Riding the ‘Subway’, in Ancient Rome

Urban dwellers will recognize this map at first glance! But when you look a little closer you will see that you are not in Kansas anymore.

You are, in fact, in the Roman Empire in the year 125CE. And the “subway lines” you see are the Roman highway system as it existed in that year to the best of our knowledge (with some assumptions). Solid lines reflect existing routes, dotted lines reflect Roman aspirations or partially complete routes where the Romans might have been active but had not yet established the control required to extend their infrastructure.

The map is the brainchild of a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Sasha Trubetskoy and it is absolutely brilliant, rendering the stunning breadth and scope of the Roman footprint in such a tangible way. I have not stopped marveling at it and I’m sure that you will as well.

Hop on the highway in Londinium and ride it to Petra? No problem, it could be accomplished within the confines of the Empire. To provide a concrete example of this marvelous system, Mr. Trubetskoy estimates that a trip from Rome to Constantinople would take approximately 2 months on foot, a journey that could be reduced by half if the traveler “transferred” to sailboat for part of the trip…

In addition to Trubetskoy’s subway map, below you will find images depicting the design of the typical Roman highway as well as actual examples of such roads as they currently continue to exist across the Empire (including in war-torn Syria such as in this image to the right), where two thousand years later the accomplishment of Roman engineers is still remarkably evident.


For those interested in readying more please see the website of the map’s creator by clicking here.


Chinese Travelers in Londinium

2nd-century-roman-empireIn the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire stretched from the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum where the southernmost Roman Legion was stationed at the Limes Arabicus on the Gulf of Aqaba) to deep in the Scottish Highlands (where the Antonine Wall bisected the British Isle from the Firth of Forth to the Irish Sea).

Stunning really. Just look at the world today, fragmented, at odds, in retreat, and contrast that with a world (equally as barbaric of course as anything we know today) where such a broad swathe of humanity looked to Caesar in Rome, for better or for worse.

These things are known. We also know that the influence of the Empire stretched far beyond the imperial borders. Rome’s merchants actively traded with far flung lands, down the African coast, to Yemen, India and even to Asia where the Roman presence has been well documented (where, for example, a splendid piece of Roman glass was uncovered last year in an ancient Japanese burial mound).

Yet a find announced this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals the discovery of skeletons in an ancient Roman cemetery in South location-of-southwark-cemetery-on-lant-streetLondon – the Roman’s Londinium – that appear to have belonged to two men of Chinese origins – proves that the Romans retain the ability to surprise.

Chinese in Londinium in the 2nd Century! Moreover, two additional skeletons of African descent were also found in the same small cemetery after sampling dental enamel from 20 sets of human remains from between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they travel there of their own free will, or as soldiers or slaves (or as the native born descendants of any of the above)? These questions remain unanswered skeleton-lant-street-teenager-museum-londonthough scientists and archaeologists continue to explore little Southwark, mere steps away from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The City of London is known as a cosmopolitan place and much was made of immigration in the recent debate over Brexit, as immigration is being discussed in much of the Western world. The argument goes that the City was once a certain, way, and then immigration changed the fundamental nature of things. These skeletons provide an interesting wrinkle that will not change the discussion but perhaps it should.

Here we have proof that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans were able to create and sustain a world in which travelers from the opposite side of the planet could comfortably travel and did so, from China (which the Romans knew as Serica, its people as Seres) to Londinium. The find also weakens the previously held view that Roman-era London was a parochial, homogeneous place.

It would appear that London has been cosmopolitan ever since it was Londinium, back in the mists of time.

And that seems something to celebrate.

For more on this find see the following link:


From Londinium, With Love…


A message that only true friends or family could deliver and only then with a certain degree of caution – it takes love to tell the unvarnished truth!

The note could easily have been written by any of us today, in a text or email. Instead it was written 2,000 years ago in a Roman settlement known as LONDINIUM, modern London. It, along with a treasure trove of
wood tablets was just discovered during a construction project for Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London.

Bloomberg headquarters construction

Most amazing is that this note (one of 405 writing tablets unearthed on London’s Queen Victoria street), was written on bees’ wax pressed on wood. The original wax has long disappeared but impressions from the writing were pressed into the wood which was miraculously preserved.

As one article described:

“The preservation of the tablets is in itself remarkable, as wood rarely survives when buried in the ground. The wet mud of the Walbrook, a river that dominated the area in the Roman period but is now buried, stopped oxygen from decaying the wooden tablets, preserving them in excellent condition.”

image_3925_1-Bloomberg-Tablet-30 Tablets found on site

The find is historical for another reason. On one of the wood tablets, archaeologists identified the earliest mention of the city’s name ever found, dating to mere years after the city’s founding in 43CE.

(“Londinio Mogontio”)





Sends chills up the spine….

Roman Villa under your Tennis Court

Imagine you are a loving father – not such a terrible stretch, and you want to wire your old country barn for electricity so that your children can play indoor tennis at night. That’s something that many of us would gladly do. Just lay some electric cable (hire a professional of course), and there you have it, tennis day and night, year round, and grateful children…

Now if you are in the former Roman colony of Britannia, homeowners that take a spade to their backyard are used to surprises given the rich history of the island.  Yet no one in their right might would expect anything quite as rich as what this homeowner uncovered – one of the most stunning Roman villas ever unearthed, anywhere in the world.

Workers had sunk their shovels about 24 inches below the surface when they struck something hard. Some quick work with their hands revealed Roman mosaic (right) whereupon the homeowner called in the archaeologists who quickly determined that what lay beneath this Mosaic Floor of Tennis Court Villacountry home was the most perfectly intact Roman villa ever discovered in England, one that had been virtually untouched since it collapsed in the 6th century CE, approximately a century after Roman legions were evacuated from Britannia by the Emperor Honorius who told the Romans in Britain to “look to their own defenses”,  in 410CE, because Rome could no longer support its most distant borders.

Returning to the villa (images of the dig below along with an artist’s rendering of the home), which was believed to possess three stories – it has rather stunned archaeologists thrilling with what might be found once it is excavated. As one opined: “This is a hugely valuable site with incredible potential. The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1,500 years, is unparalleled in recent years and it gives us a perfect opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”

Coffin of Tennis Court Villa Active Dig of Tennis Court Villa Artist Rendering of Tennis Court Villa

That said, for the time being, Historic England covered over the recent finds with earth to preserve them until such time as their raise sufficient funds to run a proper dig, a thoughtful move. Until then this Roman villa will continue to slumber underground, dreaming of Honorius perhaps, and his fateful decision one thousand four hundred years ago to abandon Britannia…

I can’t help imagine what the owner of that palatial estate thought as they watched the Picts, Celts and Jutes come loping out of the forest, knowing that their time had come.

For more on the villa see here.

A Reminder of Romans in Colchester


Once upon a time she was a Roman city, the first Roman city in Britannia.

Today Camulodunum goes by the name of Colchester, and it lies 66 miles northeast of London (Roman “Londinium”). It is known as the oldest town in England and was once the capital of Britannia, one of Rome’s prized possessions when it was part of the Roman Empire from 43CE to 410CE.

Camulodunum / Colchester was recently in the news when workers renovating a department store on High Street discovered the charred ruins of a Roman home beneath the shop’s basement.

The Dig in Colchester


Archaeologists are used to sifting through the charred remnants of Roman-era Colchester, because the first Camulodunum was sacked and burnt to the ground shortly after the city of London was founded. This destruction left a layer of burnt sediment upon which the Roman city was subsequently rebuilt. That sediment remains under Colchester and is frequently encountered.

Colchester was sacked during the revolt of Queen Boudica (see featured image of this post for representation), the Celtic warrior queen who led a brief but smashingly destructive uprising against Roman rule in 61CE, a revolt that left an estimated 70,000 Romans and Britons dead before the Romans reestablished control over the island. In the Battle for Camulodunum, the Roman IX Legion tried to relieve the residents of the city but arrived too late to provide succor. Gaius Suetonius Pauline’s, the Roman Governor of Britannia eventually prevailed over Boudica at the Battle of Watling Street. Though they were grossly outnumbered, Roman discipline and strategy prevailed over Boudica’s Celts and Roman rule was reestablished on the island for 400 years.

Roman Walls of Colchester


Found under the Department Store

Back to modern Colchester and the dig under the grand department store on High Street. Archaeologists were called to the site, and in those charred remains, they stumbled across one of the most notable hoards of Roman jewelry ever discovered in Britain (or a

Roman Jewelry found in Colchester

nywhere for that matter! Precious metals datingfrom the Roman era are rarely found – when fungible precious metals were discovered they were melted down to use as currency, not adornment). The dig is still ongoing but the principle items discovered include: three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a substantial silver armlet, a small bag of coins, and a small jewellery box containing two sets of gold earrings and four gold finger-
Archaeologists speculate that these remarkable items belonged to a very wealthy woman who buried them in the basement of her house as Boudica and her army marched on the town, hoping to retrieve them when the danger passed – that they were
never retrieved implies that their owner met a dark end, as did most Roman residents of the city.
For more on the dig, see here: