Ancient Greece and Rome: When Rome Went to Britain



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Ancient Greece and Rome: When Rome Went to Britain

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Photo credit: Matt Dunham/AP

A bronze helmet that is more than 2,000 years old was discovered by a metal detector in Britain. It was worn by a Roman soldier during the time after the Roman Empire had conquered Britain.

LONDON, England (Achieve3000, December 22, 2010). In May 2010, a man was scouring the English landscape with a metal detector when he came across something interesting. It wasn't a stash of money. It was something even more valuable—a bronze helmet dating back more than 2,000 years. The helmet recently sold for more than three million dollars.

The helmet was made between the first and second centuries, CE, for use by the Roman cavalry. It consists of a facemask and a headpiece. Around the mask, there is a ring of curly hair, and on top of the helmet, there is a perched griffin. (A griffin is an imaginary creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.) The helmet was not used for combat, but for ceremonial purposes. A skilled or high-ranking horseman would have worn it during sporting events or parades.

So what was a Roman cavalry helmet doing in Britain? It dates back to a time when Britain was part of the Roman Empire. During this era, the empire stretched past Rome on both sides, across both Europe and the Middle East. The Romans expanded their holdings by invading. They conquered much of what is now England in about 51 CE, after years of war with the tribes of Britain.

The Romans brought several innovations to Britain, some of which they had taken from Greece, India, and other civilizations, and improved upon. Before the Roman invasion, Britain had paths and a few long-distance dirt roads. The Romans built a complex network of stone-paved roads that made communication and trade easier. Expert surveyors laid out the roads in the most efficient way possible, avoiding difficult terrain while linking villages and towns. In addition, Roman engineers introduced bridges to Britain. Prior to this innovation, Britons had crossed rivers by identifying shallow areas called fords and crossing them on animals or in vehicles, but this was dangerous. Bridge construction made travel easier and encouraged the growth of towns and cities.

The Romans also brought their ideas about cleanliness to Britain. Believing that bathing was important for good health, they built public baths that were accessible to nearly everyone. They also installed flushing toilets, along with sewer systems to keep human waste away from the population.

The Romans had invaded Britain partly because the British Isles were rich in resources, particularly metal. Although Britons had mined these metals before the Romans arrived, they did not have the technology needed to exploit their mines fully. The Romans mined Britain on a large scale and used the metal to make coinage, weapons, and tools that were used throughout the empire.

Britain remained part of the Roman Empire until about 400 CE, but even today, remnants of the Romans are scattered around England. Modern-day Britons pass by the ruins of Roman buildings, roads, and baths every day. Still, Britain was part of the Roman Empire so long ago that objects like the recently found cavalry helmet are extremely rare. Only three such helmets have ever been found in England.

"When the helmet was first brought to Christie's [auction house] and I saw it firsthand, I could scarcely believe my eyes," said Georgiana Aitken, head of antiquities at Christie's. "This is an exceptional object."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Dig Deeper

Ever felt the need to relax, refresh, or simply pass the time? While many of us today might head for the beaches or hit the malls, ancient Romans went to public baths. Prominently located in nearly every Roman town, the baths were a central part of daily Roman life and culture.

A typical Roman public bath was divided into several areas. Someone arriving at the bath would first encounter the palaestra, an open courtyard where bathers would exercise to work up the light sweat recommended for the bath. Next, the bather would enter the tepidarium, where they would perform the first step of the actual bathing process. In the tepidarium, bathers applied oils to themselves, which they then scraped off (hopefully, along with dirt and sweat) using a special curved metal instrument known as a strigil. After finishing up at the tepidarium, the bather was ready for the caldarium—the hottest room in the Roman bathhouse. The caldarium was heated by a hypocaust, the bath's heating system. The hypocaust was a cavity beneath the floor that was heated by gases from an oven or furnace. This air would rise and heat the room and the waters above. Temperatures in the caldarium often reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot water and heat were designed to open and clean the bather's pores. Finally, the bather would plunge into the cold waters of the bath's frigidarium for a refreshing change after the steamy caldarium.

The baths provided much more than a place to get clean. Exercise, socializing, and discussing politics were essential elements of the bathing experience. Visitors to the baths enjoyed the beautiful artwork and architecture displayed in the bathhouses. They listened to politicians debate the issues of the day. They enjoyed the performances of jugglers, musicians, acrobats, and poets.

While nearly every town in the empire had public baths, the baths in (the aptly named) Bath, England, were among the most notable in Roman antiquity. Rediscovered in the 1880s, these baths were not heated by the usual Roman hypocaust. Rather, the waters were warmed by a natural hot spring—the Sacred Spring—which is still visible today.

The Roman baths at Bath continue to attract thousands of visitors today, who come not to bathe, but to admire the ancient structures and to view the remains of an important part of Roman culture and society.

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1. What is this article mainly about?



A. A bronze helmet from ancient Rome features a ring of curly hair and a perched griffin on the top.

B. At one time, the Romans built a complex network of stone-paved roads that made communication and trade easier in Britain.

C. A bronze helmet was discovered that dates back to a time when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.

D. At one time, the Roman Empire stretched past Rome on both sides, across both Europe and the Middle East.

2. According to the article, why was a Roman cavalry helmet in Britain?

A. The Romans brought many innovations to Britain from Greece, India, and other civilizations.

B. The Romans used the helmet for combat when invading Britain and several other countries in recent years.

C. The Romans conquered much of what is now England in about 51 CE, after years of war with Britain.

D. The Romans brought new technology and equipment to Britain that were used in British mines.

3. The reader can infer from the article that __________.

A. During the time Romans occupied Britain, they probably tried to ignore ideas that came from other civilizations.

B. The bronze Roman helmet discovered in Britain was probably originally made to be used during combat.

C. The bronze Roman helmet discovered in Britain probably received very limited attention from historians in the area.

D. During the time when the Romans occupied Britain, there were probably sporting events or parades.

4. Which is the closest synonym for the word exploit, as it is used in this article?

A. Enclose

B. Utilize

C. Accommodate

D. Deluge

5. This article would be most useful as a source for a student research project on __________.

A. The decline of the Roman Empire

B. Metal detectors

C. Combat strategies

D. Influences of the Roman Empire

6. Which question is not answered by the article?

A. Why doesn't the Roman Empire exist today?

B. How did Romans utilize the bronze helmet?

C. Why was there a Roman helmet in Britain?

D. How was the bronze Roman helmet discovered?

7. The article states:

Believing that bathing was important for good health, [the Romans] built public baths that were accessible to nearly everyone.

Which would be the closest synonym for the word accessible?



  1. Available

B. Desirable

C. Manageable

D. Enjoyable

8. The author probably wrote this article to __________.

A. Explain the reasons behind the success of the Roman Empire

B. Suggest that the bronze helmet should be kept in Rome, Italy



C. Provide some historical background to a recent discovery

D. Describe the benefits of discovering historical objects


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