Stepping back to Roman times in St Albans park

THE PEN, they say, is mightier than the sword and after spending a few hours as a Roman soldier, I’m inclined to believe it is. For me at least.

On Monday, I joined three actors in training for their role as Roman soldiers in the community opera Alban, which is due to open in London later this month.

We were to undergo a special session with Gaius Vallius of the living history organisation, Legion XIIII. Vallius intended to lead them, and myself, through a series of basic Roman military drills whilst in authentic costume.

As I arrived, I was envisaging swords, mud and shouting, but what I discovered was a great deal of discipline, order and dedication to detail.

Vallius describes himself as a professional Roman soldier who, along with other Legion XIIII soldiers, educate schools and numerous media productions about Roman warfare, life and costume.

He knows his stuff and his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious.

The three actors, Tom Bullard, Elliot Brown and Lewis Page, all play soldiers in Alban and this training was to give them a basic idea of their status and help them with their movements on stage.

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I join them along with Alban producer, Hazel Ireson and her husband, the conductor, David Ireson, behind Verulamium Museum, where we are properly introduced to Vallius and his colleague Petronius.

Vallius, whose role in Legion XIIII is that of Optio – the second-in-command to the Centurion – hands out the black tunics that we will all wear, along with the red scarves, which sit around the neck to stop the armour chafing.

He tells us that this is known as the ‘focale’. The black tunics are itchy and uncomfortable, as they would have been then. Unfortunately, I say this out loud and Petronius, a seasoned Roman soldier, rolls his eyes and smiles. It’s probably not the best thing for a woman to say when trying to ‘join’ the Roman army.

Petronius, who is the Tesserarius of Legion XIIII or the Roman equivalent of Guard Sergeant, helps me with my belt and points out that as well as offering vital protection for Roman soldiers, it also holds down the tunic.

The tunic, which is worn above the knee by Roman soldiers and is very much associated with social status – or lack of it – is not sitting right and dangling around my shins. I think this means I’m quite important.

Finally, we’re given our helmets which are actually made out of fibreglass. I discover I have an embarrassingly large head and one of the actors and I have to switch helmets – but once we do, we are ready to go.

We are taught a series of drills in Latin: standing at ease, standing to attention, making a right and left turn, as well as an about turn. I’m feeling confident and defiant: why weren’t more women allowed to join the Roman army?

Then we start marching and the drills are shouted out. Oh dear. My steps are too short and the actor-soldiers walk into me. I stop before we’re told to and when we’re given the instructions to turn right (dextrorsum vertite), three of us turn left and only Tom manages to turn right.

We regroup and are told to check our ‘dressing’ – I assume my tunic has fallen again, and attempt to readjust, but Petronius helpfully informs me that ‘dressing’ refers to whether we’re standing in a neat line.

Vallius appoints me ‘anchorman’, which means that I set the line and the distance. If I fall out of step or behind, then the others must adjust their finish position to fall in line with me.

This, I think, could get very messy.

However, everyone is in good-humour and abides with me as I come to terms with the fact that I (a) have no rhythm and (b) am most definitely not the reincarnated Boudica (largely because I haven’t got the right hair, Petronius tells me, and even if I had had long hair, they would have cut it off and used it for their weapons machines because it stretched further than rope). Delightful!

My time with the Romans nears an end and so I learn the most important of the drills: the dismissal, before I bid them all farewell. They are very kind and thank me for coming, though as I leave I feel quite sure that the drills are about to get more complex and far more intense.

I was invited to take part in the basic drill training by the community opera Alban, which will be showing on October 20-23. The opera was successfully staged in St Albans Cathedral in 2009 and will be at the church of St Alban the Martyr in Holborn, London.

Tickets cost �16 and can be booked via 0844 412 4317. For more information visit the website at