non sibi sed toti

Classics Teaching Resources

Roman Britain - Now and Then

We who live in England use roads the Romans made.
Pots and coins may surface beneath our garden spade.
Excavate a car-park and find a Roman town;
What they left remains here, not many inches down.
But the hopes, ambitions, loves and hates and fears,
Are they lost for ever, down the fading years?
Where we lesser mortals find them past our reach,
Poets have imagined, given those spirits speech.

David Parsons, May 2004

On other pages:

Hadrian's Wall
Now and Then

On this page:

The Land by Rudyard Kipling
The British by Benjamin Zephaniah
The Death of Puck by Eugene Lee-Hamilton
The Ruines of time by Edmund Spenser
Uriconium An Ode by Wilfred Owen
Eagle and Dove (Caractacus)
The Roman Road
Roman Antiquities by William Wordsworth

The Land

"Friendly book" -- A Diversity of Creatures

by Rudyard Kipling

When  Julius Fabricius, Sub-Prefect of the Weald,
In the days of Diocletian owned our Lower River-field,
He called to him Hobdenius - a Briton of the Clay,
Saying:  "What about that River-piece for layin' in to hay?"

And the aged Hobden answered:  "I remember as a lad
My father told your father that she wanted dreenin' bad.
An' the more that you neeglect her the less you'll get her clean.
Have it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd dreen."

So they drained it long and crossways in the lavish Roman style--
Still we find among the river-drift their flakes of ancient tile,
And  in  drouthy  middle  August,  when  the  bones  of  meadows show,
We can trace the lines they followed sixteen hundred years ago.

Then Julius Fabricius died as even Prefects do,
And after certain centuries, Imperial Rome died too.
Then did robbers enter Britain from across the Northern main
And our Lower River-field was won by Ogier the Dane.

Well could Ogier work his war-boat -- well could Ogier wield his brand --
Much he knew of foaming waters -- not so much of farming land.
So he called to him a Hobden of the old unaltered blood,
Saying: "What about that River-piece; she doesn't look no good?"

And that aged Hobden answered  "'Tain't for me not interfere.
But I've known that bit o' meadow now for five and fifty year.
Have it jest as you've a mind to, but I've proved it time on ' time,
If you want to change her nature you have got to give her lime!"

Ogier sent his wains to Lewes, twenty hours' solemn walk,
And drew back great abundance of the cool, grey, healing chalk.
And old Hobden spread it broadcast, never heeding what was in't. --
Which is why in cleaning ditches, now and then we find a flint.

Ogier died. His sons grew English - Anglo-Saxon was their name--
Till out of blossomed Normandy another pirate came;
For Duke William conquered England and divided with his men,
And our Lower River-field he gave to William of Warenne.

But the Brook (you know her habit) rose one rainy autumn night  
And tore down sodden flitches of the bank to left and right.
So, said William to his Bailiff as they rode their dripping rounds:
"Hob, what about that River-bit -- the Brook's got up no bounds? "

 And that aged Hobden answered: "'Tain't my business to advise,
But  ye might ha' known 'twould happen from the way the valley  lies.
 Where ye can't hold back the water you must try and save the sile.
 Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but, if I was you, I'd spile!"

 They spiled along the water-course with trunks of willow-trees,
 And planks of elms behind 'em and immortal oaken knees.
 And when the spates of Autumn whirl the gravel-beds away
 You can see their faithful fragments, iron-hard in iron clay.
.       .          .         .          .      .         .          .            .             . 
 Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto, I, who own the River-field,
  Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed,      
  Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs
  All sorts of powers and profits which - are neither mine nor theirs,

  I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
  I can fish-but Hobden tickles -- I can shoot -- but Hobden wires.
  I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
  Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.

Shall I dog his morning progress o'er the track-betraying dew?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew?
Confiscate his evening faggot under which my conies ran,
And summons him to judgment? I would sooner summons Pan.

His dead are in the churchyard -- thirty generations laid.
Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;
 And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
 Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

 Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies,
 Would  I  lose  his  large  sound  council,  miss  his  keen  amending eyes.
 He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
 And if flagrantly a poacher -- 'tain't for me to interfere.

 "Hob, what about that River-bit?" I turn to him again,
 With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
 "Hev it jest as you've a mind to, but" - and here he takes command.
 For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.

The British

  	Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. 
Treating one ingredient better than another will leave 
a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people 
and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Benjamin Zephaniah

This poem by Eugene Lee-Hamilton is only tangentially relevant to the Romans in Britain, but suggests that Classical country deities gave way to the English Puck, whose day in turn is over.

The Death of Puck

I FEAR that Puck is dead,—it is so long
Since men last saw him ;—dead with all the rest
Of that sweet elfin crew that made their nest
In hollow nuts, where hazels sing their song ;
Dead and for ever, like the antique throng
The elves replaced : the Dryad that you guess'd
Behind the leaves ; the Naiad weed-bedress'd ;
The leaf-ear'd Faun that loved to lead you wrong.
Tell me, thou hopping Robin, hast thou met
A little man, no bigger than thyself,
Whom they call Puck, where woodland bells are wet :
Tell me, thou Wood-Mouse, hast thou seen an elf
Whom they call Puck, and is he seated yet,
Capp'd with a snail-shell, on his mushroom shelf ?


THE Robin gave three hops, and chirp'd, and said :
' Yes, I knew Puck, and loved him ; though I trow
He mimick'd oft my whistle, chuckling low ;
Yes, I knew cousin Puck ; but he is dead.
We found him lying on his mushroom bed—
The Wren and I,—half cover'd up with snow,
As we were hopping where the berries grow.
We think he died of cold. Ay, Puck is fled.'
And then the Wood-Mouse said : ' We made the Mole
Dig him a little grave beneath the moss,
And four big Dormice placed him in the hole.
The Squirrel made with sticks a little cross ;
Puck was a Christian elf, and had a soul ;
And all we velvet jackets mourn his loss.'

The Ruines of Time

by Edmund Spenser

(Extracts. Spencer wrote this at St Alban's, which seems to have been in ruins in his day.)

I was that Citie, which the garland wore
Of Britaines pride, deliuer'd vnto me
By Romane Victors, which it wonne of yore;
Though nought at all but ruines now I bee,
And lye in mine owne ashes, as ye see:
Verlame I was; what bootes it that I was,
Sith now I am but weedes and wastfull gras?


O Rome thy ruine I lament and rue,
And in thy fall my fatall ouerthrowe,
That whilom was, whilst heauens with equall vewe
Deignd to behold me, and their gifts bestowe,
The picture of thy pride in pompous shew:
And of the whole world as thou wast the Empresse,
So I of this small Northerne world was Princesse.

To tell the beawtie of my buildings fayre,
Adorn'd with purest golde and precious stone;
To tell my riches, and endowments rare
That by my foes are now all spent and gone:
To tell my forces matchable to none,
Were but lost labour, that few would beleeue,
And with rehearsing would me more agreeue.

High towers, faire temples, goodly theaters,
Strong walls, rich porches, princelie pallaces,
Large streetes, braue houses, sacred sepulchers,
Sure gates, sweete gardens, stately galleries,
Wrought with faire pillours and fine imageries
All those (ô pitie) now are turnd to dust,
And ouergrowen with black obliuions rust.

Theretoo for warlike power, and peoples store,
In Brittanie was none to match with mee,
That manie often did abie full sore:
Ne Troynouaunt, though elder sister shee,
With my great forces might compared bee;
That stout Pendragon to his perill felt,
Who in a seige seauen yeres about me dwelt.

But long ere this Bunduca Britonesse
Her mightie hoast against my bulwarkes brought,
Bunduca, that victorious conqueresse,
That lifting vp her braue heroïck thought
Bove womens weaknes, with the Romanes fought,
Fought, and in field against them thrice preuailed:
Yet was she foyld, when as she me assailed.

And though at last by force I conquer'd were
Of hardie Saxons, and became their thrall;
Yet was I with much bloodshed bought full deere,
And prizde with slaughter of their Generall:
The moniment of whose sad funerall,
For wonder of the world, long in me lasted;
But now to nought through spoyle of time is wasted.

Uriconium An Ode

by Wilfred Owen

It lieth low near merry England's heart
Like a long-buried sin; and Englishmen
Forget that in its death their sires had part.
And, like a sin, Time lays it bare again
To tell of races wronged,
And ancient glories suddenly overcast,
And treasures flung to fire and rabble wrath.
If thou hast ever longed
To lift the gloomy curtain of Time Past,
And spy the secret things that Hades hath,
Here through this riven ground take such a view.
The dust, that fell unnoted as a dew,
Wrapped the dead city's face like mummy-cloth:
All is as was: except for worm and moth.

Since Jove was worshipped under Wrekin's shade
Or Latin phrase was writ in Shropshire stone,
Since Druid chaunts desponded in this glade
Or Tuscan general called that field his own,
How long ago? How long?
How long since wanderers in the Stretton Hills
Met men of shaggy hair and savage jaw,
With flint and copper prong,
Aiming behind their dikes and thorny grilles?
Ah! those were days before the axe and saw,
Then were the nights when this mid-forest town
Held breath to hear the wolves come yelping down,
And ponderous bears 'long Severn lifted paw,
And nuzzling boars ran grunting through the shaw.

Ah me! full fifteen hundred times the wheat
Hath risen, and bowed, and fallen to human hunger
Since those imperial days were made complete.
The weary moon hath waxen old and younger
These eighteen thousand times
Without a shrine to greet her gentle ray.
And other temples rose; to Power and Pelf,
And chimed centurial chimes
Until their very bells are worn away.
While King by King lay cold on vaulted shelf
And wars closed wars, and many a Marmion fell,
And dearths and plagues holp sire and son to hell;
And old age stiffened many a lively elf
And many a poet's heart outdrained itself.

I had forgot that so remote an age
Beyond the horizon of our little sight,
Is far from us by no more spanless gauge
Than day and night, succeeding day and night,
Until I looked on Thee,
Thou ghost of a dead city, or its husk!
But even as we could walk by field and hedge
Hence to the distant sea
So, by the rote of common dawn and dusk,
We travel back to history's utmost edge.
Yea, when through thy old streets I took my way,
And recked a thousand years as yesterday,
Methought sage fancy wrought a sacrilege
To steal for me such godly privilege!

For here lie remnants from a banquet table -
Oysters and marrow-bones, and seeds of grape -
The statement of whose age must sound a fable;
And Samian jars, whose sheen and flawless shape
Look fresh from potter's mould.
Plasters with Roman finger-marks impressed;
Bracelets that from the warm Italian arm
Might seem to be scarce cold;
And spears - the same that pushed the Cymry west-
Unblunted yet; with tools of forge and farm
Abandoned, as a man in sudden fear
Drops what he holds to help his swift career:
For sudden was Rome's flight, and wild the alarm.
The Saxon shock was like Vesuvius' qualm.

O ye who prate of modern art and craft,
Mark well that Gaulish brooch, and test that screw!
Art's fairest buds on antique stem are graft.
Under the sun is nothing wholly new!
At Viricon today
The village anvil rests on Roman base
And in a garden, may be seen a bower
With pillars for its stay
That anciently in basilic had place.
The church's font is but a pagan dower:
A Temple's column, hollowed into this.
So is the glory of our artifice,
Our pleasure and our worship, but the flower
Of Roman custom and of Roman power.

O ye who laugh and, living as if Time
Meant but the twelve hours ticking round your dial,
Find it too short for thee, watch the sublime,
Slow, epochal time-registers awhile,
Which are Antiquities.
O ye who weep and call all your life too long
And moan: Was ever sorrow like to mine?
Muse on the memories
That sad sepulchral stones and ruins prolong.
Here might men drink of wonder like strong wine
And feel ephemeral troubles soothed and curbed.
Yet farmers, wroth to have their laws disturbed,
Are sooner roused for little loss to pine
Than we are moved by mighty woes long syne.

Above this reverend ground, what traveller checks?
Yet cities such as these one time would breed
Apocalyptic visions of world-wrecks.
Let Saxon men return to them, and heed!
They slew and burnt,
But after, prized what Rome had given away
Out of her strength and her prosperity.
Have they yet learnt
The precious truth distilled from Rome's decay?
Ruins! On England's heart press heavily!
For Rome hath left us more than walls and words
And better yet shall leave; and more than herds
Or land or gold gave the Celts to us in fee;
E'en Blood, which makes poets sing and prophets see.

William Wordsworth


SHADE of Caractacus, if spirits love
The cause they fought for in their earthly home
To see the Eagle ruffled by the Dove
May soothe thy memory of the chains of Rome.

These children claim thee for their sire; the breath
Of thy renown, from Cambrian mountains, fans
A flame within them that despises death
And glorifies the truant youth of Vannes.

With thy own scorn of tyrants they advance,
But truth divine has sanctified their rage,
A silver cross enchased with flowers of France
Their badge, attests the holy fight they wage.

The shrill defiance of the young crusade
Their veteran foes mock as an idle noise;
But unto Faith and Loyalty comes aid
From Heaven, gigantic force to beardless boys.


The Roman Road

The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmeted legionnaires, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.

But no tall brass-helmeted legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother's form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.

-- Thomas Hardy



HOW profitless the relics that we cull,
Troubling the last holds of ambitious Rome,
Unless they chasten fancies that presume
Too high, or idle agitations lull!
Of the world's flatteries if the brain be full,
To have no seat for thought were better doom,
Like this old helmet, or the eyeless skull
Of him who gloried in its nodding plume.
Heaven out of view, our wishes what are they?
Our fond regrets tenacious in their grasp? 10
The Sage's theory? the Poet's lay?
Mere Fibulae without a robe to clasp;
Obsolete lamps, whose light no time recalls;
Urns without ashes, tearless lacrymals!

William Wordsworth


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