Of all the phases of British history, the Roman occupation remains one of the most fascinating. There is something about the Roman way of life that has an enduring appeal and ability to constantly ignite the imagination - their stunning levels of innovation, engineering prowess, political sophistication and cultural ambition can all be traced through the remains that are scattered across the country.
The story of Roman Britain starts when Julius Caesar launched a small scale invasion of Britain in 55BC. He returned again in 54BC but there was not any permanent occupation until AD43 when, under the direction of Emperor Claudius, the Romans arrived in earnest. The Romans soon made their mark and put their stamp firmly on iron-age Britain. A massive building programme of roads and settlements was undertaken, all based on Roman designs. Over the next 360 years, all manner of villas, transport networks and military outposts were built and, fortunately for us, many of the sites have been preserved, at least in part, to this day. In this blog, we take a look at a few of our favourite Roman sites around the country.
The most famous Roman site in Britain and a key stopping point for anyone with an interest in Roman history, Hadrian’s Wall is testament to Roman vision and determination. The wall was designed to be 3 metres wide and nearly 5 metres high stretching to approximately 75 miles. Roughly every Roman mile, there was to be a fortified milecastle with accommodation for a dozen or so soldiers. Although plans did change during construction and the width of the wall did reduce slightly, the wall was (and still is) still a phenomenal structure.
The purpose of the wall is actually thought to be both as a defence against incursions from the north, and as a practical way of controlling movement. The Antonine Wall (which was further north in Scotland) was abandoned once it had been completed and Hadrian’s Wall became a permanent frontier in around AD160.
Now a UNESCO world heritage site, several long sections of the wall remain fully intact and the remains of forts and milecastles, while in the most part reduced to foundations, provide a huge amount of information about the lives of soldiers and the communities that sprang up around them at this remote northern outpost. The wall crosses stark Northumberland scenery, making the sites all the more atmospheric and a great place to stretch the legs. You can follow this link to another of our blog articles to read about our favourite way to spend a few hours in the area around Housesteads Fort.
Set just south of the wall, Vindolanda Fort is also well worth visiting. The site is still being excavated so on some days you will be able to watch the archaeologists at work. It has an interesting museum, which showcases findings from the site.
At first glance, you would be forgiven for mistaking this small site as a farmer’s shed in the rolling countryside of the South Downs National Park. To an extent that is what exactly what it is – however, it is also home to some of the finest mosaics in the country.
The villa was discovered in 1811 when a local farmer, George Tupper, was ploughing his field and struck a stone. Excavation of the site quickly followed (a small museum on site charts the progress of the works) and it is thought that the villa complex once would have comprised of about 65 rooms set around a central courtyard. Not all of the villa has been uncovered and most of the remains you can see today are part of the villa’s north wing and bath house.
Of most interest are the mosaics which include one stretch running the entire length of a 25 metre corridor, an intricate mosaic of Ganymede being carried by an eagle from Mount Ida, and a beautifully detailed mosaic which depicts Venus and the gladiators. Part of the floor by the latter mosaic has given way and reveals a very well preserved example of a hypocaust – an underfloor heating system (another example of the ingenious Romans!).
Fishbourne Roman Palace
Travel about 20 miles south of Bignor to find Fishbourne Roman Palace, one of the largest Roman residences in Britain, which also contains many well-preserved mosaics. This sprawling complex, which once would have consisted of four wings and formal gardens, was only discovered in 1960 (with about half of the buildings still lying under a road and modern houses).
It’s believed that there was a villa at Fishbourne from the time of the first occupation and the buildings where continually enlarged and developed over the next three hundred years. In its early years, the standard of decoration at Fishbourne is thought to have surpassed anything else in Britain at the time. However, during the late third century there is evidence of a serious fire, which is believed to have destroyed large parts of the villa and the palace the fell into ruin. A well laid-out boardwalk now takes your around the ruins and right up next to the beautiful mosaics.
Roman Baths, Bath
The Romans were quick to take advantage of Bath’s natural springs and developed an impressive network of bathhouses around the constantly flowing warm waters. The Baths are undoubtedly one of the wonders of Roman Britain – not only home to the only hot springs in Britain but the complex of bathhouses is one of the best-preserved Roman spas in the world.
The Roman Baths are mainly below the modern street level and has four main features: the Sacred Spring; the Roman Temple; the Roman Bath House; and finds from Roman Baths. Take the audio tour (included with your ticket price) to guide you informatively through the various areas. The magnificent centrepiece of the Roman Baths bathing complex is the Great Bath. This massive pool, lined with layers of lead, is filled with the hot spa water. It once stood in an enormous barrel-vaulted hall that rose to a height of 40 metres. Now the roof has gone and you walk around the terrace which overlooks the Great Bath and is lined with Victorian statues of Roman emperors and governors of Britain. This also gives a lovely viewpoint out over central Bath towards one of Bath’s other highlights, the Abbey church.
A word of warning though, the site gets very busy and it is often necessary to queue on entry – try to visit as soon as possible after it opens for the quietest experience. And don't forget to head to the Pump Room restaurant to have a free taste of the drinkable spa water as you leave.
The towns & cities of Chester, St Albans, Cirencester and London all have strong Roman connections but York, or ‘Eboracum’ as it was known, in particular had an important role to play in Roman times. The Romans created the city in AD71 and, for the next three centuries, they turned it into a centre of world importance. One emperor was acclaimed in the city, and two died here.
If in York, take a walk around the part Roman (although part medieval) city walls and, if in need of some refreshments, track down The Roman Bath Inn – now a pub. It was discovered in 1930 that this building was on top of York’s Roman Baths and there’s a display about the discovery, together with some of the ruins, in the basement. Just outside the famous medieval Minster, you will find a stone carved Roman column, which was found in the foundations of the Minster itself.
There are many other sites which you could search out if you are looking for some signs of Roman heritage. If you would like any other ideas and would like some help planning your trip to see Britain’s Roman heritage, please get in touch.