The Romans successfully conquered Britain in 43AD on the third attempt, after the failures of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54BC. They swiftly set about improving conditions in the new Imperial outpost, and have left behind roads, buildings including the famous facilities at Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, along with a few ruined amphitheaters, temples, and villas. Although they had to deal with uprisings from disenfranchised local tribes such as the Iceni and the ever-troublesome Scots and Welsh, Roman Britain was relatively peaceful and prosperous until Rome itself fell and the Anglo-Saxons shooed the remaining conquerors away in the 5th Century.
There was a Roman garrison in the city of York in northern England, then called Eboracum but renamed Eoforwic (âwild-boar town’) by the Anglo-Saxons, from whence we derive the modern name. Eboracum was the capital of the Britannia Inferior province, and two Roman Emperors, Septimus Severus (211AD) and Constantius Chlorus (306AD), died there. Its importance to the Romans apparently continues, as in 1953 a young heating engineer working in a cellar saw 20 Roman Legionaries marching. They were visible only from the knees upwards, later found to correspond to the height of a then-undiscovered Roman Road running beneath the house.
The witness was so frightened that he needed a fortnight off work to recover. His descriptions of the soldiers’ dress were remarkably accurate, and gave detail about the outfits then-unknown to historians but later verified through excavations at Hadrian’s Wall. The Legionaries appeared tired, and spoke to one another in hushed tones, their garments splattered with mud. At the other end of the country, Roman ghosts have been seen in the county of Dorset. There, another troop of soldiers was several times seen marching along Bindon Hill to the site of a Roman camp on Ring’s Hill in the 1930s.
It is interesting to note that very few Roman ghosts were seen in England before the last 100 years. In the aftermath of the York sighting, many also claimed to have seen near-identical apparitions (reports thitherto suspiciously absent). The details of that night in 1953 are hard to explain, and require a skeptical anthropologist rather than a historian. What can be said, however, is that Roman Britain has been a popular fixture of the British curriculum since the mid-twentieth century, giving everyone the opportunity to learn about the period, and this may have given some witnesses the necessary imaginary material.
The behavior of the York soldiers certainly corresponds the historical reception of Roman Britain since the 20th Century. This has focused on the great contribution they made to Britannia, about which far less is known, though Tacitus’s Agricola gives a fairly withering portrait. The anxiety of the soldiers could be related to the popular view of the Romans as civilized conquerors beset by uncouth and violent locals. Perhaps the sudden reappearance of the Romans in the mid-20th century reveals anxiety about the influence of Europe in the wake of World War II, eventually resulting in the Brexit vote of 2016.