Most of us probably learned about the Romans at school.
The most powerful empire the world has ever seen that conquered most of Europe and the near east.
The stuff of barbaric gladiators, slaves, mad emperors and super-tough legionaries.
When we think of ancient Rome most of us probably think of huge monuments in Rome itself, baking under blue Italian skies.
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Like the massive Colosseum where gladiators and beasts fought – sometimes to the death – in bloody games, or the massive Pantheon – an incredible dome-shaped temple where the great Roman gods were worshiped.
But we probably don’t always realize that we have a lot of amazing Roman monuments right here in Britain too.
When the Romans conquered Britain in CE 43, they began building all the comfortable amenities they had back in Rome.
That meant steaming bath houses, straight roads, well-defended forts, beautiful houses and amphitheatres.
And just up the road from London they built a beautiful town called Verulamium which has a little Colosseum all of its own.
Now called St Albans of course, it’s a fantastic historic city for a day out anyway.
Even its name has a huge history – it comes from the name Alban – a Christian in the late pagan Roman Empire who the records suggest lived in Verulamium and was beheaded for protecting a Christian priest called Amphibalas.
It’s said he had sheltered the priest for a few days and was so impressed by him, he converted to Christianity.
When Roman soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on his cloak and went to his death instead.
In a time when Christians were brutally persecuted, it’s likely he was executed on Holywell Hill where St Albans Abbey was later located – deliberately built on the site where the martyr gave his life.
It’s said when Alban was about to be beheaded, water sprung up at his feet so he could drink.
Alban was later of course made a Saint for his bravery – hence the name of the town replacing that of the Roman name Verulamium.
And, hence the fact it has a stunning Medieval cathedral complete with the tomb of St Alban which you can actually visit today.
It’s right on the edge of a huge park which was part of the grounds of the Abbey and it’s a beautiful place for a walk.
And right near it you’ve got the charms of the city center with lots of little boutique shops, pubs and cafes.
But if you take a bit of a detour to the west of town, you’ll go back even further into history.
Just where the city starts to open out into the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside there’s something quite remarkable.
Widening out like a big hollow in the ground is St Albans’ very own Roman theater.
Much simpler than Rome’s circular Colosseum, you can see it would have been built of earth banks shored up by stone walls and the audience would have sat on wooden seats in the semi-circle around the stage.
Dating originally to around 140 CE, you can even see parts of the stage, the orchestra and the changing rooms where the actors would have got ready.
Of course this is technically a theater rather than an amphitheater – semi-circular rather than round.
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Primarily it was probably a place to watch plays and performances rather than a place for gladiator fights like an amphitheater.
But it’s likely that it actually served both functions and may also have been used for town meetings and military parades and even executions.
It may not be baked in beautiful sunshine under blue skies like in Italy, but the gray British skies make it just as atmospheric and you can easily imagine Romans huddled here in the stands cursing the awful British weather.
Not far away there’s an even more thrilling prospect for treasure seekers.
A museum absolutely packed with goodies from the Roman town that once stood here.
These are some of the best anywhere in Britain – and so good that in the past the site got the nickname ‘The British Pompeii.’
On display are some fantastic Roman mosaics that once decorated the floors of stunning town houses in true Roman style, beautiful high-class Roman pottery, finely crafted jewelery and glass.
There’s even a collection of 159 shimmering gold coins that were once buried by some unknown lucky – or desperate – owner to the north of the town.
Altogether it shows that although they were mainly British, the people of St Albans had embraced Roman culture and liked to live in style.
There are the grave goods from a wealthy Roman who died in CE 85.
They include bowls and plates for four people so his family would have had a nice funeral banquet when his shade passed into the underworld, and wine flagons and glass gaming counters so the guests would have been well entertained.
Statues to gods and goddesses found in the remains of the town show the people were worshiping Roman deities.
There are clay figurines of the goddess Venus and tiny statues of the god Mercury. These statues would have been used by people to say prayers at tiny altars in their homes.
But the town also had large public temples, a market place (forum) and public baths where people could clean themselves, exercise and socialise.
Ask at the museum and they’ll direct you into the park to see a huge mosaic floor that once belonged to a wealthy town house. Underneath it you can see remains of the hypocaust, the underfloor heating system that Romans developed like an early version of central heating.
Right here you are seeing how Romano-British people lived 2,000 years ago.
It wasn’t to last forever though of course.
When Roman army troops officially pulled out of Britain to defend other parts of the empire (CE 410) it became much harder to maintain peace and stability and Britain was being threatened by invasions from Saxon and Pictish raiders.
Many towns gradually went into decline and it seems the inhabitants of Verulamium may have clung on, living in an ever small part of the town.
The Abbey may have been established as early as the late 700s CE and gradually a new settlement grew up around it.
In time this abbey became powerful and got control over the old Roman town, demolishing it and using the stone for building materials.
By the 1500s writers describe the town as being only ruins.
But archaeologists have now uncovered enough of what was left to give us a fascinating insight into our very own ‘British Pompeii’ and you can definitely lose yourself in it for an amazing day out before heading off for a spot of shopping in the town’s boutique shops. .
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