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Why did the Romans decide to build a legionary fort at Caerleon and
why did this fort seem to become less active towards the end of
the Roman occupation of Britain?
Having already established two major forts in York and Chester, the
Romans went on to build a third in South Wales at Caerleon. Three forts,
however, were an unusually large number for a country under Roman
occupation to have. So just what led the Romans to build a third after the
invasion of Britain had been more or less accomplished? In this essay I will
endeavour to explore the various reasons that may have led the Roman
Army to reach such a decision and will explain why a fort stationed in such
a place was of vital importance to the military strategies at that time.
The actual fort was first established by Sextus Julius Frontinus, a member
of the Roman aristocracy and governor of Britain from 75-78 AD. The fort was constructed
within the territory of the Silures, a particularly troublesome tribe that cost the Romans a great
deal of time and energy to control. The Romans may have built the fort in such a place to
administer more effective control over the Silures and to ensure that soldiers were always close
by in case of a surprise attack or other pugnacious act on the part of the nearby tribes.
Caerleon also offered good transport and communication links with the rest of the Roman
Empire; next to the Bristol channel, there was a quick and effective way to reach the mainland
and, within reasonable distance of Chester, messengers could easily be dispatched and be
expected to return fairly soon. This was a major bonus as the Roman Army, although well
organised, worked as a body to defeat the enemy and therefore the different legions needed to
be in constant communication with each other. Caerleon was home to the second legion of
Augustus, one of the two major legions that exercised control over Roman Britain.
The site at which the camp was built was also selected because there were natural defences
that protected against flooding and other strong weather. With the site high in the hills above
the floodplain, there was little risk of inundation and, encircled by the rivers Usk and Afon Lwyd,
the region was easily defendable and of great advantage to the Roman Army.
Aside from maintaining control over the Silures, the Romans had not yet penetrated
significantly past the Welsh border. As with Hadrian's Wall, the fort at Caerleon may have been
partially a base that marked the end of Roman occupation and endeavoured to control the
region around it to stop a rebellion from stirring. This would be a necessity to sustain effective
domination of the country and prevent a large-scale uprising.
Another important factor that must be taken into consideration is that South and Mid Wales
are particularly mountainous areas of the type of terrain that did not suit the Roman Army. As
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Scotland, they found Wales difficult to control and effectively move about; the Roman
Army generally marched in a straight line, overcoming all obstacles that it encountered instead
of encircling them. This proved difficult when there were so many valleys and rivers to cross and
it therefore made transport of units a particularly slow process. Naturally, it would be useful to
station a legion in such an area so that if the need arose they would be nearby and ready for
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Arguably, all Roman settlements must have become less active as Roman occupation
continued; partially as there was not much need for battle once the country was well occupied
and controlled. However, was Caerleon even less active than the other settlements at that
time? If so, why?
It is believed that the fort was largely abandoned from about 300-380