Towns of Roman Britain
Definitions of what exactly constitutes a town in Roman Britain vary considerably, as do the towns themselves. Some towns were established early and others much later as the control of Roman Britain became greater and the military and political boundaries expanded and fluctuated. The status, layout and activities within and around each town can only be understood by the examination of the archaeological record, which is incomplete due to preservation and opportunities to excavate; many towns are still occupied today. Some of the best preserved and investigated roman towns in Britain are Wroxeter, Silchester and Verulamium (St Albans). There is also a small body of information from written sources, which has an inconsistent reliability. Examples of events from such sources include Aurelius Victor (death of Severus in York); Tacitus’ Annales.
Towns in the most basic sense can be defined as a group of buildings larger than a village. However, there are some intrinsic elements which accompany the term. It would be expected that a town would be:-
• a settlement where people live and therefore there would be a range of houses and outbuildings
• a centre for the administration of local government, including law and taxes perhaps housed in a town hall basilica style building and offices,
• a focus of manufacture and trade, with shops, markets, warehouses and workshops,
• a place for cultural activities such as plays, spectacles, and sports, thus having theatres, bath houses, taverns, amphitheatres and so on,
• a centre for religion with accompanying temples and statuary.
Towns obviously did not exist in isolation and the streets of the town would have linked into the surrounding road networks. Around the outside perimeter of the town cemeteries were located. The towns were also set into the wider landscape frequented by farms, villas, villages, quarries, mines, shrines and numerous other types of sites.
The planning of towns was variable; some demonstrate a level of organisation which shows they were designed and thought out in one event; others show that there was little planned settlement and that it was more organic and accidental. Perhaps the variability depended on factors such as
• Individuals- including military commanders and important local inhabitants
• The original settlement- local or established by the Romans
• The main activities occurring in and around the town- military frontier, farming, industry
Generally towns were laid out in insulae, which were designated plots of land. Their size was variable and one difference between Roman Britain towns and those of other provinces was that there appear to have been frequent open spaces throughout the towns. The density of occupation does not appear to be as high, which also leads to the suggestion that with space available most buildings did not need to be more than one storey in height.
Activities and Monuments
Houses were either exclusively residential or could be mixed to incorporate workshops and street front shops with living quarters. Buildings were usually built of timber, wattle and daub, stone or brick depending on the amount of wealth the owner or tenant had and the availability of materials. The finish of the walls can be shown by the presence of plaster, in some cases painted. The plaster would have helped keep the walls weather-proof, and internally might have helped with lighting if whitewashed.
Most houses were laid out in a ‘strip’ form with the narrow end fronting the street. These were expanded by adding rooms or wings in whichever direction was possible and some eventually became compound houses and these were more particular to Britain. Examples at Dorchester and Caerwent. Courtyard houses were more common in other areas of the empire and consisted of an arrangement of four wings around a colonnaded courtyard, built as a whole for the elite members of society, less than a half dozen are confirmed in Britain.
Rooms within houses would have included bedrooms (cubicula); dinning suits (triclinia); kitchens; study; storeroom and so on. However the number and arrangement is very difficult to determine without a high level of archaeological preservation and some rooms may have had multiple functions. For the most part furniture would have been of wood or basketry which does not survive, although iron and metal nails, handles, hinges and the like do hint at the remains.
These essentially public buildings were often funded by local dignitaries rather than from the coffers of Rome itself. The main elements of a Roman town include:
Basilica - The main buildings for local governmental activity and justice were usually aisled halls with a raised dais at one end (often apsidal), a central hall and offices. The remains at Silchester demonstrate that they could be grand edifices. The raised area at the end was usually reserved for trials and council meetings.
Forum - This was the essential meeting place for the town or city and was where elections took place, pronouncements to the population were made and where business matters could be conducted. They were usually an enclosed spaced open to the air which may have had colonnaded sides to allow business to be conducted in inclement weather, in Britain this was mostly rain, unlike many other countries in the Empire where the colonnade would provide shelter from the sun. Temporary stalls would have been common in and around the forum.
In Britain these two major elements were often found together as at London, Silchester, Cirencester and Verulamium.
Mansiones – These were effectively staging posts for those on official or military journeys but could also be used by commercial travellers, although it is assumed they would be reasonably wealthy. The buildings could be two storied and usually had an attached bath house. Examples are known at Silchester and Caerwent.
Water Supply - The supply of fresh water to towns marked a degree of sophistication but also progress since acquiring fresh water is an arduous daily task. For the most part water was brought in from fresh water sources such as rivers, and channelled underground in conduits, although a small number of aqueducts are known in Britain, the one at Lincoln being an example. The water was used for drinking, domestic use and for bath houses. In association with the water supply was the necessity to drain the continually running excess water away, hence there being frequent drains throughout Roman towns such as York.
Shops and markets
Macellum, this was a covered market for trading and could be housed as colonnades, aisled halls, or rooms around courtyards. Examples of them are known at Leicester, Wroxeter and Verulamium.
Shops would also have been found fronting on to the main streets in the centres of towns and associated with the dwelling premises of the owners and tenants.
Bath houses - These were associated with forts, towns, villas and more rarely with individual houses within towns. There are good examples preserved at Wroxeter and Leicester. Bath houses had complexes of rooms with baths of varying temperatures, cold plunge pools, rooms for changing in and being cleaned and massaged. They had hypocaust heating systems to warm floors and walls and often had elegantly organised water supplies and drainage.
Theatres - Only four are known in Britain; Verulamium, Canterbury, Colchester, and at possibly at Brough-on-Humber where the remains are indicated by inscription only. These were usually situated within towns whereas amphitheatres were outside, perhaps to allow for excess exuberance and escaped animals.
Amphitheatres - A total of seven are confirmed by archaeological remains to date; London, Caistor-by-Norwich, Carmarthen, Dorchester, Silchester, Chichester, Cirencester. The one at Silchester has been estimated to have had a capacity of around 3000 people.
Triumphal Arches - only 1 imperial one erected to commemorate some facet of the emperor is known at Colchester and it became incorporated into the Balkerne Gate. Others which simply reflect the towns own achievements or gods are known at Ancaster, London and York.
Roman rule was essentially pantheistic allowing numerous gods and goddesses to be worshipped by both the Romans themselves and the people they subjugated. Thus there was a proliferation of temples and shrines to any number of deities in and around towns and cities. Until the advent of Christianity the only unifying religious aspect was the Imperial cult. This was the following of the emperor in his role as the mediator between the people and the gods. It essentially began when Augustus became the main priest in Rome, pontifex maximus in AD 12. In Britain the town of Colchester was the most important place for the imperial cult, with a sanctuary begun early, around AD 55.
Religious structures included; temples, shrines and altars. Temples were houses for the gods rather than for the actual action of worship. Worship was often an outdoor rite centred on altars. Shrines were sites or foci of a god’s presence. The complex at Colchester had buildings of the typical Roman style and although a few other towns also had such buildings, these were the exceptions, most settlements did not have the capacity for such building.
The rural nature of deities belonging to the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain meant that many shrines were to be found in the countryside and fewer in towns. In other regions of the Roman Empire the practice of setting up shrines for the guardians of streets and cities was commonplace, but it does not appear to have been the case in Roman Britain.
There was widespread adoption and fusion of Roman gods to the established local deities; those with similar attributes were venerated together. An excellent example being Sulis–Minerva at Bath. Obviously those towns which had been indigenous settlements had, in some instances, their own shrines and these remained incorporated within the Roman towns, as seen with several shrines at Silchester. There are a wide variety of shrines and temples to a range of deities and cults represented in towns Roman Britain.
An inscription to a temple of Serapis/Osiris in York
Epigraphic sources for cult centres to Cybele and Isis in London
A mithraeum in London
The capitolium at Verulamium; which was a shrine to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva
Altars are one of the most common structural elements that often survive and are representative of outdoor worship. They were usually waist high stone blocks of a pedestal form, wider at the top with a depression for offerings and most inscriptions were only on the front suggesting that they may have stood against walls.
The inscription on altars usually name the god or gods to whom the altar was dedicated, and the person or persons who raised it; and sometimes reason or motive for the dedication. The inscriptions are necessarily short and include abbreviations with sentences reduced to formulaic initials only. The inscription often include:-
V.S.L.M- Votum solvit libens merito, translates as "He fulfills his vow, willingly, dutifully."
I.O.M. - Jovi optimo maximo, which stands for "To Jupiter, the best, and greatest";
D.D. - donum dedit, meaning "He gave the gift";
York – altar to Mother Goddesses of the household by Gaius Julius Crescens, Nunnery Lane
Chester - altars to Fortuna, Aesculapius and Salus and to the Genius Loci
London – an altar commemorate the rebuilding of the temple of Isis by Marcus Martiannius Pulcher, governor of Britannia Superior in the 3rd century AD. (Baynard House, Queen Victoria Street)
Cirencester - altar to Suleviae/Silvanus a local god
Carlisle – altar to Fortuna, Annetwell Street
Types of Towns
The origin and function of the towns can be used to define three broad categories, although there is some probability of progression over time:-
Coloniae – these are essentially towns formed by the allotment of land to retired legionaries. Although they could be completely new settlements they may also have been based on previous military sites. The only confirmed examples of coloniae in Britain are; Colchester 49AD; Gloucester AD 96-98; and Lincoln. The towns were characterised by a population consisting of almost wholly Roman citizens and were organised in the manner of Rome, in terms of administration and practices. These are seen as the highest ranking forms of towns in Roman Britain. York and London went not necessarily established as coloniae but developed into them, coloniae were reputed to be awarded ‘chartered’ status by the grant of a lex coloniae.
Municipia – these were chartered towns but were lower in rank than coloniae. They were again often inhabited by Roman citizens but the populations were more mixed and in some ways the difference between coloniae and municipia was only a matter of degree. Whereas the coloniae were based on Rome as a model of town organisation municipia could also incorporate local laws and practices. Municipia were often settlements that may have been tribal towns or vici. Examples of municipia in Britain include; Verulamium, Leicester, Dorchester and Canterbury. It is possible that both York and London may have passed through a stage of being municipia prior to becoming coloniae
Civitas Capitals (civitates)–these towns are deemed the lowest rank and were effectively the administration centres for local level government. Again, these may have originated as pre-existing Iron Age settlements or been newly sited, but there is a suggestion that the local populace may have had some involvement in their development. They demonstrate traits of being planned and organised but not standardised across the country. There are an estimated 23 Iron Age tribal territories, of which between 11 and 16 had defined civitas capitals. Examples of civitas capitals in Britain include; Wroxeter, Chichester, Carlisle, Silchester, Exeter, Ilchester, Aldborough.
Vici were the settlements that became established around military sites, predominantly forts.
London (Londinium) – there was little settlement here prior to the Romans and sources such as Tacitus suggest that by the time of Boudicca’s attack it was already a thriving commercial centre. It was well placed being on the Thames but the first established town of Colchester may still have been of political and administrative importance. After the revolt of AD 60 there is direct evidence, from stamped tiles, of the Procurator’s office being there. Remains uncovered beneath Canon Street Station have been interpreted as the provincial governor’s residence, datable to AD 78. In the third century London remained the capital of the province of Britannia Superior, while York became the capital of Britannia Inferior. The forum / basilica complex was approximately 3.25 hectares (8 acres). There was a remarkable Temple to Mithras (Mithraeum) which when excavated in the early 1950s caused a public stir and was visited by tens of thousands of people. In the early second century a 4.5ha (11 acre) fort was constructed in the north-western area, now known as Cripplegate and by the late second century it was attached to a stone built town wall over 3.2km long. This essentially enclosed the town along the west, north and east sides with the southern side being bordered by the river. The town walls measured up to 2.7m in thickness and had towers and bastions along its circuit. An unusual feature of Roman London was the presence of a river, the Walbrook, flowing through it, providing, water for domestic and industrial uses as well as drainage. Elements of a range of houses and workshops have been partially excavated throughout London, although the continual occupation and rebuilding of the capital city have proved restrictive to wholesale archaeological investigations. Some evidence has been uncovered to show that sites in the city were still occupied in the fifth century AD, as would be expected, rather than abandonment.
Colchester (Camulodunum) – Essex. This was the capital of the Catuvellauni, an already established centre that allegedly saw the triumphal entry of Emperor Claudius in AD 43 and became a colonia at around AD 49. A massive temple to Claudius the god was constructed and parts survive below the Norman castle. The approximate size of this town reached 100 acres. This town was infamously sacked during the Iceni rebellion led by Boudicca at about AD 60 and had to be rebuilt. The defensive structures which survive include the Balkerne Gate, a splendid example of a guarded Roman town gate with paired passageways for wheeled vehicles and separate ones for pedestrians.
Lincoln (Lindum colonia)- this town was founded on the site of a mid first century fort and had become a colonia at about AD 83 based on occupation by the veterans of Legio IX Hispana. There are excellent remains of the walls, with all four gates known; the best preserved arch can be found at Bailgate (although somewhat reconstructed). There is also evidence of a water tower, mosaics under the cathedral and a colonnaded building, the latter at West Bight.
Gloucester (Nervia Glevensium) – Gloucestershire. The town was probably founded around AD 90-98 for the veterans of Legio II Augusta, although there was an earlier fort on the site. Only a few remains have been revealed but include fine mosaics. And there are traces of the wall under the City Museum (Brunswick Road)
Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) – Gloucestershire. This town was established first as a fort in the mid 1st century AD, before developing into a town after c AD 75. The town replaced the Bagendon Iron Age complex as a regional centre. The excavations within the walled town have revealed a well organized grid pattern of streets, with town houses, the forum and basilica, numerous mosaics and outside the walls a cemetery and large amphitheatre, which is impressively preserved.
Verulamium (St Albans) – Hertfordshire. This was the site of a major oppida within Catuvellauni area. Unsurprisingly a Roman fort was built here and a vicus became established with the settlement becoming a municipium at around AD 49. Much of this had to be rebuilt after the Iceni rebellion led by Boudicca of AD 60-61. There is ample evidence of the forum and basilica, built in AD 79, with mosaics and painted frescos. Near the present museum are the remains of the theatre and a town house.
Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) – Hampshire. This was the capital of the Atrebates lead by the Roman sympathetic, ‘King’ Cogidubnus. This site is one of the exceptions, with no continuation in occupation to obscure the remains. It is the subject of long term, ongoing excavation work, known as the Insula IX Town Life Project (http://www.silchester.rdg.ac.uk/home). The walled town clearly demonstrates a grid layout and contains remarkable remains of the forum, basilica, amphitheatre, public baths, temples, a mansion, numerous houses of different styles, shops, water supply systems and all the elements that illustrate the level of civilised living which became available during the Roman period in Britain.
Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) – Shropshire. Originally the capital of the Cornovii a fort was constructed here and this site became the fourth largest town in Roman Britain. The area of the town was approximately 200 acres. Again, the site has remained largely un-built on and the surviving remains are impressive. The most spectacular is the section of upstanding wall, over 10m high, that formed part of a public exercise hall. There are also remains of the market hall, public lavatories, hypocausts and baths with an actual swimming pool. A dedication records the market as being constructed by AD 130.
Chichester (Noviomagus Regensium) – West Sussex. This was the capital of the Regni, who were probably part of or allied to the Atrebates. It was founded shortly after the conquest and functioned as a convenient supply base. The approximate size of this town was 100 acres and as with many other towns the medieval town plan and extent reflect that of the much earlier Roman one. The town has yielded remains of houses and mosaics and a stone dedication to a temple of Neptune and Minerva which mentions Cogidubnus.
Winchester (Venta Belgarum) – Hampshire. This was the capital of the Belgae, with the Roman town being founded at about AD 90. Remains of the forum were located under the Cathedral Green and excavations in the town have revealed numerous fragments of buildings and two phases of defensive walls; the first in timber and earth and the later ones of stone.
Cearwent (Venta Silurum) – Gwent. This was the capital of the Silures, founded at some point after AD 78. The approximate size of this town was 44 acres and it was a walled town, part of the defences survive today to over 5m high. Remains of a large temple, houses and possible shops have been uncovered within the confines of the town.
Canterbury (Durovernum Cantiacorum) – Kent. This was the capital of the Cantiaci, founded on a pre-existing Iron Age tribal oppida. The approximate size of this town was 120 acres and it was a walled town, part of a Roman gateway still survives in the medieval masonry in Queningate and a medieval church wall. Remains of a town house dating from the first to third century demonstrate the progression from a simpler timber structure to a more opulent stone one.
Leicester (Ratae Coritanorum) – Leicester. This was the capital of the Coritani. The town was under military rule initially but after AD 80 rule was transferred to civic autonomy. The forum and basilica seem to be later than many other towns in their establishment, in an area which had been set aside much earlier. To the west of this are marvellous remains of the Roman walls known as the Jewry Wall, that survives to over 10m in height. These were part of a covered gymnasium associated with the public baths. There is also evidence of a probable aqueduct system leading to the town on Aylestone Road and known as the Raw Dykes. At the end of the second or early third century AD a large market hall was built, on a layout similar to a basilica, suggesting a vibrant mercantile and trading side to the town. A disastrous fire affecting the main commercial area is known to have occurred in the later fourth century. Several houses have been uncovered within Leicester showing a variation in period, status and construction methods.
Carlisle (Luguvalium) – Cumbria. This was the capital of the Carvetii but not until the third century AD. In AD 72-3 a fort was established on a new site by the Romans, it later became the site of the medieval castle. By the end of the first century the fort formed part of the Tyne-Solway frontier known as the Stanegate and subsequently Hadrian's Wall in the early second century. The Carlisle Millennium Project excavations have shown that the fort continued to be occupied into the post-Roman period. The full extent of this extramural settlement is considered to be large in comparison to other Roman settlements in the North West and modern excavations at Stanwix and Botchergate demonstrate the complex development of the town surrounding the fort.
Camarthen (Moridunum) – This was probably the capital of the Demetae who appear to have been affiliated with the Dobunni tribe. The exact location of the fort here is unknown and military occupation probably ceased in the early second century. The town defences were initially earth and timber and then later stone. The large amphitheatre would appear to be too large for the size of the town suggesting that it may have provided a focus for a much larger area.
Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) – North Yorkshire. This was the capital of the Brigantes. The approximate size of this town was 55 acres and it was a walled town with several towers, part of the defences survive today to over 3m high. The town had a regular street plan and a number of the residences are known to have had fine mosaic floors.
Dorchester (Durnovaria) – Dorset. This was the capital of the Durotriges. As with many of the walled Roman towns the timber palisade and earthen rampart were succeeded by a stone version. There are remains still present of a town house which expanded from an L-shaped structure in the second century to one which had kitchens and a bath suite. The town is noted for the large excavated cemetery at Pondbury on the town’s outskirts. Further afield there are remains of a first century AD aqueduct over Fordington Down. Maiden Castle was an Iron Age hillfort at which there is evidence of conflict with the Romans between AD43 and AD47. The later centuries saw a shrine constructed on the site. An amphitheatre built on earlier prehistoric features is known at Maumbury Rings to the south of Dorchester.
Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) – Devon. This was the capital of the Dumnonii. The approximate size of this town that surrounded the early fort was 100 acres and sections of the stone walls are detectable within the fabric of other buildings and independently.
Ilchester (Lindinis) – this town seems to have been a smaller centre for a subdivision of the Durotriges. The town was only around 35 acres.
Chester (Deva) - Click for Military Sites
Caerleon (Isca Silurium) - Click for Military Sites
York (Eboracum) – Click for Military Sites
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