Life In Old Cambridge – The Province

WHEN the Romans were masters of the land they used many of the old British hilltop forts as camps or outposts and built others of their own fashion. The coasts were guarded by Roman galleys and by camps, such as Caistor and Braneaster, and all the eastern coast was under the rule of a Roman called ” The Count of the Saxon Shore ” (a name the later story will explain). Each camp was square in shape with gates North, South, East, and West, from which the great roads ran, so that Britain was covered with a stone network of military roads in which the knots were stone cities, each one built about an open market-place or ” Forum.” The old earthen walls were faced with squared blocks of stone and each gateway was defended by a stone turret. Safe inside the chester gates Roman nobles built beautiful ” Villas,” baths and temples ; and even in our days men often find 10 or 12 feet underground remains of the altars they set up to their gods, the pottery they made or brought from Gaul or the coins, stamped with their Caesars’ names. Near the old fords fine bridges of timber or stone carried the new roads.

At Cambridge the hillside on the west of the ford became a great oblong chester, 2,500 feet from East to West, and 2,000 feet from North to South, its walls ran from Chesterton Lane, round the site of St. Giles’ and the top of the hill, where now St. Peter’s stands, down again to Merton Hall garden. From the Forum, no doubt a Roman Governor could look out over the whole land, see the distant trees that grew on the Isle of Ely, standing among the northern waters, watch the street that climbed away north-west to Godmanchester, or turning scan the height of Vandlebury camp for the glitter of the sentinel’s signal. To the south as the Roman Peace grew villas began to rise on the pleasant, sunny slopes over which Ermine Street ran, making for Londinium and the galleys that sail for Rome. As their builders cut down the forest above and drained the marshes below troops of slaves went out from every villa to plough and tend the soil, and for the first time the Cambridge lands began to shine with waving fields of wheat and oats and barley. Vineyards too they may have made facing the sun as in their own Italy, rows of short creepers forming glistening patches of green among the cornfields, but above all were great herds of sheep, driven out to crop the sweet grass and thyme of the hillsides and carefully guarded at night from the forest wolves. Beside each villa the slaves quarters or ” ergastula ” formed the black heart of the domain, where men of Africa, or Asia, or rude tribesmen caught in the woods of Germania or Helvetia bowed under the whip of the freedman who farmed the land for his master. In the forum of Cambridge, as in other cities, no doubt men and women with their children could be seen put up for sale. Here perhaps a learned Greek, whose master had tired of study, would fetch a big price ; there a Walloon captured in the Flemish marshes would be advertised as a skilled boatman, likely to be useful in the Fens ; here again a shivering Egyptian or Arab would be bought to act as stoker in the villa ” hypocaust.” Native cattle, still half wild, would be driven in from the eastern grazing grounds, hustling one another in fear over the strange white bridge’, to mingle with oxen shipped hither from Italy and Gaul : the rough, short, dun ponies from the Berkshire downs would be squealing and biting at the glossy, desert-bred Roman chariot horses as they drank together at the aquaduct.

Below on the river the bluff-bowed galleys would lie loading up with grain for Caesar’s soldiers in Germania, while the red ware made of Terra Sigillata they had brought, signed with (Cistio Titi) the Flemish maker’s mark, lay heaped upon the straw on the wharf. Soon it would be shown in the dealer’s booth and carried to the purchaser’s villa at Foxton or Cottenham or out across the hills to Colchester.

You may see pieces of them still, and trace the maker’s name if you ask in the Archaeological Museum. When you handle them try to picture the Cambridge of those days, the stately Roman in his bordered toga entering the temple to pour a goblet of wine to the gods ; the gay young centurion wheeling his century in the Forum changed the guard at the Praetorium ; the farmer citizens from the country villas each followed by his steward and a troop of slaves, meeting to pay their tithes to the decurion, to hear the news from Rome, and enjoy an hour’s gossip in the baths.

The fortunate Briton who had made friends with the Romans and secured his freedom, dressed now in a toga, aping Roman manners.

He stands to listen perhaps to a preacher of the strange new Christian creed and laughs as his Roman friend declares it is only another of the Eastern sects that have been turning the world upside down and should be left to slaves and women.

For while the Romans had been settling their new province of Britain strange things had happened in Rome.

One day about the time that Scapula subdued the Iceni a troop of men walked out from among the great marble palaces and temples of Rome along the old south road, the Via Appia. They were very plainly clad, quiet but confident in bearing and talked with great eagerness as they hastened along.

When they had reached a halting place where three taverns stood, they seated themselves under the shade of an olive tree, but one young man went on down the road and stood looking southwards. Presently he waved his hand, and they sprang up to greet a little group of men coming towards them led by one small of stature and roughly clad but bearing himself like a victorious general.

When he reached them he raised his hand in blessing, and they all bowed their heads, then broke into a joyous chant. It was St. Paul, and the Roman Christians were doubly overjoyed when they heard of his escape from shipwreck and thought of the teaching he would give them in the coming days. As a prisoner awaiting trial he would be kept in Rome, and they could care for him and learn from his lips the story of his conversion and the work he had done among the Greeks. During all the three hundred years that Rome held Britain St. Paul’s disciples learnt and practised the new faith. Sometimes they were left in peace to worship quietly, and then Nero or Domitian would take a fancy to root out the religion which made even slaves independent and defiant of their orders. Then the Christians would hide in underground burial-places to hold their services or flee into waste places, but their best were taken and brought into the arena to fight with African lions or wild boars from the Apennines, while the city-bred Romans sat on the marble tiers of seats in the great theatre and cheered or hissed as the sight aroused their passions.

But ” the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church ” : men were moved by the sight of these heroic sufferers and asked what it was that made them go singing to their awful deaths. Many more became Christians, and even among the settlers in Britain the faith spread. The symbol of the cross was raised over stones that had been pagan altars and temples were turned into churches. At last in 321 A.D. the Emperor Constantine gave leave to all his subjects openly to worship Christ, so throughout Britain the church spread, bishops ruled great districts, and helped the praef cots in the cities.

Where Castle Hill stands all these things happened day by day for three hundred years and more till Britons forgot they had ever been free and ignorant or had to fight for life against the wild beasts or among themselves. But the prosperous, peaceful life began to be disturbed by rumours of trouble in Rome. The Emperors had left the city. The Goths were threatening the new capital, Constantinople, then Italy, at last even Rome itself, and sacked it in 410 A.D. The Roman troops were recalled to Italy. Cohort after cohort must have marched into Chesterton from the North ; some came down Watling Street from Chester and the Welsh Marches ; others from the great North Wall through Eboracum (York) and down the Ermine Street or by the Akeman Street from the Coast, where the Count of the Saxon shore held watch and ward against those pirates of the Wide Sea. Into the camp on Castle Hill they would pour, rest a night or two, and then march out by the southern gate down Akeman. Street to join the road for London or to pass by Silchester to Venta Belgarum (Winchester) and take ship for Gaul and Italy, for “all roads lead to Rome.”

Legion after legion got their marching orders, and when the wealthy farmers asked ” Who guards the Wall ? ” ” Is there no fighting with the Picts ? ” centurion or legionary shook his head and muttered grim stories of the blocking of the wide gateways that guard the camps behind the great North Wall, and how a dozen men were left to guard five miles of frontier how empty lay the great base camps, while all who still dared live upon the border drew together into the walled chesters for safety. For Rome, the Eternal City, was falling and the ” Pax Romana,”which had brooded over every province, even to distant Britain, was coming to an end.

Now every Roman lord and British farmer must look to his own right arm to shield him and his villa.