The Romans in Popular Culture

Hi Everyone, I hope you’re ok;

Despite the last few days of beautiful sun, and it has been gorgeous. I’ve been definitely feeling the summer coming to an end with these chilly mornings and darker nights. I’ve also noticed a few things happen at this time of year while I get used to the winter approaching. One, the woollies appear and trust me I’ve a jumper for every occasion and two, I watch much more TV; Strictly’? Yes! but also a good old film on a dark rainy night can’t be beaten, big bag of crisps being essential.

So, as a result, I got to thinking about what films I might want to watch and that, in turn, reminded me of when I first arrived on Hadrian’s Wall. Stick with me I’m getting to the point…

Within weeks of starting on the World Heritage Site I was fortunate enough to work with a great team of people at Tullie House Museum in Carlisle helping out as they redesigned one of their galleries which was ultimately to become the Roman Frontier Gallery. If you’ve not been to Tullie House just go, it’s great, not just because of the roman history as that’s just the starting point for a turbulent history of a border city and a wealth of stories. But it’s in a lovely city, good shopping, imposing castle and beautiful cathedral.  Oh and Tullie has a cracking café with fab’ cake, personally tested and re tested, Yum.

Tullie Curator Tim Padley and I had a ‘top 10’ well ‘top 5’ moment while writing some text for the gallery, so that’s what I thought I’d share with you… I can’t say that either of us is Claudia Winkleman or Barry Norman but see how they compare with your list.

Tim Padleys 5 – The Curator’s Choice

Tim Padley, Keeper of Archaeology at Tullie House, gives a selection of films and books that he has enjoyed over the years.


Spartacus (1960) Although this can be seen as a modern story clothed in Roman garb, it does give a good impression of what the Roman world looked like. It is directed by Stanley Kubrick who I always felt made films that were a delight to look at.

Cleopatra (1963) Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and grand sets all on the big screen. This was both the glamour of the 1960s and the spectacle of Rome.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) This deals with the death of Marcus Aurelius and the succession of Commodus. It may have been a flop at the box-office, but I like it because of some of the set-piece scenes. My favourites are when Marcus Aurelius reviews the envoys, giving a great impression of the enormity and diversity of the Roman world. The scenes at the end show the size and bustle of Rome.

The Life of Brian (1979) As a member of the Monty Python generation I would like this. I particularly like the ‘Romans Go Home’ scene.

Gladiator (2000) Although the background is similar to The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film has a very different feel. It shows the sheer number of people who lived in Rome, particularly when they fill the Colosseum.


Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling (1906) On the Great Wall deals with defending Hadrian’s Wall against the Picts.

I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) by Robert Graves, These are classics. They show the life of the early Emperors and their families and are based on the Roman historian Suetonius.

Count Belisarius (1938) by Robert Graves, Here the author uses later sources to show what the Roman Imperial system had become when it was transformed into the Byzantine Empire.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1954) Rosemary Sutcliffe used historical and archaeological information to fashion an adventure for children. However, the eagle found at Silchester is not a Legionary standard, but the mystery of the lost Legion remains.

The ‘Falco’ novels by Lindsey Davis (1989 onwards) This series of Roman detective stories gives a good impression of life in Rome and in Roman Britain. However, many of the preoccupations are modern ones projected onto ancient Rome, including package tourism!

The ‘Roma sub Rosa’ novels by Steven Saylor (1991 onwards) The series deals with the fall of the Roman Republic. It covers all of the main events and shows that the decline took place in the space of a single lifetime.

Johns Top 5

When bringing together the film clips used in the gallery it became apparent that virtually no other historical period carried quite the impact that Rome holds in popular culture.

As Tim Padley highlights in his personal selection of films and books exploring the Roman Empire, there are miles of film and forests of pages dedicated to exploring Rome’s conception, conquests and eventual decline, you cannot help wondering why. Why is it such a draw for modern day storytellers?  In the dark ages, the legacy of Rome became the stuff of myth; buildings and technology that were seen as the work of giants and gods. What place does Rome hold with society today?

When you look initially at Rome in twentieth and twenty-first century culture, it seems to be a spectacle of power, awe and respect. This is very much the way we have used the film clips in the gallery, ‘borrowing’ their well understood myth of opulence, extravagance, opportunity, progress and ultimate power. However, as you look closer at how these ancient characters are used in modern stories something equally as straightforward but far more telling appears. 

No matter what film we choose they all explore the idea of ultimate power and more pointedly that ultimate corruption or loss of connection to the real world and real people. So often in these films either an individual or an ideology is tested against the establishment and proves that good always finds a way to foil corruption to win the day. In this way, Rome has become every government, political system and foreign country around the world. The slave, the discredited idealist or persecuted religious group becomes the new way of thinking. That new way will eventually prove the old aggressor false, realising its wrongs and highlighting its faults.

In Gladiator and especially Spartacus, we see one man take on the system represented by the Empire and winning either physically or morally. The line ‘I am Spartacus’ coming to imply solidarity against a system.  Quo Vadis and I Claudius explore ultimate power and its ability to corrupt. Even the classic comedies of Carry on Cleo and Up Pompeii rely on Rome to provide the ‘straight man’ as they pick holes in the establishment.

So it’s no surprise really that Rome still echoes around the world in popular culture. Its universal recognition as the ultimate Empire and embodiment of the establishment will always fit the contemporary world’s need to push against politics, power and identity. It is the Cold War and ‘Big Brother’ all wrapped up into one. It is modern enough to be relevant and far enough in the past not to insult directly. 

So, 2000 years on, someone will always be thrown to the lions, contests will always be gladiatorial and the prologue? Well, I doubt that will never be finished!

 My Five Fave’ Films? …

Spartacus, THE roman spectacular and a symbol of solidarity against the system

Cleopatra, opulence, luxury and political shenanigans helped along by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton

Carry on Cleo, using a lot of the props and costumes from Cleopatra the Carry On team rib the empire for all its worth with great visual and linguistic gags along the way.  I read that the use of the name ‘Marcus & Spencius’ in one scene did not cheer up the well-known high street store with a similar name and that legal action was threatened.

The Eagle, the full image of mud and occupation on the front line. One person sets out to prove the Empire’s rules wrong and reclaim personal honour. The film has some of the best opportunities to explore the idea of the non-Roman. A very strong resonance is seen with world events at the time of its filming.

Up Pompeii, purely because it exploits every popular view of Romans to the maximum degree, every idea we have of Rome is taken as a starter for a joke and pokes a finger in the eye of whoever is seen as in charge.

These are just two of the Curator’s Cut or further reading information sheets you’ll find in the Roman Frontier Gallery, all of them full of those fascinating snippets that there just wasn’t the room for on the wall, so even if it is a cold and rainy autumn day, go visit the gallery, pick a few subjects and settle into a sofa.

Now you don’t hear that said in many exhibition spaces!

See you soon


Wheels of fortune…

Hi everyone,

I feel I really should offer apologies at the start of this blog to anyone who witnessed me wearing very bright colours while riding a bike recently.

Yes you heard me correctly ‘cycling’. Now while I’m sure you have better things to do than read about my recreational activities, bear with me. It all came about at the request of a keen cycling friend who’s over in the area on holiday and suggested that we could go and have a turn of pedals and see a bit of the area. At this point I had to say yes! Why? Well because I’ve acquired a new bike in the hope of getting fitter, though I was hoping that this would happen by just being in vicinity of it! So I suggested we do a section of the Hadrian’s Wall Cycleway as its really easy to follow and takes you through some great countryside and history on the way , just follow the 72 signs

mountian bike on grass verge
A little rest on the Stanegate, that’s Housesteads in the background honest !

The part of the cycle route we rode along uses the ‘Stanegate’ which is an old roman road that provided the original northern frontier before Hadrian’s Wall was built.

Why am I telling you about this I hear you ask? Well …. The recurring theme of the last few months has been the issue of Economics’ starting with an interviews on radio Cumbria talking about developing local tourism around the World Heritage Site, organising future budgets, planning projects and spending a few days with a German delegation from a variety of sectors of the Rhineland Palatinate area of Germany, including their interior Minister looking at local economies and business.  Trust me economics and the Stanegate have a very long link.

As those of you that know me are aware I’m a complete Radio 4 addict, I’ve always been a huge fan. one of my favourite  programmes is ‘In Our Time’ .

I don’t know if you heard it but in July 2012 they did an episode focussing on Hadrian’s Wall. Melvyn Bragg was joined by Prof David Breeze, Lindsay Allason-Jones OBE and Prof Greg Woolf to discuss the design, construction, purpose of the Monument.  I took the opportunity of a long journey to listen to it again recently. It’s a great run through the key points of Hadrian’s walls historical background but a couple of things jumped out at me. One, Lindsay reminds us its ‘the’ biggest monument to be found in Britain! The biggest! That’s why there are so many miles on my car!!

And the other thing is a comment by Prof Woolf that the majority of roman cash at the time came through the Hadrian’s Wall Corridor via not just the soldiers but the often overlooked civilian population living on the wall that was perhaps 4 or even 5 times that of the military community! That’s a lot of people living around the forts in the vicus or civil settlements that collected like village streets at each fort gate supplying everything the army didn’t and made up of Entrepreneurs from all around the empire.

If you’ve not had chance to hear it – click the link and have a listen.

All commerce travelling the old Stanegate road to and from the rivers of the Tyne and Solway and then back and forth around the empire to the forts, workshops and houses on Hadrian’s Wall, this is what I was thinking while riding along, it’s truly an amazing landscape.

right I’d better get on with today’s finance stuff, who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet ! I wish you all luck and I promise not to leave the next blog quiet so long !

…the journey is part of the visit

Hi, hope your all Ok,

I just quickly had to share this snap of the Hadrian’s Wall bus (AD122) back at its base getting its regular check over and wash and brush up before another busy day on the Military Road.IMG_0920

I always think about some survey figures I saw in a report a few years ago that said the bus was used pretty much 50% locals and 50% visitors and of those visitors roughly 50/50 domestic/overseas.

I know I’ve had some great conversations and meet some fascinating people while travelling on the bus which I don’t get when I use the car, there no sense of community in the car just my terrible music taste and I cant look at the amazing landscape !

On the bus its definitely a case of the journey is part of the visit. For all the details and timetables check out www.visithadrianswall

A Really Big Ambition

Hello, I Hope you are all ok and have had a good week.

I was in a meeting with Patricia who is the Coordinator for the Antonine Wall recently, I’m hoping to get her to write something here soon so you can all meet her and hear about work they do at Historic Scotland. I have to say, it’s incredibly useful to have such close links with our World Heritage Partners. Given we all work within different organisational systems and governmental strucIMG_0147tures the opportunities and challenges are surprisingly, sometimes reassuringly similar. This close working relationship is especially important for the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site (FRE) as the actual World Heritage Site as recognised by UNESCO is far bigger than just Hadrian’s Wall. We are but one of the three currently inscribed sections (the German Limes and the Antonine Wall being the others). Therefore the need to work together and bring management practice closer, or as close as the different systems in each country allow is essential.

We will no doubt look at the FRE in closer detail at some time soon, it’s a fascinating story of an idea turning into an international ambition but it might be useful to start here with the numbers and statistics.

The entire frontiers of the 2nd Century roman empire add up over  5000km, it’s a long way, a very big site but there’s an equally huge enthusiasm to make the concept of the frontier work with teams of people in countries along its length working hard and attending numerous long meeting to make its reality, its powerful stuff, after all what other site can unite so many people ?

Oh I promised numbers, How far have we got ? well taking official figures, the Antonine Wall is 60km long, we are 118km and the German section is 550km so that adds up to 728km. a bit of distance to go yet to reach the thousands of kilometres needed.

We are roughly 16% of the currently inscribe site.

So back to the meeting with Patricia. We briefly spoke about languages and I started wondering what it would be like to not only walk Hadrian’s Wall National Trail Path but what about the whole of the frontier from the Antonine Wall to the shores of Morocco. 2000 years ago you could have done this and moved from one province to another getting by with the empires universal lingo of Latin. But what about today ? maybe a useful handy guide was required to say at least saying ‘Hi’ in case any of you had plans to do this trip soon. So let’s start in Scotland

  • Scotland – hello will probably do but you could try a Gallic Halo’
  • England – Hello ? though there are many others, ‘Aye Up’ with my Yorkshire accent
  • The Netherlands – Hallo
  • Germany – Guten Tag
  • Austria – Gruss Got, this will also get you by in Bavaria
  • Slovakia – Ahoj
  • Hungry – Szervusz or even Szia if you want to casual
  • Bosnia – Herzegovina – Dubar Dan
  • Croatia & Serbia – you can use Zdravo
  • Romania – Alo
  • Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Eygpt & Lybia – all share Marhaba
  • Tunisia – Aaslemma
  • Algeria – Salam but also French is widely used so perhaps a little Bonjour here and there
  • Morocco – Ssalamu Lekum or simply Alu

Now I’m sure I’ve not got all those spot on, I checked multiple sources on the web while watching TV last night but nothing beats personal knowledge. If anyone can help ‘finesse’ this list please let me know and I’m glad there’s no sound on this blog as I’m sure that my pronunciation and accent is far from correct.

One thing it does show though is the number of people and nations involved in this project. Real people living, working and enjoying this amazing shared heritage given to us by the Roman Empire all those millennia ago. Whether you consider your heritage to have been inside or outside this 5000km line circling the Mediterranean, you can’t deny it’s not had a massive impact on nations, identity and the people it touches and in the guise of a World Heritage will continue to now be a force to unite people of different cultures around a shared point in Heritage. If that’s not what the 1972 World Heritage Convention said its vision was, I’m not sure what is !

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage

take care everyone and hope to see you all soon


Hadrian’s Wall, well worth talking about.

Hi and welcome to this Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage blog space,

From the bustle of Newcastle and South Shields in the east, to big skies of the Solway and west Cumbrian Coast, there’s a myriad of special places to experience on Hadrian’s Wall. So much variety all wrapped up in one special place.

You will also find exceptional people caring for and revealing this 150 mile Roman monument. Yes, 150 miles of World Heritage! 73 miles of wall, but the rest? well there’s really no need for a wall if you have a sea as defence however you can discover forts and everything else you’d find on the more well-known sections right down the coast.

In this blog I’m hoping to share stories, both big and small with a fair helping of random snippets from around this and other World Heritage Sites. I’d like to introduce some of the many energetic and passionate people I’ve had the pleasure to meet while I’ve been working on Hadrian’s Wall along the way.

Being a World Heritage Site is something we are all rightfully proud of, as it puts us in a special collection of places which are deemed important for the whole of humanity. World Heritage is a celebration of our shared culture linking people from across countries rather than finding reasons for populations to stand apart. The organisation that decides on World Heritage is UNESCO which traces its origins directly to the United Nations and its mission after the turmoil of the first half of the 20th Century to try to do things differently by talking first and halting possible conflict.

So, I think there a lot to go at and explore, I’m hoping some aspects will be interesting and sometimes even useful. please let me know if there’s anything you want to highlight and I’ll try and cover it. So until next time, hope your well and wish you the best, I’d better start writing

Thanks everyone