Roman Towns and Villas

Roman Towns and Villas 

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- There were supposedly no towns before the Romans invaded in AD 43, but there were tribal centres, known as OPPIDA meaning 'fortified settlement' 

Strabo says:

 'Their cities are the forests, for they fell trees and fence in large circular enclosures, in which they build huts and pen in their cattle, but not for any length of time.' 

Oppida examples:

- Leicester

- Winchester

- Silchester

- Colchester

- Chichester

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Only 5 towns in Britain from the post - invasion period have NO evidence of a previous occupation:

- York

- Caerwent

- Carmathen

- Aldborough

- Wroxeter

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Types of Town


Was originally a trade - centre and PROVINCIAL CAPITAL (the first of many) 

Examples from London:

- Waterloo Helmet

- Battersea Shield

- Wandsworth Shield

- Human skulls found in the Walbrook 

AD 60 - Tacitus Annals called London an 'emporium' (trading centre), seventeen years after the invasion London, as was Colchester and Cirencester, were big enough to warrant being destroyed by Boudicca in AD 60/61

- Was possibly a relgious site e.g ritual depositions in the River Thames 

- Not planned as a town, highest point in the river for tallships

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All roads led to London

First buildings were made out of wood, wattle and daub except for the temples

PRAETORIUM - residences for governor?

Fort on south - east side - military drawn from units as beneficiarii

Multiple public baths - although most towns only have one, this shows extensive urbanisation 

Walls and temples 

The Arras Medallion - shows importance of London, pictures the arrival of the emperor into London

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Established AD 47 - 49

4 -6 years after the conquest of Britain

Colony for ex - soldiers 

Tacitus Annals: 

' A strong settlement of veterans installed as a reserve against rebellion and to instill in our allies the habit of observing the laws. ' 

'Founded on native territory'


Every town had a forum or market place at its heart, except COLCHESTER 

Chariot racing track found in Colchester, nowhere else in Britain

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Largest of the colonies, was about 44 hectares, but small in comparison to Cirencester being around 100 hectares and Roman London, being about 133. 

Somewhere like Brough - on - Humber only had 5 hectares = variety in size of towns

The grid plan of Colchester shows a strict adherence to grid planning and has a regular perimeter typical for a Colonia, because it owed its origins to a previous military installation. 

There is a grand precinct and temple of the imperial and provincial cult at Colchester, which was the meeting place of the annual provincial assembly = architectural focus for provincial unity 

There was also a vast temple of Claudius at Colchester, very classical in form, standing on a high platform with columnar facades supporting a decorated pediment 

It also had a theatre, as did


-Gosbecks Farm near Colchester

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Gloucester and Lincoln

Stuck to Roman grid plan like Colchester because colonies were the sites of legionary bases who were handed over for civilian use

GLOUCESTER - Private houses were built in neat rows on the lines of former barrack blocks

LINCOLN - The Mint Wall conveys a real sense of monumentality of these Roman centres

- Evidence of Colonies having the benefit from skilled military engineers e.g

- The elaborate covered and pressurized aqueduct system that drove water uphill through concrete sheathed pipes into Lincoln

- The head of the supply system inside the city was probably a pressurised cistern that may have stood on a heavy platform which has been found against the north wall of the colony

- The water was distributed around the city through lead pipes

- An octagonal basin was found in the lower city at Lincoln which was filled for people to collect water in

-Lincon also had a grid built of underground sewers, complex aqueduct & drainage system

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St Albans


- The ONLY municipia we know about in Britain because in AD 60/61 Boudicca burnt it down and TACITUS tells us it is a muncipium (Tacitus Annals)

- They were Roman citizens and could serve in the army

- was a CIVITAS CAPITAL and the THIRD to be established 

- Built in AD 140 and was a MAJOR OPPIDUM, was a Celtic Iron Age settlement

- Has a Roman theatre, the only one found in Britain because it is the only one we can see above ground today

- Did religious processions, dancing, plays

- St. Alban, a pagan who converted to Christianity, the first Christian martyr

- Working water system, because of hypocaust, underfloor heating and mosaics found- advanced

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St Albans

- Old Roman bricks used to build Normawn Abbey

- Most spectacular mosaics found there 

- Amphorae (wine jars) found here

- Open air theatre and public baths

- Game boards found = leisure

- Building was the main source of employment, using many types of materials e.g sewing and leatherwork 

- Tacitus comment that Agricola was responsible for encouraging the construction of the Fora (forums) comes from:

- The dedicatory inscription of the forum in the municipium of St. Albans erected in AD 79 and has Agricola's name

- St Albans forum was very grand, with a colonnaded walkway around it and behind this a basilica, curia (council house), and two temples = served adminstrative needs of town

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St Albans

- Also had a permanent market hall (macellum)

- A building with runs of shops arranged around the sides of courtyards with space for temporary stalls at the centre

- Alterations to the macellum at St Albans, which was equipped with a large raised platform may have been designed to create the space for a public weights and measures office

- Were at least three triumphal arches that all stood on Watling street, with two at the main gateways of the city and another near the theatre

- Most cities were supplied with open aqueduct systems where water ran into the city in leats, like St Albans

- In some cases the blocks occupied by military barrack units were taken over to provide the sites with terraces of domestic buildings with shops/workshops e.g at St. Albans

- Several of the buildings at St. Albans were probably the houses of urban farms, like Wroxeter and Silchester

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Types of Town


- Where a Civitas government is set up 


- Alongside roads where armies would stop and rest, bars and brothels


- Even smaller towns dependent on the presence of the Roman Army 

- Spread of main towns complete by around 120 - 130 AD

- Population estimate: 2 - 6 million 

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Ideal Roman Town

- Designed on a grid like a military camp, with main roads leading from gateways to the centre, e.g

- Silchester

- Forum or marketplace at its centre EXCEPT COLCHESTER

- Basilica or council hall/curia where the Ordo meets and records are kept, legal cases heard

- Temples, in theory supporting Jupiter, Juno and Minerva

- Bath house

- Theatre/Amphitheatre

- Areas for housing, sometimes quite grandiose with mosaics and wall paintings

- Other shops/ trade centres (macellum)

- There is a variety of urban settlement ranging from the COLONY with its FULL CITIZEN BODY beginning with a core of RETIRED LEGIONARIES to the lower status MUNICIPIA to various types of CIVITAS 

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1st three:

1) Cantium/Canterbury

2) Caesaromagus/Chelmsford



4) Venta Icenorum/Casstor - by - Norwich

5) Naromagus Regnorum/Chichester

6) Calleva Atrebatum/Silchester

7) Venta Belgarum/Winchester

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Example of a Small Town


- Right on top of the wall, actually crosses through it

- Vicus/Cannabae - Little settlements along the wall 

- 10 - 15% population lived in towns, others lived in small settlements

Tacitus Agricola on towns:

He gave 'official assistance to the building of temples, public squares, and private mansions.'

'So the Britons were gradually led on to the amenities that make vice agreeable, arcades, baths, and sumptuous banquets.'

- Although this is an extreme view, the Britons wouldn't have objected to being pushed into a Roman lifestyle and province as long as they gained material advantages from it.

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Town and City Sizes

- Small roadside settlements were at the bottom end of the urban scale

- The vici which arose around military centres, specifically in northern England where the full processes of urbanisation was never completed, were also low on the urban scale

- Larger cities acted as administrative centres for their regions and had necessary public buildings unlike smaller towns

- Notable difference between large cities with good planning etc. with somewhere like:

Kenchester in Herefordshire

Wall in Leicestershire

- These areas were where ribbon development of roads developed to the point where it was necessary to enclose the settlement with walls, but there was no concrete grid plan.

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More Towns

- Due to the great significance of AGRICULTURE its likely the majority of the population lived in the countryside

- Whilst a significant amount of the province's wealth was actually in the TOWNS, at least for the 1st and 2nd centuries before the Golden Age of villas

- The creation of a network of towns is one of the most long - lasting successes of Roman Britain

- This is evident due to the fact archaologists have difficulty in discovering more about towns, due to the fact the majority have had modern urban centres built over them

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- Had less regular perimeters, nevertheless adopted the grid plan, because it owed its origins to a previous military installation 

- The central insula (island) occupies the forum (market centre)

- Remains of an amphitheatre was found here

- Had an open aqueduct system where water ran into the city in leats

- Richer citizens has town houses like the courtyard houses of the Mediterranean, and quarters occupied by officers in the military forts

- In these houses rooms occupied 3/4 of the sides of the courtyard and parts of the building were heated by hypocaust systems

These houses have been found at:

- Caerwent, Cirencester and Leicester

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- Fragments of excavated decoration from these buildings show evidence for elaborately painted walls and mosaic floors 

- Cirencester has an early 4th century building complex with at least nine rooms, some with mosaic floors and painted walls, which formed part of an enclosure with three barns

- The only feature that distinguishes this house from its rural equivalent, the villa, is the fact it doesn't have a bath house

- It is likely the owner didn't see this as a necessary feature due to the public baths in town, which were very useful for meeting people with business or commerce

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- 70 miles north of Verulamium, on the FOSSE WAY (EXETER TO LINCOLN)

- Good water supply due to the RIVER SOAR

- Grid pattern

- Bathhouse, the famous JEWRY WALL BATHS

( For industry the brick and tile would have needed tile workers, fuel and transport, as would the stone, with quarrying/mining and masonry, and the aqueduct would have needed fuel/wood and lime mortar)

- The individual blocks on the grid were known as 'insulae' (islands) and in most urban settlements the central insula was occupied by the forum, Leicester shows this well. 

- Leicester also had its forum and basilica serving the administrative needs of the town, like most others

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- Leicester also had a macellum (market hall) 

- The JEWRY WALL COMPLEX at LEICESTER had parallel sets of bathing chambers, which might have allowed for simultaneous male and female bathing

- The massive JEWRY WALL was originally the dividing wall between the exercise hall and the changing room 

- Most cities were supplied with open aqueduct systems where water ran into the city in leats, shown here by:

- The Raw Dykes Earthwork, which can be seen curving into Leicester from the south.

- Richer citizens who had houses partly heated by hypercaust systems and resembled the courtyard houses of the Mediterranean also existed in Leicester, other examples are:

- Caerwent

- Cirencester

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Public Buildings - Forum

- Tended to be a fairly uniform rectangular space whose public buildings like the basilica, used for judicial purposes, and the temple of the provincial and imperial cult were conducted

- Unlike St. Albans, most other fora were less grand, often following the pattern adopted by Silchester where the forum was a space with a colonnade and shops on three sides, with the west side having a basilical hall

- No forum/basilica remains intact, but parts of these buildings are the most substantial non military relics of Roman Britain e.g Mint Wall at Lincoln

- The forum and basilica served the town's administrative needs, and most towns had a permanent macellum (market hall) e.g

- Leicester

- St. Albans

- Wroxeter 

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Public Buildings - Monuments

- Adding to countless statues of emperors and dignitaries some cities are known to have had very grand monuments

- Richborough has a magnificent four - way arch on the Kent coast. This was made in AD 80 - 90 and marked the main entrance to the province, presumably built to celebrate the conquest

- There were at least three triumphal arches at St Albans on Watling street

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There is alot of diversity in the architectural type of temple

- There is the simple, square so called ROMANO - CELTIC temple where the foundations can be found in the remains of the urban settlement at Caerwent 

- There is the grand precinct and temple of the imperial and provincial cult at Colchester

- Like other aspects of Romanisation there was an essentially tolerant attitude towards Celtic religion, this is reflected in the surivival of the native temples, which importantly contributed to the successful 'civilisation' of the province

- The Romano - Celtic temple was inherited from the pre - Roman period and was a square structure surrounded by a verandah and had a high central shine lit by clerestory windows

- The huge temple of Claudius at Colchester and Sulis Minerva at Bath = very classical, on high platforms with columnar facades supporting decorated pediments

- Variety in terms of size, the most commmon type of religious structure was the simple rectangular shrine e.g Antenociticus at Benwell.

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- The only theatre that can be seen above ground today is the one at St. Albans (Verulamium) 

- However, we know there were theatres at:

- Brough - on - Humber

- Canterbury

- Colchester 

- Gosbecks Farm near Colchester

- Roman theatres were normally D shaped but the St. Albans theatre had an almost circular arena with a stage building, meaning it was probably used for the kind of display in amphitheatres. 

- These were generally more popular than theatres

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Military amphitheatres were found near the legionary fortresses of Caerleon and Chester

Remains of amphitheatres have been found at:

- Aldborough

- Carmathen

- Chichester

- Cirencester

- Dorchester

- Silchester

Late amphitheatres were at: Caerwent and Richborough from excavation

- These all were earthen banks rather than monumental constructions, and would have accomodated large numbers to watch gladitorial contests, animal displays and have public meetings

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Bath Houses

- Essential in Roman life

- Like temples, ranged from modest to monumental

- Because of their vital social function they were often almost as important for the conduct of law, administration and business and commerce as the forum and basilica

- Bath houses operated in a system that moved the bathers from room to room:

1) After ********** in the changing room the bather would go to the cold room with a cold plunge bath

2) They would then go to the warm room

3) They would then enter the hot room, with a hot plunge bath normally positioned directly on top of or very close the the furnaces

- The bather then returned backwards through the system

- Some bath houses had a hot dry room and exercise yard too

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Examples of Bath Houses

- The public baths at Silchester were a simple row of spaces and rooms with an exercise yard and changing room, and the rooms for the three stages of bathing, as well as a hot dry room attached to the warm room. It is about 48 metres long 

- In terms of plan and size the baths at Silchester compare closely with the military bath house of the auxiliary fort at Hardknot in Cumbria, showing how smaller urban bath houses are almost indistinguishable from the bath houses attached to forts

- The Old Work at Wroxeter shows the massive scale of some of the civic bath houses, it still stands 8 metres high

- The Jewry Wall Complex was another grand civic bath house, had parallel sets of bathing chambers - simultaneous male/female bathing?

- The massive Jewry Wall itself was initially used as a dividing wall between the exercise hall and the changing room 

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Examples of Bath Houses

- The biggest bath house was the enormous bath complex at BATH

- This was a special case because the baths exploited the sacred HOT SPRINGS which were the reason for the foundation of AQUAE SULIS - 'Waters of Sulis' 

- This attracted visitors for healing purposes from throughout the province

- Places like Silchester and Caerwent had large courtyard buildings inside their gateways with bath houses 

- These buildings were probably inns, which provided small bath houses as part of their services to travellers

- Military baths were often placed near convenient water supplies

E.G - The site of the fort at Corbridge moved from the Red House, the bath house remained beside the stream, which caused its original location 

- For baths to flourish they needed adequate water supplies e.g Lincoln 

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In towns the most common buildings were houses, shops, and small business buildings

Frequently they were combined in long strip buildings 

In some cases the blocks occupied by military barrack units were taken over to provide sites with terraces of domestic buildings e.g Caerwent, St. Albans, Wroxeter, and even a vicus, set up outside the fort at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall

Richer citizens had houses resembling the Mediterranean courtyard houses, and in these houses the rooms occupied 3/4 sides of the courtyard and were heated by hypocaust systems e.g Caerwent, Cirencester, Leicester 

Fragments of decoration show they had painted walls and mosaics 

The variety of forms of town house have a strong similarity to the variety of domestic buildings on villa estates 

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Town and Country

- The distinction between town and country could be really blurred because often town houses were in large patches of land which served as URBAN SMALLHOLDINGS inside the walls of Roman cities 

- Several of the buildings at Silchester were probably the houses of urban farms, which has also been suggested at 

- St. Albans

- Wroxeter 

- Cirencester had an urban townhouse early 4th century building with mosaic floors and painted walls with nine rooms, but the only thing distinguishing it from a villa is the lack of a bath house

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