A Trip Down The U.K.’s Memory Lane: There Be Romans Among Us

Statue of Constantine the Great, York.

For a country well known for its far-reaching past and vibrant history, England is much older than we often give it credit for. Before the stereotypes about tea and biscuits, the London Bridge, and even the dear old Queen of England herself, the geographic area known as England was occupied by the Romans, from 43 to 410 AD (Johnson). Their legacy is one that is often forgotten by many, historians and tourists alike. However, it is one that can be still be seen today, from military constructions like Hadrian’s Wall and ancient villages like the City of Bath, to even inconsequential and often overlooked details of our daily lives. For those who ceaselessly toiled under the strain of studying Latin as your second language in high school only to be shamed ruthlessly for studying a dead language, fear no longer! Rome is quite alive and well within many commonplace social and cultural practices among their formerly conquered civilizations, even within grand old England.

The Obvious One: Linguistics

The Romans were, after all, one of the first far flung civilizations to forcefully impose their language upon others. Perhaps we can thank them for brutal second language learning systems!

Ah, yes, well I couldn’t crack that poorly executed joke about Latin being a dead language without opening this can of worms, could I? As with many European languages, English has many Latin derivatives and root words within the structure of the language, with the direct descendants to Latin (otherwise known as the “Roman languages”) being French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian (McWhorter, 2016). While not possessing a direct link to the Latin language (it belongs to the Anglo-Frisian group of Germanic languages), much of the English language has its basis in Latin words, such as those derived from Latin roots (ex: psalm, mast, kitchen, pear). It also borrows an extensive number of “loanwords” from Latin, making roughly 28.4% of modern English derived from it(Brown). Quite the feat indeed! The Romans were, after all, one of the first far-flung civilizations to forcefully impose their language upon others. Perhaps we can thank them for brutal second language learning systems!

All Roads Were…Made By Rome?

Well, perhaps not all of them, but I wouldn’t dare miss out on an opportunity to use such an iconic and already overused quote. Being the extreme overachievers in ancient society that they were, The Romans spared no expense when constructing reliable transport routes, with many surviving road plans — such as Watling and Dere Street — forming the basis of routes used in England currently (10 Things the Romans Did For Us, 2016), with many other key routes around the U.K. following this pattern. I wouldn’t recommend driving on any ancient roads, however: paving wasn’t quite up to snuff those days.

Halnaker Tunnel, an ancient Roman Road in West Sussex.

Defining British Identity

Apart from the obvious, of course. I doubt the Romans had fish and chips.

Well, I suppose this one is a bit of a given as well, isn’t it? It’s not hard to believe that the civilization that gave you your country’s name had a fundamental role in shaping your cultural identity (although America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, and I dare say we spent a mere five to ten minutes of my entire AP History education discussing that poor sap). While the United Kingdom of course had their own distinct and vibrant culture before the Romans arrived — consisting of a diverse array of Celtic tribes — they were not fully unified towards a universal goal or ideal until Roman arrival (Walsh, 2011, and Britain’s Roman Legacy). Being overachievers in the construction of their newly conquered regions did the Brits some good in the long run: it gave them a look into the benefits of being a superpower among civilizations, with military glory, administrative power, and effective city organization. At the time of the Roman invasion, the entire identity of these Celtic tribes became dependent on their relationship with their Roman conquerors, as most surviving information about them comes from Roman texts(Britain’s Roman Legacy). However, it would appear this backfired in the most ironically stupendous way: it emphasized the need for the Celts to create their own identity outside of Rome by declaring themselves as the “original Brits” (such as the Welsh) or as those who successfully protected their lands against Roman invasion (i.e. the Scots). Once Rome was then finally driven out, the groundwork was set for Britain to become a superpower in its own right and with its own cultural history, using the administrative and military tactics of Rome to guide them along the way.

Ancient Fast Food

By far the most unusual gift from Roman society to the Brits, the commonplace utilization of street stalls to prepare and sell food in the U.K. — what we now would define as “fast food” — was supposedly a gift bestowed upon us by ancient Rome! (10 Things The Romans Did For Us). The presence of these food vendors arose from the need for Roman soldiers in the conquered region to have easy access to quickly prepared food, with many of the goods and foodstuffs known from home easily making their way into the Brit’s diet, along with (according to the famous cookbook ‘Apicus’) the ‘Isicia Omentata’, which looks quite similar to the modern-day burger! (Gray, 2015). That certainly complicates the history of an American food staple! Perhaps that will be a blog post for another day.

Recipe for 4 ‘Roman Burgers’ (Gray)

  • 500g minced meat
  • 60g pine kernels
  • 3 tsp. Garum (a salty fish sauce, this can be substituted for fish based sauces found in supermarket, or regular salt if preferred)
  • Ground pepper
  • Handful of coriander
  • Juniper berries (optional)
  • Caul fat (optional)

Method

  • Grind up the pine kernels, and then mix in with the minced meat and other ingredients.
  • Shape the mixture into patties
  • (Optional step: wrap this in Caul Fat).
  • Cook over a medium heat or BBQ for 5 minutes on each side.
  • Serve plain or in a flat bread bun.

References

Britain’s Roman Legacy. Britain Magazine, www.britain-magazine.com/features/history/roman-legacy/

Brown. Latin Influence on English. The World of English, www.english-culture.com/latin-influence-in-the-english-language/

Gray, A. (2015). DID THE ROMANS INVENT THE BURGER? English Heritage, blog.english-heritage.org.uk/roman-burger/

McWhorter, J. (2016). Language Evolution: How One Language Became Five Languages. The Great Courses Daily, www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/language-evolution-one-language-became-five-languages/

10 Things The Romans Did For Us (2016). English Heritage, blog.english-heritage.org.uk/what-did-the-romans-do-for-us/#:~:text=From%20military%20structures%20such%20as,were%20often%20round%20in%20form.

Walsh, T. (2011). Ancient Britain. Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/britain/

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Romans-in-England/