The Roman Conquest of Britain in AD 43 brought with it our first roads and towns, our calendar and our first nationwide currency. The sites they left behind are now some of the country’s best-loved heritage sites, some of which have remained in place for the best part of two thousand years
What’s a medieval castle, founded only in the 11th century, got to do with the Romans? Being the British mainland’s closest point to Continental Europe, Dover has consistently been an important base for trade, travel and defence, and it is thought that the use of the site now occupying Dover Castle may have been utilised from as early as the Iron Age. What is known about the early origins of the site was that it was used by the Romans – evidenced by a rather unique structure in its grounds, adjacent to the St Mary in Castro church.
Constructed sometime during the 2nd century AD, when Dover was known as Dubris, this stone tower is a Roman pharos, or lighthouse, and is the most complete Roman structure standing in Britain. The 8-sided tower is something really rather special, with only three examples of Roman lighthouses existing anywhere in the world (another of which is also in Dover, though only a small section remains).
Fishbourne Roman Palace
Discovered by accident during construction works in the 1960s, the foundations of the Roman villa at Fishbourne lay undisturbed for centuries. Located to the west of the city of Chichester, once a major Roman city known as Noviomagus Reginorum, Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest Roman residence discovered in Britain, and would have had around one hundred rooms, seven of which were dedicated to bathing. It is thought that the early palace could have been the home of a local client king, installed to reign over the Regnenses tribe – the people of what is now West Sussex/Hampshire – who had chosen to align with the Roman Empire following the Roman Invasion.
The site boasts the largest collection of in situ Roman mosaics in the country. Originally laid with simple black and white mosaics, there are areas of the floor which were later replaced with the more complicated, colourful designs that Fishbourne is famous for today. The highly skilled craftsmen who created these designs were thought to have come from Rome, and spent time training local people in their art. The subtle variety in the quality of mosaic work around the site is a quirky reminder of this.
In its day the palace would have occupied a whopping 150-meter square, and today the remains of the villa’s North Wing are preserved for visitors to explore. In around 280AD the palace was destroyed by fire and much of the stone was looted, most probably by local rival tribes.
Up there with Hadrian’s Wall as one of Britain’s most famous Roman sites, the Roman Baths gave the picturesque city of Bath both its name and (along with its breathtaking 18th century architecture) its UNESCO World Heritage status. This spectacular site is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in Roman, or British, history. The temple at Bath, then named Aquae Sulis, was constructed around AD 60 and was developed over the following few hundred years into the extensive complex we know today.
The most iconic and well-known image of the Roman Baths is that on the great bath – the large mineral-rich pool surrounded by a reconstructed terrace, lined with Victorian statues which had been carved to celebrate the grand opening of the Roman Baths in the late 19th century. But there is a lot more to explore here; the remains of the changing rooms and saunas, the heated rooms and plunge pools – some of which are brought to life by projections demonstrating exactly how these rooms would have been used more than 2000 years ago.
As well as the surviving architecture the baths also have an extensive museum showcasing finds from Roman Bath, with gems including the glowing golden head of goddess Sulis Minerva, the remains of the bath’s pediment complete with the fascinating image of the Gorgon, and a selection of metal curses offered into the water of the Sacred Spring, which still steams and bubbles away to this day.
Arbeia Roman Fort
Not what you’d normally expect to see of a Roman site in Britain, Arbeia Roman Fort stands out because it does, actually, stand out. The imposing West Gate of the ruined fort at this site in South Shields has been reconstructed using extensive research gathered following excavations of the area and offers a very rare, albeit 20th century, look at a Roman fort.
Arbeia was a key base as it guarded the main sea route to Hadrian’s Wall. Located right at the mouth of the River Tyne it could both defend from incoming attacks, and act as a supply base for other forts along the lengths of Hadrian’s Wall. Today, visitors can climb the West Gate and look out onto the Tyne, as Roman soldiers would have done nearly 2000 years ago. Along with the gate there are also reconstructed barracks and the reconstructed Commanding Officer’s house, giving you an unrivalled peek into life inside this important strategic fortification, which was occupied right until the end of Roman Rule in Britain.
Housesteads Roman Fort
Taking its modern name from the nearby 18th century farmhouse, Housesteads was once named the much more evocative ‘Vercovicium’, meaning ‘the place of the effective fighters’. Housesteads Roman Fort is another auxillary fort situated along the 73-mile stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, intended to protect the northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
The fort boasts spectacular views over the rugged Northumberland National Park, and overlooks miles of Hadrian’s Wall Country – a prime spot for the 800 Roman soldiers stationed here to look out. The soldiers were self-sufficient within the fort, with the granaries, communal toilets, a hospital, Commander’s house, and the barracks still visible today.
A collection of Roman Finds from the Housesteads site can be seen in the onsite museum and at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
Nor far south-west of Housesteads sits Vindolanda, a Roman settlement predating Hadrian’s Wall. The site consists of a fort and vicus (self-governing village), with wooden forts being established here as early as 85 AD. Vindolanda lies upon the first Roman frontier in the north, the Stanegate Road, and continued to be occupied until 370AD. Each community that lived here over the 300 years it was inhabited rebuilt their homes and amenities, and this site saw no fewer than nine re-builds over the years.
The area has yielded several key artefacts relating to Roman Britain, including the Vindolanda tablets which, when they were discovered, were the oldest written documents ever to be discovered in Britain. The site also has a unique religious shrine containing three precious alters, dedicated to the mysterious cult of Jupiter Dolichenus; the alters are on display in the museum while three replicas sit in situ enabling the alters to be visible within their original setting for the first time in 1,800 years.
Today at Vindolanda you can explore amongst other things a large Pre-Hadrianic bath house, barracks, several commanding officer’s houses, headquarters, village houses, latrines, a shop and late Roman Christian church.
London’s Roman Amphitheatre
Walking across Guildhall Yard in the centre of the City of London you can’t help but notice the thick grey line interrupting the yard’s decorative paving and marking out an 80 meter wide curve. This outline highlights the former location of London’s own amphitheatre – the only amphitheatre in Roman Londinium, which was originally a wooden structure, built in AD70.
In the 2nd century AD the amphitheatre was revamped and a more substantial structure with tiled entrances and rag-stone walls, capable of seating 6,000 Romans in want of some serious entertainment. The amphitheatre would have hosted the usual animal fights, public executions and gladiator fights.
The amphitheatre was discovered in 1988, having been lost for centuries, during the building of the Guildhall Art Gallery. Today there are remains of parts of the original circular walls and drainage system lie preserved in situ in the gallery’s basement, free for visitors to explore and admire the ruins, with the help of some clever projections.
Chedworth Roman Villa
One of the largest Roman villas in Britain, Chedworth was discovered by chance by a Victorian gamekeeper in the 1860s. The earliest parts of the villa date to the 2nd Century AD, and the property was extended and improved until around 380 AD; it is thought to have once been the home of a very wealthy owner – evidenced by the lavish facilities, precious marble features and intricate mosaics.
A stroll around the villa today will reveal the luxurious bath-house with flushing toilets, some of the most impressive in situ mosaics in the country which are viewable from a suspended walkway, and the Nymphaeum – an octagonal pool built around a natural spring which was used to make offerings to the water goddess.
If you’re lucky you may spot some of the villa’s surviving inhabitants – the Roman snails brought here to the villa for food and now thrive in the area as a protected species.
Bignor Roman Villa
Discovered over 200 years ago by a farmer ploughing his field, the villa at Bignor in the South Downs National Park is a large Roman courtyard villa, dating from the end of the 1st century AD. The earliest structure is a simple farm building, followed in the middle of the 3rd century by a stone structure which was extended and improved over the next 50 years into the lavish home we can see the remains of today. The villa is still owned by the family who discovered it, more than two centuries ago.
Though it’s unclear whether the villa’s original occupants would have been Roman immigrants or Romano-British, they certainly would have been very wealthy, as is evidenced by Bignor’s spectacular mosaics. The mosaics, which are incredibly intricate, colourful and show extremely skilled craftsmanship, are some of the best preserved in the country.
Located under the European headquarters of global software and media company Bloomberg, the London Mithraeum was one of the most significant discoveries of Roman London in the 20th century. Found during construction work on an office block in 1954, the temple was moved out of harm’s way so that building work could continue, and when the office block was demolished and Bloomberg’s new headquarters were built the company decided to restore the Mithraeum to its original location, as it was found in the 50s.
The Mithraeum is a small temple which was dedicated to the mysterious cult of Mithras, a little-understood religion which first appeared in Rome in the 1st Century AD. It originally would have sat on the banks of one of London’s lost rivers – the River Walbrook.
As well as the temple remains the exhibition displays some of the finds from the area, including the famous Bloomberg Tablets – knocking the Vindolanda tablets off the podium as being the oldest written documents ever found in Britain, the Bloomberg tablets were discovered buried 40 feet underground at this very site.
near Great Yarmouth
Let’s face it, some Roman sites in Britain require quite a lot of imagination to truly appreciate how special they are. The late 3rd century Burgh Castle is quite unique – three of its stone walls survive almost in entirety, dotted with near-perfect circular turrets. It is one of the best-preserved Roman monuments in Britain.
Burgh Castle was built around the 3rd century AD as one of the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts – a network of forts situated between the Solent and the Wash designed to protect the rivers of the south east of Roman Britain against the threat of seaborne raids from Saxons. Originally, it would have occupied around six acres.
There is no visitor centre at Burgh Castle, but the area is a peaceful haven for wildlife, making the site ideal for those who enjoy connecting to their past in a more contemplative and quiet way.