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Ruling Britannia

All sorts of topics can be explored when Year 3 Romans set out to invade Britain, says Chris Ball

The idea was already a rich one - the topic of the Roman villa could involve sculptors, musicians, actors and mosaicists. The plan for Year 3 at Woodchurch Primary School in Birkenhead, Wirral, would cover several objectives of the history curriculum. However, when advanced skills teacher Lisa Whelligan and I got together, the project began to resonate further afield. The building of a villa in Britannia might also chart an exciting route into issues of location, culture, class, religion, symbolism, empire and military strategy.

Lisa Whelligan's post is part-funded by Merseyside Creative Partnerships, and I am a CP consultant. By the time we had explored the possibilities of the Roman villa, we felt sure we had a project that would excite teachers and pupils. The prompt-questions for the children were: what would you be looking for in an ideal home, and what would its location be? As they discussed their notions of domestic luxury, the pupils demanded swimming pools, Jacuzzis, central heating, statues, fountains and fine gardens.

Servants would do the cooking and entertain them. This dream home would be on a hill with a view of the sea and beach. There would be running water on hand.

Plans were drawn up for a sumptuous villa. The design incorporated fountains, a swimming pool and hot tubs. A sculptor worked with the pupils to design and build statues of Apollo, the god of music, and of Jupiter, king of the gods. These giant statue heads symbolised their culture and civilisation. Then we gave the children a new role. They became guests at a magnificent lunch laid on by the villa's owner, Crassus ("fat" in Latin).

There were contrasting scenes: slaves stoked the underfloor heating system (hypocaust) and guests luxuriated in the many pools and baths; servants cooked and wrote songs and poems to entertain rich Roman couch potatoes.

Then a message arrived from Crassus. This revealed that he had been charged by the emperor with establishing a civil service to govern the distant island of Britannia.

The guests were in no position to refuse. This was the system of patronage which oiled the wheels of Roman political life: if you lay on the rich man's couch you had to be prepared to jump at his command. And so, at Woodchurch Primary School, 60 seven-year-olds learned there is no such thing as a free lunch. As they contemplated the misery of a posting to the misty and miserable shores of Britannia (surely a hell on earth compared to the delights of a posting in, say, Syria or Africa), our Roman Year 3s chose which elements of Roman life they would take with them to Britannia.

Predictably, they decided to uproot their ideal home with its statues, interior designs, lifestyle and household gods in the hope of making life palatable in the new province. Marching along the corridors of the school, they traced the journey through Gaul and across the Channel, carrying all their goods and artefacts with them. On the way they thought about what we had left behind and speculated on what was to come. How might the natives receive us? When would the wine run out? What profit could we possibly gain from such a place?

In this way we explored the imperialist attitudes which contributed in Roman Britain to the revolt of the Iceni, the Norfolk Celtic tribe famously led by Boudicca. When they arrived in Britain (the school upper hall), the Romans were soon presented with conflicts of interest. Unknown to them, a group of Britons - played by actors - had built a village with fresh running water and a view of the sea and beach.

It seemed only reasonable, by Jupiter, that the Britons should share their land with the Romans, who were, after all, bringing them civilisation and culture. A proclamation was written to the Britons, delivered and summarily rejected. In spite of Roman offers to accept a fraction of the land and to share diverted water, the unreasonable attitude of the Britons forced the Romans into a reluctant but inevitable war. Those of the class who felt sympathy for the Britons' point of view and wanted to change sides did so.

Heavy Roman artillery was drawn up against the Britons. Using our bodies as machines of war, to the accompaniment of Mars, The Bringer of War from Gustav Holst's The Planets Suite, we made short work of the Britons'

village and their army with ballistas and catapults .

After Roman forces destroyed the Britons' settlement and put its army to flight, the two sides decided what would happen next. The Romans, fearing a revolt, agreed that they should be magnanimous in victory and made concessions.

The defeated Britons, however, were divided. Some suggested total capitulation to Rome at any price, but one girl and a small group of supporters were fiercely determined to resist. When asked the tactics she would employ to defeat superior Roman technology and resources, she declared that she would not face them in open battle but simply pick them off "one by one". An understanding of the nature of guerrilla warfare is not enshrined as a Year 3 history objective, but when the teaching is creative, unexpected outcomes like this often surface.

Perhaps not so surprising was the involvement throughout of many children who normally don't contribute to class activities. Within this topic they became engrossed and enthused.

* Creative Partnerships is funded by the DfES to work with children in economically deprived areas

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