Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
The small Shropshire village of Wroxeter is the only surviving settlement of what was once the fourth largest Roman city in Britain: Viroconium, or Uriconium, more fully expressed as Viroconium Cornoviorum. The Very Keen Reader will want to know what the three largest Roman cities in Britain were and these seem to have been Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester) and Verulamium (St Albans). However, other contenders for the top spots appear to be Corinium (Cirencester), Lindum (Lincoln) and Eboracum (York). I was only trying to be helpful, but, clearly, time for more accurate investigation is required. Meanwhile, let’s press on with the story of Viroconium; the city lived for five centuries, or more, but most of it is now hidden beneath farmland.
The Roman armies advancing rapidly across Britain arrived at Wroxeter soon after the invasion of 43 AD. The surrounding area had been settled and farmed for centuries by the ancestors of the local tribe, the Cornovii, whose lands seem to have included most of modern Shropshire and Cheshire. Like other Celtic tribes in Britain, the Cornovii lived in lowland farmsteads and hillforts – one of which was on top of the Wrekin, the 1,335 feet high landmark hill that dominates Wroxeter and this part of Shropshire. Though by no means primitive, the tribespeople must have found the arrival of the alien and militarily superior Romans utterly terrifying. There was some brief resistance, including on the Wrekin hillfort, but it seems to have been efficiently swept aside and the Romans promptly established a frontier fort to help secure their conquest. A more permanent legionary fortress, which could hold 5,500 troops, was constructed about 10 years later. The XIVth and XXth legions were stationed there and it is probable that Agricola launched his attacks to quell the Ordovices of north Wales, and then advance northward into Caledonia (modern Scotland), from the fort at Wroxeter. As Roman rule became more established, however, the requirement for fortresses this far south declined and, sometime around 90 AD, the army base transferred to Chester. A town developed around the vacated fort’s street grid, with a population of locals and retired soldiers who settled in the area. It became a new centre for the Cornovii. The town council, the ordo, whose members had to be landowners, was ambitious and set out new boundaries covering an area of some 180 acres – larger than Pompeii (apparently). The ordo levied taxes to fund the construction of public buildings, such as the extensive baths and colonnaded forum. As of 2019, archaeologists have identified more than 250 buildings in Viroconium and have estimated its population, at its peak, to be anywhere between 5 and 10,000 people; one source suggested a figure as high as 15,000.
There is evidence of some urban decline toward the end of formal Roman rule in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, but the ending of Roman power was not the sudden catastrophe it is often made out to be. Anglo-Saxon raiders, the ancestors of the English, spread into Britain from the south and east. At Viroconium, over in the west of the island, people continued to use the baths throughout the 5th century and life went on – albeit inevitably not quite as it had done before. Gradually, skills deteriorated, buildings fell into disrepair, traditional trade along southern and eastern routes was interrupted, then ceased, and barter replaced the coin economy. But someone – it could have been a local warlord or bishop – filled the power vacuum left by the Romans in Wroxeter and exercised at least a degree of authority. They were certainly sufficiently organised and wealthy enough to continue to build: a substantial number of new buildings were erected during this period, including a large and impressive high-end timber-framed building, surrounded by other houses. Interestingly, these structures were built in Roman style (though mostly not in stone) using Roman measurements: whoever commissioned or carried out this work had inherited Roman traditions – or was consciously replicating them. There has been speculation that Viroconium was the 5th-century capital city of the Celtic Kingdom of Powys, possibly even King Arthur’s Camelot (if he existed and had a Camelot). But, eventually, ancient Wroxeter seems to have been merely abandoned – possibly when a great plague devastated the land in the 6th century, or perhaps when the region finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century. Although a smaller settlement survived – the present village of Wroxeter – most of the metropolis of Viroconium slowly decayed and disappeared under farmland. Stonework would have been reused in places – it certainly was in the large Anglo-Saxon church of St Andrew that was built within the boundaries of the Roman settlement. And memories of the past survived too, partly because – astonishingly – some of the remains of Viroconium remained visible down the centuries and finds, such as coins, would turn up in the ground. By the 19th century, the old town had become a tourist attraction; Charles Dickens was one of its visitors.
Wroxeter Roman City is a highly significant site. Without having layers of later buildings piled on top, as is the case with most major Roman urban settlements in Britain, and relatively unaffected by agriculture or intrusive land management, Viroconium’s remains lie reasonably undisturbed beneath the fields. They provide an exceptional picture of the phased development of a provincial Romano-British town, and life within it, as well as offering a unique window into the shadowy world of sub-Roman Britain, the period often referred to as the Dark Ages.
To be fair, there’s not a great deal to see above ground at Roman Wroxeter. Even though it may have been of comparable size, this is no Pompeii in terms of visible remains – maybe more will be revealed in the future. So it is hard for the layman to appreciate the scale of the place from ground level. However, English Heritage, who look after the place, do an excellent job with information boards, audio-guides – and a visit is absolutely fascinating. What you are looking at are the lower walls of the city’s public bathing complex, including changing rooms, the three main bath areas, an outside swimming pool, latrines and a small market hall. The most spectacular piece of ancient masonry, known as ‘the Old Work’ is 20+ feet (7m) high, a tiny part of one wall of an enormous basilica – a public exercise hall the size of a cathedral. The construction of this Old Work incidentally, was – or is – astonishing, but probably can’t be appreciated from the photographs here.
As one who has been known to take the occasional 10-minute shower, this whole Roman bath culture thing has always struck me as being a little excessive. But maybe it was as much about social intercourse and normal middle-class living as it was keeping clean and fragrant. You pop down to the baths basilica, and maybe do some exercises on your own or with a partner – perhaps build up a gentle sweat. Maybe you’d go simply to have your hair done. If you were bathing, you’d change before heading into the frigidarium, an unheated room where someone would rub oil over your body; from there, you’d head to the tepidarium, the warm room, and then to the caldarium for the hot and steamy stuff. Then you’d exit via the frigidarium, having had the oil (and dirt) scraped off with a special tool, a strigil. You might do all this with friends, or you might go to the baths in order meet people – or simply to be seen. Along the way, you’d stop for a chat or two and pick up the latest gossip. You might decide to dip into the outdoor plunge pool (which looks pretty modern to me). You might follow up your session by going for a drink, or grabbing a bite to eat from one of the little bistros or take-aways at the market. While you’re there, why not buy your wife or husband a little present from one of the quality shops? Perhaps some jewellery, or something in leather. In some ways, it was a way of life not dissimilar to our own.
The technology and sophistication of Rome never ceases to amaze me. Just imagine what the world would have been like if Europe had built on the Roman civilisation, rather than slipping backwards. Golly, if the Roman Empire hadn’t had its decline and fall, perhaps we wouldn’t have had to worry about Brexit, because we’d still be part of that huge pan-European-Middle-Eastern-North-African superstate. But, then again, I’d be writing this in Latin – and I was terrible at that.
The baths complex was pretty much in the centre of old Viroconium. Across the main High Street, the cardo, was the forum – a combination of county hall, magistrates’ court and main market. The remains of the forum’s front colonnade are still there, several feet down at 2nd century ground level. The cardo, now a country lane, would have been a bustling thoroughfare three times its current width. It is actually part of Watling Street, one of the main Roman roads enabling troops and goods to move easily across Britain, in this case from Wales, through London to the Kentish coast. The road started again on the other side of the Channel, from whence it led to Rome; of course – they all did. I imagine that must have felt quite special, standing near this spot all those years ago and thinking, if you just set off down the road and kept going you’d end up in the heart of the Empire. Modern roads still follow much of the course of Roman Watling Street.
It was such a very long time ago, though. Hard to appreciate that this was a settled urban area for five centuries, or more. Before it faded away, it was already older than many towns are today. How many generations of children were born in it? How many couples married here? How many lie in the cemetery beyond the city boundary? The threshold of the doorway to the tepidarium is deeply eroded with the passage of thousands of feet. Maybe, if you close your eyes, you can picture the scenes, in the basilica, in the market; hear the babble of voices in languages spoken from Persia to Britannia; a place where people lived their whole lives without ever imagining their world would come to an end.
There have been extensive finds of artefacts at Wroxeter: coins, pottery, figurines of gods, surgical instruments, gaming counters, personal objects like a beautiful silver mirror, brooches and hair pins. Some are exhibited at the small museum next to the entrance and inevitable shop.
A Roman town house has been recreated on the site of Viroconium’s forum. It is based on the design of a real house excavated within the city boundaries and was built by modern builders using Roman tools and techniques; not a power tool in sight. A 1st century Roman building manual provided a point of reference and the finished product resembles an upmarket dwelling from the 3rd or 4th century. It has just one bedroom and reception room, but it does have its own bathing suite (and heating), garden and a shop – which the owners would have rented out to earn some extra cash.
Bear in mind that all you see of the city now is a fraction of what was. The church of St Andrew’s at Wroxeter lies just inside the old town’s defences, a quarter of a mile or so from the excavated site. It is worth seeing in its own right, because it dates from the Anglo-Saxon period and has features from that time, as well as some impressive Tudor tombs, with scarily realistic effigies on them. Incidentally, you can stay overnight in the church if you want to. Walking to St Andrew’s gives you some idea of the size of the Roman settlement and there, at the entrance to the churchyard, is a pair of Roman columns, reused as gateposts. The font has been carved from the base of a Roman column.
Sadly, the timetable was tight with a long drive ahead, so I didn’t explore Roman Wroxeter beyond the glaringly obvious. Besides, it began to rain while I was at the church and getting soaked wasn’t part of the day’s plan. It was a thought-provoking visit though; another insight into our past, admiring things that once were – and pondering what might have been. Die dulci fruere.