The modern world we live in is largely shaped by the events of the past, no matter how distant. Shire takes a look at the ancient Roman history that has made us who we are – and made our treasured local area what it is…
Our area of Britain has been inhabited for so long, it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to looking at the ancestors who did the most to shape us. Stone Age relics have been discovered across Shropshire; Cheshire was famously home to the preserved prehistoric Lindow Man; the Wirral is awash with Viking legends; and Wales has signs of human settlement going back more than 230,000 years. In short, populations have been happy to call this area home since well before the dawn of history. But having only so many pages to investigate our past, we have decided to focus on the myths, stories and legacy left by the civilisation that did so much for early Britain… the Romans.
The arrival of Romans in Great Britain, which began with Julius Caesar’s first invasion attempt in 55BC, had an enormous influence on our way of life and left us with a considerably more civilised lifestyle than we had previously enjoyed. As the Romans spread north, Wales became a retreat for rebel forces for several decades until the Romans was able to lay claim to the whole of England and Wales by 77AD. Despite defeat, Roman Britain flourished under the new regime, and trade, industry, development and the building of roads and forts began in earnest. Several towns and cities in our region were established by the Romans, including Chester, Whitchurch, Powys, Caernarfon and Wroxeter.
As Wales took shape as a Roman military stronghold, a vast network of forts were constructed, all designed to be one day’s march apart, and many of which are still evident today. Further east, Chester established itself as a vital centre of Roman civilisation and has become a favourite with historians and archaeologists as more and more structures continue to be discovered.
So prepare to travel back in time to get a feel for life in ancient Roman Shire-land!
There are many sites of ancient interest where you can get a feel for the civilisation that established them and how they once lived. Here are three of our favourites
What? Remains of a Roman fort
Where? Caernarfon, Gwynedd
Then When the fringes of Britain, including the rebellious and resistant Welsh tribes, gave in and succumbed to Roman control in 77AD, Segontium was established as a centrepoint of Roman control. With rebel forces still lurking in the surrounding area and attacks from all sides regular occurrences, a fort was built that housed 1,000 soldiers at its peak.
Segontium was connected by a Roman road to the legionary base at Chester, and survived until the end of the Roman occupation in the fourth century AD. The site was later plundered to provide stone for Edward I’s castle at Caernarfon.
Long after the final departure of the legions, Segontium passed into Welsh legend as Caer Aber Seint (‘the fort at the mouth of the river’) and is mentioned in ‘The Dream Of Macsen Wledig’ in the early tales of the Mabinogion.
Now Visitors to the site on the outskirts of Caernarfon can marvel at the remains of the fort while imagining what life would have been like for those who were stationed there. Most of the fort’s foundations are preserved at the site, which is managed by the National Trust. There is also a museum providing background information and context.
Wroxeter Roman city
What? A preserved Roman city
Where? Wroxeter, Shropshire
Then What is now known as Shropshire was an active area for the Romans, with several temporary forts. This legionary fortress was established around the late 50s AD and became the base for the 14th Legion, and then the 20th.
The fortress was located with its northern rampart on the highest point in Wroxeter, on a gently sloping plateau between two streams that cut off approaches to the fortress from the north and south. To the west, the fortress was protected by the River Severn, but to the east there was no natural defence.
It thrived in such a strong defensive position and an entire community was stationed behind the main gate that faced westwards towards the approaching enemy. Transformed into a township around 90AD, Wroxeter – then known as Viriconium – became the fourth largest city in the empire and was inhabited until the seventh century – long after the Romans had left – when it was abandoned.
Now Well-preserved evidence of life 2,000 years ago can be found at the site, which is today managed by English Heritage. Visitors can visit the granary, basilica, forum, colonnade, market hall and the remains of an enormous bath house. They can also explore a reconstructed townhouse and get a good understanding of the daily lives of the people who lived here with an audio tour and through their objects – found here and on display in the museum.
There is also a viewing platform above the baths, which gives a good overall impression of the scale of the site and town that once spread over 78 hectares.
Chester Roman Amphitheatre
What? Excavated Roman amphitheatre
Then Chester, which was founded as a Roman fortress in the first century AD, is packed with Roman relics and historic tours, led by soldiers in full legionary garb, are an enjoyable and informative way to spend time here. One of the Roman highlights in the city is the amphitheatre, which is still a relatively new discovery by historical standards.
The amphitheatre was built in the late first century, and was located just outside the south-east corner of the Roman legionary fortress. It was probably used for both entertainment and for practising military manoeuvres and weapon training.
There have been two stone-built amphitheatres on the site – and the one now on display is the largest ever found in Britain. The first included access to the upper tiers of seats via stairs on the rear wall and had a small shrine next to its north entrance. The second provided seat access via vaulted stairways.
The two buildings differed from each other and from all other British amphitheatres, which underlines the importance of Roman Chester. The remains of the current amphitheatre date from around 280AD and it is thought that at its peak, the amphitheatre could have seated up to 8,000 people.
The amphitheatre wasn’t in use for that long – by as early as 120AD it was derelict and being used as a rubbish tip. It was brought back into use 150 years later and was then in use until around 350AD. Houses were built on the site in the 13th century, and the amphitheatre was only uncovered in the 1950s.
Now About two-fifths of the oval amphitheatre is visible, with the rest lying unexcavated behind the brick wall, but it still makes an impressive site. The attraction draws visitors from far and wide, as well as historians and television documentary makers from around the world. Two entrances have been exposed and you can see some of the original stone wall that lines the arena. Excavations in the 1960s suggested that the building was originally constructed entirely of wood, but further archaeological investigation in 2001 cast doubt on this theory.
10 things the Romans invented that we still use today…
1. Strong roads
2. Arches in buildings
3. Plumbing and sewers
4. Surgical tools
7. and bound books
9. Postal service
10. Air conditioning