Most of the time we rank Roman sites in Britain based on what we can see there today. Take, for example, the incredible Roman fortress at Portchester Castle or the palace at Fishbourne. These are undoubtedly amongst the greatest places to see Roman buildings preserved today, and they’re well worth visiting.
But if you went back and asked a Roman Briton what the most important place in their province was, these sites wouldn’t even come in their top fifty. For all their modern archaeological importance, Portchester was just one fort in a series of defences built in the late 200s to halt piracy and Fishbourne was a private residence, barely important at all to those outside the family and staff who lived there.
With that in mind, what were the most important and influential locations in Roman Britain?
Colchester, or Camulodunum as it was known to the Romans, may not be very important today, but it was arguably the most important site in early Roman Britain. It was the site of the first permanent Roman settlement in the British Isles, and was for a long time the only place in the Isles where people had the rights and protections associated with Roman citizenship. A recent excavation found hard evidence of the barracks built there in the first years after the conquest, and it was the seat of both Imperial religion and governance in the early years of Roman rule.
Colchester was the earliest permanent Roman city in the British Isles, growing quickly after it’s conversion from a military base to a town circa 49AD. It was the centre of early civic, religious and military power in Roman Britain – but its time at the top was short-lived, and it was destroyed by Boudicca’s army in 61AD. The capital of Roman Britain moved to Londinium shortly after.
The town was unique in that it was largely a Roman military and civic centre (effectively a large embassy) surrounded by native British settlers who moved close for the economic and military protection of their new allies. However, Roman influence in the Isles was still weak, and when the Romans tried to seize the lands of the Iceni from Boudicca they were unable to prevent her and her army burning their centre of operations to the ground, along with other fledgling Roman settlements – including Londinium.
The city was rebuilt following the Iceni rebellion and had become a centre of pottery and glassmaking by 200AD; Camulodunum pottery has been found across England. Camulodunum contained two theatres, one of which is the largest Roman theatre ever discovered in the UK. It is also the site of the only Roman circus ever found in the UK, over a quarter of a kilometre long and with space for at least 8,000 spectators. While the city was large and prosperous, it was never as important in Roman affairs as it had been in its earliest days.
It was always known that Londinium became the capital of Britannia following Boudicca’s rebellion, but we weren’t sure quite when. New studies suggest, however, that the change may have been extremely early – as soon as six months after her rebellion, according to the latest research. Whatever the circumstances, by 100AD Londinium was undisputedly the largest city in the British Isles and it retained this position through the entire Roman period.
The centre of provincial government, Londinium had many impressive public structures, including the largest basilica in the Empire north of the Alps until the development of Trier, Germany. This three-storey structure was larger than St Paul’s Cathedral today and would have been the centre of trade, law and government in Britannia.
Unlike Camulodunum, which was originally the centre of a native British tribe (and therefore may have been conquered to make a political statement), Londinium was built from scratch, first as a place for legions to ford the Thames. In the following years Londinium grew into a small settlement, largely fuelled by Roman traders coming to settle of their own accord.
After Boudicca’s rebellion it seems the Romans decided Londinium was the best site from which to control their new province; a large forum and other public buildings were built here in the decade after the rebellion and the population grew quickly. Its position on the mouth of the river, fairly close to Rome but also at the base of several highways built during the 40s made it a great location from which to govern the province in relative safety.
Roman London burst onto the scene in the decade following Boudicca’s rebellion and was a well-established centre of trade, wealth and governance from 100AD on to the end of Roman rule in Britain. It contained some of the largest official buildings in the northern half of the empire, including an enormous basilica, but the public buildings found to date, for example the amphitheatre discovered in the 1980s, are smaller than those found in many other cities in Britannia.
It is estimated that from 100AD onwards the population of Roman London hovered between 45,000 and 60,000 people, roughly a quarter of Britain’s total urban population. Its key location at the mouth of the Thames made it the centre of trade in Roman Britannia, and at least seven Roman highways that stretched across Great Britain started here. Tacitus described London around 200AD as a city brimming with traders.
It’s unclear why the population didn’t grow much beyond 100AD (and may even have shrunk), but there are several theories, chiefly that the city was affected by the plague that wracked Roman Europe around 160AD and that it was supplanted by regional centres of trade appearing across the province as Roman colonisation progressed, such as Corinium and Verulamium. Despite this, it retained its position as official capital until the breakdown of Roman authority in the province in the late 300s.
In the years following 71AD the Roman empire waged a war against the British tribe known as the Brigantes who inhabited modern-day Yorkshire. A fort was built, easily accessible from the coast, as a base of operations for the Ninth Legion. A community of labourers and traders appeared around the fort and from that the town of Eboracum, modern day York, was born.
While Eboracum wasn’t the most populated or wealthy town in Roman Britain, its position gave it serious political influence. It was made the capital of northern Britain (Britannia Inferior) following Severus’s reforms sometime between 197-214AD in an effort to weaken the influence of the governors in Londinium, and was the centre of several campaigns to control the north.
In 237AD it became of one the four colonia in Roman Britain, places where residents had the same civil rights as Romans. This was often granted to locations with large populations of retired soldiers, both as a reward for their service and to encourage them to settle.
Like many other small towns in Britain, Eboracum’s early development was spurred on by a military presence. Unlike most towns, however, Eboracum was the base for a legion (first the Ninth and later the Sixth) from 71AD until the end of Roman Britain around 400AD. This period of military occupation was longer than any other Roman town in Britain and it left its mark on the city: many of the buildings were built in stone and the economy was heavily based around supporting the military. It was a highly fortified and martial place, which made it an obvious choice for a capital when Britannia was divided into two provinces at the turn of the third century.
Eboracum was also the site of an Imperial palace and was visited by several emperors, being the base of Emperor Septimus Severus and his court from 208-211AD.
It was most likely the major port and trade centre of northern Britain. Archaeological evidence of at least one wharf along the river Foss reveals that, much like the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who came after, the Romans made full use of Eboracum’s sea connections, though maybe not to the same extent since trade across the North Sea wasn’t as profitable as it would become in the post-Roman period.
The city was the home of the Sixth Legion for nearly three centuries, the legion which built the Hadriatic and Antonine walls. But by the end of the Roman period the flooding of some of the town, the loss of the legion and the decline of Roman authority likely led to Eboracum becoming nothing more than an outpost.
The small, unassuming village of Wroxeter in Shropshire lies above what was, at its height, the fourth-largest Roman city in Britain. Unexpectedly large for a frontier town without a military garrison!
Viroconium was first built as a military outpost and was later expanded when it became the home of the Fourteenth Legion around 58AD, presumably intended to be the centre of the campaign to control Wales. But the Fourteenth moved on in 67AD and were replaced by the Twentieth, who remained there until they moved north to the border of modern-day Scotland in 78AD. Like Eboracum, two decades of military presence in Viroconium spurred on the development of a town.
However, when the military presence in Viroconium ended (sometime around 88AD), the town didn’t shrink or fade away – it continued to grow. While there is some indication that legion leaving had an immediate negative impact on the town – there is a bath house dated to c80AD that was left half-built – by the 90s there was a new, expanded street grid and by 130AD the city covered 173 acres. A forum had been built over the unfinished bath-house and the town had a basilica and plenty of shops, as excavations have revealed.
Viroconium started as a garrison fort for the Roman legion, but was able to thrive and grow despite the army’s relocation, eventually becoming one of the largest towns in Roman Britain. Its strong trade links, lying at the end of the main highway from Londinium, made the town wealthy, and it was able to endure long after many other Roman towns were abandoned.
It is presumed that Viroconium’s location, lying at the end of Watling Street, the Roman highway that cut straight through the middle of England from Dover and London, helped it transition from military outpost to civilian town because it would have been a key stop-off for merchants travelling west. The enduring wealth of the town is attested to in how quickly the forum was rebuilt when it burned down in 180AD. Indeed, its wealth may be why Viroconium was able to replace many of its decaying public buildings in the sixth century, a time when most Roman towns had been abandoned or conquered by the Anglo-Saxons.
Viroconium became the capital of the Kingdom of Powys in the years after Roman authority collapsed. In the end, most of the town’s buildings were purposely dismantled, which coincided with Powys’s royal court moving to Mathrafal.
Chester (Deva Victrix)
Much like Eboracum, Deva, modern day Chester, began as a fortress built to be the home of a legion in the campaign against the Brigantes. Construction began in the mid 70s and it was carried out by the Twentieth legion, who were relocated from their fortress on the Scottish border. It would be their home until 395AD, meaning only Eboracum had a permanent legionary garrison for longer.
Unsurprisingly, Deva had much in common with Eboracum, not least that the civilian town nearby relied on the legion for work. There was also a substantial mercantile presence; according to David Mason’s 2001 book Roman Chester: City of the Eagles, shops fronted the road for three hundred metres beyond the fortress walls.
However, unlike Eboracum, Deva was never a centre of civic authority. Even the civilian town outside the fortress walls had its own elected council separate from the military garrison. It is also notable that, unlike other military centres in Roman Britain, Deva never became a colonia. Nevertheless, the town is home to the largest amphitheatre uncovered in the UK so far, which indicates a sizeable population. The amphitheatre was constructed shortly after the fortress, presumably to provide entertainment to the soldiers.
One thing sets Deva apart from the other fortress-towns of Roman Britain: the elliptical building inside the fortress. Roman fortresses were built to rigid specifications, so it seems the fort at Deva was planned to host this unique building from the start. The building itself was first built in the 70s (but abandoned soon after) and rebuilt around 220AD. No other buildings exist like it in Roman Britain and it has been speculated that, when it was first built – during the time when there was discussion over where the capital of the province should lie – Chester was one of the possible sites, and the building was intended to serve as an administrative centre. Whether or not this was its intended use remains a mystery.
Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum)
Cirencester is perhaps one of the least known Roman sites in the UK, which is surprising considering it was the second largest in terms of area – covering 240 acres at the height of the 200s. It had a population of approximately 12,000. Corinium lay in the fertile southwest near modern-day Gloucester, which was a notable Roman settlement in itself, and this area featured a large number of Roman villas set in prosperous individual estates.
And lying at the crossroads between the Fosse Way, Akeman Street and Ermine Street, Corinium was well-placed to take advantage of the natural wealth of the region.
Another town that developed around a fort, Corinium was unique in that it wasn’t on a frontier. The military presence was only small and disappeared shortly after its beginning. Its position at the crossroads of three major Roman highways made it a town naturally inclined to trade and wealth. In the early days it was an important centre in the wool trade, but as it became larger and more prosperous, this gave way to a highly skilled industry of glassworking, masonry and especially mosaic.
Corinium started as a small military fort built in the years directly after the conquest – around 45AD. Unlike the other fortress-cities on this list, however, the fort was not intended to police a frontier; it was in the territory of an allied tribe – the Dobunni. The fort presumably served as a double-edged sword, offering protection to the natives while at the same time warning them not to betray Rome. Either way, the fort was abandoned by the 70s and the settlement became the capital of the Dobunni.
The city expanded quickly and by 100AD it had two marketplaces, an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, and the largest forum and basilica outside of Londinium. There were an unusually large number of stone homes with extravagant decoration in the town, and Corinium Museum asserts that the town has the highest number of mosaics outside of London.
In Diocletian’s reforms at the end of the 200s, Corinium was made capital of the new province of Britannia Prima, around which time the mosaic industry that it would become known for was just taking off. The area around Corinium was the most prosperous in Roman Britain and people across the province would have known it for this.
The town’s wealth may have helped it survive the early years of the empire’s fall; despite Rome officially abandoning Britain in 410AD, the town’s walls were repaired at this time and the forum continued to be kept in good condition. The general consensus is that Corinium was finally abandoned around 430AD.
St Albans (Verulamium)
Verulamium was originally the tribal centre of the Catuvellauni, but quickly became a thriving Roman town in the years after the conquest. In the year 50AD it was granted municipia status, a rank that conferred Latin rights on the residents and was often granted to important cities across the empire. However, like nearby Londinium and Camulodunum, the city drew the attention of Boudicca’s rebellion in 61AD and was burned to the ground. Since the city was likely made entirely of wood at that time, it is possible the whole city was destroyed.
Verulamium bounced back quickly though and by 79AD it had its first forum and basilica. By the turn of the century the city had outgrown its original defences, and it continued to grow steadily until it was devastated by fire in 155AD. The town was rebuilt, mostly in stone, and grew to cover around 125 acres by 200AD.
Its good fortune continued into the third century, by the end of which it was the third largest town in Roman Britain, behind Corinium and Londinium, featuring, amongst other things, at least four temples, imported Italian marble, and piped water.
Like many other Roman towns, Verulamium fell into decay over the course of the fourth century, and the theatre was no longer in use by 400AD. The town was eventually abandoned and taken over by the Anglo-Saxon Waeclingas.
Image source: http://www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk