Theatre performed under a starry sky, regular spa days, courtyard gardens with fountains, and luxurious seasonally inspired dining: the Romans in Britain had it all sorted. In popular imagination at least, the three and a half centuries of foreign rule that followed the Roman invasion in AD 43 saw the development of many of the cultural pursuits that are still enjoyed by the middle classes of the British Isles.
Now, the Romans’ more civilised leisure activities in Britain are being recreated up and down the country. A series of amphitheatres, either newly built or recently restored, are opening to the public this summer, together with a full-scale recreation of a Roman villa in the West Country.
Last week, a 500-seat open-air auditorium at Oddington in the Cotswolds welcomed an audience for the first time – for a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, appropriately enough.
“We had birdsong, a helicopter passing over and a fantastic sunset,” said Judy Reaves, creative head of the new theatre in Berrybank Park, overlooking the Evenlode Valley. “I’m used to designing sets for indoor shows, for the traditional ‘black boxes’ auditorium, but staging shows and watching them outside makes people feel great. The concept behind our amphitheatre is that everyone should be able to enjoy the performing arts.”
A smaller pop-up theatre is also coming to the Anglo-Saxon archeological site at Sutton Hoo near Ipswich this July, courtesy of Red Rose Chain theatre. Meanwhile, summer seasons of entertainment are already under way in many of Britain’s more established open-air amphitheatres, such as the Minack, the 20th-century Cornish venue on the cliff edge at Porthcurno, or within the original stone auditorium at Verulamium, now known as St Albans in Hertfordshire.
Many of the new projects have been labours of love for the campaigners and entrepreneurs behind them, each confident of an increasing public appetite for open-air entertainment alongside a shared national curiosity about the 367 years of Roman rule.
In Bruton, Somerset, the discovery of the remains of an expansive Roman villa prompted the owners of the Newt, a hotel and garden complex, to embark upon the careful reconstruction of a Romano-British villa on land nearby. The seven-year building project was completed a month ago and now the public can examine a reproduction of the decor and layout enjoyed by the Romans.
“The recreation is to the same scale as the footprint of the remains discovered and has been built with the same orientation,” said Katie Lewis, the estate architect. “Working on the reimagining of the villa, I’ve realised a lot of Roman ideas about living are actually very modern, including things you might not expect like double-glazing and underfloor heating.”
The villas the Romans built were similar to the ones in Italy, with “sumptuous colours and textiles”, but with some subtle differences. The decor tended to be slightly less delicate and showy. “When we did not find the detail we needed in the excavations we went first to other surviving Roman villas in Britain, to look at work there. In some cases we then looked at villas on the continent if there were still gaps to fill.”
Alongside the new villa is an interactive information centre, placed above the exposed foundations of the original villa, dating back to AD 351. Visitors can examine the frigidarium (cold room), triclinium (dining area) and tablinum (study), while admiring the frescoes around them. There is also a chance to sample an approximation of Roman street food, put together with ingredients known to have been favoured in southern Britain at the time. It is a suitable mix of culture and cuisine, given the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero once argued: “Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”
In time to benefit from the growing appetite for ancient culture, English Heritage, the conservation charity, is finishing work on one of Britain’s precious group of Roman amphitheatres at Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent.
The excavations here, at the scene of the first Roman landings in Britain, are being done in preparation for the launch of the Gateway to Britannia project, now delayed till next year. The work has produced significant discoveries, shedding light on the decoration and on the use of animals at the site.
In Scotland the Pitlochry Festival theatre has just announced an outdoor programme for its 70th summer season, to be staged in its recently constructed 80-seat amphitheatre “nestled in a garden under the shadow of Ben y Vrackie”.
But perhaps the most unexpected proof of the spread of amphitheatres is the completion this summer of a small-scale open-air venue near the urban sprawl of Brent Cross in north London. The site in Claremont Way Open Space opened last week as part of the Brent Cross Town regeneration scheme and is designed to breathe new life into the area.
Whether the Romans in Britain truly lived in the pleasant and civilised manner commonly imagined, is doubted by the classicist and historian Mary Beard. It seems more likely we have all simply adopted and amplified the user-friendly sides of Roman culture. “I suspect we tend to glamorise the outdoor entertainment space of ancient Romans,” she told the Observer. “I mean at least we have portable loos. What do you think the Romans did?”
Amphitheatres, which are circular venues with raised seating, as opposed to the oblong hippodromes built for horse racing, were used for gladiatorial combat, animal slayings, chariot races and executions: quite some distance from today’s popular musical theatre shows. As Voltaire once noted: “The ancient Romans built their greatest masterpieces of architecture, their amphitheatres, for wild beasts to fight in.”
No such horrors await audiences at Oddington, where the worst in store is a rainstorm. “If it rains we can pull a cover over the performance space, and then if it rains really hard, we have an extreme weather contingency and we will move the performance inside the foyer tent,” said Reaves, who is part of a small group who built the amphitheatre in memory of her late mother, Janet Cockell, a resident of Upper Oddington. “If there is rain, it creates a kind of Dunkirk spirit anyway.”