What must it have been like as a Roman soldier on the coast of Wales or the West Country? Staring out over the Atlantic Ocean towards what you probably thought were the ends of the world. Though it was almost certainly not number one on a list of Roman legionary's dream postings, archaeological finds in Western Britannia suggest life wasn't as bleak as we'd imagine.
As I continue my tour of Roman Britain (inspired by my upcoming children's time-travelling adventure ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’), we now travel to the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire (Wales, the West Country and West Midlands to you and me). It might surprise you to know that these far-flung Roman possessions still have a number of fantastically well-preserved sites to visit. From the splendour of Bath to the military might of Caerleon, the western edge of the Roman Empire is rich with its own great monuments. To be honest, I’ve been a little surprised myself as my research has turned up many wonderful sites I’d never even heard of. But I will begin with one of the most famous Roman sites in Britain.
Although extensively and tastefully redeveloped by the Georgians to become the ‘modern’ spa town we see today, Roman Bath is still very much visible. It was named Aquae Sulis after the local Celtic goddess Sulis, whom the Romans incorporated into their own worship as Sulis Minerva, in an attempt to win local ‘hearts and minds’. Walking into the Roman baths is very much one of those ‘going back in time’ moments. Entering the Great Bath is perhaps the moment that sticks with me most, as, although much of it has been reconstructed, you are struck by how much of the original bath is still there. What I also love about the baths is that these are a piece of important day-to-day life in the Roman age. As you go through the remains of the changing rooms and the different pools (from the sauna to the cold plunge pool), you are following in the footsteps of everyday Roman subjects as they enjoyed a fundamental part of Roman life.
We now cross the modern-day border into Wales, which, of course, would have meant nothing to a Roman traveller who would simply have been continuing their journey in the Roman province of Britannia. At Caerleon we find extensive remains of a Roman fort, baths and an amphitheatre. This really dispels the image of the poor, unfortunate Roman legionary packed off to Britain with none of the creature comforts of home. Isca Augusta, as the Romans knew it, named for the nearby River Usk, really was an important town in Roman Britain. The well-preserved amphitheatre and the barracks (supposedly the best preserved Roman barracks in Europe) are perhaps the highlights of a visit. There are also a Roman Baths Museum and a Roman Legion Museum and everything is free entry. Proving that Isca Augusta was not an isolated example of a well-developed Roman town in the far west, you can also visit the smaller remains of Venta Silurum nearby, which include those of a marketplace, town wall and temple.
A surprisingly well-preserved town which started life as a military base for the Roman invasion of what is now Wales. The Roman town of 'Viroconium' boasts the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in Britain, a large bathhouse and even a reconstructed Roman townhouse. It also includes well-preserved public latrines where the men of Viroconium would have talked business while they did their business!
Littlecote Roman Villa, Wiltshire
Not a bad find to dig up in your back garden. The owner of nearby Littlecote House discovered Littlecote Roman Villa in his grounds in the eighteenth century. Not much remains of the villa, but what does remain is perhaps one of the finest mosaics in Roman Britain still in situ. The 'Orpheus Mosaic' is remarkable for its quality and its state of preservation. In amongst various animals and elaborate designs you will find the great figure of classical myth Orpheus, of course, but also the gods Bacchus and Apollo.
Cirencester or 'Corinium' was fortified by the Romans from very early on in their occupation of Britain. Though some remains are visible of the amphitheatre and walls, Cirencester’s significance is in its Corinium Museum. It is well-known for its collection of mosaics from sites around the Cirencester area. Highlights of the collection include a tombstone for a lady called Bodicacia - a name not seen before and believed to be derived from that of the rebel British Queen Boudicca - and jewellery including an exquisite bronze cockerel from a child’s grave.
I hope you have enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of western Roman Britain, but before we leave it behind, I’d like to make honourable mentions of a few sites. Lunt Roman Fort in Warwickshire is a large-scale reconstruction on the excavated remains of an original fort. It deserves particularly honourable mention as it was built in the aftermath of Boudicca's rebellion - the same period as that in which my book is set. The site will give you a good impression of what a Roman fort would probably have been like and is also the scene of fun-looking re-enactments.
And finally I will leave you on the far western shores of the Roman Empire, in Anglesey. I loved reading the Roman historian Tacitus’s tales of the Roman invasion of Anglesey (complete with terrifying British women brandishing flaming torches and awe-inspiring Druids chanting prayers) and I remember being flabbergasted that the Romans made it this far. Further evidence of the Romans' conquest of this island, which must have seemed a world away from Rome, can be found at Segontium Roman Fort, just outside Caernarfon and at Holyhead Roman fort, a stone’s throw from the ferry to Ireland.
You will be able to find out more about Roman Britain in the first book of the 'Pete's time-travelling underpants' series, which is out later this month.
So, have your favourite sites in 'Western Britannia' made it into the list? Let me know in the comments below.