Sunday, 23 February 2014

Eboracum - Visiting Roman York

Eboracum - Visiting Roman York
You can’t come all the way to Britain and not see it. Eboracum is the northernmost jewel of Roman civilisation, reportedly two hundred and twenty seven thousand paces from Londinium (we recommend you don’t try counting them). It’s the city of emperors. It’s a key part of the northern military complex (so steer clear of trying to assault it). And it’s got all the touches of Rome you could seek.
Its waterfront facilities and demanding population (including grouchy soldiers) means that it’s the emporium of the north. Look in the shops for engraved glassware or fine lamps by Fortis. There are local potteries and tile manufacturers if army surplus material is what you’re after. The city is a major manufacturer of jet carvings, a German frontier favourite, so fans of this black stone should definitely stock up during the visit.
The city is divided into two by the river Ouse. It’s a pleasant enough stream to follow; tip Marcus Minucius Audens a couple of coins and he may take you along on a short trip next time he acts as a pilot. Ask him for a couple of stories from his military service to pass the hours. If you’re there at the end of the first century, see if you can drop by the bar when Demetrius of Tarsus is there. Demetrius explored some of the islands of Britain for Vespasian. Later on you might try to drop by Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, a handy man to know for all his contacts, as he trades with the main city of south western Gaul and is also a priest of the imperial cult both here and in Lindum.
Keep to the south west of the river unless you have a reason to be in the military quarter, especially if there’s trouble on the frontier. The military area itself is huge, a good fifty acres. It’s long needed to be, since the place has long housed the best part of a full legion. Look at Constantine’s walls as you approach from the south, and you’ll be impressed by the formidable broad towers. It’s also the quarter with the greatest historical pull, with the headquarters associated with every emperor whose ever come up to campaign on the empire’s borders, supported by titanic pillars.
Even so, you’ll be able to visit the bath house to the south of the river, one of the largest in the country, and if you’re able to pull some strings you might be able to get a glimpse inside the imperial residence. It’s out of use now of course, or rather a bit short of the fancy furnishings, but you can still get a tingle as you step in the tracks of great men.
If purple isn’t your colour but you’re still into the borderland city experience, then head south west for Deva Victrix (Chester). It’s the Roman gateway onto the middle sea. Arriving by boat brings you into the harbour area with the warehouses sited to the west of the town, by the military quarter. The bustle however lies in the more densely packed eastern part of the place. Outside of the walls you get a semi-rural feel, and there’s nothing so pleasant on a summer’s day as strolling down to the water’s edge to watch the boats go by, or listening to the strain of the sailors as they tentatively manoeuvre under the arches of the great bridge before scrambling into action to make the sharp turn as the river bends. Deva dominates the North West in the way that Eboracum looms over the mid north. Originally intended to keep the western mountains of the island under control, the fort’s massive stone wall (built under Trajan) still impress. Check out the south east of the town. The area is dominated by an amphitheatre capable of seating several thousand. A fitting touch if you can spot it is the little shrine to the goddess Nemesis. It’s not the biggest amphitheatre you’ll come across but you might sense a different feel from it, as overwhelmingly its customers come from the barracks and the sandy part is larger than you’ll be used to, designed as it is to cater for the military using it to practise. When they’re not training, or executing some malfaisants on a timber scaffold, you might be able to get access and watch some blood sports alongside veterans who do the same work in the field. Perhaps you may find it makes the ‘civilian’ amphitheatres a little more tasteless afterwards, since the audience have little real appreciation of what the victims genuinely might be feeling.
Dismiss such thoughts and clean the dust off at the baths, from whose size alone you can tell this is a major legionary city packed full of soldiery. If you can get into the military sector, ask to see the Ellyptical Building. It’s an unusually shaped large posh oval edifice with a pleasant fountain in the middle, providing a civilised refuge from the toils of the day.
Gastronauts will not be disappointed. The town has a variety of suppliers of the best sea food, reared animals, deer and boar. Goose, pheasant and swan can also be found. If the opportunity to binge gets the better of you and stomach ache strikes, track down Hermogenes the doctor to sort you out. Be patient with his Latin accent as he’s a Greek speaker; a bit of pointing is probably enough.


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