Life in Roman Britain

By Tim Lambert

Towns in Roman Britain

After the first century AD the Celts who lived in what is now England were, to a certain extent, Romanized. Many towns appeared. Some were created deliberately. Others grew up by Roman forts as the garrisons provided markets for the townspeople’s goods. Roman towns were usually laid out in a grid pattern. Streets were often covered in gravel. When people walked on the gravel it became compacted. Very often streets had drains at the sides.

At first towns in Roman Britain were unprotected. Then in the late 1st and 2nd centuries, fortifications were built. They consisted, at first, of ditches with earth ramparts and wooden palisades. Later many towns had stone walls.

In the center of Roman towns was a rectangular space called the Forum. It was lined by shops and by a public building called the Basilica. Markets were also held on the forum. In the towns, another important building was the public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. Roman Baths consisted of a frigidarium or cold room, a Tepidarium or warm room, and a caldarium or hot room. You usually finished with a dip in a cold pool. To clean themselves Romans rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil.

Roman Baths in Bath

Larger towns also had an amphitheatre where cruel sports such as cockfighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought to the death. Some Roman towns also had theatres. The Romans gambled with dice. They also played board games. Roman children played with wooden or clay dolls. They also played ball games.

In the late 1st and 2nd centuries, the Romans practiced cremation. However, in the 3rd century, they began to bury the dead. Citizens were buried in cemeteries outside the walls. Many Roman towns also had public toilets.

Towns in Roman Britain were small by our standards. It is not known exactly how big they were but London may have had a population of around 35,000. Towns like Colchester and Cirencester probably had between 10,000 and 12,000 inhabitants. Most towns were smaller with only 3,000-5,000 people. Roman Britain was, of course, an agricultural society where most people made their living from farming (although there were many craftsmen). Only a small minority of the population (probably around 10%) lived in towns.

Life for the rich in Roman Britain

Meanwhile, upper-class Celts adopted the Roman way of life. They built villas modeled on Roman buildings and they enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. In a hypocaust, the floor was raised above the ground on pillars. A fire was lit in a furnace and the hot air circulated under the floor. It also rose through spaces in the walls. (Smoke rose through spaces in walls then escaped through flues in the roof). Of course, a hypocaust was expensive. It burned large amounts of wood and you needed slaves to keep loading fuel into the furnace. Only the rich could afford them.

Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. In their windows, they had panes of glass. Of course, poorer Romans had none of these things. Their houses were simple and plain and the main form of heating was braziers. For the wealthy furniture was very comfortable. It was upholstered and finely carved. People ate while reclining on couches. Oil lamps were used for light. Furthermore, some people had a piped water supply. Water was brought into towns in aqueducts and along lead pipes to individual houses.

The sons and daughters of better-off Romans went to primary school to learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic. Usually, only boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature, and oratory (the art of public speaking). Girls and boys from rich families were educated at home by a tutor.

Roman boys and girls wore a kind of necklace called a bulla. It consisted of a charm inside a pouch. It was worn around the neck. A boy wore his until he reached manhood. A girl discarded hers when she got married. For rich children, the bulla might be made of gold. Jewelry, in general, was also more likely to be made from gold or something else just as rare. For the rich in Roman Britain, luxuries like wine and olive oil were imported.

Food In Roman Britain

The Romans also introduced new foods into Britain, among them celery, cabbages, radishes, cucumbers, broad beans, and walnuts. Romans cooked on charcoal stoves. Olive oil was imported. So were olives, figs, and grapes. Wine was also imported (although the Romans attempted to grow vines in Britain). The Romans were also very fond of fish sauce called liquamen. They also liked oysters, which were exported from Britain. A Roman dining room was called a triclinium. The Romans ate a breakfast of bread and fruit called the ientaculum. At midday, they ate a meal called the prandium of fish, cold meat, bread, and vegetables. The main meal was called the cena and was eaten in the evening.


Transport in Roman Britain

The Romans are also famous for the network of roads they built across Britain, which remained centuries after they departed. Rich people traveled by horse or on long journeys by covered wagon. Sometimes they were carried in litters (seats between two long poles).

Transport by water was also important to the Romans. They built large merchant ships called cortia, which could carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo. Roman ships had a single main mast, which carried a rectangular sail, although some ships also had small sails at the bow and stern. Roman ships did not have rudders. Instead, they were steered by oars. The Romans also built lighthouses to aid shipping.

Poor people in Roman Britain

However Roman rule probably made little difference to most poor Celts, especially in the north and extreme southwest of England. For them, life went on much as it had before. Their houses remained simple huts. Like the Celts before them and the Saxons after them the Romans kept slaves. A slave was simply a piece of property and could be bought and sold like an animal.

Most people probably treated their slaves reasonably well simply to keep them working efficiently. However, no doubt some masters were cruel. Probably slaves who worked in mines were the worst off. However, some slaves managed to gain their freedom or were given their freedom by their masters.

Soldiers in Roman Britain

In the first century, the Roman legionary wore segmented armor (lorica segmentata). He threw a spear called a pilum and fought with a short sword called a gladius. He was protected by a curved rectangular shield. There were also auxiliary soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. When they finished their service they became Roman citizens.

By the third century, the cavalry had become much more important. The Roman army needed mobility to fight the Saxons who were making ‘hit and run’ raids on Britain. The Romans built a line of forts along the ‘Saxon Shore’ from The Wash to Pevensey in Sussex to fight them.

Roman Religion

The Romans were usually tolerant of religion but they destroyed the Druids. The Druids had great political and social influence. The Romans probably saw them as a threat.

However, although the Druid priesthood was abolished the Celtic people continued to worship their traditional gods and goddesses. The Romans introduced their gods but they were often very similar to the Celtic ones. They were so similar temples were often dedicated to both the Celtic god and the Roman equivalent.

The Romans also introduced religions from the East. By the 3rd century, Mithraism was popular. It involved the worship of the Persian god Mithras, the god of light and the sun.

By the second century, there were Christians in Roman Britain. The Romans persecuted Christians but we only the names of three Christian martyrs. St Alban was martyred at a Roman town called Verulamium. (Later in history another town was built by it and named St Albans). We also know the names of Aaron and Julius but little else about them. The persecution of Christians ended in 312 when Constantine converted to the new faith.

Last revised 2024