Head to Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery on a Tuesday and you’ll bump into Marcus Suetonius Martinus – the museum’s very own Roman soldier! Martin Owen is the man behind the armour and he’s on hand to greet visitors and bring Roman history to life. The Moment marched over for a chat.
You’re looking pretty formidable Martin. What made you decide to volunteer as a Roman?
I’ve had an interest in Roman history since school, but other than reading around the subject I wasn’t able to pursue this interest until I joined a living history group when I retired. It was there that I met Vivacity’s Interpretation Manager and volunteered to put on a few events at Flag Fen and the museum. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a live presence in the Archaeology Gallery, where the Roman artefacts are displayed? I was retired and had time on my hands, so it just made sense.
And a very convincing Roman you are too! Aside from adding a touch of drama to the gallery, what are your duties here every Tuesday?
I’m here from 10am to about 4pm when I’ll set up two displays. One is of Roman religious objects – modern replicas of things like statues or little temple objects – and genuine archaeological finds such as coins that have been found locally. It’s an opportunity for the public to handle 2,000-year-old objects they’d normally only see in a display case. The other display is of Roman army equipment, including swords, helmets, shields and chainmail, with lightweight aluminium sets for the children to dress up in. I’ll talk through the objects on display and if visitors want they can take a seat and I’ll give them a bit of a talk on Roman religion. People can get as involved as they like, whether that’s pulling up a chair for a chat, or dressing up the kids and having a bit of fun with that.
Where did all your knowledge about the Romans come from?
I’ve always had this interest and I’d read books about the Roman Emperors, the Roman army, the Romans in Britain, the Boudiccan Revolt and so on. So it was a fairly short step to do a bit more research in order to be able to speak to members of the public with a degree of confidence.
And what was it about the Romans that originally captured your imagination?
The Roman Empire was the first global empire. As a youngster the idea of how and why they did that was of great interest. And I suppose I was also attracted to the uniforms and shiny, pointy things. But that’s a bit superficial because once you delve into it you realise it was a most extraordinary thing for people to have done – that 2,000 years ago a bunch of people who began life as peasants in a little village suddenly ended up ruling all of the known world. How did they manage to do that? TV historian Bettany Hughes summed it up nicely when she described the Roman Empire as a kind of global protection racket. The Romans turn up outside your house with an army and say ‘Okay guys, here’s the deal. Sign up for the Roman Empire and all the benefits associated there with or we’ll burn down your town and kill everybody.’
And yet the Romans seemed to just disappear from Britain a few centuries later.
A lot of people ask, when did the Romans leave Britain? Well, they didn’t. The best way to think about this is to compare it to the end of British rule in India in 1947. We hand over the keys to the Indians then senior members of the British administration leave. But what’s left is a huge civil service, an army, railways – everything is still there but it’s now being run by the locals. It was the same with Roman Britain – it was still being run, just without the support of the central empire.
Is there satisfaction to be had – a thrill even – from passing on knowledge like that?
That sums it up nicely, yes. I’ve been involved in adult education all my working life and have always got a buzz from passing on information and seeing how people react to it. Sometimes it inspires them to go away and learn more about the subject, so there’s this whole developmental thing. I’d imagine if you ask most teachers what got them into teaching it would be that desire to pass on knowledge. Occasionally it can be very entertaining too. I like talking to the kids. They mostly get it, but they can come out with some very entertaining comments! For example, last week a girl asked about the leather pouch I was wearing. I explained to her that it was for carrying personal items, like those you’d carry in a handbag today. So she said ‘What, like a mobile phone?’ When I explained to her that they hadn’t invented mobile phones 2,000 years ago she thought for a minute then said: ‘They could have carried two tins joined with a piece of string!’ I just love moments like!
You clearly enjoy getting into character. That must rub off on the visitors.
I think it does and it’s very gratifying when that happens. Quite a few of the museum’s TripAdvisor reviews mention the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Roman and how interesting he was to talk to! When you get that kind of feedback it’s very rewarding.
What would you say to any other potential volunteers reading this?
There are many volunteering opportunities available through Vivacity. But if you like the idea of doing something similar to me and you have an interest in a particular period that’s covered by the museum, then please step forward! Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have someone dressed as a French prisoner of war in the Norman Cross gallery, which houses prisoner of war work from the Napoleonic Wars? They could explain why they were made – that the prisoners were incarcerated for years with no idea of when they were going to go home, and that they were permitted to sell the things they made to buy extras to make their time in prison a little bit more bearable. Having someone who can sit there in costume, talking to the public and sharing details like this is a really great way to bring history to life.
Priestgate, Peterborough PE1 1LF.
01733 864663, vivacity-peterborough.com/heritage
Want to help?
Find out more about volunteering at Vivacity: 01733 864775, vivacity-peterborough.com/vivacity/volunteering