‘A most wealthy island’ (opulentissima insula), is a view of Roman Britain which contrasts strongly with the more usual image of an embattled land on the margins of empire, dominated by the efforts of the Roman army to subdue and defend it. Yet from the invasion under Emperor Claudius in ad 43 to the withdrawal of the legions in ad 410, many features of Mediterranean civilization took hold in the province, especially in the South.
British cities most strikingly displayed the impact of Roman ways in Britain. As well as being centres for administration and taxation, they were also places where local aristocrats demonstrated their loyalty and showed off their wealth by paying for typically ‘Roman’ monuments such as fora, public baths, amphitheatres and theatres. They were economic centres where goods from across the empire such as wine or olive oil were brought to market, where craftsmen and specialists could be found and where the local farming population could obtain goods and services.
Verulamium (St Albans) was destroyed by Boudicca but grew to be one of the most important urban centres in Britain – and site of the execution of Britain’s first martyr. Caerwent in south Wales and Silchester in Hampshire were important local centres but were abandoned by later generations, leaving impressive remains.
In the countryside, residences of the wealthy are a spectacular category of Roman accomplishment. Absolutely exceptional for its early date, size and luxury was the villa or ‘palace’ at Fishbourne outside Chichester with its extraordinary suite of late-first-century mosaics. In the Cotswolds are many of the greatest villas of the 4th century, including Chedworth, with one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in Britain.
The agricultural wealth which paid for these villas, public buildings and city monuments was important also for sustaining the armies in Britain and on the Rhine. To ensure its safety as threats from across the North Sea grew, a chain of fortifications was constructed around the south-eastern coast, from the Wash to Portsmouth. Some of these remain amongst the best examples of late Roman military architecture anywhere, with the walls at sites such as Pevensey, Portchester and Richborough still standing up to thirty feet high. Richborough might also have been the beachhead for Claudius’s invasion, the one site witnessing the entire four hundred years of Roman rule in Britain.
Lullingstone. The coach leaves Angel Street, London EC1A, at 1.00pm for the Roman Villa in Lullingstone. Dating from the 1st century, the site contains a fine mosaic of Europa and the Bull and is famous for its early Christian wall paintings. Drive on to Canterbury for the first of two nights.
Richborough, Dover. Massive walls survive from the principal Roman port of Richborough and there are remains of an amphitheatre which formed part of the civilian town. Dover (Dubris) was the leading naval base and gateway to Roman Britannia, and within the walls of the great medieval castle is one of the best-preserved Roman lighthouses in Europe. There are also parts of a large mansio – (official hotel) for cross-Channel travellers with murals depicting scenes relating to Bacchus.
Pevensey, Chichester. Pevensey Castle was one of the last of the Roman Saxon Shore forts, and one of the strongest, probably built as part of a chain of defences against Germanic invaders. Two-thirds of the towered walls still stand. (A similar threat in 1940 led to machine gun posts being built into the walls.) Drive to Chichester through scenic countryside; the Novium Museum contains the remains of Chichester’s Roman bath house. First of two nights in Chichester.
Fishbourne, Bignor. Fishbourne Roman Palace is perhaps the greatest Roman villa to have been constructed in England. The floor mosaics rank among the finest in Europe. Further intricate mosaics are found at Bignor Roman Villa, probably home to a wealthy farming family and now conserved in an atmospheric rural setting. End the day at Portchester Castle, the best-preserved Roman fort north of the Alps, occupying a commanding position at the head of Portsmouth’s huge harbour.
Silchester, Bath. Morning visit to Silchester, a rare case of a Roman town which was completely abandoned with the result that the plan is known in detail. Continue to Bath and its huge Roman bathing complex that developed around natural hot springs, named after the Celtic-Romano goddess of the springs, Sulis Minerva. The museum here is the best of its kind in Britain. First of two nights in Burford, a picturesque town in the Cotswolds.
Chedworth, Caerleon, Caerwent. Ongoing excavations at the remarkable Chedworth Roman Villa have revealed extensive mosaic floors, hypocaust systems and bathhouse rooms. Cross the Welsh border and on to Caerleon, the site of Isca, a legionary fortress where substantial remains of the military amphitheatre and the barracks can be seen. The living quarters are reconstructed in the National Roman Legion Museum. Caerwent, named Venta Silurum following the defeat of the Silures tribe, was the neighbouring civilian town.
North Leigh, St Albans. Floor mosaics of the 3rd century survive at a villa in North Leigh, Oxfordshire. Verulamium, now St Albans (Hertfordshire), was the third largest town in Roman Britain. The exhibits in the museum include gold coins from the Sandridge Hoard, one of the largest collections found in the UK. Dating to the very end of Roman rule in Britain, they would have been used for large transactions such as buying land or goods by the shipload. Overnight St Albans.
London. The tour finishes at the British Museum where a wealth of objects and artworks illustrates the merging of Roman and Iron Age cultures to form a Romano-British identity. Explore also artefacts from other regions of the Empire. Finish here at c. 2.30pm after a final lunch together.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,640. Single occupancy: £3,140.
Travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 2 lunches and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Abode Hotel, Canterbury: a luxury hotel on the pedestrianised high street. Harbour Hotel, Chichester: a smart, boutique hotel in the centre of town. The Lamb, Burford: a comfortable and charming village hotel. St Michael’s Manor Hotel, St Albans: a country manor style hotel with gardens and smart rooms. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres on the rough ground of archaeological sites, and a lot of standing in museums. Average distance by coach per day: 90 miles.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 10 and 22 participants.