Ramblers remedy: learning from the Romans

The Roman Empire left a legacy across Great Britain, from ancient forts, roads and walls, to villas and spas. Spending time amongst these valuable and fascinating relics might have positive benefits for our wellbeing, says Dr Nick Summerton in his new regular column. 

Stone remains of a building beside hills

Image above: Alamy

You don’t have to walk far to encounter ancient ruins. Roman remains are spread widely across the country and are often found in stunning locations. The panoramas from Hardknott Fort (above), Cawthorne Camps or the Lydney Temple always raise my spirits. Circumnavigating the roman walls of Silchester or Caerwent are also a great antidote to the stresses of modern life. 

Step back in time

In many busy cities or towns, it makes a welcome escape from the crowds to step back into the past. In Chester, for example, just wander through sandwich shop Pret-a-Manger and head down into the cellars. Here you will soon find piece and solitude between the massive roman columns.

But it should come as no surprise that spending time amongst roman remains might have positive benefits for our wellbeing. The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that, when looking for a space to build, it is always important to choose a healthy location: ‘This will be high and free from clouds and hoar frost, with an aspect neither hot nor cold but temperate. A marshy neighbourhood should be avoided’.

Etching of a man addressing a room of people

Image above: Alamy

A time of plague

Over recent weeks many of us have had our lives disrupted or put on hold by Coronavirus. However, as we walk past the vestiges of our roman forbears, it is worth remembering that they had to deal with a plague that was even deadlier. Despite this Rome continued, its communities rebuilt, and the survivors looked back nostalgically on the time of the plague as a golden age.

Colour illustration of GalenMoreover, the writings of two individuals from those times – the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his physician, Galen – are still available for us to read today. There were few reliable drug treatments that Galen could use as he battled with the disease, so he looked at alternative ways to help. In his books on the theory of ‘Hygiene’ (named after the goddess of health Hygieia) he wrote about the importance of fresh air, getting enough sleep and exercise in addition to carefully considering what we eat and drink.

Trying to stay healthy matters but even more so when our bodies might be asked to fight off a serious illness. Over recent weeks I have certainly echoed Galen in emphasising to my patients the need to get outside every day for some fresh air and exercise. Now, as we move out of lockdown, Galen’s focus on a balanced and tailored approach to keeping healthy will become even more significant. 

Image right: Alamy

Beyond our control

Both Galen and Marcus Aurelius attached great importance to emotional and mental wellbeing. In his book Meditations Marcus Aurelius reminds us that it is not only plagues that matter but also our response to such crises based on our thoughts and beliefs.

Much of the psychological damage linked to coronavirus has been generated more by our reactions to the outbreak than from the disease itself. To deal with this Marcus Aurelius would ask us to distinguish between what we can control in our lives and what we cannot. It is about accepting that our plans can easily be thwarted by events beyond our control and to focus more on those things that are within our power to change, particularly our own judgements of events and our emotional state.

When we next pass a roman site, it is a good opportunity to stop and enjoy the ruins and their surroundings while we also reflect on the individuals who might have lived there during the Antonine Plague. 

Like they will have done, we now also need to work out what is really important to us and to learn how to live our lives more wisely. 

Dr Nick Summerton is a GP and Ramblers member who sits on Walk magazine’s Ask the Expert panel.


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