlement. At that time, the region that now forms Cambridgeshire was home to three native tribes: the Iceni, the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes. Therefore Roman expansion into the area was not without its conflicts - uprisings took place in 48 AD when Ostorius Scapula ordered the natives be disarmed (he wanted no distractions while he invaded Wales)[2], and in 60 AD when Boudica, queen of the Iceni, led a revolt that resulted in the destruction of several Roman towns, including Londinium (today's London).[3] In the 70s and early 80s, the Roman general Agricola (AD 40-93), completed the conquest of Britain and even, temporarily, Scotland. Agricola's biographer Tacitus, the historian and close friend of Pliny the Younger, and the addressee of Pliny's two letters describing the eruption of Vesuvius, gives a vivid description of Agricola's "Romanization" programme: "In order that a population scattered and uncivilized, and proportionately ready for war, might be habituated by comfort to peace and quiet, he would exhort individuals and assist communities, to erect temples, market-places, houses: he praised the energetic and rebuked the indolent ... Moreover he began to train the sons of chieftains in a liberal education, and to give preference to the native abilities of the Briton ... As a result, the nation which used to reject the Latin language began to aspire to rhetoric: further the wearing of our dress became a distinction, and the toga came into fashion". Tacitus mordantly observes; "The simple natives gave the name of "culture" to this factor of their slavery".[4] Despite occasional uprisings, the increasingly urbanized population was Romanized, particularly the elite, while the rural population largely retained their traditional way of life.[5]

Evidence of Roman habitation has been found across Cambridgeshire - and it consists of far more than a scattering of Roman coins (although no small number of these has been found). The Romans built the area's first structured roads, two of which cross-crossed Cambridgeshire from today's Haverhill to Godmanchester and from Godmanchester to London.[6] Some of our modern roads run near these ancient paths to this day.[7] The Romans also recognised that the Fens would make good farmland, and therefore they dug the first canals (the Car Dyke, or Old Tillage, is one) through the Fens in an attempt to drain them.[8] Archaeologists have also found the remains of villas, temples, farms and other settlements throughout the area.[9]

Pompeii and Herculaneum add to the archaeological record, broadening our understanding of everyday Roman life at a time when Britannia was adapting to it. The virtually intact domestic architecture and artefacts, paintings and mosaics found at both sites show us how Romans lived in the first century AD, not just in the cities in which they were found, but throughout the empire. Very similar dwellings, mosaics and pottery have been found in Britain. It is also perfectly possible that the populations of both Pompeii and Herulaneum included British slaves.

The Romans ruled Britain for nearly 400 years. As the Roman Empire crumbled, however, its hold over Brittania weakened. The Romans no longer attempted to protect their holdings from the Irish to the west, the Picts to the north and the "barbarian" Germanic peoples to the east. Those Romans who remained probably melded into the island's next wave of invaders, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came over from the European continent.

How does a coin link Britannia and Pompeii?

Traditionally, the date given for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is 24 August 79 AD. The date is based on a letter by a survivor of the eruption, Pliny the Younger. Textual variants in surviving manuscripts of the letter give three different dates for the eruption: 24 August, 3 November and 23 November. A coin found in 1774 in an undisturbed context below the ash layer was minted in September 79 AD. The coin was found in an area that could not have been touched since the eruption; there is no way a later looter or visitor could have dropped it. This find, combined with other evidence, such as the remains of autumnal foodstuffs, indicates that the eruption most probably occurred in November.

The coin, as it happens, was issued to celebrate Agricola's conquests in Britannia.[10]

  1. Caesar, Julius. 1980. The Battle for Gaul. (Trans. Anne & Peter Wiseman). (London: Chatto & Windus), pp. 80-81 [Commentaries 4.20].
  2. Brown, D.M. 1977. Roman Cambridgeshire. (Cambridge: Oleander Press), p.5.
  3. McIntosh, J. and G. Wait.1992. The Romans in Cambridgeshire. (Cambridge: Cambridge City Council), p.1.
  4. Tacitus. Agricola. 1970. Trans. M. Hutton, revised R.M. Ogilvie. Loeb Classical Library. (London: William Heinemann), caput 21.
  5. McIntosh & Wait 1992: 2.
  6. Taylor 1992. Archaeology of Cambridgeshire, Vol.2: South East Cambridgeshire and the Fen Edge. (Cambridge: Cambridge City Council), p.6.
  7. Taylor 1992: 6.
  8. McIntosh & Wait 1992: 9.
  9. Taylor 1992: 4-5.
  10. Lazer, E. 2009. Resurrecting Pompeii. (Routledge: Abingdon), p.80.

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