The Romans Building the Fort at Mancenion. AD 60. Completed 1880. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Gambier Parry method (see Introduction to the Manchester Murals). Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image for a larger picture.]

Ford Madox Brown himself explains that:

This subject embodies the foundation of Manchester; for, although the British name "Mancenion" seems to indicate this locality as a centre for population, it is improbable that anything worthy the name of a town existed before the Roman Mancunium.

Agricola was Governor of Britain at this date A.D. 60 and was, as his son-in-law Tacitus informs us, a humane as well as an energetic Governor. His rule was much connected with this part of England, so that the general depicted may be considered as representative of that Governor.

A centurion holds the parchment plan of the camp that is being fortified, while his chief, who also has hold of it, gives his orders. His standard-bearer, in this instance a "Dragonifer," holds up the silken wind-inflated Dragon standard which the Romans at this period had adopted from the '"Barbarians."

The legionaries are doing the masons' work; but the bearers of stones and cement are Britons, impressed for the occasion.

The river Medlock bounds the camp on the south ; the background beyond it is formed of oak forests, red with the last leaves of November, while in the extreme distance is visible the blue streak of the distant Peak hills. (qtd. in Ford 338-39)

Having stepped out of her litter into this suitably lively, windswept scene, the Roman General's wife fails to observe her son, his face picturesquely encircled by his bugle, kicking out lustily at a little Nubian slave-boy, evidently one of her litter-bearers, who is crouched in the right-hand corner. But the slave's wide grin suggests that this can be interpreted as an act of boyish mischief rather than of cruelty. The woman herself has dyed hair peeping from under her red-lined hood, and is cosily wrapped up against the cold, in contrast to the half-naked bearer and the toiling workmen . Even the Roman legionary with his helmet and breastplate is bare-armed. As for the brawny, red-haired workman heaving a sack just to his right, he sports tattoos (nothing changes!) and what looks like a scrap of animal-skin across his chest. Julian Treuherz writes that "Brown's anti-heroic subtext favours the Mancunians" (285). All the same, the eye is drawn first to the pale parchment, that all-important embryonic plan, and to the general with his swirling red garb, fine black-fringed red boots, and commanding posture.

Compare this work with The Romans cause a wall to be built, the first in the sequence of William Bell Scott's murals depicting Northumbrian history at Wallington, which has a Hogarthian touch too: British workmen are being rebuked for playing at dice (again, nothing changes!), and which Brown "would certainly have known" (Treuherz 285).

Related Material


Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011.

Last modified 24 April 2012