I’ was lucky to have a family holiday in Rome last year.  We were astonished at the scale of the 20 storey high Colosseum, built to house 70 000 spectators for the gory gladiatorial battles.  We were fascinated by the stories of emperors and senators in the Forum. 

At over 1900 years old, the Pantheon is the best preserved building from the Ancient world: a temple to ‘all the Gods’.  It is an object lesson in the strength of thick stone walls and the engineering value of arches.  We were enchanted by the underground world of the ordinary houses and streets that dated back to the 1st Century AD.

The Ancient city of Rome, most of which is now lost or sits metres deep under the modern city, was a million people strong at its height and was at the centre of a massive empire of 2.5 million square miles and 88 million people. 

Derbyshire was brought into the Empire as part of the successive waves of attacks on ‘Britannia’ following Julius Caesar’s first visit when he ‘came, saw and conquered’. Caesar wanted to impress his friends in the Senate (arguably not a successful strategy) and also to plunder the mineral wealth of Britain.

Known as a land rich in minerals, the Romans were interested in Britain because of the valuable metals – gold and copper from Wales, tin from the West Country and lead from the limestone hills of the Derbyshire Peak District. 

Lead had been mined in the Peak District for thousands of years and the Romans brought a ready market and mining technology, especially the use of water power, to help move stone and ore.  Lead ‘pigs’ have been found on the great trade routes in Northern France used by the Romans to travel from Rome to the outer empire.

It’s either an artefact of the lack of disturbance in the upland soils of the Peak District, compared to arable lands in the lowlands, or it’s a genuine reflection on higher Roman activity, but over half of the Roman remains found in Derbyshire have been recorded in the Derbyshire Dales and High Peak.

There are a number of key Roman settlements, such as the military forts at Melandra near Glossop (known as Ardotalia) and Navio on the River Noe near Brough.  Buxton, known as Aquae Arnemetiae, was probably a spa town. 

Romans were famous for their roads and Icknield Street follows the A38 today on its course from Gloucestershire to near Rotherham, traversing through Derby.  Derventio was an important fort here that was built at the time that the Governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, needed a fortified location to attack the ancient Britons to the North and West. 

Some forty years later, led personally by the Emperor Hadrian, the military boundary of the Empire moved north reaching the location of the Emperor’s, now famous, Wall.  Derventio, no longer on the military front-line, became an important provisioning point for the extraction of lead from the Peak District.

The Roman Road which ran from Buxton to a settlement thought to be near Carsington and then on to Derventio, would have been used by traders and pack animals taking lead pigs from the limestone hills and then via the Roman Road network to the Channel ports and then the Empire. 

Wealthy villas and public buildings across the empire, and probably in Rome itself, would have had lead pipes to supply water, sewers, gutters, pewter vessels and coffins all made of lead hewed from the Peak District hills.  

A version of this article appeared in The Derbyshire Magazine last year.

Posted on: March 28th, 2015