I followed Meroe and Kebi a little hesitantly as they entered the camp. We had arrived at the walls of Eboracum (York) as the day was drawing to a close. The cloud-filled sky had cleared; the threatening rain departing without falling, but the change in the weather did nothing to ease my trepidation as a tall man in a tunic opened the gates of the camp, then closed them again behind us, locking us inside.
Tents were scattered across the field, which was surrounded by a palisade. Outside the nearest, a group of men wearing woollen tunics and varied scraps of leather and metal armour were gathered. Two were seated; the rest stood around them, talking and laughing.
|Romans setting up camp|
One of the two seated men was sharpening a short sword. The sound was unpleasant as the whetstone moved along the length of the blade, which already looked quite sharp enough to me. He glanced up briefly as my shadow passed close to him, and I quickly turned my eyes away. As Meroe greeted the men I tried to keep behind Kebi, but then I noticed what the second seated man was doing. With a heavy needle, a length of tough thread, an awl and a block of wood against which to brace, he was stitching two pieces of leather together. I took an unconscious step forward, out from Kebi’s shadow, fascinated and slightly homesick at the sight. The man looked up at me as he drew his needle and thread through a fine hole he had just made, and smiled. His face was rough with beard, but kind, and I found myself smiling shyly back.
|Soldiers from the XX v.v. who came from Deva for the march in Eboracum|
Meroe persuaded the soldiers to help raise our tent, and in no time at all our shelter for the weekend was up and we were decorating it with colourful wall hangings. The soldiers disappeared about their duties and there was little else for Kebi, Meroe and I to do but walk into the city centre and find a tavern...
|Yasna and Kebi outside our main tent|
The next day dawned bright, the scattered clouds clearing to leave the sky hot and blue as we erected a pavilion opposite our tent and strewed the floor with cushions. There was more activity in the camp this morning, with several groups of soldiers breaking their fast and checking their weapons and armour. Women prepared food at the cook-tent, and across the field I could hear the distant clack of a weaving loom. The commanders, already fully armed and armoured, greeted each other with clasped forearms and quiet words. As the heat of the sun forced me to pull my palla over my head, the soldiers began to move with more purpose, heading to one end of the field and forming up into a long column. The vexillari (standard-bearers) stood at the front, their vexilla on tall wooden poles which for now rested their lower ends on the ground.
|Part of the Roman camp|
A man I recognised immediately arrived at the top of the column. Dressed in a purple tunic, billowing purple gilt-edged trabea and with a fresh green laurel wreath on his head, the emperor Hadrian would have been instantly recognisable even if I hadn’t seen him once before – within the damp walls of Deva one darkened night in midwinter. He carried his sceptre in one hand, and was speaking quietly with one of the commanders.
|Is that Caesar I see before me?|
A trumpet blew, and the column moved off. The standard-bearers went first, preceded only by the camp attendants who ran ahead, clearing the onlookers from the soldiers’ path. Behind the standard-bearers walked the emperor, not in stride with the column but moving at his own stately pace. Meroe, Kebi and I fell in behind him, and as we left the camp the regular tread of the soldiers’ feet and the jingle of their armour was a constant reminder of the presence of the warriors behind me.
|Ready for the Roman procession - Yasna, Kebi and Meroe|
We walked through the narrow streets of Eboracum, watched by the people that we passed. In a small square the column halted so that the emperor could address the gathered crowd. He was not a tall man, but his voice immediately commanded the attention of everyone present, and he seemed to grow visibly larger as he instructed the multitude.
As noon approached we returned to the camp, and gratefully sought the shade of our tent. Kebi made mint tea to go with our lunch, and we changed into our black galabeyas and red sashes ready to entertain the many visitors who had flooded the field in our absence. The Deva soldiers, in the tent next to ours, were busily recruiting children to join their number, and they marched across the camp to the training field with hearty cries of “Sin, sin, sin, dex, sin.” The boys and girls valiantly wielded their swords, brandished their shields, and charged down the enemy, leaving them rolling on the ground in defeat. Then it was time to get to work. We danced in front of our tent with the sun beating down, and the crowds looking on appreciatively.
|Kebi and Meroe preparing the awning for lots of dancing|
When we returned to the shade Meroe got out her henna basket and invited passers-by to stop and sit with her whilst she decorated their hands with intricate patterns. After some cold water had restored us, Kebi and I danced again as the crowds gradually lessened, and finally the camp attendants chased the last stragglers from the field so that the soldiers could take their evening meal.
|Meroe at work with her henna basket|
We went into the city again, and after eating were lured by the scent of pastry on the air to a baker’s shop which was still open despite the late hour. Tempted by the pastries and sweetmeats, we ordered a selection to be packaged up for us, and made our way back to our temporary home.
|Kebi, Meroe and Yasna, sampling some of the delights from Betty's tearoom!|
The next morning the camp was quiet. The soldiers gathered in silence when the order to muster was given, and as we had the day before, we set off in a column to parade through the city. It was bright and warm, but fortunately not nearly as hot as the previous day.
After the parade, Meroe and I walked back into town in search of food. We found the baker’s shop we had visited the previous evening, and went inside to express our appreciation for the previous night’s fare, and to purchase more provisions. We didn’t see the proprietress, but I hope that our thanks were passed on to Mistress Betty. We returned to the camp to eat with Kebi in the shelter of our tent. Passers-by stopped to admire the colourful wall-hangings, and the fine tea-pot which stood proudly on the tray between us.
|Always time for a tea break!|
In the afternoon we danced again for the crowds. The Deva legion watched with mouths agape as our necklaces jingled with the moves of Folk Tunis, and Kebi borrowed a stick from one of the soldiers so that she and Meroe could perform a stick dance. Then Meroe got her henna basket out again for a while, before we danced once again, encouraging some of the children to join us.
As the afternoon drew to a close, the commanders officially dismissed the legions. The soldiers began to dismantle their tents, and we lowered ours too, rolling it into a tight bundle. There were the first touches of rain in the air as we finished, but then the sky cleared again, and we set off towards home under a blue sky with three boxes of Mistress Betty’s finest pastries securely wrapped in our bundles.