Editorial Feature

Why I Love… This Romantic Roman Brooch

Dr Kathryn Bedford, Curator of Archaeology at English Heritage, on her favorite object from the collection

We’ve got a huge number of brooches from Richborough – with brooches and brooch fragments, we’re talking about 450 altogether. But my favorite isn’t the biggest, or the most beautiful, or the most elaborate. This one is quite small, only about 4cm long, and it’s missing its pin and a little bit on its end. But the reason I love it so much is the fact that it has this romantic inscription that makes the object come alive.

When you’re dealing with short inscriptions like this, precise translations tend to be slightly dodgy, but essentially it means, “if you’re in love with me, I’m more in love with you”. It immediately evokes the past in such an intimate way and makes you start asking questions about who owned it and who used it.

This brooch dates from the late 1st century. It would have been worn by someone at Richborough towards the end of its time as a military fort when it was growing into a thriving port town. Brooches were very functional objects; they were used by everyone, every day, to hold their clothes together, but we know that this one had more meaning than that. It’s personal, and it was obviously a gift of some kind.

I couldn't automatically guarantee that it was a romantic gift, although that is the most likely scenario. Maybe it was for a Roman solider as these brooches are sometimes associated with the military. Given where it was found on the site, the brooch might also have had sentimental value to others close to the couple and could have been kept for generations as an heirloom.

Roman town of Richborough, by Ivan Lapper (From the collection of English Heritage)

One thing we know for sure is that it wasn’t made in England. It came from the continent, likely from Sicily, which implies that possibly the person that owned the brooch, or the person who gifted the brooch, may have done so as well. Which is amazing if you think about it; it gives this sense of people traveling long distances through the Roman world to get to this site, which was the gateway to Britain at the time. The Roman world was very, very cosmopolitan and, although we were on the edge of it, there was still constant movement to and from Britain. That’s something that you see in other objects from the site; there are a considerable number of pieces coming in from all over the Empire – from France, Germany, Egypt, and from Italy itself. This brooch is special, but also normal, and that's kind of nice. It’s nice to think that this was an ordinary thing that was happening. It also shows the movement of people in the Roman empire on a very personal level: it isn’t just big trade routes, it’s real people living their lives and moving around.

Richborough Castle, 43/410 AD (From the collection of English Heritage)

Even amongst all of these other amazing objects, and more elaborate brooches, this one just jumps out at me. It’s always lovely working with the past when you get a sudden moment of connection to someone that existed such a long time ago, a moment where it stops being broad social history and becomes a connection with one real person who used this one particular object. Inscriptions for me are a way into that. I like the written word alongside the archaeological record because it helps me to make that connection. This brooch isn’t just an object, or an artifact, it’s the start of a story.

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