WHEN my daughter came over from California at the New Year she had a list of places she wanted to take her children – places she had loved as a child, like Kimmeridge Bay or the White Horse at Uffington on the Wessex Ridgeway – and places she thought were very important, like Stonehenge and the Roman baths at Bath. She wanted them to get at least a taste of their English heritage.
I drove them to Bath because we know the city and where to park. We have been to the Roman baths many times, but usually for an event, often with Bath Festival, including baroque operas, whose usually myth-based stories are ideally told among the echoing atmospheric stones, with candles reflected in the water.
Returning as a visitor was very different. In the decades since I last went round the baths, the standard and style of museum displays has vastly improved. More areas of the Roman remains have been revealed, and the stories of the Romans who bathed and socialised here, people from all walks of life, politicians, priests, merchants and their wives, soldiers and servants, are told through an exciting mix of CGI and video, translated memorials and letters, and the compelling reconstruction of faces from skeletal remains. All these remind you of the vast scale of the Roman Empire – these people came from present day Italy, Spain, France, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
This sense of an empire that stretched to the edges of the known world complements the artefacts, together evoking an image of a civilisation at its peak, offering a standard of living and a lifestyle that would not be equalled in Western Europe for many centuries.
Talking to a colleague in Bath a few weeks later, I mentioned this visit and how much I had learned. She agreed. “We take the Roman baths for granted,” she said, “as if it’s just something for the tourists.”
Roman remains are all around us, all over England, from the great walls of Pevensey Castle and the army camps on Hadrian’s Wall to the mosaics discovered at Hinton St Mary in Dorset and Chedworth on the Cotswolds. We casually refer to any straight road as a “Roman road” (they often are), but when you think about it for even a few seconds you realise what astonishing engineers they were. Sometimes they used existing droves and ancient footpaths, but often they just laid their lines across the countryside with a speed and determination that must be the envy of anyone trying to build a road or railway today.
A friend and I were walking our dogs in Acton recently, crossing a park near her home. She pointed out the main path as part of the old Roman road that ran from Londinium (London) to Aquae Sulis (Bath). How many of the dog walkers and people heading to work or the shops, concentrating on their smartphones or their destinations, have any idea they are walking in the footsteps of Roman traders or soldiers?
Our friend, like us, is a cultural magpie, fascinated by little quirks, oddities of architecture, historic anecdotes and the marks that generations make on a place. Over supper, she read us an extract from HV Morton’s The Heart of London, in which he describes being taken to see a huge Roman bath in a building opposite Bush House – a hidden reminder of a distant civilisation literally beneath the busy feet on the Aldwych and The Strand.
The Last Supper at Pompeii exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford showed a world that seemed almost familiar. Imaginatively displayed, with many artefacts never previously shown outside Italy, it took the viewer right into the villas, shops and lives of these people – the bread that the baker put in the oven before he ran for his life, serving bowls, cutlery and elegant jewellery.
The Roman Empire would continue to grow long after the lava cooled and the dust settled on Pompeii. But the decline set in even as the grasp of Imperium Romanum reached out. Societies reach a tipping point – invisible at the time – and the decline can be slow or fast, but it is always deadly. Things learned and discovered become part of the wallpaper of life, and their origins, making and purposes are forgotten.
Listening to memories of the Auschwitz survivors, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp, it was chilling to hear how many people know nothing of this history, and to realise how the evil of holocaust denial has spread through the poisoned threads of social media and fake news. A great fear of the survivors, their families and many historians and commentators is that without conscious remembering and teaching, this will inevitably lead to forgetting.
This is an era of amazing scientific discoveries and technological advances, but so much simple knowledge is being lost – and discarded – along the way. Many people cannot read maps or cook even a simple meal without an app to talk them through, many people under 30 cannot read a conventional clock or cursive handwriting, very few can do even the simplest maths (what used to be called “mental arithmetic”) and learning facts is no longer seen as necessary – why learn things when you can google them?
As we face the challenges of the climate crisis and despair at politicians who deny the evidence of scientists, geologists and their own eyes, would they but look, we are simultaneously assaulted by a tsunami of information, much of it bogus or actually malign. It is too easy to take our successes and our comforts for granted, and to forget how to do things we once knew from childhood. If we do not value and cherish our heritage and our knowledge, at some point it will start to fail or fade or shatter into pieces that will blow away like the volcanic dust of AD79.