Welcome to the Roman Baths Blog!

This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

A Story of Swords

Few objects from history summarise power and status better than the sword. Throughout the middle ages, swords would be expensive, reserved for the wealthiest members of society, and rare compared to how widely the media portrays them today. By the era we associate with the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (the 9th to 11th centuries), the skill of sword-smithing had become a fine art, giving swords a near legendary reputation. This example is no exception.

The Viking sword from Bath

It was discovered in the 1980s, on its own, in a ditch outside Bath’s old city walls. It was allegedly still sharp upon discovery, a testament to the quality craftsmanship involved in making this weapon. The blade itself has a black patina which indicates an early method of protecting swords against corrosion, an issue anyone looking after a sword would have to deal with. 

Interestingly, there were small remains of leather and wood fused with the blade, including the scabbard it was buried in. Organic materials do not survive well in most climates, so this was a lucky find and can provide some indication of how scabbards were made in period.

The hilt of the sword; traces of the leather originally wrapped around the tang are still visible

One of the most striking features is the blade inscription. It may look like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Tolkien, but it is one of over a hundred and fifty such examples of inscribed blades from the 9th to 11th century. The most common inscription amongst this group of swords reads ‘the sword of Ulfberht’, which is why these swords are broadly referred to as Ulfberht swords. Other examples do exist, such as ‘the sword of Ingelrii’.  

Surely this is more than just a maker’s mark, perhaps becoming a workshop’s brand as the use of these inscriptions goes on for longer than any individual's lifetime. The runes on this particular blade do not seem to exactly spell ‘Ulfberht’, which could mean it is trying to mimic one of these prestigious blades, or it could just be a spelling error! It is unknown where they originate from, but one popular theory suggests the forge’s location was somewhere along the River Rhine in what is now Germany. To me, it represents how much value swords had in society. It gives a far more complex perspective of power, politics and artistic culture than many other objects from this period can.

Placement Student

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Roman Romance

What did the Romans know about love?

Venus took pride of place as the goddess of love, fertility, and marriage. One of her festivals, Veneralia, was held on April 1st and encouraged couples to respect ‘traditional’ values of romance. It was also a chance for people to ask for her help in granting love-related favours!

Denarius of Julia Domna depicting Venus on the reverse
Cupid is the next divine figure best linked with love in the Roman world. Cupid is likely the Romanised version of Eros, a key figure of Greek mythology. The fable of Cupid and Psyche is laced with the bizarre and fantastical; including Psyche receiving assistance from some ants that help her sort grain into piles during Venus’s trials to regain Cupid’s love. It shows no matter how weird, even amongst the gods love is never far from the Roman imagination.

Roman intaglio depicting Cupid, discovered at the Roman Baths

What did the real people of Rome say about love in their lives? 

The ‘ideal’ marriage occupied the hearts and minds of Romans in everyday life. Marriages were generally arranged by the paterfamilias (Father of the household). In upper-class society, marriage was commonly focused on alliance-forging, dowry exchange, or property gain, and romance is presented as an afterthought. It is easy to look at Roman marriages as cold, political, and calculated. Which, in fairness, is not wrong in some cases.

How reflective of wider Roman society is this? 

Whether it is the controversial Ovid, the amorous Catullus or the elusive Gallus, love poetry is a valuable insight into a far more general perspective of romance. Read them with a large pinch of salt because little is without agenda or exaggeration in Rome. These poems show love in all its colours, the good, the bad, and the peculiar. It is endearing to see that even two thousand years ago, love was still everything it is to us today.

Placement student