Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

How the Romans Lived in Britain

[About the third century A.D.]

THE villa of Quintus Natalius, a Romanized Briton, whose father had amassed great wealth by means of his iron mines, was very prettily situated. It stood on a small terrace halfway up the low hill which, rising behind the buildings, perfectly sheltered it from the driving westerly gales. Before it lay a long, winding, and lovely valley, with remains of wild forest still clinging to the more precipitous slopes. The river was clear and transparent, and the hills beyond shut off the cold easterly and northerly gales.

But all this peaceful beauty made no impression on the wretched Mavia as she followed the slave-merchant into the great courtyard. There, wondering, she looked about her; on one side were the buildings in which corn, apples, wood, wine, oil, and the like were stored. On the other was a long line of rooms inhabited by servants and slaves. The great courtyard itself was nearly sixty feet long, and almost as broad. It had two paths running across it at right angles; a few fruit-trees wer€ arranged symmetrically along them; in the midst was a shallow concrete pond, full of living fish awaiting a passage to the kitchen. But the skillful architect had arranged all the lines so that the eye necessarily tended towards the master's own house which closed the courtyard at the upper or northern side.

The bright sunlight was reflected by myriads of tiny points of light all over the roof, for this was made of thin pieces, arranged diagonally, of a sandstone full of glittering mica. The roof was carried forward so as to form a lovely verandah, supported by elegantly carved, slender columns, and full of vases, statues of Diana and Meleager, and other ornaments.

A very fat man with sword and spear and a British slave had been seated on the verandah steps. Whilst the latter was sent to inform the owner that one Atticus desired to speak with him, Balbus (the soldier) chatted with the slave-merchant. The latter was going to Rome, and said he liked not the news either from the north or from Wales.

Balbus laughed heartily. "Why, man," he said, "there has been talk of a Caledonian invasion ever since I can remember. Hast thou not seen the great wall that crosses from Luguvallium to the Tyne? It is fifteen feet high, nine feet thick, and in front there is a ditch thirty-four feet wide and fifteen feet deep. That goeth right across the whole island. There are 12,400 men upon it, and sentry stands and a castle at every mile, where is a gate. I know it well, for I, Balbus, carried stone to build it on two sticks held over my shoulder, where there is still a scar. What Caledonians could storm that?"

The slave-merchant shook his head and hinted that the only legion had been sent to York, and that with so many stout soldiers sent to the Rhine and to Rome, either the Welsh or the Caledonians might invade Britain.

"I heard that the Welsh were gathering in the mountains, and that many had fled to Uriconium fox safety!"

At this point a woman came out to call in Atticus; she jeered at the raw barbarian, and shivered at the cold air outside. But a keen, wizened-up, Jewish-looking steward thrust her aside. "Make way, Julia," he said, "thou mayest go to the spinning-room now, for here is a prettier than thou with a nose not red nor always moist with water." Then, in an undertone to Atticus, "How much wilt thou give me?" "Five per cent." "Oh, no; I want fifteen per cent," said the steward. "Ten, then," growled the slave-merchant.

During this murmured conversation they had stepped up upon the verandah.

Mavia started and stared at the floor, for it was like a vivid and brilliantly colored painting. She had never seen Roman mosaic before, and wondered at the pictures, Bacchus on his tiger, and Actxon pursued by his hounds, with the corners filled in by graceful scrolls, garlands, and flowers. The colors were many and vividly contrasted, for there were pieces of ruby, two shades of red, black, slate-color, chocolate, yellow, gray, cream-color, and pure white.

Even more sumptuous and luxurious was the room into which she entered. A great apartment it was, of which the whole floor was occupied by an elaborate mosaic, representing Orpheus playing on his lute, and surrounded by many and diverse sorts of animals. Along the foot of the wall was a moulding or skirting of red cement. The rest of the wall was prettily painted, or rather distempered in many lovely colors, with subjects, such as boys carrying flowers, garlands of flowers, and strange birds. An arched recess held the family altar, where an exquisitely worked bronze lamp was burning. The room was pleasantly warm though the day was cold.

A stout young man, peevish and flushed in the face, was lolling on a couch covered with soft cushions (though it was near midday). He was examining a little bronze statuette, of which there were many in the room, as well as beautiful bowls of Samian ware, richly ornamented, beautiful colored and iridescent glass vessels full of fruit and flowers. To us the apartment might seem perhaps bare, cold, and clean, but there was no question as to the luxury and artistic taste of the owner.

Mavia stared about her while they bargained for her. A high price was asked, and Quintus refused to give it; he had more slaves than he wanted, but, after the steward had left the room, a stately Roman woman swept into it. She wanted a yellow-haired slave to carry her messages. Every woman in Rome had one, and Quintus must buy this one. A lively wrangle ensued, and the lady wept and stormed until at last Quintus sulkily called the steward and opened a huge brass-bound chest with a great iron key.

Mavia was bought and sent to wait on Faustina, wife of Quintus, who amused herself for a time by trimming her hair and dressing her like a Roman handmaiden. Then Faustina called for her litter, and, borne by four sturdy British slaves and attended only by Mavia, started for a country promenade. They soon reached the straight Roman road, marked by milestones, which led across the hills, and passed a village of dirty, miserable hovels, where wretched serfs, working in Quintus' iron mines, crouched before their master's wife, but turned off along a small footpath that led down to the riverside. The whole way Faustina reviled and stormed at the slaves, but at last she stopped the litter, and, grumbling at the exertion and the cold, tottered, leaning on Mavia, along the footpath.

A small ragged boy, who was herding goats, called out a loud and musical cry and ran uphill. The path was beside the steep banks, or almost little cliffs, thirty feet high, which had been at one time cut out by the river. Turning one of these projecting cliffs, they found a deep cave hollowed out of the side of the cliff, at which Mavia stared in awe.

A tall man in a black cloak, marked with strange symbols (the swastika or fylfot), and with curious Eastern silver and gold ornaments, was holding forth his hands and uttering a long musical hymn of weird Greek and Arabian invocations. Before him was a long stretch of the river, lying south by west, and, at this hour, blazing like molten gold with the sunlight, which fell full on his dark Egyptian features, and also shone brightly on the face of a statue, the god Mithras, which was placed in a recess in the back of the cave. Two smaller statues, the god's assessors, were on either side of him.

The priest took no notice of them, and Mavia wondered at the cave. It was cut twenty feet deep into the cliff, and about forty feet across, and the keystone of the semicircular arched roof was at least fifteen feet above the ground: all of it was neatly built of chalk blocks carefully fitted together.

Faustina and Mavia waited, full of superstitious fear, till the resounding Greek phrases ceased.

Then the priest motioned to them. "Will Mithras favor my voyage, O Arsaces?" "Yes, verily, lady, if thou dost place a suitable offering on his altar." Faustina produced a rich string of amber beads. "Nay, lady! Gold like the sunlight; that is the offering fit for Mithras."

Faustina unhooked a rich gold bracelet from her arm, and would have removed the amber beads, but the priest majestically and very gravely waved her off and took them himself.

"Hast thou the rare drug thou promised me?" "Yes, lady; here is the rich wolfsbane of whose power thou art not ignorant."

To Mavia's horror, the priest gave her a root of the accursed aconite, of whose deadly powers all Britons were well aware. Faustina snatched at it, and they returned to the litter, and passed back to the villa.

During this time Quintus had been occupied in the main business of his life. He had gone to take a bath, leaving his steward to haggle with the serfs who brought the iron for which they were paid. (But they had to give a fee to the steward.) Others brought in corn and apples, and always after openly leaving them in the granary passed round to the steward's office, where they bought some of it for themselves, and this money did not appear in his accounts.

Quintus, however, had now reached the series of rooms, and begun his bath. These rooms were all caref ully heated by a simple and yet efficient system, which must be described. The floors of all rooms used in winter were raised about two to four feet above the ground on a quantity of little brick or chalk pillars. The floor itself consisted of thin tiles or flags laid on these pillars, and covered by cement.

An opening in the outside wall of the house acted as the furnace. Here a fire of wood was kept up, and the heat and smoke from it passed under the floor between these pillars, and sometimes even up the wall through hollow earthenware flues. A hot bath was often warmed by means of similar flues, which were in connection with this system of hot-air spaces.

Quintus entered the first room, which was gently or moderately heated, and undressed; then a whole number of slaves began to attend to him. There was one who acted as a barber, another with tweezers who pulled out any superfluous hairs, others with toothpicks and ear instruments, and each one of them was a master in his particular craft. The second room was a hot vapor bath, in which the object was to produce profuse perspiration; in the third room he lay on a couch, and a specially strong and muscular slave scraped him all over with scrapers, which were curious iron knives with the edge turned sideways. Next came the bath, thirty feet long, and with a long step or seat, rounded at the edge, and covered with plaster, on which he could sit whilst another slave sponged him. He might now enter another room where was the cold bath. Then towels warmed on the hot flues would be brought by other slaves, and he would be carefully dried, and perhaps played ball to warm himself. Still another room was devoted to the storage of oils, unguents, and cosmetics, preserved in colored glass bottles, or sometimes in cakes stamped with the maker's name. So Quintus, having been oiled and curled in this chamber, now donned his toga, and returned to the great hall, where the clients and slaves were already gathered for dinner.

In another room, Faustina was having her hair dressed. She half reclined on a couch, supported by cushions, whilst a frightened slave held up a mirror before her. She had already stenciled her eyebrows (above and below), and had adorned her haggard cheeks with plentiful cosmetics, but it was the arrangement of her hair that caused all this trouble. The wrinkled and ugly hag that acted as mistress of the slaves gave her opinion; each slave girl had to say what she thought. One anxious womanwas endeavoring to get one particular curl to her mistress's satisfaction. "That is too high. Now it is too Iow. Be careful." Upon this Faustina seized a cowhide lash that lay beside her, and cruelly whipped the wretched handmaid across her naked shoulders.

Mavia, frightened and disgusted at this scene of vanity and cruelty, was engaged in extracting the aconite according to the shrill and peevish directions of her mistress. The extract was placed in a prettily shaped vase of iridescent glass, and locked up in a cupboard.

But Faustina's toilet seemed an endless task; now hot water was loudly called for and hurriedly brought from a bronze tap (modeled like a dog's head), for there was a leaden pipe in the room from the hot baths. Then Faustina's little girl, Julia, a spoilt, unhealthy little creature, who was running about with a rag doll and a rattle (made like a bronze pig), came to see the "pretty mother," and was kissed and fondled until another lock of hair was disarranged, when Julia was soundly smacked, and Faustina raved and stormed, and lashed her miserable handmaidens.

Then at the door of the room a silky, humble voice murmured, "Gracious Lady, Queen Muse of this rude barbarous island, the dinner is awaiting thy presence."

"Fetch me the calendar," cried Faustina. So a calendar with the lucky hours for every day was produced, and carefully studied by the superstitious Roman matron.

"Fairest of Priestesses, Phœbus Apollo has long descended from the azure empyrean. The rays of the Sun-god are failing, and rude Boreas begins to blow."

"Here, Mavia, take him this missive." So saying, Faustina seized her writing tablets (two pieces of thin wood folding like a book and covered inside with a thin layer of wax), and wrote upon the wax with a fine-pointed stylus, then closing the leaves, she tied it with string, and handed it to Mavia, who, followed by the Greek slave who had spoken, hurried to the dining-room. When Quintus read the missive, his face fell. "It is not propitious to dine for half an hour yet!"

Deep gloom descended on the faces of the clients. "Shall we play at dice? Bring the knuckle-bones."

A deeper depression fell on the company. "No. Shall we try those cocks of Balbus? Fetch thy fighting birds!"

Every one tried to look pleased, but the fight was a failure, for the birds had just been fed. "Thou, Aristides, canst thou not amuse me?" The cunning Greek began an eloquent harangue comparing the neck of Quintus to "the brawny shoulders of Hercules holding Anteus far from his Mother Earth," etc., but he was suddenly checked.

"Come hither, Aristides! I gave a high price for thee as a scholar and a poet, but I hear strange talk from Faustina about Rome and thee. See thou to it that thou goest not thither in the next party of slaves! Fetch her to dinner forthwith!" The Greek grew pale and hurried off. Quintus went on. "When I married the penniless daughter of an official convicted of oppression, I did not bargain for this! I hear each day of an ancestor who died when fighting Hannibal. She quotes verses I never knew, and corrects my Latin as old-fashioned and provincial, and her tongue never stops."

But then a great tumult was heard. The faces of the company brightened. Then the painted elderly dame swept into the room, and they went into the dining-room, where soon the dinner was served.

Mavia had never seen such gluttony before. A great boar was brought in. There were dishes of eggs and of hares (kept in a warren for the purpose); salmon and other fish; oysters from Richborough, and a plate of snails carefully imported from France, and kept as a great luxury. There was fruit also, not only apples from Britain, but figs, mulberries, and grapes imported from Gaul. These were tastefully arranged in bowls of Samian ware, covered with beautiful designs, in pottery manufactured at Canterbury, and beautiful glass vessels. But a fat and perspiring slave handed to Mavia a graceful glass vessel, and she was soon busy pouring out wine. But even this required a little experience. She soon found that if any one wanted his cup filled he held up his hand. An elderly client with a threadbare toga did so, and she poured out wine for him from her glass vessel.

Every one laughed at her and congratulated the client. (An old black slave poured British wine for the clients from a jar of rude yellowish earthenware with looped handles.)

That dinner lasted for three hours, and the time was chiefly occupied in listening to Faustina's comparison of Virgil and Homer, with a chorus of applause and flattery thrown in by Aristides and the clients. At last Quintus became foolish and muddled with wine, and called to Faustina, "Is there anything a woman does not understand?"

"Ah," she said, "that deserves a special draught of my cherished Falernian. Go thou and fetch it, Aristides, and bring also a meet vessel for holding it."

Aristides returned with an ancient jar carefully corked up, and to Mavia's horror and disgust he brought also the identical iridescent glass in which lay the aconite.

Faustina, with her glittering eyes, uncorked the jar, poured out the wine in her own cup, drank it ostentatiously, and then poured the rest of the jar into the poisoned glass decanter.

"Come hither, Mavia. Give it to thy master. Why lookest thou so glum?"

Then the whole foul plot was clear to the wretched British girl. She was to pour the poisoned draught into her master's cup. She would be tortured to death, probably wrapped in linen saturated with pitch and burnt to death! Then Faustina and Aristides would seize the dead man's riches and hasten to Rome! Who would believe her word? So she took the glass vessel and turned to carry it, but, as she went, she pretended to stumble, and fell and dashed the jar to pieces on the mosaic.

Faustina was almost mad with fury and fright. "Send for the torturer," she cried. "Scourge me this girl to death, but torture her first." A repulsive Arabian came in, carrying a small brazier and curious metal tools; but whilst the wretched Mavia, bound and helpless, awaited the heating of those instruments, a strange and unexpected interruption took place.

"What is that clamor?" cried Balbus, and went to the court. A panting British serf, bleeding with wounds, covered with dust, and half dead with fright and fatigue, stumbled into the hall and cried, "Fly, O Quintus, the Welsh savages are after me. They have burnt the villages and slain thy people. They are coming fast after me."

A few of the clients, chiefly poor, elderly men, rallied round Quintus with swords drawn. Fat Balbus in vain endeavored to get into his chain armor, which was far too tight for him Some tried to plunder, and ran off laden with booty. The rest shrieked and ran to and fro, helplessly wringing their hands.

The steward and Faustina disappeared. But as Quintus called loudly for his daughter Julia, wild, discordant yells and the Celtic trumpet sounded at the gate, and a fierce horde of savages burst into the court.

Mavia was recognized by the leader, but those splendid, luxurious apartments were soon streaming with blood. That dissolute crew of Romans, Greeks, and debased Britons were dead or flying panic-stricken over the hills.

Soon a great fire began to kindle on the beautiful villa, and rapidly grew into a roaring conflagration. The roof fell and then only a few blackened heaps of broken stone and potsherds marked the site of Quintus' splendid villa. But even to-day, underneath the shapeless grassy mounds which cover the broken tiles and ruined floors, far inside the soot-blackened hypocaust, there lie three skeletons! The steward had crawled there, carrying his ill-gotten money, which now lies scattered amongst his bones. Faustina and her daughter had also crept in there to escape: all three were suffocated below the ruins of the burning villa.

by G. F. Scott Elliot

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