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Glimpses of Roman Britain page 2

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Caerwent, Silchester, Cirencester, Dorchester and Richborough, although to some extent unsatisfying, are, however, by their dimensions able to impress upon the mind the importance of some of the structures which have vanished.

Town life and country life were two very different things in the Roman period, as they are to-day. In many of the essential matters of life the ordinary conditions would resemble those of the smaller country towns of to-day. To the markets came the native farmers anxious to dispose of their produce, and in return for their sales ready to purchase the much needed manufactured goods. In the shops were displayed the finer qualities of earthenware manufactured in the Gaulish potteries, and it would seem that no house was content to exist entirely without the well-glazed imported red ware for the table. In addition purchases of glass and metal goods from the Continental factories, supplemented perhaps with the products of a few centres in Britain, would be freely made. There were the shops which sold tools and implements of native and foreign provenance, others for woven fabrics, including imported silk goods as well as those of mixed silk and cotton. The British-made woollen goods of the heavier type seem to have been of the best obtainable, and were exported to other parts of the Roman Empire, especially the finely woven British cloaks, very popular abroad. The organized amusements of Roman Britain, no doubt restricted to a great extent to the towns and cities, took place very extensively in theatre and amphitheatre. Four centuries after the break-up of the Romano-British civilization, King Alfred mentions the innumerable amphitheatres scattered over the face of the country, and it was these, no doubt, that provided the Romano-British people with everything in the way of spectacle. How far gladiatorial displays figured in the programme provided it is impossible to ascertain, although a memorial to a gladiator has been found in London. It may be that captured enemies taken in northern skirmishes or in the periods of more extensive warfare provided the human material for savage displays of this character, but it is questionable whether anything extensive in the way of professional gladiatorial fighting was common in Roman Britain. There were plenty of other spectacles of an amusing, picturesque or sensational character, and apart from the arena, football, racing and all sorts of games of chance in which dice and counters played a prominent part filled up the leisure hours of many.

It was in the early years of the fifth century that the eastern shores of Britain began to be overrun by Anglo-Saxon bands freshly arrived from the mouths of the German rivers in small flotillas of ships. Their numbers gradually increased and their depredations became more and more serious, until at length the task of defence became almost too much for a country to a great extent stripped of its regular troops for overseas service against other enemies on distant frontiers of the far-reaching empire.

Apart from the civil area of Lower Britain was the military zone, mainly in Upper Britain. In it were the three great legionary bases; those of Isca Silurum, "Caerleon," now becoming better known through the excavations which have revealed more of the stone-built amphitheatre of Legio II "Augusta," of Deva (Chester), where the museum holds much that is of great interest; and of Eboracum, still possessed of a considerable portion of the Roman walls of its great "castra." In the half-civilized areas beyond these strong military bases were many forts, a number of which have now been carefully excavated and the story of their construction, abandonment and reoccupation pieced together with great skill. These far-flung posts extend beyond the wall of Hadrian, whose impressive remains still grip the attention of those who find themselves in bleak Northumberland. Farther north still, beyond the slight remains of the turf wall of Pius between Forth and Clyde, the remains of other Roman forts are to be found, that at Ardoch, north of Stirling, being one of the best preserved. Besides these inland defenses there were those of the Saxon Shore - ten strongly built forts between the Wash and the Isle of Wight which played their parts prominently in the defense of Romanised Britain when the numerous raiders escaped the defending fleets.

At some date in the first half of the fifth century Britain became more or less isolated. Communication with the central government of the Empire was cut off and the Romanised Britons were left to organize their own defences. The struggle was prolonged far into the sixth century, until about 582, in a last great battle, the British flag was overwhelmed.

In the chaos during which Britain became England there is little doubt that the civilization which the Anglo-Saxons found did influence them. That many Romano-British inhabitants survived the period of struggle between 400 and 582 seems undoubted, and thus the work of the great Roman schoolmaster was not lost, but out of its apparent failure there grew up from the wrecked province a well-governed nation which has developed into the Britain of to-day.

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