‘A most wealthy island’ (opulentissima insula), is a view of Roman Britain which contrasts strongly with the more usual image of a land on the margins of empire, beset by enemies and dominated by the efforts of the Roman army to subdue and defend it. Over the four centuries that Britain was part of the Roman empire many features of Mediterranean civilization took hold in the province, especially in the southern part of the island.
Cities above all 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 forums, 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 or St Albans was destroyed by Boudicca but grew to be one of the most important cities of Britain and the site of the execution of the first martyr of Britain, Alban. Like Verulamium, the cities of Caerwent in south Wales and Silchester in Hampshire were important local centres but were both abandoned by later generations, leaving their impressive city walls.
The rich also displayed their wealth in their country residences, the villas. Absolutely exceptional for its early date, its size and its luxury was the villa or ‘palace’ at Fishbourne outside Chichester with its extraordinary suite of mosaics of the late first century. It was the Cotswolds that saw many of the greatest villas of later Roman Britain, the fourth century, including Chedworth, with one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics from Britain on display, and North Leigh, another major country residence.
The agricultural wealth which paid for these villas and for the public buildings and monuments of the cities was important for sustaining the armies in Britain and on the Rhine. To ensure its safety as threats from across the North Sea grew, the Roman authorities constructed a chain of fortifications around the south-eastern coasts of the island, from the Wash to Portsmouth Harbour. 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 well also have been the beachhead for the invasion under Claudius in ad 43, the one site witnessing the entire four hundred years of Roman rule in Britain.
London. The tour begins at 1.00pm in central London with a visit to the Mithraeum, a temple dedicated to one of the most mysterious Roman cult figures, Mithras the bull-slayer. Exhibits include a wooden tablet with the oldest record of a financial transaction from Britain. Further artefacts from the original excavations of the site in the 1950s are on display at the Museum of London. Drive to Canterbury for the first of two nights.
Richborough, Dover. Massive walls survive from the principal Roman port of Richborough, whose amphitheatre formed part of the civilian town. Dover (Dubris) was the leading naval base and gateway to Roman Britannia and Dover Castle is home to one of the best preserved Roman lighthouses in Europe. Dover Roman Painted House, whose murals depict scenes relating to Bacchus, formed part of a large mansio or official hotel for travellers crossing the English Channel.
Pevensey, Chichester. Pevensey Castle was one of the last and strongest of the Roman Saxon Shore forts, where two-thirds of the original towered walls still stand. 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, whose floor mosaics rank among the finest in Europe. Further intricate mosaics are found at Bignor Roman Villa, likely home to a wealthy farming family. 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 becoming 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 springs, named after the Celtic-Romano goddess of the springs, Sulis Minerva. First of two nights in Burford, a picturesque town in the heart of the Cotswolds.
Chedworth, Caerleon, Caerwent. Ongoing excavations at 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 as well as 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. Drive from the Cotswolds to Oxfordshire, where a 3rd-century mosaic tiled floor survives at North Leigh Roman Villa. Continue to St Albans, the third largest town in Roman Britain. The collection of the Verulamium museum includes coins from the Sandridge Hoard, one of the largest collections of Roman gold coins found in the UK, dating from the late 4th to early 5th cents. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land or goods by the shipload. Overnight in St Albans.
London. The tour culminates 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 the Empire as a whole. Finish here at c. 2.00pm after an included lunch.
Professor Simon Esmonde Cleary
An archaeologist specialising in the western part of the Roman Empire. After reading archaeology at London University followed by a doctorate at Oxford he was on the staff of the University of Birmingham becoming Professor of Roman Archaeology. He retired in 2017 and is now Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology and remains an active researcher. As well as working in Britain he has conducted field-work in south-western France. Publications include books on Gaul and Spain in late antiquity as well as on Roman Britain. His interests range across the entire Roman period but with an emphasis on the later Roman empire and include architecture, art, epigraphy and numismatics alongside ‘dirt archaeology’.
Price per person
Two sharing: £2,560. Single occupancy: £3,020.
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.
Between 10 and 22 participants.