THeating under the stars, regular spa days, patio gardens with fountains and sumptuous cuisine inspired by the season: the Romans in Great Britain were in control. At least in the popular imagination, the three and a half centuries of foreign rule that followed the Roman conquest of AD 43 saw the development of many of the cultural activities still enjoyed by the middle classes in the British Isles.
Now the most civilized pastime of the Romans in Britain is being recreated throughout the country. A series of terraces, whether newly built or recently restored, will open to the public this summer along with a complete replica of a Roman villa in the west of the country.
Last week, a 500-seat outdoor auditorium in Oddington in the Cotswolds welcomed an audience for the first time — a Shakespeare production Julius Caesarsuitable enough.
“We had birdsong, a helicopter flying by, and the sunset was gorgeous,” said Judy Reeves, creative director of the new theater in Briebank Park, which overlooks Evening Valley. “I used to design sets for indoor shows, for a traditional ‘black box’ ballroom, but organizing the shows and seeing them outside makes people feel good. The concept behind our runway is that everyone should be able to enjoy the performing arts.”
A smaller pop-up theater will also be coming to the Anglo-Saxon archaeological site at Sutton Hoo near Ipswich this July, courtesy of Red Rose Chain Theatre. Summer entertainment seasons are already underway at many of Britain’s most famous outdoor amphitheaters, such as the Minack, the 20th-century promenade venue on the edge of the cliffs at Porthcurno, or the original stone hall at Verulamium, now known as St. Albans in Hertfordshire.
Many of the new projects were labors of the heart for the activists and entrepreneurs behind them, all confident that the public had a growing appetite for outdoor entertainment while sharing a common national curiosity about the 367 years of Roman rule.
In Broughton, Somerset, the discovery of the remains of a sprawling Roman villa prompted the owners of The Newt, a hotel and garden complex, to embark on a painstakingly rebuilding of a British Roman villa on a nearby property. The seven-year construction project was completed a month ago and the public can now see a copy of the Roman décor and design.
“The replica is the same size as the trace of the discovered remains and was built in the same orientation,” said Katie Lewis, the property engineer. “When remodeling the villa, I found that a lot of Roman living ideas are really very modern, including things you might not expect like double glazing and underfloor heating.”
The villas built by the Romans were similar to those in Italy, with “ornate colors and textures” but with some subtle differences. The decor tends to be less delicate and cheerful. “When we didn’t find the details we needed from the excavations, we first went to the other Roman villas left in Britain to watch the work there. In some cases, we then looked at the villas on the continent to see if there were still gaps to be filled.”
Adjacent to the new villa is an interactive information center that sits atop the excavated foundations of the original 351AD villa. Visitors can walk around the fridge (cold room), triclinium (dining area), and tablinum (study) while admiring the frescoes of the building around them. There is also the opportunity to try rough Roman street food, prepared using ingredients known popular in southern Britain at the time. It is an appropriate blend of culture and cuisine, as the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once argued, “The cultivation of the mind is as necessary as food for the body.”
To capitalize on the growing appetite for ancient culture, English Heritage, the conservation organization, is completing work on one of Richborough’s most valuable Roman amphitheaters, near Sandwich in Kent.
Excavations are underway here, at the site of Britain’s first Roman landing, in preparation for the start of the Britannia Gate project, which has now been postponed until next year. The work yielded important discoveries and shed light on the decoration and use of animals at the site.
In Scotland, the theater at Pitlochry Festival has announced an outdoor program for the 70th summer season, staged in its recently constructed 80-seat amphitheater “set in a garden in the shadow of Ben y Vrackie”.
But perhaps unexpected evidence of the spread of the terraces comes with the completion this summer of a small outdoor venue near the urban area of Brent Cross in north London. The Claremont Way Open Space opened last week as part of the Brent Cross Town redevelopment program and aims to bring new life to the area.
Classical linguist and historian Mary Beard questions whether the Romans in Britain really lived in comfort and civility as they are generally perceived. It seems more likely that we have all simply taken and extended the user-friendly aspects of Roman culture. “I suppose we tend to glorify the outdoor recreation area of the ancient Romans,” she said. observer. “I mean, at least we have portable toilets. What do you think the Romans did?”
Amphitheaters and circular high-chair venues, as opposed to elongated horse racing lanes designed for horse racing, were used in gladiator fights, animal killings, chariot races, and executions: a far cry from today’s popular musical theatrical performances. As Voltaire once noted, “The ancient Romans built their greatest architectural masterpieces, their amphitheaters, to battle wild beasts in.”
Such atrocities await the masses in Uddington, where the worst is a rainstorm. Reeves, who was part of a small group using the amphitheater built in memory of her late mother Janet Cockell, who lived in Upper Uddington, said Reeves. “When it rains, there’s kind of a Dunkirk vibe anyway.”