Long march north

Lee Clarke retraces the footsteps of a Roman soldier who brought the standard of the Ninth Legion to York.

Ever walked 800 miles in search of honour, adventure and wealth? This young man did. Lucius Ducchius Rufinus was the standard bearer to the Ninth Legion, a son of Gaul and one of the founders of York. He is only known to us today because he died here aged 28 some time between 71-120AD and his impressive tomb is now one of the sights of the Yorkshire Museum.

But what was his background and what sort of life would Lucius have known in the South of France before marching into the bleak badlands of the north?

For relaxation in those days watching "criminals" being fed to wild beasts wasn't that popular apparently. It was the point in the entertainment when most spectators chose to get up go and queue for their drinks and salty snacks. Even for the Gallo Romans of those times, watching wild animals tearing into helpless individuals was too bit much of a spectacle.

Today, sitting in the peaceful surroundings of Nimes's amphitheatre, it is hard to imagine such bloodbaths ever took place here. The 20,000 seat arena is the best preserved in the Roman world and with its other remains from antiquity, Nimes is the perfect place to absorb the atmosphere and get a sense of the grandeur of city life in the first century AD.

Wandering its cool, winding streets you will come across an almost complete temple called the Maison Care, while high above, surrounded by parklands, you can climb the Tour Magne, for brilliant views over the city.

By the time of Lucius, Nimes had a population of 60,000, with fountains, thermal baths and even mains-connected houses supplied with water from an aqueduct. The source was 50 kilometers away with a drop in height of just 17m, a gradient as slight as 0.007 per cent in some places. The Pont du Gard, 15 miles north of Nimes is an awe inspiring monument to Roman technological skill. It's a 490m long, 48m tall bridge where the aqueduct crosses a ravine. Not only did they possesses the skills to build it, they selected the most difficult construction option. Why? Maybe, just because they could.

Arles, 20 miles from Nimes, has an amphitheatre which is almost the twin of Nimes, probably created by the same architect. The town was the main Roman shipping port on the Mediterranean and its excellent museum, the Muse Dpartemental Arles Antiques, reveals the huge scale of international trade pouring into Gaul at the time of Lucius.

These days Arles is drenched in the charm of a provincial town, it is easy to see why Van Gogh spent so much time here. As well as the amphitheatre, it has a beautiful theatre, built in 1BC, showing that more refined entertainment than circuses and spectacles was also enjoyed by the Gauls. It could house 7,500 people and was once fitted with sumptuous green and red marble and statues of gods.

Travelling north roughly following the Roman road brings you to the town of Vienne, a few miles south of Lyon, where Lucius was born. It had been the capital of the Gaulish tribe, the Allobroges.

By Lucius's time, Vienne was one of the most important towns in the Roman Empire and in 100AD Tacitus described it as "historic and imposing". It has a fantastic temple and the less striking remains of a temple to Cybele, the Oriental Mother Goddess, where Romans could bathe in the blood of a sacrificed bull. The stunning remains of the theatre housed 10,800 people and was the second biggest in Gaul. Sitting on one of its stone seats overlooking the whole town, it is strange to think Lucius probably sat here at some point enjoying the latest production.

Like Arles and Nimes, Vienne became rich on trade, with 60,000 square metres of warehouses housing supplies such as skins, dried fruits, wine, fish in brine, fabrics and olive oil.

Nearly every spice we enjoy today and possibly think slightly exotic would have been on sale here – coriander and caraway from Egypt, cumin from Ethiopia and pepper from India. Marble was brought from the mines of Italy and Greece and even exotic pets such as panthers and lions would have been sold.

Lucius was at home in this world and would have undoubtedly eaten Roman food, worshipped Roman gods and enjoyed Roman pastimes. But he didn't abandon completely the gods of his ancestors. It is likely he would have worshipped Sucellus, the Gaulish god of agriculture and forests. There is a statue to him in the museum, and, looking through the collection at the Yorkshire Museum, there is a ring with the name of the same god. It is one of the very rare examples outside France, once worn by a Gaul serving or working in York.

Sucellus was also the god of alcoholic drinks, something which was in keeping with Vienne's Roman reputation as an area known for excellent wine. It still is. During my stay in the town a Roman wine festival was staged, with the museum unveiling the first bottle of Allobroge/Roman wine produced using the tools, skills and ingredients they would have used 2,000 years ago. For research purposes I gave it a try, while watching men in Roman costumes squash the grapes with their feet, ready for the next vintage. I am pretty sure Lucius would have longed for a glass or two of this wine – warmed by a red hot iron – on the long cold nights of the Yorkshire winter.

It seemed to me that Lucius must have missed a great deal about his homeland. Even if he had arrived at the end of the Ninth Legion's time in York, it would still have been very much a garrison town. This was also at one of the most northern points of the empire, with only a trickle of supplies getting through compared with the vast warehouses that surrounded Lucius in Vienne.

Out here on the frontier, life's little luxuries were probably in much shorter supply. The roasted duck seasoned with cumin and coriander, the beautiful decorated gardens, marble floors and the grandeur of Vienne's forum would have seemed a long way away.

Did Lucius long for the great gladiator battles, the plays and, of course, the sun on his back? You can imagine him writing home, like soldiers do today, requesting items to be sent. Maybe he missed Gaul's famous snails, cooked in garlic butter. They were a delicacy then as they are now. I tried them, and if I were a soldier in the front line a long way from home, I would not miss them a great deal.

Next month the Yorkshire Museum at York is marking the 1,800th anniversary of the death of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who died here in 211AD. Septimius Severus: York's African Emperor, February 1–27.

YP MAG 15/1/11