We go Roman the streets of Corinium is search of cornu-blowing legions… and quickly discover it’s very difficult to avoid them – or the history that can be found lying under our feet.

In the historic Gloucestershire town of Cirencester, it’s fair to say you’re never far from a Roman or evidence of one. That’s the angle I thought I would take as I pondered on what to write about. However, I didn’t expect to interview a Roman legionary or indeed chase after men in short tunics as they marched through the town.

It was one of those serendipitous moments and one which not only helped bring my feature alive but indeed history itself. Instead of seeing fragments or evidence of Roman life in glass cabinets, here were real humans in Roman attire, blowing the cornu, an enormous military instrument, curved into a large letter G, marching through the town, with their jangling leather and brass belts – and me running after them to capture it on camera.

Great British Life: Blowing the Cornu. Photo: Tracy SpiersBlowing the Cornu. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Leaving the Corinium Museum, they marched down Black Jack Street, until they stopped outside Jesse Smith Butchers with their centurion shouting: ‘Anyone want a pasty for tomorrow?’

One thing you should know about the Roman army is the men were looked after well. In fact, according to Lucius from the 20th Legion based at Glevum (Gloucester), Roman soldiers were considered a good catch, as they were fit, well paid, and came with a pension if the women were prepared to wait for them.

‘We sign up to the army for 25 years and although we are allowed informal relationships, we aren’t allowed to be married until we leave the army. Most of us sign up between the ages of 18-23 and leave the army around the age of 40. We come out fit and healthy and we are the only ones to get free health care in the army. In fact, it is proven that Roman soldiers live about 20 years longer than civilians,’ Lucius informed me.

It is not every day one gets to interview a Roman and get an insight into army life, but Lucius was generous with his information. The daily routine of the 5,000-strong legion was ruthless and meticulous. Its role was to defeat Rome’s enemy and protect both Roman citizens and their property.

Great British Life: Members of the Ermine Street Guard outside the Corinium Museum. Photo: Tracy SpiersMembers of the Ermine Street Guard outside the Corinium Museum. Photo: Tracy Spiers Great British Life: Children get chance to dress up and join a Roman drill. Photo: Tracy SpiersChildren get chance to dress up and join a Roman drill. Photo: Tracy Spiers

‘We are up before dawn, have a parade, we are given our daily orders and put into working parties to clean the fort, the toilets, help in the kitchen or help escort supplies or goods to be taken to Rome. It’s a busy life. We are a bit like children, if we are kept busy, we are fine!’

I asked him what he thought about Corinium (Cirencester), the second most important Roman town in Britain?

‘It is a very pleasant place, and it has all the goods we need and great entertainment at the amphitheatre, although we are a bit critical of the gladiators as they don’t know how to fight properly. They fight to entertain, we fight to win,’ Lucius told me.

‘We only have one day off a year in the army and that is Saturnalia – the only day we can gamble with money. The rest of the time we gamble with dice and would get into trouble if we used money. Last time I made 8 denarii, which is worth a couple of days’ wages.’

I left Lucius to return to his companions who were giving mini-Roman legionaries a lesson in how to carry out a military parade. Lucius, AKA John Smith from Dorset, was one of eight men from the Gloucester-based Ermine Street Guard visiting the Corinium Museum that day. Set up in 1972, the Guard has become the leading society studying the Roman Army and its equipment and works closely with leading academics in the field to ensure kit is correct based on current research.

Great British Life: Modern-day Corinium. Photo: Tracy SpiersModern-day Corinium. Photo: Tracy Spiers

‘Often people come to Museums and see broken finds, but when they see a human being inside those finds, it becomes a complete set, and can be fully appreciated and experienced. It brings it to life, especially when you hear the noises of the metal as we move,’ John explained.

‘Children can dress up for a drill, walk the parade and ask questions. It is something experiential that we can add to the superb collection that is already here in the Museum.’

Cirencester’s Roman heritage is strong and visible. A section of exposed Roman wall is at the western edge of Abbey Grounds, a public park once the medieval lands of the Augustinian Abbey of St Mary. Just outside town are the massive earthwork remains of what is considered one of Britain’s largest Roman amphitheatres. Built in the early 2nd century, when Corinium (Cirencester) was second only to London in size and importance, this amphitheatre could hold around 8,000 spectators.

Great British Life: Tracy sitting on the remaining Roman town wall in Abbey Grounds Park. Photo: Tracy SpiersTracy sitting on the remaining Roman town wall in Abbey Grounds Park. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Great British Life: Tracy at Cirencester's Roman Amphitheatre. Photo: Tracy SpiersTracy at Cirencester's Roman Amphitheatre. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Scratch deep enough below the town’s surface, there will also be evidence of Roman life.

‘There are over 60 mosaics from Corinium that we know about and many others we don’t. Homes here were beautifully decorated, and this town attracted wealth as it does today. The mosaics prove the town was one of opulence and beauty,’ said Museum Director Emma Stuart.

With many mosaics uncovered in country villas and townhouses, it marks this area as a prime channel of Romano-British culture and life.

‘If people want to see a mosaic in situ, they can go into the King’s Head and see it under the floor,’ said Emma. A glass panel provides a glimpse of a mosaic an arm’s reach away, proving that underneath are millions of tesserae.

Great British Life: Tracy looking at a surviving mosaic in The Kings Head. Photo: Tracy SpiersTracy looking at a surviving mosaic in The Kings Head. Photo: Tracy Spiers

As a lad growing up in Cirencester, Ben Chapman used to find mosaic fragments in his friend’s back garden in St Peter’s Road.

‘We found a bowlful of tesserae. It just proves that there are a lot of undiscovered mosaics yet to be found underneath our streets,’ he said.

Today as co-owner of DC Design Flooring, Ben provides high class bespoke flooring of a different kind to customers in the Cirencester area and beyond. In the past his dad Leigh created a replica Roman tessera by mixing resin and stone dust, a recipe Ben later added to, and over the years the pair have laid many a replica Roman mosaic both here and abroad – including for the Qatari Royal family. One of Ben’s dad’s mosaics is at the Corinium Hotel and Restaurant in Gloucester Street, Cirencester.

Great British Life: The Orpheus Mosaic. Photo: Tracy SpiersThe Orpheus Mosaic. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Project Orpheus

This month (October) the Corinium Museum and two of the town’s major organisations, The Barn Theatre, and the New Brewery Arts, will find out if they have been successful in securing a £225,000 heritage grant to help launch Project Orpheus, a joint community project inspired by one of the town’s most famous Roman mosaics laid out in part, in the Museum.

The Orpheus mosaic was found at Barton Farm, just outside Cirencester, almost 200 years ago. Orpheus is shown in the central medallion playing his lyre or cithara. Such was his skill as a musician that wild beasts were drawn to him and soothed by his music. In the mosaic, Orpheus is circled first by birds, then by large cats in shades of red and yellow. The animals prowl between stems and saplings, all springing towards Orpheus as his song soothes, enchants, and unifies. It’s a vibrant example of Roman craftsmanship and reflects the wealth of the fourth century settlement at Cirencester.

If this exciting £225,000 project happens, it will bring the three main cultural organisations together in a unique way so multi-creative skills can be shared and experienced by a wide range of people and community groups. This may involve a theatre production based around Orpheus, an immersive digital experience, completing the picture on the Orpheus mosaic to enable people to see it as it might have looked, as well as an environmental re-wilding initiative inspired by elements of nature in the mosaic such as floral displays shaped like original Roman designs.

‘By filling in the gaps with digital technology it gives people an immersive experience, but this project would also enable us to connect with people we would not usually be able to reach,’ said Emma.

Life parallels

Great British Life: Chatelaine or toilet set. Photo: Tracy SpiersChatelaine or toilet set. Photo: Tracy Spiers

As Emma shows me around the Museum, there are parallels to everyday life and artefacts that are not so different to those in 21st-century living. Whilst many enjoy skin products from Ani Skincare in Black Jack Street, developed by creator Joanna Walker who wanted to formulate her own skincare range using essential ingredients, to cleanse and nourish the skin, it’s clear the Roman residents were committed to caring for their skin too – although in a different way. Exquisite artefacts are on show such as a cosmetic grinding set, a beautifully carved chatelaine or toilet set with tweezers, an ear scoop, and a nail cleaner as well as glass flasks for perfume and skin care. Appearances were just as important then as they are now.

‘In Roman times, the Forum car park was the centre of Corinium and it would have been full of open-fronted shops, there would have been an open arena or piazza and it would have been bustling,’ said Emma.

Cirencester in 2023 has a similar vibe. As I ran after the Glevum Romans AKA the Ermine Street Guard as it marched through the town centre, it was as if history and present fused. As the Roman military paraded past the busy market stalls, heads turned and smiled, yet the short tunic, sandalled-wearing men did not seem out of place. It brought history alive for that sweet moment.

This was creativity, imagination, and playful re-enactment at its best. The Romans may have worn tunics then, but today they perhaps would have opted for trousers. I am sure they would be kitted out by traditional outfitters R. Scott & Co in Castle Street today. It is one of the oldest independent retailers in Cirencester which opened in 1905 and has been run by the same family for four generations.

Great British Life: Roman medical equipment. Photo: Tracy SpiersRoman medical equipment. Photo: Tracy Spiers

‘It is not quite the Roman Empire, but we can suit the man for all weathers whatever battle they are facing and fit them out from top to toe,’ admitted Ian Chapman.

History continually inspires the present and future in this creative community. The Museum has just received a fresh order of Bodvoc Pendants, available in silver and gold-plated silver, exclusively made for the Corinium Museum shop by award-winning artisan jeweller Louise Parry. She has a contemporary stylish shop/workshop on West Market Place. Inspired by the ‘Stone Age to Corinium’ exhibition in November 2020, Louise fell in love with a late Iron Age gold coin depicting a three tailed horse pulling a chariot with the word BODVOC on the reverse. She claimed, ‘it was a thing of simple beauty with amazing detail.’ Her skill at reproducing it as a wearable item means history can be worn as a precious adornment in modern dress.

Great British Life: Tracy with the tomb of Bodicacia. Photo: Tracy SpiersTracy with the tomb of Bodicacia. Photo: Tracy Spiers

One of the most exciting things about living in a town such as Cirencester is the discovery of historic finds.

‘When treasure is discovered by a metal detector and is deemed as valuable and is in fact treasure, it goes to the British Museum and the Friends of the Corinium Museum help to purchase it on our behalf, so it comes back to the Museum,’ explained Emma. To be treasure the item has to be silver, gold or significant bronze. On show in the Museum now are various items of jewellery such as a medieval silver brooch depicting zoomorphic figures.

But other historic finds include larger significant pieces made from other materials. Eight years ago, an incredibly rare Romano-British tombstone was unearthed during excavations by Cotswold Archaeology at the former Bridges Garage site in Tetbury Road, Cirencester.

Eventually it was determined that the tombstone’s inscription reads: ‘To the shades of the dead; Bodicacia; spouse; lived 27 years.’

The Old Kennels

Great British Life: The Old Kennels, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy SpiersThe Old Kennels, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Great British Life: Lily's Antiques, The Old Kennels, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy SpiersLily's Antiques, The Old Kennels, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Connections to the town’s Roman past has inspired local companies. Bodicacia is the name of one of Corinium Ales’ well-loved beers. This award-winning micro-brewery, set up over 10 years ago, by Lucy Cordrey and Colin Knight, in their garage, is based at The Old Kennels in Cirencester Park where folk can enjoy their tap room and courtyard setting. Bodicacia is just one of many Roman-inspired local real ales they have created. Other beers in the range include Ale Caesar (IPA), Corinium Gold, Pliny the Elderflower, Centurion Stout, and C. Rex – a nod to the new King.

‘We wanted to link our product to place, and it made complete sense to tap into the historic Roman background of Corinium. There is also a brewing history in Cirencester, so we have not only brought back brewing to Cirencester but are celebrating its’ Roman heritage too,’ said Lucy.

Great British Life: Lucy Cordrey co-owener of Corinium Ales, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy SpiersLucy Cordrey co-owener of Corinium Ales, Cirencester. Photo: Tracy Spiers

Whilst they moved to The Old Kennels in 2016, in recent months this part of the Bathurst Estate has witnessed an exciting new chapter this year as more businesses have set up here. In the 1840s, the 4th Earl Bathurst made some alterations and improvements to the Park, including the addition of a range of kennels and cottages at this site. Originally built to house hounds and horses up until 1963, the Grade II listed limestone buildings and outbuildings have been used for liveries, as a mechanic’s workshop, offices, and residential housing.

In April this year, The Old Kennels welcomed the opening of Roots + Seeds Café and Restaurant alongside Lily Antiques, a pop-up art gallery, and the existing Cirencester Saddlers, a master saddler and bespoke leatherworker, and award-winning Corinium Ales.

Sam Lawson-King and Toby Baggott’s vision for the Roots + Seeds, which has its own Kitchen Garden on site, is to bring a sustainable, home-grown, and locally sourced dining hub to The Old Kennels. They originally set up The Scenic Supper in Moreton-in-Marsh during lockdown and felt Cirencester was the right location to expand.

Great British Life: Sam Lawson-King, co-owner of Roots Seeds Kitchen Garden (centre) with George Taylor and Hannah Slack. Photo: Tracy SpiersSam Lawson-King, co-owner of Roots Seeds Kitchen Garden (centre) with George Taylor and Hannah Slack. Photo: Tracy Spiers

‘We really love being in a town that is thriving, that is growing and has been considered one of the most desired places to live. We enjoy the produce here and the fact that the people here appreciate good coffee, good cake, and good food. Cirencester is not a chocolate box village, it is a town where people work and live,’ said Sam.

‘Roots + Seeds rocks a brunch and lunch, and our aim moving forward is to provide a great dinner too. By 2025 we want to be at least 75% self-sufficient and creating food from our own kitchen garden.’

I think the Roman soldiers, who enjoyed a healthy living, would approve. So, taking a bottle of Lucy and Colin’s Ale Caesar, it is only right we toast the health of Corinium, old and new.