Stinky fish and hot baths. What did the Romans do for St Albans?

The Forum at Verulamium by Alan Sorrell

The Forum at Verulamium by Alan Sorrell. - Credit: Image courtesy of St Albans Museums

Have you ever wondered why the football pitches in Verulamium Park are uneven? Blame archaeologists and their excavations during the 1930s. But then, how many football pitches are right on top of the streets of a Roman town?

Those archaeologists discovered many aspects of the Roman-British town of Verulamium and how people lived almost 2,000 years ago. So let’s go back nearly 2,000 years and spend a typical day there.

It’s dawn and the people of Verulamium are being woken by noisy carts trundling into the marketplace, the Forum, (near where St Michael’s Church is today) from surrounding farms. They are carrying produce for sale at the market.

Soon women, or their slaves, will be queueing for vegetables, grain for breadmaking and fish or meat for the evening meal. Thanks to the Romans, the choice is much greater than before, with newly introduced foods like onions, peas, asparagus and pears plus new herbs and spices for flavouring. What’s available depends on the season. The Romans have invented many things, but not refrigeration.

Of course, what people are buying depends on their income. Most poor are unlikely to have kitchens in their homes, so they rely on food from street vendors or street corner bars selling cheap food like soups, sausages and pasties. Oysters are also very cheap and plentiful. Their useful shells are ground into skin ointments or mixed with figs and pitch to mend their baths.

The wealthy, aspiring to live the Roman way of life, are looking out for the latest deliveries of imported luxuries – wine from Italy, olive oil from Spain, dates from north Africa. Word has also spread that the delayed shipment of fish sauce is imminent. Thank goodness – the delay caused panic buying. This ingredient of many Roman recipes is an essential condiment despite the sauce being made from fish guts packed together and left in the sun to ferment for weeks. It was so stinky, it had to be made outside the town walls.

Men of the town are at work. There’s always a lot of building going on with bricklayers, stonemasons and carpenters all plying their trade. A smart new townhouse is nearing completion and the mosaic makers have started creating a floral pattern on a dining room floor. Thanks to the ingenious Romans, it already has underfloor heating.

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Many merchants own these opulent townhouses. They make a fortune buying and selling goods from all over the Empire; not only importing the fancy foodstuffs, but also selling British grain to the Roman army. There’s also a demand for imported glass and pottery, especially Samian Ware, a red glazed pottery from France. Designs change every year so you have to keep buying new if you want to remain fashionable.

It’s a good job that Verulamium is on the main road from Londinium to the northwest, (known as Watling Street today). This makes it easy for all the imported goods to reach the town. The road goes past the Theatre so travellers can hear the roars of laughter from those enjoying the pantomimus being performed. Tickets are free but the benches are hard so best to take cushions. And a beaker of beer.

Later in the day, social life begins with a trip to the baths for a soak in steaming hot water, thanks to those ingenious Romans again. Apart from getting a good wash and oiled massage, it’s a great opportunity to exercise, see friends and catch up on gossip. Then it’s home to enjoy the evening meal and relax ready for another day. 

James, a St Albans Tour Guide, said: “Our visitors love hearing of Roman innovations and their way of life here and I really enjoy bringing this alive for them."

The Verulamium Museum is a jewel of a museum, full of treasures found in the dark earth, Find out more about Roman St Albans through