Manchester Histories Festival Roman Tour

In March this year Manchester Museum took part in the 2014 Manchester Histories Festival – a “celebration of Greater Manchester’s unique histories and heritage” (www.manchesterhistoriesfestival.org.uk) – lasting ten days and comprising over 180 events at venues across the city. At the Museum, there was a focus on Manchester’s Roman past; Manchester was a Roman fort, established in 79 AD and called Mamucium. There was a fascinating and entertaining showcase seminar entitled ‘Roman and Dark Age Mancheste’r, delivered by Dr. Andy Fear from the Classics and Ancient History department at the University of Manchester, after which the Museum’s Curator of Archaeology Bryan Sitch gave an object handling session using Roman artefacts.

As a member of the Visitor Services team, I had the opportunity to deliver a guided tour on the subject of Roman Manchester. The tour began in the Discovering Archaeology exhibition, where I showed visitors a slave chain dating to the Iron Age, discovered at a site in Kent called Bigbury. A settlement at Bigbury is thought to have been attacked by Julius Caesar during his campaigns in Britain, so we talked about the first Roman attempts to invade and conquer Britain, including those of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. The emperor Caligula (37 – 41 AD) thought about invading Britain too; there is a funny story which says that Caligula ordered his soldiers in Gaul to collect shells from the beach, as evidence of his success in conquering the feared ocean surrounding Britain. Finally the Romans established themselves in Britain under the emperor Claudius, who personally commanded an invasion in 43 AD and even brought elephants, which must have terrified the Britons! Thinking back to the slave chain, there is an interesting story relating to Claudius’s invasion which shows that in the Roman world the social status of slaves could be a complex issue; Claudius allegedly sent Narcissus, a former slave to give the Roman soldiers a motivational speech prior to the invasion. Some slaves achieved positions of considerable influence (and became very wealthy), particularly those favoured by the emperor.

The tour then began to focus on some of the Museum’s Roman finds from Manchester. I showed visitors a Roman altar dedicated to the goddess Fortune, by a centurion called “L Senecianius Martius”. The Museum also has an altar set up by an individual called Aelius Victor, and these two men are the only inhabitants of Roman Manchester whom we actually know by name. Another altar refers to soldiers from the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum (modern Switzerland and Austria), and others from modern Portugal are suggested by letters on a tile fragment. As an auxiliary fort, Roman Manchester would have been home to around 500 auxiliary soldiers. After serving in the Roman army for 25 years, they would be granted Roman citizenship; Manchester Museum has on display the remains of a military diploma from Cumbria, which records such an award for an individual – probably from Syria. During the tour, I also highlighted a discovery from Roman Manchester of mouse bones belonging to a species called Apodemus Flavicollis (the Yellow Necked Mouse), found at the bottom of an amphora. The presence of this species helps us to imagine what the region looked like in Roman times, as this mouse usually lives in woodland.

Other objects featured in the tour included the Manchester word square, with an inscription in Latin which might be early evidence of Christianity in the area. It dates to the second century AD, a long time before the emperor Constantine’s famous conversion in the fourth century AD. Prior to this, the Roman authorities had punished Christians (they were blamed by Nero for a devastating fire in Rome, and persecutions also occurred under the emperors Decius and Diocletian).  There is evidence for the worship of Mithras in Roman Manchester, as carved stones believed to be from a Mithraeum were found not far from the fort.  This particular god was popular across the empire, and during the tour I showed visitors an image of a mosaic found in Ostia (the port of Rome) which depicts the religion’s various ‘grades’, each with a different name. Followers would progress through these until reaching the top grade, ‘Father’.

In the Museum’s Money Gallery many Roman coins are on display, including some from the Knott Mill Hoard found in Manchester, dating to the fourth century AD. We discussed coins associated with Julius Caesar, including the ‘Ides of March’ coin issued by Brutus as an attempt to convey the message that the murder of Caesar had liberated the people of Rome. In the Roman writer Suetonius’s account of Caesar’s life, there is an amusing passage which sums up just how controlling Caesar had been as one of Rome’s two consuls alongside Marcus Bibulus: “the consulship of Julius and Caesar” apparently became a popular saying (instead of “Bibulus and Caesar”)!

After the tour, I took the group to the Collections Study Centre, where we looked at and handled a selection of Roman coins borrowed from Keith Sugden, the Museum’s Curator of Numismatics. These included a coin showing the emperor Vespasian; he served in Britain as a Roman soldier before becoming emperor, and is also famous for building the Colosseum with his son (and future emperor), Titus.

Should you wish to attend a tour at Manchester Museum, please see the website for details of our weekly programme:

http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/weeklytours/

Post by Daniel Kennedy

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