Cold baths, fast food

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark investigates theremnants of the daily lives of the Roman inhabitants of south Wales.

For 200 years the II Augustan Legion was stationed at Isca Silures (named after the River Usk, which ran through the heart of the territory of the Celtic Silures people). From about ad75 more than 5,000 heavily armed and thoroughly trained men controlled large parts of the west of Britain, were sent off on construction details to Hadrian's Wall and Scotland and in their off-duty moments no doubt patronised the civil settlement which grew up round the wall of their stone fortress. That stone fortress can still be visited today and lucky school children who go to Caerleon to find out about the Romans may well feel, along with four-year old Menna, "I been to Romans today".

Roman Caerleon is run nowadays by Cadw (Welsh Historic Monuments) and the National Museum of Wales, which co-fund an education effort that hosts about 29,000 school visitors a year.

The town boasts four sites - the Fortress Baths, the Legionary Museum and the Amphitheatre and Barracks. The education officer is based at the museum but activities take place at all sites. Pre-booked school visits are free, though the teacher's pack costs Pounds 4.95 and use of the museum's interactive Capricorn Centre costs Pounds 1 per child unless schools subscribe to the National Museum of Wales. What they get for their day's visit is the chance of complete immersion in vita Romana.

It begins with the Baths. A large hangar-type building rises above the ruins of the Fortress Baths, its walkway as far above the stonework as modern Caerleon is above Roman ground level. A semi-circular fountain house pumped the water for an enormous oblong unheated pool in which the soldiers swam. In the Roman cement can still be seen the marks of a studded boot and a dog's paw. The remains of changing rooms, heated by underfloor hypocausts and sloping into the deep channel of the main drain, deepen the feeling of a real place, where women's jewels and children's teeth were found, along with chicken and pig bones from fast food and coins and counters from gaming.

The Baths were huge; they still stood in 1180, to the amazement of Gerald of Wales when he visited Caerleon. Their remains continue under all the modern buildings around and the car park, which was the site of the Palaestra in which visitors exercised and ran.

Visitors today may marvel at the determination of Romans to retain their Mediterranean garb in the wet wastes of Wales: an outdoor unheated swimming pool in rural Wales does not seem enticing in 1996. "And didn't they wear pants?" asked Steffan, aged six. But according to Peter Guest, curator of the Legionary Museum, over the centuries Romans stationed in Britain slowly adopted the Celtic trousers. But it is striking, as all the antiquities in the museum demonstrate, how uniform was the Roman way of life.

From standard issue oil-lamps to inscriptions of tomb-stones, from one end of the far-flung Empire to the other, the Romans found the best way to do things. Life-size statues dressed in replica armour make the corroded pieces of armour next to them come alive; maps and information panels give historical context; coins, a wooden writing tablet and a saucepan fill in some of those everyday details; while needles, gemstones and weaving tablets attest to the life of women.

From the museum school parties - and any visitors on activity weekends - can go through to the Capricorn Centre. Three games aimed at primary and middle-school children offer the chance to match pictures of artefacts to cartoons of Romans engaged in appropriate activities; to trace the passage of time on the site by stacking together landscape pictures showing primal forest to Dark Age wilderness and on to modern archaeological site; and to try to manage a Roman budget and do Roman shopping.

Up the stairs there is a most wonderful experience. A suite of rooms has been done out as a Roman barracks. Scarlet cloaks and plastic helmets and armour are available for children to dress up as soldiers; replica items enable them to feel the weight of helmets and shields and the heft of swords and spears (under supervision). There are bunks for eight in a smallish room: its comfort is vouched for by Dr Guest, who has slept there when the burglar alarm was down.

The small space, with distempered walls, basic furniture and oil lamps, entertainment dependent on the odd game of chance, chat or brawl, a simple and monotonous diet and endless cleaning of weapons punctuated by long marches and terrifying battles reinforce Dr Guest's remark in reply to Robert, aged 10: "No, the Romans didn't have slaves. Roman soldiers really were slaves. They signed on for 25 years and could not go home." Where Jeremy, aged six, tried to imagine eating gruel and the odd bit of toasted meat or cheese, Thomas, aged 13, tried out how quick manoeuvres with the shield and stabbing Roman sword might out-fight the sweeping Celtic broadsword - and no shield.

In the education room at the top of the newly opened centre, lectures and workshops are held, with the highlight of this season's work being a two-metre square mosaic in black and white which is to be laid in a local shop.

A handling collection contains food remains - oyster shells and jawbones - as well as pottery. With life as a Roman humming in the mind, the outside Amphitheatre and Barracks spring to life. The perfect round green dome of the Amphitheatre is the only one of its kind in Britain and though only one wolf bone has been found there, it is hard not to summon up the spirits of lost gladiators by the shrine dedicated to the dread Nemesis.

In the summer there are drama workshops for Romans and Celts and theatrical performances of Julius Caesar; in the winter children play Romans and Celts anyway.

The Barracks only sketch the floor plan of one section of the original stone buildings, but the outlines of sleeping rooms, bread ovens and - the great delight of all visitors - the latrines - are clear. The Romans used the latrines 30 at a time, sitting astride a running drain and then used a sponge on a stick dipped in a bucket of vinegar for toilet paper.

Coming back across the green playing field which was once a Roman town, Thomas was thoughtful: "I want to be a Roman when I grow up."

Visits to the Monuments and Museum can be booked by a single phone call to either the Roman Legionary Museum, tel: 01833 623134 or the Fortress Baths, tel: 01833 225188

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