WROXETER – VIRICONIVM CORNOVIORVM
(Whilst my blogs are mostly about Later Roman and Post Roman Britain, I thought it was also worth taking a look at the the earlier history of this amazing city. The images you’ll see here were created by a company I was co-director of called Pastscapes. The modelling work was done by my friend and colleague, Peter Hurst. Texturing, lighting and Photoshop work was done by yours truly).
Wroxeter (Viriconium Cornoviorum) near Shrewsbury in the English county of Shropshire, over 200 acres in size and with 2 miles of ‘walls’, was one of the largest Roman-Briton cities in its time with a population of about 5,000. It even outlived the Roman occupation by 200 years before finally being abandoned with the arrival in the region of the Angles. The arrival of the Romans in this part of Britain happened in 47 AD – 4 years after they landed in Britannia – when they attacked the hill fort of the Wrekin Hill. The Cornovii tribe of the region – whose territory covered what is now Shropshire, Cheshire, part of Staffordshire, part of Herefordshire, (possibly part of Merseyside), Wrexham, Flintshire and part of Powys – suddenly had new masters. In 58 AD the XIVth. Legion built a garrison fort by the River Severn (Sabrina/Hafren) where Wroxeter now stands.
After leaving for Armenia they were replaced by the famous XXth. Legion in 66 AD who spent the next 24 years here and it’s during this period that some of the Cornovii began to settle next to their Roman masters. This, in time, became a vicus: a settlement near a fort that supplied a number of services to it, such as shops, taverns and various forms of ‘entertainments’; savoury and otherwise!
The people of this settlement probably weren’t too happy when the legion was sent north to Chester (Deva) in 90 AD, abandoning the garrison and demolishing the fortress in the process. Although the legionnaires at this time weren’t allowed to marry the locals they probably made a lot of female ‘friends’. Some of the locals had obviously grown to like this new Roman, imperial way of living as they moved into the now abandoned fort and, with Roman guidance and plans, began to make it into the city we know of today, giving it the name of Viriconium Cornoviorum.
Viriconium may have had Roman overlords but it was essentially ‘British’. It became one of the many civitates; independent administrative centres, governed by the Britons themselves but under the supervision of a Roman provincial administration based in Londinium (London). It became, in effect, the capitol of the Cornovii region. It’s hard to tell whether or not the vast majority of the Cornovii were ‘happy’ with the Roman presence or not. It does remain somewhat of an enigma to archaeologists who still can’t quite understand how a successful Romanised city could exist in, what appears to be, an un-Romanised countryside: the only one of its kind in England. There are varying theories to explain this but none have yet come to the fore. The Cornovii’s feeling towards the imperialists probably were something like most conquered peoples: some liked it, some hated it and those in the lower strata of society didn’t care either way as they’d just swapped one set of masters for another.
The fact remains, however, that Viriconium was doing well even if the rest of its people weren’t behind it. The rest of the population were still living the same way they had probably been doing for a thousand years. Still in roundhouses and still living with their own customs and ways and still speaking their own language. It may have been these very traditions that attracted some of the populous to the city. The Iron Age traditions were all very well for the elite parts of society but there was no chance of furtherment in your life. From what can be gleaned about this society, if you were born into the lower classes, you stayed in the lower classes! The Romans had many faults but at least you were allowed, and encourage, to better yourself. Even slaves could end up in high government positions.
Latin was certainly encourage by the Romans and would have been the only written language as there was no written form of Brittonic at this time. The upper echelons probably learnt Latin because they needed to, but the rest may not have bothered or only learnt enough to get by. Some of the elite would have moved into the city to live in the large courtyarded city houses but others may have stayed where they were. Either way, it is these men who would have made up the native provincial council. The function of the council varied from province to province and there’s no specific information on how they functioned in Britain. It’s thought that they would have had to: raise money, promote annual games and festivals in connection with the Imperial Cult and settle tribal disputes … amongst other duties. (These native cities were even allowed to use British as well as Roman law). These were powerful people who not only had to govern a tribe now under the yoke of the Roman Empire but who were also expected to use their own money to help pay for new public buildings. In the case of the public baths, this must have been a considerable amount, but, as you’ll read below, they may have had some help.
Viriconium had, what is now called, Watling Street running through its ‘heart’: a Roman road that stretched from Londinium (London) through Viriconium, before turning south back down to Caerleon. A road that the modern A5 follows for much of its length to Shrewsbury. Other roads ran north to Deva (Chester) and on to Holyhead on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) on the Irish Sea. This would have meant a great deal of ‘traffic’ passing through the city, both civil and military. It was also the ‘artery’ for the imperial postage system: the cursus publicus.
Major towns and cities would have held the mansiones: staging post inns with stables and resting rooms for the riders of the system. Viriconium’s mansio was situated to the south east of the city. Roman roads could ‘grow’ in height over their history. This is because they would be simply added to. Some roads have ended up 2 meters above their original height, which has meant dwellings beside them having to give up their lower rooms and add another story to the building in order to access it!
We may have the Emperor Hadrian to thank for help in the building of Wroxeter’s (and other city’s) public baths. There were few public baths around in Britain in the first century AD, but a big building program in the mid second century. Could it just be a coincidence that Hadrian cancelled billions of sesterces owed to the treasury by impoverished municipalities and the baths sprang up after that? Or that a plaque dedicated to Hadrian was erected over the entrance to Wroxeter’s forum? We’ll never know. Whatever the reason, the 30 year gap since the beginning and halting of the construction of the baths was restarted in 150 AD. The forum and bath’s basilica, however, had been completed in 130 AD. The forum was not only a marketplace but a home to the forum basilica: the seat of power for the tribal council. The bath’s basilica, on the other hand, was a cathedral-sized exercise and socializing hall. Its size shows the important of socializing in Roman society and it is estimated that over 1000 people could have passed through per day. It was open to rich and poor alike and would have not only been filled with sweating men, woman and children, but with vendors selling their wares including Roman hamburgers!
The baths weren’t the only addition to Wroxeter at this time as the city boundary was extended and new defenses built. It’s unsure as to why this was done as there’s no indication of a threat at this time. Most of the Empire’s problems were happening much further north. It could be that this was merely done as a show of the city’s wealth or status. The defenses were not of the usual Roman stone wall construction, but more like the Iron Age hill fort ramparts with a ditch and palisaded gravel and turf ‘wall’. We don’t know if the Roman army supplied legionnaires or auxiliaries to guard the gates of the defenses or whether it just had ‘civil’ guards of some kind. The local populous weren’t allowed to be armed so it was either the former or an un-armed latter. This was a prosperous city that may have benefited from its dealings with the Rome. It was a city living the Roman ideal but with a local flavour. Its territorial size, fertile agricultural land, mines and salt deposits may have made it the perfect supplier for the large Roman legions based at Deva and elsewhere in its territory.
Wroxeter’s important dates go something like this (with a little homour thrown in) …
c. 122 AD The Emperor Hadrian visits Britain and might have come to Wroxeter. Well, it was the most westerly city of their empire and the wine wasn’t bad either!
c.130 AD The forum is dedicated to Hadrian and a large plaque is placed above the entrance to tell us so. The city walls are extended and Viriconium is now the fourth largest city in Roman Britain.
c. 150 AD The work on the massive bath complex shown in our images is restarted after a 30 year hiatus. When completed it is able to take 1000 customers a day – rich and poor, men and woman… although most of the wealthy had their own private baths. The baths would be open during daylight hours and the complex included the basilica (for exercising), shops, a bar and public toilets. The complex had all the ‘mod cons’ of the day, including double glazed windows!
c. 170 AD The forum is destroyed by a fire – and there was no insurance cover!
c. 306 AD The baths are refurbished after a long period of neglect. Must have been charging too high an entrance fee!
c. 378 AD The baths are refurbished again adding more buildings. – under new management? It’s this layout that can be seen at the ruins today. (The Romans and many Britons are now Christians).
c. 400 AD Baths mustn’t have been doing well again as the main bath block becomes disused. Maybe the populous were too worried about what was happening to the Empire to bathe!
c. 410 AD As the Romans depart, leaving Britannia to fend for itself, Wroxeter takes on its own administration. In fact, nothing much changes at Viriconium, except maybe for a drop in taxes and not so much Latin being heard around town.
c. 476 AD Cunorix, an Irishman, who may have been a military commander – Philips & Keatman call him a Welsh king – is buried in the town ramparts. Hopefully he was dead at the time.
c. 527 AD The baths and the basilica are partly demolished and changed into a new marketplace, replacing the baths as the centre of trade. Obviously Roman health and cleanliness were out!
c. 542 AD The town centre is redeveloped and a large wooden building replaces the basilica – and that is large! Some believe this may have been for the local warlord, but it’s more likely that the warlords went back to the safety of the hill forts and left Viriconium to the bishop.
547 AD The bubonic plague reaches the area, killing the king of Gwynedd (pronounced something like “Gwinneth”), Maelgwyn (pronounced something like “Malegooun”).
c. 642 AD Now the Anglo-Saxons are in control of most of what is today England, part of the British kingdom of Powys is merged with the Angle kingdom of Mercia and, for the price of peace, the bishop of Viriconium is told to pack his bags and leave what’s left of the city, which now dwindles away to become the village of Wroxeter. In the same year the kings of Gwynedd (Britons) and Mercia (Angles) – that’s Cadwallon and Penda – bash the hell out of King Oswald (Angles) of Northumbria at nearby Oswestry (my home town). Now the Britons, who have been pushed west or just given in to the Anglo-Saxons, are known as “Welsh” and live in “Wales” – both words merely deriving from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘foreigners’ or ‘slave‘- which is why the Welsh prefers to by known as Cymru (pronounced “Cummry”), which means “land of friends or comrades“.
(The above dates are from English Heritage’s Wroxeter brochure)
Source: ‘Wroxeter: Life & Death of a Roman City‘ – Roger White & Philip Barker