SHOEMAKERS, boltshooters, sex slaves and head lice all feature in a new exhibition in London about what life was really like here in the North East in Roman times.

History usually revolves around the big men, around emperors like Hadrian, Nero or Julius Caesar surrounded by opulence and power in their grand palaces, but what was life like for the ordinary soldiers who were stationed hundreds of miles from home on the chilly, wet Hadrian’s Wall suffering from scratchy scalps while surrounded by the “wretched, puny Brits”?

The Northern Echo: Image of the Ermine Street Guard at Vindolanda, Hexham.Copyright Vindolanda TrustHadrian's Wall at Vindolanda, near Hexham. Picture: Vindolanda Trust

At least 30,000 soldiers – 10 per cent of the Roman army – were based permanently in Britain for about 300 years, with many of them on the 73 mile wall which was the empire’s north-west frontier.

The British Museum has brought together more than 200 artefacts from around the world to tell their story. There’s the world’s only intact legionary shield, which has come over for the first time from America. There’s the most complete example of Roman body armour, that was recently unearthed from a battlefield in Germany. There’s the remains of a soldier who is believed to have died attempting to help citizens flee the erupting Vesuvius and there is a trumpet and a sword preserved in Pompeii.

These are joined by stand-out pieces from the North East, where the soils around the Vindolanda fort near Hexham have, kindly, preserved even organic objects which elsewhere in the empire have decayed away. These include the Vindolanda Tablets, which are hundreds of postcard-sized slices of wood with handwriting on them: an invitation to a birthday party, a moan about the weather or a complaint about the “wretched, puny” locals.

It is these North East pieces that really get us down to not just the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life but to the nits as well.

Curator Carolina Rangel de Lima has talked us through six of our local pieces that are starring in London and what they tell us about life nearly 2,000 years ago…

Regina’s tombstone

The Northern Echo: The Regina tombstone, one of the star objects at Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort, in being loaned to the British Museum Image: TYNE & WEAR MUSEUMSThe Regina tombstone, one of the star objects at Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort, features in the British Museum exhibition. Image: Tyne & Wear Museums

REGINA was an Essex girl who became the slave of Barates, a soldier from Syria. When he took ownership of her (perhaps her parents sold her to him), he striped her of her native name, gave her a Roman name, and took her to South Shields.

Slaves were not uncommon among soldiers, although female slaves were considered a luxury – one “in the finest condition” cost 600 denari (silver coins) whereas the basic soldier’s wage on Hadrian’s Wall was 200 denari a year.

However, Barates must have fallen in love with his concubine, because he freed her from slavery and married her.

Tragically, she died in South Shields aged 30, and he paid for an expensive stone to commemorate her. Most of the inscription is in Latin, but on the bottom is a line in Aramaic, Barates’ Syrian language. It says: “Regina, freedwoman of Barate, alas!”

“The tombstone was found in the 19th Century and the Victorians had this amazing narrative that she was this beautiful Briton who had conquered the mighty Roman soldier Barates, brought him to his knees and had got him to free her and marry her,” says Carolina, “but we now have a more realistic view that she was a sex slave with no choice in that.”

However, Barates must have respected her roots, because he notes on the stone that she came from

Catuvellanuia tribe. This has led to her nickname “Queenie of Essex”.

As well as giving us an insight into their relationship, the stone tells us that most soldiers stationed on the wall were bilingual – they had to speak Latin for work purposes, but they also spoke the language of their homeland.

Regina herself would have spoken a British language which had yet to be written down.

Ox skull target

The Northern Echo: romans at hadrians wall

“VINDOLANDA has a dozen of these, with square holes in them which were made by bolts, not arrows, as it was used for target practice,” says Carolina.

Bolts had iron heads and wooden shafts. Some had cages on them in which a cloth soaked with oil was put and ignited, so it terrifyingly flamed as it flew through the air.

“They were fired from a boltshooter, which was very portable, and came apart so they could be carried easily,” says Carolina.

A Roman army formation featured an infantry shield wall at the front, archers in the middle, and boltshooters firing from longer range at the back.

“People have asked how accurate they were, but these skulls show they were very accurate because you can aim at a target the size of a human head and hit it,” says Carolina.

The Northern Echo: A Northern boltshooter replica from the Roman era at Hadrian's Wall. The replica is also in the British Museum exhibition. Picture: Alan Wilkins

Tent panel


The Northern Echo: romans at hadrians wallTHREE complete tents were discovered folded up at Vindolanda with tent pegs scattered all over the place, telling us that many Roman soldiers made their home under canvas.

Eight of them slept in a “contubernium”, along with any slave they might have – there was probably one slave per contubernium.

“Think about camping at Vindolanda, rain pattering on the top of the tent,” says Carolina. “Think about their camaraderie – they are probably all from the same place, speaking the same language, settling far from home in this strange place. This is their home. They share the tent, they share the chores, and it is probably the only place they will speak their own language.”

A pair of children’s shoes

The Northern Echo: romans at hadrians wall

VINDOLANDA has preserved about 5,000 shoes, from dainty ladies’ shoes with a fancy pattern of iron studs on the soles to an elegant flip-flop made in France to soldiers’ sturdy marching boots – there would have been no sandals for troops marching on the muddy roads of the North East.

Amazingly, nearly 2,000 years old, there is a pair of leather children’s shoes, modern size 11 so for five or six year olds.

Carolina believes the shoes would have been made locally. “One of the most overlooked aspects is the craftspeople,” she says. “If you lived locally and had a craft – a shoemaker or a carpenter – and you see the army setting up a fort, it is like kerching!”

The shoes remind us that while we think of the Roman military as a male occupation, there were families with them at the wall.

The shoes show how the army was interacting with local communities. Indeed, when many soldiers finished their 25-year contracts with the army, because they had created families here, many settled in the region. A true North Easterner today may well carry genes from all over the Roman empire.

Doctor’s tombstoneThe Northern Echo: romans at hadrians wallANICIUS INGENUUS was a “medicus ordinarius”, or doctor, who was part of the first cohort of Tungrians which was stationed at Housesteads fort on the wall in the 2nd Century. The Tungrians came from modern Belgium.

“A doctor had to be a jack of all trades,” says Carolina. “They had to have a knowledge of herbs to manage pain, how to do surgery, which usually meant amputation, and how to treat things like food poisoning, which was very common. He had to know dentistry – there were things like numbing agents to help with pain but often extractions were the only way.”

Nit combs

The Northern Echo: romans at hadrians wallAT Vindolanda, more than 160 nit combs have been discovered suggesting headlice was a considerable problem.

“When you think about hygiene, in warm places, where many of these soldiers are from, you can spend lots of time outside, but in the north, health concerns are a lot worse,” she says, with the weather forcing soldiers to spend time cheek-by-jowl and head-to-head into their contubernium.

The combs are made from boxwood from outside Britain, suggesting that they were fashioned locally from old boxes the army had brought with them.

“There’s a lot of variety to them with different decorations and markings on them,” says Carolina. “It is thought that people didn’t want to share them so they made sure everyone knew whose nit comb was whose.”

We really have started scratching the surface of life in the North East in Roman times…

  • Legion: life in the Roman army runs in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum in London until June 23. It is open from Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm, and Fridays to 10.30pm. Tickets from £17, under 16s free. More information from

The Northern Echo: Vindolanda, where several of the treasures in the current British Museum exhibition in London were found