One of the best history programmes in years has just shown up on mainstream TV after being tucked away on the 5Select channel over the summer. I only caught Walking Britain’s Roman Roads (presented by historian Dan Jones) by accident thanks to a brief mention in Radio Times magazine, but I’m glad I did because it was thoroughly enjoyable.
Most history series at the moment concentrate on particular people (especially those flippin’ Tudors, yawn) but this was different, choosing to focus instead on the military, technological and social benefits the Roman road system brought to Britain. Each episode took one of the main roads – Ermine Street, Fosse Way etc – and traced its history, the reasons for its construction, and the effect it had on the local people and economy.
High on that list of benefits was the way the roads allowed the easy movement of people, goods and ideas from one end of the Roman empire to the other, introducing the British to industrial advances, different races, and even exotic foods. But the series didn’t just focus on the big issues; each episode also contained delightful small details that brought the Romans and their way of life to, well, life.
There was everything from a small block of Roman timber fished out of the River Thames to the giant wall foundations still visible at the Barbican. There were revolting things (getting rid of the stale sweat scraped off peoples’ bodies at the baths by chucking it on the floor and walls) and delightful things (the toy cockerel found in a child’s grave). But the snippet that’s stayed with me longest is the Romans’ favourite food: a strongly-flavoured condiment made from fermented fish guts that they put on absolutely everything. Given that we are what we eat, I couldn’t help wondering if this meant the Romans smelt of fish!
Walking Britain’s Roman Roads has now transferred from 5Select to Channel 5, on Wednesday evenings. It’s well worth seeking out on ‘catch-up’ if you’ve missed the episodes so far, because it’s informative, scenic, and above all, fun. I realise the six episodes covered most of the main Roman roads in Britain, but I can’t help hoping that they’ll find a few more – enough to make a second series in due course.