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Silchester - A Roman Town

Britain was an important province within the Roman Empire and there are many well-known Roman sites, familiar to visitors, but there are also other sites less well known. Less than 50 miles west of London is Silchester Roman City and Amphitheatre. The city enclosed an area of nearly 100 acres and was at the junction of several major roads. The ‘Devil's Highway’ connected it with the provincial capital Londinium (London) and at Calleva this road divided into routes to various other points west, including the road to Aquae Sulis (Bath); Ermin Street to Glevum (Gloucester); and the Port Way to Sorviodunum (Old Sarum near modern Salisbury).

One of the very good interpretation boards provided by English Heritage

Photo: Roy Nicholls

A plan of the layout of Roman Silchester

Photo: Public photo

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum - "Calleva of the Atrebates") was originally an Iron Age settlement, capital of the Atrebates tribe. The Late Iron Age settlement at Silchester has been revealed by archaeology to link Silchester with the seat of power of the Atrebates and coins found stamped with "COMMIOS" show that Commius, king of the Atrebates, established his territory and mint here. The ‘oppidum’ (Celtic fortified town) was situated on the edge of a gravel plateau, underlying the subsequent Roman town. The Inner Earthwork, constructed c. 1 BCE (Before Current Era), enclosed an area of 32 hectares, and a more extensive series of defensive earthworks was built in the wider area.

The Roman town was divided into 37 blocks (insulae) and in dry summers this grid can be traced as parch marks in the grass. The insulae contained the houses, shops and workshops of the people of the town. Houses ranged from small, modest dwellings to large complexes with impressive mosaic floors built around courtyards. And adjacent to the south gate was a mansio, a large building complex, rather like an inn, that supported the imperial courier service. At the centre of the town stood the forum basilica where justice and taxation were administered, and the forum itself was the marketplace.

Silchester from the West

Photo: Roy Nicholls

Part of the Western Wall

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The city wall with a very determined Yew tree!

Photo: Roy Nicholls

There was a large public bath house, close to a natural spring, many temples and a possible Christian church. The decline of the Roman Empire led eventually to the abandonment of the Roman town at Silchester sometime after 410 BCE, when the province itself was abandoned. Major buildings at the site were still in use around 400-430 BCE, and there is an hypothesis that the city remained in use during the sixth century, thanks to its sturdy walls, but there is no archaeological evidence that urban life existed at Calleva beyond c. 450 at the latest. This contrasts with most other Roman towns in Britain, which continued to exist after the end of the Roman era. Calleva, is one of six towns that did not survive the sub-Roman era and disappeared in the early Middle Ages.

The South Gate

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The South South Gate looking eastwards

Photo: Roy Nicholls

Today, the most visible remains are the town walls and the north and south gates. The amphitheatre lies just outside the walls and is still impressive. The amphitheatre would have been used for gladiatorial combat, wild beast fights and public executions.

Most of the outer masonry has been robbed away, leaving the inner core

Photo: Roy Nicholls

A good section of the city wall with a 'modern' road alongside

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The main entrance to the amphitheatre

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The interior of the amphitheatre

Photo: Roy Nicholls

A section of the original defensive ditch

Photo: Roy Nicholls

For any visitor wishing to explore the site, there is a Silchester Trail that follows the city walls (follow the green signs), with interpretation boards at regular intervals, an iPhone app (available from the App Store) developed by Reading University and a short audio tour, which is available from English Heritage’s web pages on Silchester.

The visitors trail, courtesy of English Heritage

Photo: Roy Nicholls

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