Visiting Viroconium

The Roman baths at Viroconium, including one of the largest surviving free-standing Roman walls in the country; why it wasn't plundered for building material like the rest of the buildings is anybody's guess. Beyond that wall, known as "the Old Works", is the basilica

My sixth-grade teacher, Sally Forth (no, that really was her name), read to us after lunch every day. The first day she got out a book, we were horrified to be treated like little kids, but not long after “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, she had us hooked. I don’t think we ever managed to talk her into giving us more than one chapter a day, but we tried.

Mrs. Forth had gone to Ireland the summer before she took on our class. It was the trip of a lifetime—in our neighborhood, someone who had been out of the US other than on military duty was a novelty. She wore a reverent smile whenever she spoke of it, and had a particular tone of voice reserved just for saying Ireland, sending the word out on such a rush of air it was as if just saying the name knocked the breath out of her.

James, who was showing a school group around while we were there, having the kids do star jumps (similar to US jumping jacks) in the exercise area, or stand on the sites where there would have been pillars to get the effect of two long rows of columns. Times being what they are, taking photos of other peoples' children is seriously frowned upon, and the staff asked me to wait until the children had gone to snap James here.

She had brought back from Ireland a complete set of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, even though I’m sure they were already available in the US. Maybe she felt books printed in Ireland were more valuable than local copies, but the domestic version I got from the library and read over and over had quite an impact. On my first trip to England—my honeymoon—the one thing I absolutely had to see was Hadrian’s Wall.

So I had mixed feelings when I heard they were making a movie out of The Eagle of the Ninth. I’ve heard it called a children’s classic, but in the US I rarely ran into anyone else who’d read it, and over the years I seem to have formed the impression that The Eagle of the Ninth was mine. Sutcliff wrote it just for me.

I’ll see the film sooner or later, but for my birthday, I opted against going to a cinema to see The Eagle and instead we went up to Shropshire to see a real Roman town.

Near the present-day village of Wroxeter tourists can visit the remains of Viroconium, in its heyday the fourth-largest Roman town in Britain. And unlike any other Roman town in these islands—or possibly anywhere—a little bit of it was built just last year.

The modern-built villa. The timbers have been left showing on one end so visitors can see how the place was constructed; the Romans would have plastered over that wall. The paints are the kinds the Romans would have used, and the ticket seller warned us not to bump against the walls because the color comes off on your clothing.

English Heritage, a government-funded organization that maintains ancient buildings, in a joint project with Channel 4, a public service television station, produced Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, a series documenting the attempt of a modern building crew to build the kind of villa a wealthy family would have occupied in Viroconium in the 2nd century AD, using only Roman building materials and techniques. They started at the very beginning, which meant consulting the entrails of a sheep to see whether the site was good for building on, though that seemed a bit redundant given that the site once held a city of 5000. (Wroxeter’s modern population is 160 — and that’s not a typo.)

Their efforts resulted in an L-shaped Roman-style villa in which living quarters make up one stroke of the L and a multi-room bathhouse suite makes up the other. The front includes a couple of shops, either for the family business or to be rented to independent shopkeepers. In the back, a breezy covered walkway looks inviting on a bright spring day but must have been awfully chilly most of the year; the experts say it might have been enclosed by shutters in bad weather.  Romans apparently built houses here the same way they did in the Mediterranean; a British winter spent in such a house would certainly make me think about giving up on the Empire and going home.

The main door of the modern-built villa. The room to the left is for the doorkeeper, who might have been a slave.

Health and safety regulations meant the workers got modern steel scaffolding instead of having to build wooden scaffolding themselves, but other than that, the crew tried to stick to Roman methods and to do everything themselves. One of my problems with so-called reality TV is that it doesn’t reflect anything like reality; in this case, the crew’s carpenter, who in his day job builds custom-designed cabinetry for fancy shops, had not only to fell trees and split the logs into planks, but to start by using those planks to make a cart, complete with wooden wheels, for others to use to carry stones—after they’d dressed the stones by hand, of course. The archaeology professor who designed the building and coached on Roman building techniques nearly had apoplexy when he saw them using a wheelbarrow—the Romans apparently never invented the wheelbarrow—but I doubt the Romans required amateurs to design and construct, under time pressure, a new cart for each construction job. For that matter, there surely should have been ranks of slaves to help with the work; the modern crew had only 6 guys. And like much of reality television, producers set as tight a deadline as possible, a cheap way of generating dramatic tension. The team had 6 months to finish the job.

Part of the open colonnade at the back of the villa

With the aid of some timber-framing experts and some mechanical “slaves”—such as mixing machines for the concrete—that the professor eventually allowed, the building went up, and is impressive. It’s easy to imagine that the local British tribespeople in the area at the time, the Cornovii, would be awed at the contrast between their tiny huts and what must have seemed a huge, polished building.  Heck,  from some angles it looks like something that might sit in an American suburb today, and I wouldn’t mind living there myself.

A wall emerging from under the ground where most of Viroconium still waits to be excavated.

Most of the original buildings of Roman Viroconium are still underground; the newly built villa sits in the middle of what was the forum. Visitors today see only a complex range of bathhouses, plus a marketplace, and a public latrine (flushed by waste water from the baths). 

The baths offered a basilica for indoor exercise and a yard for outdoor exercise, because for the Romans, having a bath involved first working up a sweat.  Bathers oiled their bodies and proceeded through a series of cold, warm, and hot rooms (the frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium, as it happens) so they could sweat some more, then scraped the oily, sweaty goo off using a curved metal tool called a strigil. The process ended with an optional cold plunge.

The hypocaust (under-floor heating system) for the baths at Viroconium; you can see the ranks of small pillars that would have held up the floor. The new villa sits in the background.

Heat came through the floors, which rested on pillars of tiles.  Hot air from furnaces flowed through the open spaces between the pillars to heat the rooms above, which took all morning to get up to the appropriate temperature. I thought it very egalitarian that women and men shared the use of the bathhouse, until I realized that, since women had it in the morning and men had it all the rest of the day, the arrangement meant women had the hours men didn’t want it because it wasn’t hot enough yet. This was, after all, about 1000 years before the age of chivalry.

Viroconium remained inhabited until the 7th century, though the baths we see today were constructed from about 120 to 150 AD, a time span that includes the year in which Marcus Aquila, according to The Eagle, set off for the lands beyond Hadrian’s Wall. And the city, before it became a civilian town, was a garrison held by a legion just like the one Marcus’s father took north, never to be seen again.

Some of the original Roman wall, showing how it was constructed using rows of tile in between rows of stone.

I’m sure I’ll see  the film eventually, but at the moment I’m still getting used to the idea that the Marcus and Esca and Cottia in my head will probably be supplanted forever once I see actors in those roles. (Well, not Cottia, of course; they left the only female character out of the film.)

The bases of the original columns that held up the forum, the line of them disappearing into the turf where the rest of the town waits for excavation.

Whatever the film does to the story, I’ll remain a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff and indebted to Mrs. Forth who first read to me The Eagle of the Ninth. I hope she managed to have other trips to Ireland. I’ve looked for her on-line without result; if anyone should happen to know where she is, I’d be grateful if they’d let me know.


Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Travel

4 responses to “Visiting Viroconium

  1. Great post! I finally got to see a bit of Hadrian’s wall two years ago and I was floored. What an amazing feat. I could have stayed for hours. Actually we did stay and take photos for quite a while as we walked around near the Roman Soldier’s museum.
    My nephew and brother-in-law walked the length of it last spring and had a great time. Glad your trip was fun!

  2. Thanks for your comment! I wish I could have posted some photos of Hadrian’s Wall, but they’re on slides and I have no means of scanning them in at the moment. (Note to self: Get all the old stuff digitized!)

    I think the museum is new since I’ve been there; a couple of years ago they found — or else they’d already found and had opened the museum and put on display — a huge number of writing samples from soldiers. Is that the museum you mean? It sounded fascinating — well, maybe that’s too strong a word when some of the letters took the form of “here are the socks you asked me to send, I’m sorry it’s so cold and wet there”, but it did make these people who lived so long ago seem very real, anyway. Walking the length of it would really be an undertaking — wow!

  3. Pingback: Brother Cadfael Was Here. | M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

  4. Pingback: Visiting Viroconium | M E Foley’s Anglo-American Experience « ROSEMARY SUTCLIFF | the eagle of the ninth book | the eagle film | about books, reviews, film, tv, radio, quotes

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