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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Where to see Roman Britain

The Roman Bath House, with the Gothic Bath Abbey in the background

While Britain doesn’t have Roman sites that are as large and magnificent as those to be found in Italy (Herculaneum and Pompeii, etc), North Africa (Dougga, the amphitheatre at El Jem, or the city of Leptis Magna), or in Turkey (Ephesus, etc), nonetheless there are some fascinating sites to visit. And while the levels of preservation are not as good as those found in countries with kinder climes, there is something particularly fascinating about exploring Hadrian’s Wall in weather that is as wet, misty and cold (and that is in the summer!), as that experienced by the Roman troops that garrisoned the Wall. Amongst my favourite Roman sites are places like Hadrian’s Wall and the Bath & Temple complex in Bath, that will be familiar to many visitors, but also sites that will not be so familiar.

The Roman Bath House

Britain (much of Scotland and all of Ireland is excluded) was occupied by the Romans for nearly 400 years and throughout most of that period had a large military presence (generally 3 Legions and up to 40,000 Auxiliary troops), so many Roman archaeological sites are connected with the Roman Army. Hadrian’s Wall is an obvious example of this, but there were also scores of military camps and forts, as well as Legionary Fortresses (castra) at York (Eburacum), Lincoln (Lindum), Chester (Deva) and Caerleon (Isca). Sometimes the level of preservation is very good, where you can see remains above and below ground (towers and walls in York, for instance), while many sites are only known from aerial photographs or very subtle humps and bumps on the ground. This large military presence was partly a consequence of Britain being a rich and lucrative province, known for producing, amongst other things, metals (including gold and silver), grain, slaves, and good hunting dogs. This wealth was often reflected in the many villas and ‘palaces’ that were built, particularly in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. And while for many years Britain was thought to have been a bit of a backwater in the Roman world, archaeologists and historians have come to realise that this was far from the truth, with Roman Londinium being a large and important city.

The South-West tower of the Roman fortress of Eboracum

Any visitor wishing to explore Roman Britain should certainly include Bath (Aquae Sulis), for its fantastic bath and temple complex, only revealed in the 19th century. On Hadrian’s Wall, I have always found the military and civilian settlement at Vindolanda particularly interesting. There were a series of both wood and stone forts built for the auxiliary troops that garrisoned this part of the wall. And outside the fort a vicus (small town) grew up, to house soldiers’ families, wine shops and taverns, traders, and craftsmen. Vindolanda has been excavated almost continuously since the 1950s, offering a fascinating insight into life in Roman Britain, and has a marvellous museum. York was a large and complex legionary fortress and in addition to well-preserved sections of its stone defences, the Yorkshire Museum displays thousands of artefacts from the Roman occupation of the city. And in the undercroft of the magnificent York Minster are the remains of the Roman headquarters’ building. Caerleon, in South Wales (Caerleon is Welsh for "fortress of the legion”), has substantial excavated Roman remains, including the military amphitheatre, thermae (baths) and barracks occupied by the Roman Legion.

An aerial view of Vindolanda, an auxillary fort and vicus on Hadrian's Wall

If you wish to see the remains of a Roman villa, visit Fishbourne Palace in West Sussex, the largest residential Roman building discovered in Britain (and possibly the largest known Roman residence north of the Alps, with a footprint bigger than Buckingham Palace), which has an unusually early date of 75 AD, around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain. The palace was probably built for Cogidubnus, a pro-Roman local chieftain who was installed as king of several territories following the first stage of the conquest and the palace was probably a reward for his loyalty to Rome. Many of the surviving rooms are on show and the museum has a superb collection of Roman mosaics, some of the earliest and best-preserved examples in Britain.

A model of the Royal Palace at Fishbourne

Detail of one of the many floor mosaics

In all, the Romans built 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of hard-surfaced highway in Britain, primarily for military reasons, and many survive as modern roads, or as track ways and footpaths that cross the modern countryside. Many miles of Roman road survive as an agger, the embankment or rampart that gave Roman roads the proper draining base. There are good sections of Roman road in Dorset, running north from the Iron Age fortress at Badbury Rings and walk-able sections of Stane Street, the Roman road that ran from Londinium (London) to Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester), between Eartham and Bignor in Sussex. And perhaps the most dramatic section of (probably) Roman road in Britain, is that on Wheeldale Moor in the North York Moors. This section is an enigmatic mile-long stretch of ancient road amid wild and beautiful moorland, and while the road is generally accepted as being Roman, it could possibly be earlier. It still has much of its original surface and the drainage ditches on either side.

Roman road on Wheeldale Moor, Yorkshire

One of the largest and most unusual Roman buildings in Britain, is the lighthouse (pharos) at Dover Castle in Kent. Being the closest point to mainland Europe and within the estuary of the River Dour, Dover (Dubris) was the perfect place to build a port. Dating from the 1st-century AD, the lighthouse still stands to 80ft (23m), close to its original height, and for a long time was adapted as the bell-tower of the adjacent church, St. Mary de Castro.

The Roman pharos, next to the Saxon church of St. Mary de Castro

Finally, if your time in Britain is limited and perhaps you are only visiting London, I would highly recommend both the British Museum and the Museum of London, who both have superb Roman galleries, with outstanding artefacts and exhibits.

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