Why don’t they tell you 'Limes Britannicus' is so cold compared to our beautiful Mediterranean? So spoke a Roman centurion, almost 2,000 years ago, on being stationed at the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, which is today called Hadrian’s Wall.
No doubt so did many other infantrymen, auxiliaries, and guards posted along the Wall to the 17 main forts, smaller forts, as well as the signal towers in between. Think of the winter we have just had: all that snow, freezing winds from the Arctic or Siberia, the longevity of it – though now Spring seems to be springing – how would you have survived in Roman times?
Hadrian’s Wall viewed from Vercovicium, one of the auxiliary forts along the wall.
This weekend beacons flared along its eighty mile length with the whole Wall being lit for 30 minutes reminding us of how this imposing structure from 1700 years ago would have looked to those sentries and their freezing feet on marching duty between the ‘milecastles’, as the smaller forts were known, keeping a watchful eye for a possible Celtic barbarian invasion from the north.
The Romans were very efficient in settling an area after invasion, so they were self-sufficient and self-contained within the forts. They had barracks, baths, stables, a granary, administrative and the commander’s quarters, where his family and entourage lived comfortably. Outside the fort defences civilians (innkeepers, shopkeepers etc) settled to make a living from the garrison and its men. In fact the area along Hadrian’s Wall is one of the first places in England to be extensively farmed and was agriculturally productive even then.
Granary at Vercovicium. The pillars supported a raised floor to keep food dry and free from vermin.
We know that the Romans wore bare feet, sandals or light shoes in their town houses, while outside and marching they would have worn heavier leather sandals or boots. Tanning leather was commonplace, with the thicker skins being used for boot, shoe leather, or less expensive armour.
Tanned leather was also fashioned into heavy coats as a protection against poor weather. Though in England the Romans adopted the local double layered wool cloak, made of fleeces straight from the sheep and still containing the animal fats as natural insulation from the cold and wet.
Roman Shoes – per Vroma.org
Socks had evolved over the centuries being made from animal skins gathered up and tied round the ankles, to the Greeks and Romans wearing socks made from matted animal hair for warmth, or wrapping their feet with leather or woven fabrics. Easily obtainable as they travelled the empire, and certainly here they would have needed extra warmth.
A sock (soccus) was a light shoe worn by the comic actors of Greece and Rome, and was used by John Milton (1608 – 1674) in L’Allegro as a description for a comedy ..
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson’s learned sock be on.
[Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) the English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays.]
Milton also used the word 'Buskin', to describe a Tragedy, as the Greek tragic actors wore thick-soled (high) boots (cothurnus) to elevate their stature .. (taken from Milton’s “Il Penseroso”) ...
Or what (though rare) of later age
Enobled hath the buskind stage.
Buskins: A buskin is a knee- or calf-length boot made of leather or cloth which laces closed, but is open across the toes.
Shakespeare’s words spoken by Julius Caesar “Friends Romans Countrymen lend me your ears ..” is still quoted so often today, let alone when spoken in the Play itself.... it does not look as though they would have had to snail-mailed to Rome for socks, as the natural materials were readily available!
Yesterday, 15th March, reminded me of Plutarch’s record of Julius Caesar’s words before his assassination in 44BC: “Beware the Ides of March”, as his death ended the Roman Republic and from then on it became known as the Roman Empire – Augustus, who won through the civil war following Caesar’s death, made himself First Citizen, Commander of the army, while his successors used the title ‘imperator’ (commander), from which we obtain our word ‘emperor’.
The first Romans to campaign extensively in Britain were the forces of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC (both hindered by poor weather conditions!), but it was not until AD43 under Claudius that a provincial government was established and the Romans pushed their “limites” north to the province’s northern border with Hadrian’s Wall taking six years to complete in AD 128.
In Latin the plural of ‘limes’ is 'limites' – limits, boundaries in present day English – hence the Roman boundary name of Limes Britannicus, while the comedic word soccus has now turned into the accepted word for sock .. but not quite like these in their sandals I suspect?! Not much more to say here = socks and shoes, but not from Roman times!
The distinctive Romano—British culture that emerged following the conquests fusing the imported Roman culture and that of the indigenous Britons, a people Celtic in language and custom, which survives in many forms today ... in our language, our structural system, our foods, our customs, our traditions, etc influencing us still.
Those chilly Romans on Hadrian’s Wall pulling on their socks before their sandals have much to answer for – but for which we have much to be grateful for too. In the days of the Roman Empire it was common for the wall to be lit as sentries stood guard over the land, but since their departure no such line of light has been repeated until this past weekend, which was a sight to be seen, as shown here.
Dear Mr Postman – at last some warmer Spring sunshine, which are bringing out the greening shoots and leaveas, while the daffodils are starting to push up and colour out a radiant rich yellow. My mother seems to be settling in downstairs, but there are still things to be addressed, which is somewhat frustrating ... but we keep going.
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