Terry Saunders visits a Welsh school where the ancient past has a vibrant presence
On summer mornings, when the wind blows in gently from the River Usk, the pupils of Caerleon Endowed Primary School in south Wales might just catch the ghostly whispers of Roman parade-ground commands - ad signa, laxante, gladios stringite - or glimpse the shadowy forms of legionaries preparing for battle 2,000 years ago. For these children, conjuring up images of life in Roman Britain is second nature. Their school stands on the site of fortress Isca, one of the most important Roman garrisons in the country, and the evidence of more than 200 years of Roman occupation is all around them.
Where there were once workshops, granaries and a hospital, there are now classrooms, an assembly hall and staffroom. A large barrack block, where soldiers ate, slept and wrote their letters home, has been unearthed in the school field. The remains of a towering amphitheatre, where 6,000 spectators could watch gladiators fighting for their lives and their honour, borders their playground. Across the road is the baths complex, known to have been as large as a medieval cathedral and thought to have been built to the same design and scale as the great imperial baths of Rome. And next to that is the Roman Legionary Museum, built in Victorian times to house the town's rich and increasing collection of Roman finds.
The fortress at Caerleon, established in AD 74 or 75, was called Isca after the Celtic name for the River Usk. It was home to the Second Augustan Legion and was one of three permanent legionary garrisons in Roman Britain (the others were at York and Chester).
"It's wonderful to be able to walk in the footsteps of the Romans," says Year 6 pupil Joanna Mitchell. "We cross the river and the bridge every day - and so did they. But it wasn't just the Romans who lived here, the Celts were here first."
The children are particularly delighted that it was the Silures, a Celtic tribe who lived all around Caerleon, who fought the fiercest battles against the conquering Romans. But on balance, they were glad that the Romans came to their town. "We wouldn't have had so much history in Caerleon if they hadn't invaded," explains Grace Carr.
For many of the children, their heritage has sparked off an interest that could mould their lives. Henry Thomas has no doubts about what his future holds: "I want to be an archaeologist. I already belong to the archaeology club at the museum and have visited lots of different sites. When I see the remains that have been uncovered, I really admire the people who did it."
History co-ordinator Wendy Kegie exploits every opportunity her school's unique site offers - an achievement recognised by Ofsted inspectors who praised the children's "clear sense of history" and "growing sense of enquiry" as well as their ability to "empathise with historical events" and to "make life in the past a personal experience".
The school logo, designed by the children, shows aspects of Roman life created in mosaic. Pupils regularly take part in special events and celebrations organised by the Roman Legionary Museum. And they learn Roman drill and battle formations from the Ermine Street Guard, a society dedicated to the reconstruction of Roman military life, which frequently performs at the Isca site.
"Whenever there is something special on at the museum, such as a ministerial visit, and they want some children to take part or for a photo shoot, they call on us," Wendy explained. "So the children feel quite at home walking around in Roman dress. The other thing that they really enjoy is seeing that children from schools all over Britain, and even abroad, arrive in their town every day for their school visits."
The great fortress at Isca stood for more than 200 years but, as the Roman empire crumbled, the legion withdrew. Eight hundred years later, on a recruiting tour for the third crusade, Gerald of Wales passed through Caerleon and commented on the imposing Roman ruins. In 1405, a French expeditionary force in support of Owain Glyndwr visited the amphitheatre and reported that it was then known as the site of King Arthur's Round Table.
So begins another fascinating chapter in the town's history, one about which the Caerleon children are equally happy and enthuse.
Education Officer, Roman Legionary MuseumTel: 01633 423134 for booking and key stage 2 teaching packs.
A website on Celtic and Roman life, with lesson ideas and activities for seven to 11-year-olds has been developed to complement a new TV series When the Romans came to Wales, to be shown on Channel 4 and S4C beginning September 23. www.celts-romans.org (English); www.celtiaid-rhufeiniaid.org
Inside the silent and lifeless amphitheatre
Let your imagination run wild, Dazzled by glittering shields And a maze of mystical fields As the winter sun smiled.
Marching feet far out along Fosse Way, "Sin, dex, sin, dex" echoes in the air.
To the barracks they go Shivering in the snow.
A Roman soldier's life ain't fair!
High on the hill sharp Celtic eyes glare Scanning their lost territories Where the Romans roam A million miles from home Across battlefields turned into blood factories.
Shadows lengthen in the setting sun As the legions leave through the eastern gate.
The scented baths crumble As down the walls tumble Only Merlin can tell Isca's fate.
The layers of time lay eight feet deep Forgotten by a hundred generations.
Excalibur, a Viking boat, The drovers' coins in the castle moat, The myths and legends of nations.
The traffic thundering on the bridge, Speeds by without seeing Isca's past, Wheezing clouds of dust and fumes, As tomorrow's destiny looms - Haven't two thousand years gone by so fast?
by children of Caerleon Endowed Junior School
ROMAN ARMY COMMANDS
Sin - left
Dex - right
Ad signa - fall in
Intente - attention
Laxante - stand at ease
Procedite - forward march
Dextrorsum vertite - right turn
Retrorsum vertite - about turn
Consistite - halt
Gladios stringite - draw swords
Gladios recondite - sheath swords
Silente - silence