A New Forum at Wroxeter, Capital of Cattle Country

Si in aliam quam celebrem civitatem vel provinciae caput advenerit, pati debet commendari sibi civitatem laudesque suas non gravate audire, cum honori suo provinciales id vindicent; et ferias secundum mores et consuetudinem quae retro optinuit dare.

When the Proconsul enters any other city which is not a populous one or the capital of the province, he should permit it to be placed under his protection and listen to the compliments bestowed upon him without showing any discontent, since the people of the province do this in his honour; and he should appoint festivals in accordance with the manners and customs which have previously been observed.

ULPIAN, On the Duties of a Proconsul,
Book II (Digest


AS THE TRAVELLERS draw near to Viroconium they find themselves in cattle country, the territory of the Cornovii (encompassing much of Cheshire and Shropshire). Sitting in a landscape of mixed arable and pastoral farms, Viroconium Cornoviorum is protected by the River Severn snaking around it to the west, and by the valleys of small streams to the north and south. There are fine uninterrupted views over the countryside towards the surrounding hills, where a large number of former Cornovii hillforts are situated.

Prominent among these hillforts to the east is the Wrekin, from which the town may derive its name.1 The link with the Wrekin clearly remains important, because a road runs directly to it from the town’s east gate. Along this track, at the highest and most exposed point of the town—and adjacent to the place where the town’s water supply, carried by an aqueduct, empties into a huge cistern—is a large, walled compound. This is the town’s important livestock market, or forum boarium.

Viroconium is built on the site of a legionary fortress established here in the late AD 50s as the base of the Legion XIV Gemina and then the Legion XX Valeria Victrix. Here, on the higher east bank of the Severn at a place where there is a major ford, the army had control to the west and south and a convenient base for attacking Wales and for penetrating further north. By AD 90, however, the XX Valeria Victrix had been transferred to Deva. The fortress’s defences were levelled and, with the street grid of the fortress at its core, the town was founded. The extent of the Cornovians’ input or enthusiasm for the construction of their new civitas capital is unknown; but given their general lack of materialism, it is likely that a considerable amount of backing was needed from the Roman state—plus an influx of veterans—to get the place up and running.

On approaching Viroconium, Julius Severus should be able to enjoy roads cleared of heavy goods traffic in anticipation of his arrival. While the visit of a high-ranking official, and especially that of a new provincial governor, should be a cause for celebration in the town, it is also a source of consternation, particularly among the town’s ruling class. It is they who have the responsibility of receiving this elevated personage, greeting him in the appropriate way in Latin, and putting him and his entourage up in at least something approaching the manner to which they are accustomed.

As the mansio, just south of the new building site for the baths, is not large enough to accommodate the governor and his entire retinue, some members of his party will have to lodge in private houses. Decorating the town will be another headache. Sufficient coloured flags and garlands of flowers from the surrounding countryside must be obtained, and the banners from any guilds and colleges, together with images of gods and goddesses, will all need to be displayed along the official processional route if the townspeople are going to give the governor the sort of welcome he might expect elsewhere. The town will need to lay on music too, even if it means that the few proficient musicians who can be mustered have to take sneaky shortcuts, dashing through back streets to greet the visitors at various points on the route.2

This year, the new forum at Viroconium will be officially dedicated to Hadrian, as an extremely handsome, freshly cut inscription set proudly over its entrance testifies. For a British provincial town, the lettering is exceptionally good, the creation of a master stonecutter who is evidently used to working on monuments of the highest quality.3 The project could have been initiated almost a decade before by the emperor on his visit to the province. Now, in the summer of AD 130, Julius Severus will officiate at its inauguration.*1 It is one of his duties as governor to ensure that all public monuments and temples are in good condition and properly cared for, so he is charged with inspecting them, assessing whether they need repairs and ensuring that they are mended properly by appointing ‘with the proper formalities’ reliable superintendents, as well as assigning soldiers to assist if necessary.4 Good governors take these duties seriously, knowing how important it is to maintain and promote the imperial public imageand that includes making sure that letters are cut properly on public monuments.*2


Severus and his entourage enter Viroconium from across a ford over the Severn, at the town’s south-west corner, and proceed along Watling Street to the brand-new forum. Its porticoed entrance opens out onto a large courtyard, on the far side of which is a basilica housing the council chamber, archives and offices of the two annually elected magistrates.5 Another basilica, identical in size and design and 18 metres (59 feet) high at its apex, will be built as the centrepiece of an imposing baths complex across the street, although at present this is merely an ambitious plan on the ground.*3 Having been formally received, and having carried out his inspection of the forum, Julius Severus will sacrifice an ox (or heifer, if the town’s presiding deity is female).*4 Once he has examined its entrails and performed libations upon it and any other animals sacrificed, he will offer prayers to the emperor.

During the course of his visit, Julius Severus will also hear petitions and lawsuits, pronouncing judgement in public from a tribunal, or stage, set up in the forum or in the new basilica.6 He is charged with giving all citizens, rich or poor, a fair hearing. It is his duty to ensure that people of higher rank who can afford the best lawyers are not favoured over those of moderate means, ‘who have no one to appear for them or who have had to employ advocates of small experience or no standing who may not be able to present their claims properly’.7

In general, as long as they do not happen too regularly or last too long, official visits, though fraught for the hosts and expensive at the time, may prove worthwhile, and a successful inspection can result in more than a few new statues from the emperor. Furthermore, a well-argued petition made to the governor in person can bring enhanced status and privileges for both the town and for the speechmaker.

Before they get any payback, however, they will need to put on a good show in Latin. The Romans are sensitive to the correct usage of their language and are as appreciative of an elegant turn of phrase as they are contemptuous of grammatical errors or rusticisms. A person’s reputation can be damaged by committing such errors. The poet Martial mocks someone who remains deaf to his verse as a person with ‘a Batavian ear’.8 There is even a story doing the rounds, unlikely though it seems, that the young Hadrian was laughed at in the Senate for a rustic turn of phrase in a speech, with the result that he worked at his Latin until he had reached the utmost facility in it.9 As Hadrian was born in Rome, it is not clear whether this is a dig at some provincialisms he picked up during his teenage years on his family’s estates in Italica (in Spain), or on account of his love for all things Greek. If emperors brought up in the most elevated circles are teased for their use of Latin, then it must be all the harder for the people of the north-western provinces to acquire fluency in the language.

However good your Latin, you can be forgiven for feeling a little nervous when speaking on behalf of the community in front of such a high-ranking official as the governor. As you address the emperor’s deputy, it may feel almost as nerve-wracking as speaking to the emperor in person: ‘It is no easy business to ask the emperor of the whole world for a favour for oneself; to put on a bold front before the aspect of such great majesty, to compose one’s features, to shore up one’s spirits to choose the right words and utter them fearlessly, stopping at the right moment to wait for a reply.’10 It is true that in this example, the polished Gallic orator’s admission of reticence and modesty is really an elegant commonplace and a means of winning over his audience; but many town councillors in provincial Britain must be ‘not unaware of how inferior our abilities are to the Romans’, because ‘speaking in Latin and well is inborn in them but laboriously acquired in us and if by chance we say something elegantly our imitation derives from that font and source of eloquence.’11

The children of the British aristocracy have been educated in the liberal arts at least since the governorship of Agricola in the late 70s. Rating their natural facility in Latin more highly than the Gauls, he observed how anxious they were to speak Latin elegantly.12The British upper classes are still every bit as keen to speak correct Latin in the second century as they were in the first. Visitors to the island are struck by the way in which they speak text-book style Latin, with an old-fashioned pronunciation and rather affected vowel sounds.13

It is possible that high-status Britons now speak Latin among themselves and in ‘polite society’ while continuing to address their servants in the British tongue. The British language (Brittonic, or Brythonic), as spoken at the time of the Roman conquest, was a form of Celtic similar to languages spoken in Gaul. Some British tribes, such as the Atrebates, which were branches of those on the Continent, would have spoken an almost identical language to Gaulish. But since the Romans arrived, the language has changed, and the British have adopted many Latin words into their vocabulary to describe aspects of daily life and administration for which there was no existing equivalent.*5 As British is an entirely oral language, anyone who needs to write does so in Latin, however crudely—even tradespeople in towns who may barely be able to speak it.

To have real facility in the language and to have the confidence to address formally a high official, it is important to work at Latin from early childhood, laboriously copying out lines from the great literary works such as Virgil’s Aeneid: you want to avoid your teacher scrawling the crushing ‘seg’ across your work (from segniter, meaning ‘weak’ or ‘slack’) or, worse, giving you a good thrashing.14 In order to help provincials perfect their Latin, there are bilingual textbooks, which, for an aspiring Roman gentleman from the distant land of the Cornovii, might also contain useful hints on how to behave in certain social situations—and at the very least how to boss your slave around effectively in Latin. When at the baths, for example, you need to know how to say ‘expoliame,discalcia me, compone vestimenta, cooperi, serva bene; ne addormias propter fures’ (‘undress me, take off my shoes, tidy up my clothes, cover them up, look after them well; don’t fall asleep on account of thieves’). At the end of the bathing session your slave can be instructed to ‘terge mihi caput et pedes. Da caligulas, calcia me. Porrige amiculum, pallam, dalmaticam. Collige vestimenta et omnia nostra. Sequimini ad domum’ (‘dry my head and feet, give me my shoes and put them on, hold out my cloak and tunic, collect my clothes and all my things and follow me home’).15


Such phrases as these will no doubt come in handy when Viroconium’s state-of-the-art baths are completed. The fact that the town has managed to erect a forum in less than a decade, and is about to start on this luxurious new baths complex, suggests that it has had more than a little official help. The legionaries probably had a hand in designing and building the forum, although their involvement on Hadrian’s Wall will have meant only intermittent helpperhaps the reason for the baths project lagging so far behind. When finished, it will be closely related in design to the legionary baths at nearby Deva.

The town’s inhabitants might well also be receiving financial support in the form of special tax relief to help fund the project. If the baths were instigated by Hadrian, as part of an official scheme, then money from imperial revenues could also be forthcoming. The British aristocracy, who never quite see the point of spending large amounts of money on public monuments for their own aggrandisement, generally prefer to invest in private property and land instead. Public works are a permanent burden whoever foots the bill for their construction, for once they are finished the expense of maintaining them falls on the local council. Its members have to raise money from local taxationfor example, from rents from stallholders and other vendors who operate in and around the baths, the macellum (official meat market) and the forum. If such revenues are insufficient, then Julius Severus might still need to call upon the emperor to provide whatever the provincials cannot be relied upon to supply. This can include not just funds but also quite specific orders for items such as statues.*6

Julius Severus could find that he needs to order rather a lot of Roman artwork, for the Cornovii on the whole show very little interest in such refinements: conspicuously unmaterialistic in Iron Age times, even now few people in the surrounding countryside display any eagerness to adopt a Roman lifestyle or acquire Roman goods. Unlike other tribes of southern Britain at the time of the conquest, the cattle-rearing Cornovii neither produced nor used coinage, nor even any pottery except that which they needed for transporting salt from brine springs in their territory (at Nantwich, Middlewich and Northwich).

The arrival of thousands of troops in Britain, and in the very heart of the Cornovii lands, changed that situation profoundly. The Romans stormed and set fire to the hillfort on the Wrekin in about AD 47, planted military installations throughout the territory and propelled those who lived in the vicinity of the legionary fortress into a world of coins, pottery and unheard-of consumer goods. The army created hugely increased demand not just for meat and wool, but also for leather goods and all the by-products of cattle, with army contractors dealing in bulk and consignments of hundreds of hides paid for with large amounts of cash.16

Cattle can certainly be big business, and punishments for stealing them, are as severe as for stealing horses. Professional cattle or horse thieves can be condemned ad gladium, ‘to the sword’—execution in the arena. For serious cases involving armed cattle rustlers, being thrown to the wild beasts is considered to be a justifiable sentence. Other miscreants can be sent to the mines or put to unappealing work in the service of the state, such as cleaning out public baths and latrines. (For the theft of smaller animals, such as sheep, pigs or goats, there are lesser sentences, while anyone who takes a stray horse or ox will be classified merely as a common thief.)17

Cattle are valued for their meatbeef is preferred to pork in the north-western provinces, unlike elsewhere in the empirebut also for much else besides, including that healthy trade in hides. Bullocks are used in harness for pulling carts or the plough; cows for their milk. Even after cattle have been slaughtered, no part of their carcases are wasted. Marrow fat is extracted from their bones on an industrial scale, and the bones themselves are used to make items such as hairpins, needles and combs, while the sinew is used for thread and bowstrings.18 Both beef and mutton fat are used to make soap and tallow candlesmuch the most common fuel for lighting in Britain, as oil lamps require expensive imported olive oil.

The increased demand for livestock has created jobs all along the line, from rearing the cattle to butchering and processing the carcases and tanning the hides. The messy, smelly trades of the tanners and fullers (who finish and launder wool cloth) take place in their own districts of town.*7 Both industries need a good water supply, and the fullers require copious amounts of urine: they collect it from both animals and humans, in some places leaving large pots on street corners, where people can relieve themselves, and which will later be collected when full.19


The fullers will have been hard at work in the run-up to Julius Severus’s appearance in town, as local dignitaries prepare their outfits for the visit. The British upper classes, it seems, took up wearing the toga enthusiastically decades ago.20 A Roman gentleman is judged on his creasesand a white toga, worn on formal occasions, needs to be super-clean and pressed with sharp folds. Election candidates need to scrub up particularly well, and their togas are rubbed with a special type of fuller’s earth to make them shine.21The work done by the fullers must meet these high expectations. They treat the cloth by treading it in tubs containing a solution of water and urine (or fuller’s earth) and then rinse it in running water. Some whites are also bleached with sulphur. The clothing is then pressed in large screw presses.22

It is not clear how much store the majority of Cornovii lay by such matters as dress and personal appearance. Elsewhere in the empire, fashion-conscious men sport beards like the emperor; women who have the chance to spy the Empress Sabina, either in the flesh on her travels or on a bust or coin, might (if they have a competent maidservant) attempt to copy her hairstyle with its elaborately piled braids. But most men and women in Britannia lack the means or the inclination to follow the empire’s fashion. Women like Vedica, a Cornovian who went to live at Verbeia (Ilkley in Yorkshire), stick to a more traditional form of native dress.*8 Vedica wears her hair down in two long thick plaits, every inch the down-to-earth cowgirl and looking impossibly primitive, no doubt, to the sophisticated ladies of Alexandria, Athens or Marseilles.23 Country dwellers are unlikely to adopt Roman dress, the men continuing instead to wear the traditional costume of checked trousers, tunic and a short cloak. Romans still view trousers with suspicionin the first century, Martial referred disparagingly to Lydia’s backside being as broad ‘as the old breeches of a pauper Briton’.24

Indeed, anyone coming from the Mediterranean, and especially from places like Egypt and Syria in the east, will be struck by the plainness of British clothes. It is true that cloth is dyed—red with imported madder (rubia tinctorum) or bedstraw, purple with local lichens, blue with woad (glastum or Isatis tinctoria), yellow with weld (Reseda luteola) and red-purple from whelks found along the Atlantic coast of Gaul.25 But there are none of the fancy weaves, brocades or elaborate tapestries to be found further east. In these damp islands people adopt, instead, eminently sensible—and excellent-quality—medium-weight diamond, herringbone and plain 2/2 twill cloths. In the streets, men and women wear variants on loose-fitting woollen tunics, with or without short wide sleeves, which men wear at calf length and women down to their ankles. Over this, men wear a hooded cape, the caracalla or birrus, which is fastened down the front. Women sport a less voluminous rectangular cloak draped in various ways, according to fashion.

While there are those, of course, who wear imported damask silks (in Kent) and gold thread (in Essex), for the most part diamond twill and checks remain the distinctively north-west European Celtic look.26 British wool is highly regarded abroad, and the province’s blankets and cloaks, which have an excellent reputation for quality, make acceptable presents for high officials and are presented to members of the governor’s staff on retirement from their posts.27

After decades of Roman presence, Viroconium’s population is now a mixed one. Milling around the forum will be local Cornovii, perhaps traders whose families moved here generations ago to take advantage of opportunities offered by the cash-rich legionaries and army veterans who have settled in the area. Retiring soldiers, usually in their early to mid-forties, are presented with discharge tablets at the ceremony of honesta missio (demobilization) on completion of twenty-five years’ service, when they and any children they might have are granted the much-prized Roman citizenship. Mansuetus, a cavalryman from the second cohort of Dalmatians who has retired here from Hadrian’s Wall, will leave to posterity a copy of his own inscribed bronze discharge tablet, lodged in Viroconium’s record office in the forum basilica.*9 Veterans such as Mansuetus will have lump sums to investthe compulsory savings deducted from their wages over the yearsand, immune from taxation, will be sufficiently well off to become town councillors, serving alongside other former soldiers and members of the local tribal aristocracy.

Affluent members of Viroconium society live in large, comfortable houses in town, which require a large amount of cheap labour to build.*10 But some materials, such as stone, are relatively expensive, and even the most prosperous inhabitants of Viroconium have to make economies while keeping up appearances: among the ‘stone’ columns of their street-facing porticoes are some formed from tree trunks and painted to imitate marble. As well as Roman-style architecture, the houses also now display Roman-style taste in the form of large sculpted phalli attached to the exterior walls. The Fascinus, or spirit of the phallus, offers protection for the household against the evil eye. In one example a winged phallus, combined with a hand making a mano fica gesture (thumb clasped by fingers)which is aimed against evil powers in generalpulls a cart. Perhaps its owner hopes to raise a smile from passers-by while warding off the evil eye in the process.

Overall, and in contrast with many images, graffiti and objects found elsewhere in the empire, the British seem to be remarkably reticent, uninterested or backward as regards the obscene and the sexually explicit.*11 While there are vague references to ‘buggers’ in some places (Farningham, Kent,28 Colchester and Silchester29), and an observation written in red on white wall plaster (in Alresford, Essex) that ‘you are shitting’ (cacas),30 it is left to Ratae (Leicester) to take the prize as the rudest place in Britannia. Here, scratched onto the painted wall plaster of an early second-century courtyard fallen into disrepair, is a whole series of insults, ranging from cinae[de] (catamite) to culo, which means ‘arse’ in the dative or ablative case, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination as to whether it should be preceded by ‘to’, ‘for’, ‘by’, ‘with’ or ‘from’.31 As you might expect, the most cocksure graffiti comes from showy Londinium, where a stone tablet boasts of [M]ENTULARUM []XI NONI—the ‘11 (or more) pricks of Nonius’.32

The good people of Viroconium will no doubt pray that on the occasion of Julius Severus’s first visit to their city no insult will be given, and no offence taken; that the evil eye will be diverted, the Latin speeches will pass muster and the omens will be propitious for the dedication of the new forum; and that Julius Severus and his retinue will soon pass safely and with all due ceremony on their way again—north to Deva, and beyond that to the Wall.

*1 The inscription is dated to between winter AD 129 and autumn AD 130. If Julius Severus began his tour soon after arriving in Britannia in early July, he could well have presided over the inauguration in August/September that year.

*2 When Arrian, governor of Cappadocia, made his tour of inspection in Trapezus (Trabzon, Turkey) between AD 131 and AD 138, he was appalled that the inscriptions on two altars of ‘coarse rough stone’ were indistinct and incorrect ‘as is common among barbarous people’, and erected marble altars with ‘well marked and distinct characters’ instead. Arrian (Circumnavigation of the Euxine Sea) 2, 2.

*3 It took the best part of the next twenty years to complete.

*4 The identity of the city’s presiding deity is not known. The town’s major civic temple seems to lie beneath the Victorian model farm to the north of the forum.

*5 Evidence for this comes from the hundreds of Latin loan words present in the descendants of BrittonicWelsh, Cornish and Breton.

*6 In Trapezus, Arrian, on finding a statue of Hadrian to be a poor copy of the original, asked the emperor to ‘send a statue fit to be called yours’ and begged for a better image of Mercury ‘no more than five feet high’ for the temple. Arrian (Circumnavigation of the Euxine Sea), 3.

*7 This is not conclusive at Wroxeter, though it is possible.

*8 The identification of Verbeia as the Roman name is conjectured.

*9 The cohort was originally raised in Croatia, and at this time was serving on Hadrian’s Wall. Mansuetus’s discharge certificate is dated 14 April AD 135 and was found in the basilica, so this is one explanation for how it could have come to be there.

*10 There were over a hundred such houses at the town’s height later in the century.

*11 This conclusion is based on the tiny number of obscene references to survive in Britain. By contrast a potter in Bordeaux wrote on a plate before firing it: ‘I will sodomise 3 times anyone who reads thisgo on, read it and find the person who wishes you this unhappiness…’

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