He came to BRLSI…

From left: Cllr Bryan Chalker (Chair, B&NES Council), Stephen Bird
(Head of Heritage Services, B&NES), Martin Sturge, BRLSI
Romans in Bath Programme Manager.
One of the highlights of last September’s Mechanics Instititutes Worldwide Conference, held at BRLSI, was an extraordinarily knowledgeable and entertaining talk on the history of Bath by Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Services at Bath and North East Somerset Council. As a result there was much anticipation for Mr Bird’s contribution to this year’s Romans in Bath theme, a talk entitled They Came to Aquae Sulis on the people of Bath during its Roman heyday. We weren’t disappointed.
Stephen Bird began with some illustrations of the stereotypical ‘day at the Forum’ view of Bath, full of men in togas standing round declaiming in Latin. The reality, he told us, wasn’t quite like that. Aquae Sulis wasn’t a major Roman city – with a walled area of around 20 acres it was a tenth of the size of the big garrison towns such as Cirencester and Caerleon. Instead it was more what modern military parlance calls an “R&R” (Rest and Recreation) centre, especially for the 20th Legion, honoured for their role in suppressing the Boudiccan Rebellion of AD60. What went on in the baths complex was more often off-duty armpit-scratching than proclamations of great eloquence.
Illustrated by stone inscriptions found in and around the city, Mr Bird gave a roll-call of people who’d lived and died here in Roman times; soldiers with 20 years service, ‘haruspex’ augurers or priests paid to predict the future, artisans in the Walcot Street area outside the walls (today officially branded Bath’s ‘artisan quarter’), touchingly a ‘freedwoman wife’, one Calpernia Trifosa, who spent a fortune on a memorial to her husband Calpurnius, who’d bought her from slavery, possibly on the strength of some clever marketing (Trifosa is Greek for ‘delicious’). It was striking what a cosmopolitan lot they were, coming from all corners of the Empire (this part of Britain, from the Solent to the Severn Estuary, was in fact a Canton colonised by emigrants from Belgium). For Bath locals it struck a chord to hear that this tablet had been found in Sydney Gardens, and that one in Stall Street, reminding us that 2,000 years of history is all around us.
A good deal of mystery remains about Aquae Sulis, including the purpose of one building in the temple complex (its front wall now partially restored), which may have been a dormitory but, as Stephen Bird speculated during the Q&A, may also have been used for the bawdier purpose which earned Bath notoriety in Georgian times. What we saw, however, was highly illuminating, helped by Mr Bird’s evident mastery of his subject (Latin declensions and all). Aquae Sulis, it seems, was a socially diverse, and rather fun, place to be – rather like Bath is today.
• A (very) few seats remain on BRLSI’s trip to Caerleon and Caerwent on Sunday 13th June. It costs £12 per person and includes coach travel, entrance and guided tours of both locations. See the poster on our front page or ring 01225 312084 for details. Hurry though!