The Waters of Sul
The story of this novel is set in the late first century (c.72 AD), mostly in the town of Bath and its surroundings, but briefly also in Glastonbury, Rome, Pompeii, Petra and Jerusalem. The Roman name for Bath, in North East Somerset, England, was Aquae Sulis.
By 72 AD the Roman invasion of Britain (in 43 AD) had settled down to an efficient occupation. Roads, temples and forums had been built, but the memory of Boudicca's bloody rebellion in 60 AD was still fresh in the mind, and there were still skirmishes between the Romans and the Celtic tribes.
The hot waters that gush out of the earth at Bath, a quarter of a million gallons a day, have done so for millennia. The earliest people marvelled at the mystery and worshipped the gods and goddesses they thought were responsible for the phenomenon.
A potent ancient legend, well known in the region, tells of a British King, Bladud, who founded a healing sanctuary in the steaming marshlands when he discovered that the hot mud had curative properties.
By the time the Romans came, it was already a famous sacred place, under the protection of the Celtic tribe, the Dobunni and their Goddess Sul. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to take the healing waters and pay homage to the local gods. With their usual efficiency, the Romans tamed the waters, diverting them in lead pipes and drains to form a magnificent complex of public baths. They tamed the local gods as well, building temples to them Roman-style, and giving them Roman names. The Celtic goddess Sul became Sulis Minerva and the town that grew up around the baths was called Aquae Sulis, the Waters of Sulis.
After the Romans left in the fourth century, their buildings fell into disrepair. An Anglo-Saxon poem of the eighth century describes the ruins:
"Roofs fallen, towers ruined;
For centuries, the Roman town was forgotten until gradually bits and pieces began to emerge. The wonderful gilded head of Minerva so strikingly displayed in the on-site museum today was unearthed in 1727 when workers were digging a sewer beneath Stall Street. However, it was not until 1878 that the extent of the Roman remains was fully appreciated.
Today many of the Roman buildings have been excavated and are on display, but many are still waiting to be discovered under the 17th, 18th and 19th century buildings of Bath.
As a resident of 20th century Bath, I never tire of visiting the site of the ancient Roman baths. They have been preserved and restored most sensitively and the information given is continually being updated as archaeologists extend their knowledge. I enjoy the feeling I get of familiarity and continuity as I see people throw their coins into the sacred spring to mark a fervent wish, just as citizens and pilgrims did nearly 2000 years ago.
What thoughts are in the minds of those who watch the waters of Sul rushing out of the dark earth, staining it rust-red? Do they stir to the ancient mystery of the place? Why do they linger? What memories...? What dreams...? Are they held by the long thread of Time to that which has never gone away...?