And did those feet…: Stane Street

Imogen Lycett Green on ancient Sussex: #4 Stane Street

Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic at Fishbourne Roman Palace. Part of the floor of a grand villa built between 75 and 220 AD, and laid around 160 AD © The Sussex Archaeological Society / Sussex Past.

It was Emperor Claudius who sent 50,000 Roman soldiers our way, finally conquering what they called Britannia in AD43, nearly 100 years after Julius Caesar’s first forays. The lame, deaf Claudius, who ruled after Caligula and before Nero, only visited Britannia for 16 days, presiding over the capture of Colchester, then returning to Rome to boast of his victory. Always under threat from members of his own Julio-Claudian dynasty, he kept his post by killing senators left right and centre, until he, in turn, was murdered, by his own wife Agrippina. Oh it was a bloody, barbarian world.

But the Romans thought we were the barbarians! In fact, the word barbarian comes from the Greek ‘barbaros’, used to describe all foreigners, derived from the ‘ba, ba, ba’ which is what Greeks thought anyone speaking a different language was saying. Inheriting much of Greek language, wisdom and philosophy, Romans thought themselves terribly sophisticated. By the time they got here, Roman poet Ovid had already written Metamorphoses; Virgil, The Aeneid. Romans ate oysters, grew vines, spoke Latin. And of course, they had invented the mile.

The ‘mile’ is from mille passuum, or 1,000 (of) paces. I’d never tried counting 1,000 paces until I walked through Eartham Wood, near Slindon, along a section of Stane Street, the Roman road built in AD43 to connect Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) with Londinium (London). I thought counting out 1,000 paces might make me feel, well, more Roman. Along this stretch, the National Trust have cut back the beech woodland either side of what is now a straight stony track, to give a feel of the original breadth of the Roman road. If there’s an authority to a straight track in a more or less organically meandering natural world, you can feel it here. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You count a Roman foot, or ‘pes’ every time the left foot hits the ground, and five pedes make a passus or pace. So a mile is 5,000 Roman feet. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and on you go.

The full length of Stane Street is 91 miles. Now a stony track in Eartham Wood, elsewhere a greenway flanked in wild garlic, in Halnaker a tree tunnel. Sometimes it runs under the A29, at other times it vanishes completely or is only just visible under springy turf. You can trace it under centuries of human disturbance, deterioration and vegetation, but in Roman times it would have been a raised cambered trackway, or ‘agger’, 10m wide and 1.8m high, ditched either side for drainage and paved on top. And of a network of 2,000 miles of paved roads in Roman Britain, Stane Street was the first, because the Romans arrived in Chichester.

The Britons began to use Latin words and within a few generations had intermarried with Romans, their grandsons becoming Roman soldiers, Roman soldiers retiring to become farmers and shopkeepers. It was Roman strategy to interbreed and ‘Latinise’ the people they conquered. Obviously, Boudicca didn’t lie down quietly, but in the face of an imperial force who produced the sexually explicit Catullus 16, written sometime between 84 BC and 54 BC, which includes the eye-widening ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ (I won’t translate here), it’s unclear whether any of the women stood a chance. The Romans were nothing if not extreme – sensual, brutal, romantic, practical, insecure yet all-conquering, violent yet so cultivated. Houses in Chichester had glass windows, mosaic floors and underfloor heating, yet their owners murdered their relatives.

And how those houses must have impressed the indigenous population. All imperialists must be propagandists, and Romans were the best at it. They used architecture and literature to dazzle their vanquished subjects. Just as Lutyens built New Delhi on an inhuman scale and Kipling was employed during WWI to ‘spin’ the Raj, Ovid and Virgil were employed to connect the imperial family with the gods, weaving linked narratives of nature and mythology with the lineage of emperors. And just as the introduction of Mediterranean fallow deer demonstrated what magical control the Romans had over nature – though the deer became extinct after the Romans left and were only reintroduced by the Normans – highly decorated Roman villas such as West Sussex’s Bignor and Fishbourne Palace were built to impress locals who were still living in mud huts. The Britons must have been knocked out, it must have been as if aliens had landed, or indeed gods.

The Romans stuck around for another three and a half centuries until the fall of the Roman Empire. They exported natural resources like copper, tin, silver and gold, traded men, women and children as slaves and built their cities, their aqueducts and viaducts and roads. But they left, and their roads fell into disrepair. The Britons went back to trackways until the 18th century, when engineers once more began to create a web of paved roads connecting cities and towns across Britain. What remains of the Roman invasion? Language, the mile and blood, I guess, in you and me. Start counting. 1,2,3,4,5. It’s only 2,000 years. Perhaps the roads connecting modern Britain with the past are not so long after all.