Roman Britian - Towns and Countryside



Britain was no different to other parts of the empire; the Romanisation included the building of a network of roads and cities.

These cities then acted as the economic centres.

In order for the cities to flourish there needed to be a secure economic base.

The most fundamental economic change the Romans incorperated was in terms of basic infrastructure, foremost the establishment of a currency which was not only stable but universal.

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Exploitation of the local mineral resources were swift, even before the Roman occupation resources such as tin were being exported from Britain to the Roman sphere of influence on the continent.

Post Roman invasion gold was mined in Dolaucothi in Wales

The tin industry in Cornwall was maintained and Claudius also pushed the extraction of lead from Clwyd.

Copper was extracted in North Wales and Iron was being worked in the Weald.

Important areas such as these became imperial estate and may explain why they are blank on diagrams such as the one showing the distribution of villas.

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Cities were not large by modern standards, the largest Roman City in Britain was London estimated at 133 hectares.These larger cities acted as administrative centres for their regions and had the necessary buildings to serve this purpose.

There is a big difference between the well-ordered larger towns and the smaller disorganised ones such as Kenchester where there is no grid and the houses merely cluster around the roads.

The population of Roman Britain was estimated at totals between 2 and 6 million with the latter seeming more likely as discoveries continued.

It is impossible to tell the proportion of people living in towns but with agriculture as the main industry it seems likely that the majority of people would be living in the countryside whilst a large proportion of the provinces wealth would be situated in the centres.

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The creation of a network of roads and towns is one of the most enduring aspects of the Romans achievement.and the success of the sites chosen can be seen by the fact that, inconveniently for archaeologists, the majority of the sites are still modern urban centres today.

All major cities were laid out on regular lines, the colonies adhered more to the Roman grid plan not least because most of them such as Gloucester and Lincoln were built on the sites of legionary bases handed over for civilian use when the army moved forward.

The individual blocks in the grids were known as insulae and in all urban settlements the central insulae was occupied by the forum.

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The Forum

In provinces like Britain the forum tended to be a uniform rectangular space where the public buildings such as the basilica and the temple of the imperial cult were sited and business and commerce conducted.

The grandest forum in Britain was the one at St Albans measuring 94 by 62 metres.

Most fora were much less grand often following the pattern adopted by Silchester where the forum consisted of a space measuring 43 by 39 metres with a colonnade and shops on three sides and the west side occupied by the basilical hall.

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Other Examples

As well as the forum and basilica which served administrational needs most Roman Britain towns were expected to have a permanent market hall (macellum) such as the ones to be found at St Albans, Wroxeter and Leicester.

Some cities are known to have had grand public monuments such as the monumental four-way arch at Richborough on the Kent coast. This was constructed in Ad 80-90 and marked the main point of entry into the province. There were at least three triumphal arches at St Albans all standing on the line of Watling Street.

Other important buildings to be found can be divided into those with a social function i.e. baths and theatres and those with a religious function i.e. Temples. All have been found in Roman Britain although buildings such as theatres and other such entertainment places are less common.

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Temples came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the simple Roman Celtic square temple which can be seen at Caerwent through to the grand precinct and temple of the imperial provincial cult at Colchester.

As with other aspects of Romanisation the essentially tolerant attitude toward Celtic religion sees the survival of some native forms of temple, such as the Romano-Celtic square style which was inherited from the pre-roman period.

The temple to Sulis Minerva at Bath and the temple to Claudius at Colchester are both examples of the classical form of Roman temple. Standing on high platforms with columnar facades supporting decorative pediments.

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Theatres and Ampitheatres

The remains of only one theatre, the one at St Albans, can be seen above ground today.

We do however know that there were theatres at other towns such as Canterbury and Colchester.

Roman theatres were normally D shaped however the one found at St Albans is almost entirely circular with a stage building; it appears as though it may have been used for the kinds of displays normally seen in the amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre was generally more popular in the western provinces and Britain is no exception where they can be seen in many towns including Silchester and Dorchester. All these amphitheatres consisted of earthen banks rather than the monumental stone construction. They would have been used to watch gladiatorial combats, animal displays, public executions and public meetings.

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Bathouses were an essential element in Roman life.

Like temples they ranged from the modest to monumental and as a consequence of their vital social function the often became almost as important as the forum for business.

The basic plan applies to all baths as the system involves a set route through a variety of rooms. Most commonly the bath houses ressembled their successors the Turkish baths and contained three main bathing rooms each at a different temperature.


  • ·         Undress in the apodyterium (changing room)
  • ·         Proceed to the Frigadarium (cold room)
  • ·         On to the Tepidarium – (warm room)
  • ·         Then to the Calidarium (hot room)
  • ·         Make your way back through ending with the Frigadarium
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Baths Continued

One of the larger baths found in Britain was the one at Wroxeter which was 122 metres long with bathing rooms taking up 46metres. The bath at Leicester was also large and had parallel sets of bathing chambers perhaps so that male and female clients could bathe simultaneously. The normal way around this was with a sort of rota and controlling admission times.

The most famous bath in Britain was of course those that stood at Bath. Here the baths exploited the sacred hot springs which attracted visitors for healing purposes from throughout the province and even the continent.

Other baths were often placed near a natural water source however in some cases aqueduct systems drove water uphill, ie at Lincoln.

Lincoln also had a grid of underground sewers which although not uncommon back in Rome was exceptional for Roman Britain.

Most cities water supplies ran into the city in leats.

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One way of looking at urban prosperity would be to observe how the walls of cities throughout the empire contract and expand in terms of size and thickness.

In general across Roman Britain with London as an example the walls reflect the early confidence and expansionism with subsequent contraction and general feelings of insecurities, as shown by the addition of Bastions in the fourth to what were already heavily fortified defences erected in the third.

The colony of Gloucester had defences by the early second, which consisted of earthen banks about 1.5m thick with internal stone towers. These defences in due course were increased, and thickened wholly replaced in stone and rose in height showing the feelings of uncertainty were growing.

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Signs of Decline

There is evidence to show that there was significant urban decline by the fourth.

The Basilica and the forum at Silchester was sub-divided into small units for metal processing.

The great public baths at Wroxeter ceased to be maintained and were abandoned by about 300.

The basilica and forum at Leicester were destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.

These are strong indicator of urban malaise. As the towns degenerated into poorly maintained market centres the country estates were forced to become self-sufficient with less contact with the declining urban centres.

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Development of Agriculture

Agriculture was vital to Roman Britain.

The Romans brought with them new crops and tools but the agricultural revolution was well underway before the conquest. However with an army to feed it was urgently necessary to develop Britain’s agriculture so that they could stop importing food from Rome.

The swiftest change was to use the land previously un occupied and the size of Britain’s agricultural sector increased dramatically.

This is especially evident in the South where the distribution of Villas shows that this is predominantly arable land.

The development of agriculture also became possible with the availability of new tools, Iron had become more readily available and ordinary farmers soon had access to iron shod spades, ploughs and steel axes.

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Development of Agriculture Continued

Iron meant that all of these were sharper, more durable and better able to deal with the heavy clay soils.

Even the sickle was improved with the addition of a new handle which improved grip and swing.

The most significant improvements however were to the plough. This gained both a horizontal bladed iron ploughshare and the addition of a coulter board which meant that now it turned the soil over rather than merely cutting into it. It was therefore during the Roman occupation that furrows could first be seen in British fields.

Fields were also improved by better knowledge of draining methods and the construction of wells. As a consequence of these simple technological advances woodland was more easily cleared and marsh land more easily drained.

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More animals could now be sustained and a surplus of dairy products and wool occured. the wool could then be turned into items such as the Birrus Britanicus and then exported.

There were also significant changes to crops

The Romans began encouraging the growth of Spelt which could be sown during the winter months and produce finer flour more suitable for bread. Rye, Oats and Flax were also encouraged. Granaries were given better drainage by raising them up off of the floor.

 The Roman occupation also saw the introduction of a range of root crops, including, Turnips, carrots, parsnips, celery peas and cabbage. Some of these were also winter crops and aided the feeding of animals throughout the winter.

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Villa meant farm to the Romans. Most villa owners were likely to have been Romano-British, it is believed the villa at Woodchester was built for an imperial officer.  

The villa at Lockleys grew from a simple Belgic hut into a winged corridor villa. The presence in the grand villas of heating, mosaics and wall paintings shows how the Romano British upper classes came to enjoy the benefits of Roman occupation.

 Occasionally as seen at the Chedworth villa there are two sets of domestic apartments, as though two families, or two halves of the same family, lived there.

Villas therefore seem to be the posh country houses of the rich who also had access to town houses. They may have been used for weekend entertaining and relaxation where the tired businessman could combine his business and leisure.

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Villas Continued

The villa at Great Witcombe, Gloucestershire, had extensive entertaining quarters with a long verandas and fine views.

The farms at these villas would often be run by a bailiff allowing the owners to be away. Villas therefore had two functions, one was to entertian in and the other was as productive farms.

Not all villas performed both at some sites only very functional houses were found and it seems safe to assume that these may just be run by bailiffs with the owner rarely visiting.

One example of a non-entertaining villa is the one at Hambledon, here there was a huge capacity for drying corn and 70 bronze pens were found suggesting government use to document production and distribution of the corn. There were also 97 infant burials suggesting heavy slave use and a prison camp style of running.

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Distribution of Villas

The distribution of villas is significant, the majority of villas can be found south of the Fosse Way. One reason for this is the fertile land and also the fact that this was the first area conquered.

Pockets of villas crop up in South Wales and Yorkshire but most of the farming practices it would appear were concentrated in the south. Villas also show the areas that were handed over to civilian control, the areas that are still heavily militarised show a distinct lack of villas.

As cities and towns began to decline the villas came into their own, there is evidence for the practice of Christianity and in the case of Lullingstone Villa there is no doubt about this as there is the famous wall painting depicting the Chi Rho symbol. It is notable that the Christian apartments were situated away from the rest of the villa allowing for speculation that they may have been used as the local church.

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Villas - the end

The Lockleys villa shows well how the development of villas occurred, starting with a round house and ending after several stages as a winged corridor villa.

There is no clear end to the villa in Britain, they were flourishing in the first quarter of the fourth century and went into decline thereafter, as with the villas at Gadebridge Park, many villas may have declined in the same way with their bath suit demolished and the site taken over for animal pens.

In place of the grand house a modest cottage can be found. In other words farming continued but there was no longer any need for elaborate living quarters.

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