Roman around Britain – colossally good Roman sites
Friends, Romans and country(wo)men! Did you know that a highly significant haul was hoked out from under a Colchester department store this month?
S'true. Excavators at Williams & Griffin in Colchester’s High Street were mightily surprised to uncover a clutch of Roman jewellery during store renovations, probably hidden there by a wealthy Roman woman during the Boudiccan Revolt of AD61 and now described by a learned type as a find of ‘national importance’.
As we’ve always been a bit obsessed by all things toga, we pondered briefly the likelihood of the find being given over to Pitchup.com if we said we’d dropped it in the shop a few years before. Sanity, however, has uncharacteristically prevailed, so we’ve done a Roman Britain blog instead.
If et tu are rabid about Romans, Juno where we’d recommend? Our favourite top Roman sites in the UK, that’s where.
Watch this Horrible Histories clip on the Roman invasion of Britain for a very fast catch-up, then Caesar the moment at these:
I. Hadrian’s Wall
If Carlsberg did Roman history sites… you could have a tin or two after a hike around Hadrian’s Wall, probably the best known Roman site in Britain. If you’re asked ‘Where is Hadrian’s Wall?’ and reply ‘Running for 73 or so miles across the north of England’ rather than ‘Around Hadrian’s garden’, we salute you.
The wall was started by the emperor Hadrian around AD122, possibly as a defence against northern Britons (like Stonehenge, why Hadrian’s Wall was built has baffled boffins for centuries), and runs from Bowness-on-Solway in north-east England to Wallsend in the north west, cutting across the North Pennines and what's now Northumberland National Park.
These days, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most popular attraction in the north of England, and the best place in Britain for empire enthusiasts with Roman museums, forts and settlements along the way. A few of our faves are:
Housesteads Roman fort– the most complete Roman fort in Britain
Vindolanda– the Roman Army Museum and Roman Vindolanda, with live excavations, eight forts and the Vindolanda writing tablets
Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths and Museum– the most completely excavated fort along the Wall, with Roman baths, museum and viewing tower.
Colchester was once the capital of Roman Britain (that might explain why Boudicca and her troops marched on the city then) and the first Roman site to be developed as a colony rather than a fortress, once the conquering Claudian hordes realised they might like somewhere slightly more comfy to live than an army barracks.
And so, it had two theatres, a large and lavish temple dedicated to Claudius, a chariot circus and the first town walls to be built in Britain… but not tall enough to keep out the invaders who burnt Colchester to the ground in AD60–61 and ensured the removal of the Roman capital to London. Several remains of Roman Colchester are still there to see when roaming around the city:
Colchester Castle – built on the foundations of the Claudian temple
The Balkerne Gate – original entrance into Colchester on the town walls and the biggest surviving Roman gateway in Britain
Camulodunum Park at Gosbecks Archaeological Park –British settlement on the edge of Colchester.
III. Canterbury Roman Museum
Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered here among his many other crowning achievements, triumphing over the Iron Age Cantiaci tribe at Bigbury Hill fort just outside Canterbury in 54BC.
This and other tales are told at the Canterbury Roman Museum, a Grade I-listed building built around a Roman townhouse discovered six feet below the ground, with Roman mosaic pavement still in its original place, permanent collections including arms, armour, metalwork, jewellery and glass, and events for kids such as swordmaking and Roman soldiering.
Wise to let your little emperors wield weapons? You might be Gladius it’s not a Consul at least.
Also in Kent:
Lullingstone Roman Villa, Eynsford
Roman Painted House, Dover
Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre, Sandwich
Think of the Bath springs and you might think of corpulent Victorians having a soak, but verily the baths in Bath were Roman before that and where the aristocracy lounged in between long days of debauchery and calling for more wine. The baths were probably built on the instructions of the emperor Claudius (him again) after the Roman invasion, on the site of a Celtic shrine to the area’s hot springs.
The Roman Baths in Bath have the original Great Bath to see, along with the temple remains, the Grand Pump Room (alack, no drinking of/dipping in the waters is now allowed) and the Sacred Spring which brought visitors from all over the Roman Empire.
Most amusingly, excavation also revealed over 130 ‘curse tablets’, many left by Romans who’d had their togas stolen – public pools have been always thus.
Anyone who’s watched I, Claudius (us, many times) or even Gladiator (hmph) will know the role of an amphitheatre in a Roman town: mainly quite a bit bloody.
About 230 of these have been found across Europe since the Roman empire fell, the largest in Britain so far at Chester dating from the first century AD.
Chester was the fortress of Rome’s 20th Legion Valeria Victrix for a couple of hundred years and although some folks maintain Chester Roman Amphitheatre was used for military drills and other innocent pursuits, excavations show evidence of gladiatorial combat, bull baiting and other unsavoury occupations.
As Chester was an important Roman fortress for three hundred years or so, devotees might also like a squint at:
Dewa Roman Experience: soldier patrols and guided tours of Roman Chester
Grosvenor Museum : free museum with the biggest collection of Roman tombstones from a single site in Britain.
It’s Nicene a bit more of the country…
VI. Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex – the biggest Roman home in Britain, with mosaic floors we wonder will fit in a motorhome
VII. Roman Bath pub in York – built on the site of a Roman bathhouse
VIII. Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire – where some of the other half lived in the fourth century. With mosaics, bathhouses and museum.
X. Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire – the fourth largest city in Roman Britain
XI. Brading Roman Villa, Isle of Wight – award-winning visitor centre and museum