Westwards to Silchester

Deo qui vias et semitas commentus est T(itus) Irdas s(ummus) c(urator) f(ecit) v(otum) l(aetus) l(ibens) m(erito) Q(uintus) Varius Vitalis b(ene)f(icarius) co(n)s(ularis) aram sacram restituit Aproniano et Bradua co(n)s(ulibus).

To the god who invented roads and pathways, Titus Irdas, chief supply officer, gladly, willingly and deservedly fulfilled this vow. Quintus Varius Vitalis, the governor’s special duty officer, restored this sacred altar in the consulship of Apronianus and Bradua.



LONDINIUM is as much a place to pass through as to live in permanently. If circumstances are not too pressing in the north, where military matters must be Julius Severus’s principal concern, the new governor will be able to tour his province, once he has acquainted himself with the workings of his new capital. After all, it is part of his responsibility ultimately to ensure that the whole infrastructure of the province is sound and that the extensive network of roads, harbours, bridges and public buildings is maintained.

The direct road north is the one which Minicius Natalis will take to join the Legion VI Victrix. It leads straight out of Londinium’s forum,*1 up to the colonia of Lindum (Lincoln) and from there to Eboracum. But Severus on his tour of duty can choose a more circuitous route, inspecting the bases of all three legions based in Britannia. Travelling west out of Londinium, he can take in the fortress of the Legion II Augusta at Isca (Caerleon) in Wales, and then proceed north via the base of the Legion XX Augusta at Deva on his way up to the Wall, stopping at Eboracum on the way back down south—should he choose not to sail back down Britannia’s east coast. On his way to the north-west, he will be able to visit the great temple complex and sacred waters at Aquae Sulis (Bath) and two important civitas capitals: Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter).

The main east–west thoroughfare through Londinium lies immediately south of the forum.*2 Just before the city’s boundary it meets an impressive monument built of Bath stone,2 before crossing the road over the River Fleet and—immediately outside the city—passing through a cemetery. The road leads to Calleva Atrebatum, just over 44 miles (71km) away, and from there to the whole of the west of Britannia.*3

A short way beyond the city’s boundary, the road comes to a junction, where Watling Street West3 branches north to Verulamium (St Albans), 22 miles (35km) away. *4 This is the civitas capital of the Catuvellauni who, at the time of the conquest, occupied one of the biggest and most prosperous territories in the province. Surrounded by rich arable land and pasture, Verulamium has the status of municipium, the second rank of chartered towns, inferior only to a colonia.4 It lies slightly above the River Ver on the south-west side of the river valley, and forms the junction of three major routes.*5 From here, Watling Street continues north through Durocobrivis (Dunstable) and up to Viroconium and Deva; travellers can also pick up a route to the east from Verulamium to Camulodunum, as well as others leading south-west.

But Julius Severus instead continues westwards.*6 Where the road rises (at Notting Hill), there is a fine view, whereupon the road continues south-west. Unlike Rome, with its miles of urban sprawl, immediately beyond the city of London lies open pasture, with woods and grassland where you might find woodcock, owls, golden plover and red kites, or even—along the river from Southwark to the Thames basin—white-tailed sea eagles. It is an easy journey to Brentford, which lies about 10 miles (16km) from the heart of the capital, at the point where the road passes along the northernmost edge of the bend in the Thames, at the crossing of the River Brent. Here, a small roadside settlement provides the opportunity for official travellers to change horses if necessary and for those in less of a hurry to rest and find refreshment.

The Thames is not crossed for another 9 miles (14.5km), until reaching Pontes—or Pontibus, ‘at the Bridges’ (Staines).5 Here the road runs through the centre of town, which is built on one of five gravel ‘islands’ where the River Colne meets the Thames. Alder grows in abundance in the wetlands between these islands. Shops and houses hug each side of the road, clinging to the highest portions of ground and raised a little above the rest of this flood-prone area.

Pontibus is flourishing, and many of its timber-framed buildings are being embellished with painted wall plaster, mosaics and window glass.*7 As a halfway point on the journey to Calleva, some 22 miles (35km) further west, it is a convenient place to stop.6Severus’s entourage and any other travellers will have access to all sorts of goods and services here, including smiths, who are kept busy with repairs. Some are replacing loose or lost linchpins on carriage wheels, or seeing to broken harnesses, while others are putting new iron tyres onto carts. While they are at work, the travellers will be glad to stretch their legs and take refreshment, tucking into beef, pork or a bit of widgeon.7

Although the town is surrounded by rich grass and arable land, beyond that lies heath and woodland, and as the road proceeds further west it passes through long stretches of lonely, underpopulated country.8 Milestones punctuate the route, one after every thousand paces (mille passus) or 5,000pedes (feet): a Roman mile (1.48km).9 The road then changes alignment (at Bagshot Park, in Berkshire) and runs almost due west for most of the remaining 17 miles (27km) to Calleva.*8

At this point the road is about 6.8 metres wide. But, as Julius Severus will discover on his tour of duty around Britannia, there is no such thing as a set standard in size or construction in the province’s extensive road network, and not all the roads are dead straight. Road width varies greatly, from about 5 metres (16.5 feet) to more than 10 metres (33 feet). Few roads outside towns are paved, most being surfaced with gravel and small pebbles, sometimes mixed with a layer of sand or silt, and densely crushed together. In terms of ‘standard’ road construction, typically a road consists of a main raised agger (bank), flanked by two sets of parallel drainage ditches. Between the outer and inner ditches on either side of the agger run two ‘side roads’ which are usually unmetalled. Theagger is built up of layers of stone or gravel, depending on what materials are available locally, and on soft ground it might be built over piles of timber and layers of brushwood. Some streets in towns and at forts are paved, while others are cobbled.

Unmetalled side roads provide easier going for horses being ridden at a canter, for Roman horses, being unshod, find hard surfaces and stony roads wearing on their hooves.10 Not all roads have flanking lanes, though, and different solutions have to be found to building roads over difficult terrain. On some steep roads, for example, parallel lanes at different levels are cut into the hillside.11 Julius Severus and his entourage should be able to enjoy an unhindered journey along the roads, for it is unthinkable that his party will be held up by goods traffic in lumbering wagons, or by animals driven on foot. It is to be hoped that outriders will have been sent in advance to clear the way and instruct people to take secondary routes to their destinations. Soldiers on the move clearly expect people to get out of their way on the roads, and many are those who have felt the force of a hobnailed boot, when they have failed to move fast enough. In all events, cisiarii (waggoners) are expected to exercise due caution when driving. According to Roman law they are deemed liable if, while overtaking another vehicle, they overturn the wagon or damage property, including slaves.12


Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), the administrative centre of the Atrebates tribe, is the first major town west of Londinium. Standing in an open landscape surrounded by pasture, hay meadows and heathland, Calleva stands at the junction of main roads leading to other significant towns in all directions. Built on a spur of gravel about 90 metres (295 feet) above sea level, Calleva, whose Celtic name signifies a wooded place, has commanding views to the east and south, extending over about 40 hectares.*9 Despite the town’s distance from a river, it has a ready supply of water from the many springs that are easily accessible via shallow wells.

Calleva is also a place with a singular history. It is thought to have been settled by newcomers to the island, refugee members of the Atrebates tribe in northern Gaul (near Arras). They had fled to Britain in about 52 BC with their leader, Commius, who had turned against Julius Caesar and consequently become one of Rome’s ‘most wanted’ in Gaul. Calleva seems to have been built as a planned settlement, perhaps as early as 40 BC, and it became one of the most sophisticated in Iron Age Britain, open to Roman influence in the form of goods from northern Gaul and the wider Roman Empire.*10


Three British leaders—Tincomarus, Eppillus and Verica—all claimed to be sons of Commius and might have ruled from Calleva. In a dizzying sequence of fraternal feuding, Tincomarus was ousted by Eppillus and by AD 7 had fled to Rome. Eppillus, who styled himself rex (king), issued coins carrying the marks of ‘CALLE’ or ‘CALLEV’. He was in turn overthrown by Verica, who ruled until the early AD 40s, when he was forced to leave Britain, probably by Caratacus, who had gained much territory from the Atrebates, possibly including Calleva itself.13 It was Verica’s flight to Rome that provided Claudius with the pretext to invade Britain in AD 43.

Under the Romans, power in the region was recalibrated, and Calleva became part of the kingdom of Cogidubnus: he was assigned leadership of some tribes after the Roman conquest, and might also have been a prince of the Atrebatic house.14 Calleva clearly retained high status within his kingdom.15 On Cogidubnus’s death, Calleva was established as a civitas capital of the Atrebates.*11

Today, travellers approaching Calleva from Londinium first pass an amphitheatre on their right, built on a sloping site on the outskirts of town. It was constructed at some time between AD 55 and AD 75.16 Its circular arena is enclosed by a wooden wall, behind which are circular banks and metre-wide terraces formed out of the excavated soil. With an estimated capacity of 7,250 standing spectators, this huge earthwork—using the same building techniques and skills as the great, late Iron Age ditches that, until recently, encircled the town—must seem peculiar to anyone from Rome or the Mediterranean. Conventional Roman amphitheatres are, almost without exception, elliptical, with the best seats in the boxes that face the short axis. By contrast, Calleva’s, now over seventy years old and beginning to show signs of wear, is not only circular and lacks seats, but has no carefully organized entrance passages to channel the crowds into their places. Instead, spectators must climb up ramps or stairs built against the outside of the amphitheatre. It is to be hoped that marshals are on hand before a gathering, to prevent a scrum to get a ringside position.

Although small and plain by Roman standards, Calleva’s amphitheatre still represents a huge undertaking: a large area of land must have been needed to provide sufficient turf to revet its outside wall, as well as 68 acres of woodland to provide sufficient timber.17Here is a structure whose resolutely circular form may suggest that it was used by the locals not so much for Roman-style entertainments but as a place for open-air meetings and (perhaps) somewhere to observe the old traditions and customs. Displays of horsemanship take place here and, when the building was first constructed, the remains of a horse, including a skull, were ritually buried to ensure protection for the site. But its rather neglected, not to say dilapidated, appearance indicates that in the normal scheme of things the amphitheatre is not frequently used.

Perhaps the arrival of Britannia’s governor will provide an excuse to mount a show—Julius Severus might even fund one to commemorate his visit. He can certainly be assured of a large welcoming party as he proceeds on to the forum, passing a religious precinct at the town’s eastern edge, where Romano-Celtic temples are brightly painted with red stucco exteriors.18 While Severus is formally received, other, considerably less elevated visitors will have to make it a priority to organize accommodation for their masters. The mansio is situated near the south gate and the road to Noviomagus. It is a large compound, occupying most of an entire street block (insula VIII) but set nearly 100 metres (330 feet) back from the road, tucked behind other properties.

The mansio’s principal accommodation is arranged around three sides of a porticoed courtyard and consists of suites of rooms on offer to higher-ranking officials only; the lower-ranking soldiers and officials will need to rely on being billeted elsewhere in the town.*12 Although spacious, none of the suites is provided with central heating from hypocausts, instead relying on charcoal-burning braziers for warmth.19

After a room is secured, a bath will be welcome, and the well-appointed mansio bath house is situated in a second open courtyard. If you are important enough to stay in the mansio, your slave will accompany you, carrying towels, oil and strigil (for scraping dirt and dead skin off your body, after anointing you with the oil). If you do not have such status, you will still be able to make use of the public baths south-east of Calleva’s forum: these were among the first Roman buildings to appear in the town in the AD 50s, and they have undergone alterations over time.

Thus refreshed, newcomers to Calleva can explore their surroundings. To the west of the baths is a Romano-Celtic temple, which nonetheless has distinctly Roman dedications to Peace, Victory and Mars by a collegium peregrinorum consistentiumCallevae(‘guild of resident aliens at Calleva’). The collegium represents a provincial version of the smart temple guilds to which Hadrian and Minicius Natalis belong in Rome.20

The first-time visitor should make for the forum basilica at the town’s heart, which makes a natural starting point for a tour of the town. Here, a new structure in Bath limestone—the nearest source of stone to Calleva—is being erected around its wooden predecessor, dating from about AD 85. While the timber basilica had been perfectly aligned with the road east to Londinium, the challenge of erecting this new stone building around the wooden one has led to a two-degree shift in orientation away from the street grid.

Anyone with an eye for architectural detail, and who has travelled in Germania, may notice a familiarity in the style of the Corinthian capitals. They bear the hallmark of work by sculptors from the Rhineland, suggesting perhaps that the stonemasons working on the project trained in the legions.

The single-aisled stone basilica at Calleva is curious in that it has opposing apses at either end of the hall. The contemporary forum basilicas at Viroconium and Venta Silurum (Caerwent) have rectangular rooms at each end, while Londinium’s basilica has an apse at one end of the hall; only Calleva has two. What lies behind this decision? Have the Callevans decided to outdo Londinium? Whatever the reason, the novel design will not prove very long-lasting.*13

The forum basilica—or at least the site of it—may hold significance for the Callevans that long pre-dates the arrival of the Romans. It stands at the old Iron Age centre of Calleva, and buried here in that earlier time was the articulated skeleton of a raven. It is a bird that has symbolic associations for Celts, and which is ritualistically buried elsewhere in Britannia: ravens are messengers from the Otherworld, an association perhaps stemming from the birds’ black plumage and their diet of carrion.21


Calleva’s air of ancient mystery is not limited to buried ravens. All over the town, hidden in pits and wells, and under floors or patches of ground, is a whole magical world that has its roots in Celtic Iron Age belief. Underneath a room in the forum, for example, are the skulls of four dogs, spurs from gamecocks and the blade of a small knife. In two pits between the north side of the forum and the main east–west street are thirty-nine necks of flasks or bottles; in another pit, almost 2 metres (6 feet) below the ground, are a small bronze figure, possibly of the infant Hercules, some fragments of pottery and an iron screw. Among several ritual deposits in insula IX, there is a pottery vessel containing the complete skeleton of a rare small dog, two or three years old, carefully laid to rest as though it were still alive. It too dates from the late Iron Age.

In one part of town (insula XXII) a concoction of mallow, hemlock and nettle seeds—a regular witch’s brew—may be found in one pot inside a well; a little further down the shaft are two more pottery vessels, containing elder. A pit in another street block (insulaXXVII) has three pots containing, among other plants, hemlock, elder, thistle, deadly nightshade, self-heal, purple dead nettle, Good-King-Henry, dock and hazel. Yet another pit in the same area reveals hemlock, elder, dead nettle, cat’s valerian and white bryony. Hemlock and deadly nightshade are poisons that stupefy and dull the senses, and hazel and elder are held sacred, while white bryony is associated with the mandrake, that most magical of plants.*14

In the southern part of town, along the road leading towards Noviomagus, are several pits and wells containing pots and animal skeletons. A complete skeleton of a cockerel can be found here, along with three goose bones, while one pit has the bones from at least five dogs.22 Indeed, among the particular curiosities buried at Calleva are fifty complete dog skulls, found around the town.23 The significance of burying dog skeletons is unclear, although it is a practice not entirely unfamiliar to Romans. Columella, a first-century authority on agriculture, related how on 25 April the blood and guts of unweaned puppies were offered to the goddess Robigo (‘mildew’) in the hope that she would safeguard the new season’s crops. Dogs are also associated with Celtic gods such as Sequanna, who presides over the source of the Seine at her shrine of Fontes Sequanae, near Dijon, and who has a dog as a companion. There, tourists can buy little statuettes of pilgrims holding small dogs in their arms, which they deposit at the shrine. Elsewhere, such as at Epidaurus in Greece, the injured and afflicted can have their wounds licked better by sacred dogs.24


One curious fact regarding the dog skeletons at Calleva is that young dogs, and especially female ones, seem to have been skinned before being deposited, perhaps because their soft fur was put to other uses.25 Diodorus Siculus, in the first century BC, wrote of how Gauls dined on the ground, using dog or wolf skins as coverings; in a memorable passage he described how the the men got food and drink entangled in their lavish moustaches as they ate.26

Times and habits have changed, certainly as regards dining etiquette. In the smarter triclinia (dining rooms) of Calleva, you can now lean on couches rather than carouse on puppy-skin rugs; but having room to lie prone while eating takes up a great deal of space, and so is only an option for those who can afford big houses. By contrast, most people—here as in Italy—sit up to eat.*15 The dining rooms of the better-off boast Samian ware from central Gaul, together with other fine tableware from the Rhineland and Gallia Belgica.27 This is the exception rather than the rule, however, for most pottery is now produced in the province: Black Burnished ware from the Poole Harbour kilns, and fine grey ware and white ware from Oxfordshire. There is the odd mortarium (mixing bowl) from Isca Augusta and other bits and pieces from Verulamium, Camulodunum and the Nene Valley (in Cambridgeshire). But the main suppliers of coarseware pottery to Calleva are local.*16

As for the food and drink consumed, the inhabitants of Calleva enjoy a varied diet. Their slight preference for mutton and goat reveals their Celtic origins, although they also consume pork, together with occasional meals of venison, hare and domestic fowl. For vegetables, they eat peas and cabbage, and they season their dishes with coriander, dill and mustard. Native fruits such as plums and blackberries are supplemented, for those who can afford it, by the more exotic imports of figs, grapes and mulberries.28 Callevans consume Spanish olive oil and the garum (fish sauce) imported in amphorae from Gades (Cadiz) and southern Spain; they can also obtain Gallic wine. As you might expect in a provincial town far to the west, such imports are found in proportionally smaller quantities than in Londinium.

Dietary habits are not the only customs that seem to have changed over time. Whatever the state of their facial hair, the Callevans’ love of personal grooming suggests that they keep themselves tidier than did the Gauls of old. Here, as in other British towns, the people are keen on cleaning their nails, and they are very attached to their distinctive personal grooming sets, of a type found only in Britannia, which include scoops for cleaning out ears.29 Visitors interested in women’s hairstyles might also notice that in contrast with the practice in other British towns, very few bone hairpins are used in Calleva.30 There are some rather stylish metal ones to be spotted, though, including one depicting an elegant (right) hand complete with bracelets, daintily picking up a piece of fruit.*17

This sense of a local identity might also—to the observant traveller—be discerned in the style of Calleva’s houses. Some have elaborate entrance porches with flanking columns or piers on the street side, of a type found only in this place. Some of these, which are connected to the main houses by long porticoes, have small rooms attached, occasionally even heated by a hypocaust. They might be used as reception rooms or places to hold meetings outside the main dwelling.31

Even though, all over town, timber buildings are being replaced by ones in flint and tile, the old Iron Age orientation of buildings and street pattern is being respected. In one of the most central street blocks (insula IX), close to the forum, stand two substantial brick-and-flint houses and a further timber building, set diagonally to the street grid and thus on a completely different alignment to the surrounding houses. They are all the more noticeable given the prominent position they hold in the town centre. But if truth be told, they might first come to the visitor’s attention because of the smell and the sight of flies buzzing around: a latrine belonging to the buildings is situated right at the intersection of the streets, with a rubbish dump just to its south.

Private property-owners are responsible for keeping the street front immediately outside their houses free of rubbish, and there are also efforts—in Rome at least—to keep the streets clean.32 But what happens inside people’s houses is a different matter, and prudent landlords are careful to draw up contracts to ensure they are legally covered if their properties are not left in good order when vacated. House leases from Egypt specify that rooms should be ‘cleansed of excrements and every kind of filth’ at the end of the contract period.33 Peering over the wooden fence that surrounds the three buildings in Calleva, the passerby is greeted by a more salubrious sight than the smell suggests: an ornamental garden with clipped box and holly bushes and honey bees buzzing round.

These houses in Calleva are of modest appearance, in keeping with the generally small size of British town houses.*18 The larger of the two has three rooms on the ground floor, with a surrounding corridor on three sides; it is a design that can be found in both town and country houses in Britannia and Gaul at this time. The second house is more unusual. Of a square plan, its footprint completely encompasses an earlier circular building, a roundhouse, which lies beneath it, and its layout seems to have been partly determined by its predecessor. The owners of these houses—whom we must presume are related—clearly honour their ancestors and perpetuate the traditions of their forebears, not only in respecting the plan of former buildings, but also in terms of the ritual offerings they make on site, some of which are already of great age when deposited.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the rubbish dump, some of the householders here suffer from the parasitic whipworm, which causes an irritation of the bowel. The afflicted will, though, almost certainly be ignorant of the cause of their troubles: the roundwormTrichuris trichiura. They will have little idea of how to prevent it through improved hygiene.34 Another scourge are the flies attracted to human or animal waste, which help to spread trachoma, an eye disease, prevalent all over the empire from damp Britannia to dusty Egypt. While little is understood about preventing the disease, there are many people who claim to be able to treat it. Because eye infections spread quickly in close quarters, such as in barracks or onboard ship, the classis Britannia has its own specialistopthalmikos, or eye doctor. Indeed, the great medical writer Galen mentions such a man attached to the fleet and describes the ingredients of his eye ointment: copper, zinc hydroxide, zinc carbonate, opium and mercuric sulphide.35

Infections are also easily spread in the steamy intimacy of bath houses, especially if the water is rarely changed. Independent doctors and quacks can often be found in these establishments, peddling their advice and their jars of eye ointment, or collyria. Pilgrims also often visit temples seeking relief from such complaints and leave votive eyes made of metal, plaster or even gold in thanks for any cure—which they attribute to the gods rather than to the quacks.

It is to be hoped that Julius Severus and his party will remain immune from the health hazards of bath houses, for the next stop on the itinerary is the place where bathing and religion is most spectacularly combined in Britannia and whose mysterious hot springs have a most dramatic connection to the sacred world: Aquae Sulis (Bath), some 58 miles (93km) to the west of Calleva.

*1 Later known as Ermine Street, it left the city at modern Bishopsgate.

*2 The road left Londinium at Newgate, south of modern Smithfield and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Later in the second century the city was bounded by a defensive wall.

*3 The road west out of Londinium followed the line of modern Oxford Street. Calleva’s importance on the road network is indicated in the Antonine Itinerary: after Londinium, it is the town that crops up most frequently.

*4 The junction with Watling Street West is at today’s Marble Arch, where Edgware Road picks up the Roman route that is still in use all the way to the outskirts of St Albans (see Margary, 1973, p. 171).

*5 The Roman town was situated about two-thirds of a mile to the west of what would become the medieval town.

*6 Along what is now Bayswater Road.

*7 This period represented the high point of the town’s prosperity, for it went into decline by the end of the second century and remained in the doldrums for the whole of the third century, possibly because of problems with flooding.

*8 This stretch of road is still visible and is popularly known as The Devil’s Highway’.

*9 This is the extent of the late-second-century walled city. The Iron Age settlement covered some 32 hectares.

*10 It was an oppidum, an extensive system of linear earthworks defining a settlement or territory in the late Iron Age, most of which were high status—and some of which have the characteristics of later towns.

*11 Although the area assigned to the Atrebates comprised a fraction of their earlier territory it still extended across land that would later form Berkshire, north Hampshire, south Oxfordshire, Surrey and Wiltshire.

*12 This exclusive arrangement for the mansio applied to this period.

*13 Around AD 150, an arrangement more in keeping with basilicas elsewhere was adopted, with three rectangular rooms at either end.

*14 Many of the plants and trees contained in these deposits continued to have significance in later magical belief long after the Romans. The elder was closely connected with burial rituals and was held sacred among Germanic peoples; St Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland with a wand made of hazel—another tree held sacred. White bryony came to be known as the ‘English mandrake’. De Cleene and Lejeune (Ghent, 2004), Vols I and II.

*15 Paintings at Pompeii show people sitting at tables in bars and restaurants. The triclinia habit never really caught on in the north-western provinces, and it seems that in the later empire the north-western preference for sitting up to eat prevailed.

*16 Most pottery in Calleva comes from the Hampshire kilns producing Alice Holt greyware.

*17 It is a design also found in the jewellery boxes of women in the north of Britannia, at Coria (Corbridge) and can be seen at the museum there.

*18 In the subsequent fifty years or so, town houses and villas expanded greatly in size and ambition.

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