The Fortress and Amphitheatre at Caerleon

Νέμεσι πτερόεσσα, βίου ῥοπά, / κυανῶπι θεα, θύγατερ Δικας, / ἂ κοῦφα φρυάγματα θνατῶν / ἐπέχεις ἀδάμαντι χαλινῷ, / ἕχθουσα δ’ὕβριν ὀλοὰν βροτῶν / μελανα φθονον ἐκτὸς ἐλαύνεις. / ὑπὸ σὸν τροχὸν ἄστατον,ἀστιβῆ / χαροπὰ μερόπων στρέφεται τύχα…

Winged Nemesis, holding life in the balance, / dark-eyed goddess, daughter of Justice / who checks the pointless whinnying of mortals with her adamantine bit, / she hates the deadly hubris of men driving out dark envy. / On her ever-turning wheel restless steel grey Fortune rotates…

From a Hymn to Nemesis by MESOMODES OF CRETE,
Hadrian’s court musician1


HEADING out of Aquae Sulis towards the port of Abonae, at the mouth of the River Avon, the road taken by Severus’s party will keep the Avon on the left, climbing steeply over Kelston Round Hill and then onto the statio of Trajectus,*1 almost 6 miles away.2Here, the travellers might welcome a break after the steep climb, even after such a short distance. A route from the Mendip Hills leading southwards joins the main road west (at Willsbridge), which then runs over Durdham Down. Abonae lies some 3 miles (5km) to the west, where it is joined by another road running north direct to Glevum (Gloucester).3

The main settlement of Abonae is situated on a small plateau above the river, and it is enjoying modest prosperity, despite a recent fire. Some of its buildings boast painted wall plaster and mosaics. With its access to the Bristol Channel and its location at the junction of the roads to Glevum and Aquae Sulis, Abonae serves as a market town for several small agricultural settlements in the area.4 Samian ware from south and central Gaul, olive oil and fish sauce from Spain, and wine from southern Gaul are all available here, possibly obtained from ships on their way from the Continent to the legionary fortress at Isca Augusta, just across the Bristol Channel.

From Abonae, officials and soldiers can sail across to Isca Augusta, which has its own port about four miles up the coast from the mouth of the River Usk. Another short ferry crossing, a little further north—where the estuary of the River Sabrina (Severn)5 is at its narrowest, only about a mile across—takes passengers directly to the civitas capital of the Silures tribe at Venta Silurum (Caerwent).6 However short the journey, many travellers still take care to toss coins or offerings into the waters in thanks to the river goddess for their safe passage.

On crossing the Severn Julius Severus will be entering the territory of the Silures. Their land extends over much of south-eastern Wales (over what will approximate to Gwent, the Glamorgans, southern Powys and Monmouthshire). Visitors who have read up a little beforehand might feel some trepidation on entering this country for the first time, for the Silures—who are said to have originated in the Iberian peninsula—are supposedly fierce, with dark faces and curly hair, the inhabitants of a harsh landscape.7

Before the Roman conquest, the Silures lived in predominantly fortified settlements on coastal promontories (such as Sudbrook), or in hillforts (such as Llanmelin and Lodge Hill Camp near Isca), although they also had dwellings on the often flooded Gwent Levels. They depended on farming for their livelihood and do not seem to have had any sort of tribal capital, probably living in clans and extended family groups. After the invasion of Britain, the defeated Caratacus sought refuge among them and, inspired by Caratacus’s heroic reputation, the loosely knit Silures rallied around him. Even after his final defeat in North Wales, in the Ordovices’ territory, the Silurians, who ‘could not be dissuaded from fighting by either savagery or clemency’,8 kept up the war in the south, seriously harassing the Romans with their guerrilla tactics, using their knowledge of the difficult terrain. In one of their most devastating attacks they managed to surround a group of legionary cohorts who had been left to build forts: they killed the camp prefect, eight centurions and some of the best men in the company, and the remainder were only saved from being massacred when the garrisons of nearby forts got wind of their plight and came to the rescue.9

The country around here, with its hills, dense forests and boggy ground, is ideally suited to guerrilla warfare and to ambushes in mountain passes and marshes. This helped the Silures to give the Romans, who find such terrain hard to negotiate, a run for their money for more than thirty years and earned them a reputation for being exceptionally tenacious, ‘ac praecipua Silurum pervicacia’.10 This was a struggle to the death, for the Roman commander during the early years of conquest in Wales had vowed that the very name of the Silures should be utterly extinguished. But the Silures managed to persuade other tribes to join their insurgency by lavishing gifts of booty and prisoners upon them,11 and it was only in AD 75, under the governorship of Sextus Julius Frontinus, that the Silures were finally subdued. Even then, in defeat, they were accorded a rare tribute from Tacitus as ‘the strong and warlike Silures, a brave enemy who live in difficult terrain’.12


Visitors to the legionary fortress at Isca sail up the mouth of the Usk to a substantial harbour just south-west of the fortress. It is provided with a quay and landing stages, wharves, warehouses and offices, so that ships can sail right up to the fortress from the sea. This excellent arrangement means that the supplies and ships enjoy the protection of the legionaries, and neither provisions nor men are dependent on overland routes through the difficult terrain and amidst people who, within living memory, have been sworn enemies.

Frontinus could not have chosen a better spot for the fortress. It is sited on a gently elevated plateau, on the right bank of the Usk and at the river’s lowest bridging point before it enters the Severn Estuary. It also sits clear of the Usk’s flood plain to the east and south, yet is protected by a broad loop of the river, which forms a natural boundary to the south, with a small tributary, the Afon Lwyd, flanking its eastern side.13 This strategy of siting legionary fortresses on rivers that are readily accessible from the sea is also evident at Deva, at the mouth of the River Dee, and at Eboracum, which sits on the navigable Ouse, whose mouth is at the Humber Estuary. Isca encloses fifty acres of land, and unsurprisingly, given its location, its name derives ultimately from the British word for river water.14

As Julius Severus and his entourage travel up-river, a whole cluster of imposing and unmistakably official buildings looms into view. Dominating the riverside and the adjacent port facilities is a huge courtyard building, covering over two acres.15 It is not quite Portus, but nonetheless it looks imposing and efficient. Even here, approaching the extreme western fringe of the known world, visitors can experience the full embrace of imperial Rome.

The port serves not just Isca and its immediate environs, but also auxiliary forts further upstream. Isca lies on the road that, to the east, ultimately leads to the former legionary bases at Glevum and Viroconium, and to the west, Moridunum (Carmarthen), tribal capital of the Demetae, which is reached via an auxiliary fort at Cardiff.*2 But right now the whole place looks rather sleepy. The unpaved courtyard, which is big enough to contain thousands of men, together with their equipment and packhorses, is all but empty, and the warehouses and depots further along the quay look quiet too.*3 Since construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in AD 122, large numbers of men—from at least seven out of ten cohorts, maybe more—have been deployed in the north during the more clement months of the year.*4 Occasionally vexillations*5 of the legion are also sent abroad, including men such as Tadius Exuperatus who died, aged thirty-seven years, ‘on the German expedition’ and whose sister erected a tombstone at Isca in memory of him.16

Some people always need to remain at the base, of course, and the place is by no means deserted. There are representatives from each cohort, maintaining a presence, welcoming and training recruits, and supervising soldiers who are rejoining their unit or waiting for assignment. Just dealing with the upkeep of this vast place is a huge job, and day-to-day administration takes up considerable time. A mountain of correspondence is produced each day. Daily rosters detailing (for example) which men need to collect timber for building work,17 receipts for rations and supplies, records of pay, and more, are all filed neatly on wooden tablets, with relevant copies if necessary. Records are maintained of all personnel and equipment, specifying who is on leave and where men are posted. Every day reports also need to be written up, recording the daily password, which could be—for example—the name of one of the seven known planets.18 Troops are also on hand to police the area, to maintain contact with the surrounding auxiliary forts, and generally to keep the system running smoothly.

They must ensure too that valuable materials being exported from Wales such as iron, lead and gold are transported under guard and are fully accounted for when they leave the area. A fort*6 in Carmarthenshire guards the Dolaucothi gold mine. The only one in the province, it is very modest in contrast with the gold mines of Dacia and the 230-plus gold mines of Asturia,19 Galicia and Lusitania, which provide over 20,000 pounds in weight of gold a year.20

Lead, however, is a very different matter. Whereas in Spain and Gaul it is extracted ‘with considerable effort’, in Britain lead is said ‘to lie so abundantly within the upper layers of the earth, that there is a law limiting the scale of its extraction’.21 Lead is extracted in many places in Britannia—in Flintshire and the border country (between Montgomery and Shropshire), from mines at Lutudarum (near Wirksworth, Derbyshire22), from sources in the North Pennines and from the Mendips, near Aquae Sulis. Lead from North Wales and Shropshire is also exported from ports near Deva, while lead from Derbyshire and Yorkshire is loaded onto ships in the Humber (at Petuaria, Brough-on-Humber).23 Cast into ‘pigs’, or ingots, and stamped as ‘(Property) of the Emperor Caesar Hadrian Augustus’,24 lead is used to make pipes, in sheets to line tanks, fountains and baths, for securing iron clamps in building blocks, in official seals on documents and packages, and even as a material for manufacturing votive statues. It also has medical uses—to diminish scars, ulcers and haemorrhoids, and even to suppress libido: when lead plates are applied to the loins and kidneys, they are believed to restrain sexual passion and prevent wet dreams.25


The fortress at Isca Augusta was built by legionaries—the men of the II Augusta, a legion so named because the Emperor Augustus either raised or reformed it. The legion first arrived in Britain from the Rhine frontier (at Strasbourg) during the conquest of AD43 and served with distinction under its commander and future emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus. During his time in Britain, Vespasian ‘smashed the power of two extremely strong tribes, over twenty oppida and the Isle of Wight’.26 Vespasian had probably left Britannia by AD 47, but the legion remained, and from about AD 55 was stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum.

When Vespasian made a successful bid for power during the civil war (AD 68–69) that followed Nero’s death, the troops in Britain were inclined to support him because of his earlier command of the II Augusta and his distinguished service there. Soon after taking power, Vespasian, the first emperor of the new Flavian dynasty, began the successful push into the north of Britannia led by the province’s new governor, Petillius Cerialis, in AD 71–74. With Frontinus’s governorship (AD 74–78) and the conquest of the Silures, construction of Isca Augusta began.

The fortress lies north of the river. To its west is an amphitheatre, and Julius Severus may be pleasantly surprised to see a handsome porticoed courtyard building adjoining it, of a type often found next to theatres and amphitheatres in Roman cities and containing gardens and fountains.27 Visitors entering the fortress from the river do so through the south gate, the porta praetoria. From here, the via praetoria leads to the centre of the fortress, where it intersects with the main east–west road, the via principalis, in front of theprincipia, or headquarters building. Just as the main road into a Roman town runs straight to the forum basilica at its heart, so in legionary fortresses the main roads converge on the camp’s central focus, the headquarters. Once inside a fortress, a soldier, whether he comes fresh from Africa, Dacia or the Rhineland, will be able to orientate himself very soon, for the main streets and general layout of all the principal buildings are much the same across the empire.


Towering over the surrounding buildings of the fortress, and covering just over 2.5 acres, is the baths complex, a massive construction of stone and concrete. It could easily accommodate the entire garrison, together with their concubines and children. The vaulted ceiling of its baths suite rises, at its highest point, to more than 15 metres (50 feet), with a span of more than 12 metres (40 feet). In scale and form, these structures can hold their own with any in the empire.28

The fortress baths, in common with others all over the empire, are also gyms and social clubs. Here, in remote Isca, there might be no access to (or little demand for) Greek and Latin libraries, unlike at the major baths in Rome. The only art on display here might well be the sculptural group in the nymphaeum (fountain house) and the odd statue of Fortuna in the changing rooms. Nevertheless, this vast building is a central focus of the legion’s social scene. Here the soldiers swim, bathe, take exercise, play board games (perhaps ludus duodecimo scriptorium, akin to backgammon) and chat to friends. They also enjoy snacks here—munching olives, slurping shellfish and chewing on mutton chops, chicken pieces, pigs’ trotters and pork ribs.29

At Isca, the open-air pool is larger in area than the Great Bath at Aquae Sulis and an excellent place to swim.*7 It is a little over a metre and a half (5 feet) at the deep end, shelving to just over a metre (4 feet) at the shallow end, and its floor is lined with flagstones. The pool is fed by lead pipes, through which a continuous flow of water brings in the 365,000 litres (some 80,250 gallons) needed to fill it. The attractive nymphaeum stands at one end of the pool. Its apse is painted with a colourful aquatic scene, and it frames the sculptural group in which a dolphin spurts water out of its mouth to cascade down a flight of steps clad in Purbeck marble. Charming though this is, the fountain house’s days are numbered as it is suffering from subsidence and will be demolished within the next decade.*8 The baths buildings themselves sport an apodyterium and a vast frigidarium.30 In the triple recesses at the end of the hall is a cold plunge-bath, flanked by two large round basins, also carved from Purbeck marble.31

Women and children have access to the baths, though in the disciplined era of Hadrian they might well have to use them at different times to the soldiers. The baths’ patrons leave a legacy of lost property: hair pins and jewellery; children’s milk teeth (and adults’ teeth from mouths riddled with gum disease32); a handsome strigil inlaid with silver, gold and brass, depicting the twelve labours of Hercules and inscribed with the cheery inscription in Greek ‘kalws elouse’ (‘it washed nicely’);33 and a multitude of engraved gemstones of amethyst, cornelian and jasper, loosened from signet rings in the moist heat of the baths and trapped in the drains.*9


The baths provide one form of recreational activity for the troops, the amphitheatre another.*10 It was built in about AD 90, in a rather tight space outside the fort’s walls near the porticoed courtyard building. Its eight barrel-vaulted entrances, built of tufa and banded with tile and stone, allow up to 6,000 spectators to make their way up to their wooden seats in the grandstand: room enough to accommodate the entire legion, plus guests. The interior wall of the arena is plain, even more so than Londinium’s, although its exterior walls are rendered and picked out with false ashlar joints, highlighted in red paint. The coping stones for the parapets of the arena wall and for the top of the open entrances are of fine oolitic limestone from the quarries near Aquae Sulis.

Being so close to the fortress and adjoining the parade ground, the amphitheatre might well also provide a culmination to military parades and a setting for major festivals and ceremonies in the army’s calendar, such as honesta missio (demobilisation) on 7 January and the celebrations attached to the rosaliae signorum, the festival of the standards. At this ceremony, traditionally held in May, the legionary standards are taken out of the shrine in the principia and garlanded with roses, the occasion also being marked with religious ceremonies and sacrifice.34 The legion celebrates its birthday on 23 September (the date of its founder Augustus’s birthday), and this is also a time of parades, shows and sacrifices—as is Hadrian’s birthday on 24 January.

The amphitheatre is one of the very few types of building that the Romans can claim to have invented—most other familiar Roman structures, such as the theatre, forum, basilica and circus, being indebted to Greek prototypes. Developing during the late Republic, the amphitheatre found its full expression under imperial rule. Equally Roman, too, are the gladiatorial contests—although arguably these originated in Campania—which began as games held as part of funeral ceremonies held in honour of the dead. The first known reference to such a display in connection with a funeral in Rome is in 264 BC.35 Such munera, a word which originally meant works, public offices or duty, also began to be applied specifically to these funeral honours. The rich families of Rome seized on the political capital that could be gained from financing and mounting such expensive entertainments, and they hired increasing numbers of gladiators for the purpose. In time, the munera became forms of show for the entertainment of the populace and to enhance the standing or popularity of the host, without necessarily requiring the justification of a funeral.

It is through the arena, and the shows and ceremonies that are enacted here, that Rome’s supremacy and role in establishing order in the world is acted out in brutal showmanship. Here Rome can demonstrate her mastery over nature, through the hunting down and slaughtering of wild beasts, and the supremacy of her laws, in inflicting capital punishment and sending convicted men and women to their deaths in the arena. It is in the amphitheatre that Rome can afford its citizens that extra frisson of superiority over barbarian forces, condemning prisoners of war to fight to the death and to take part in celebratory tableaux after Roman victory. The gladiators are part of this process, displaying thoroughly un-Roman methods of combat. Some types of fighter are even known by the names of foreign peoples, such as the popular thraeces, ‘Thracians’, who carry curved, dagger-like swords and small shields.

Some desperadoes volunteer as gladiators, but most are recruited from among prisoners of war, the criminals damnati ad ludum (‘condemned to the show’) and slaves, although Hadrian has recently made it illegal for anyone who owns male or female slaves to sell them to either pimps or gladiator trainers without giving good reason.36 Gladiators operate on the fringes of society, like prostitutes and actors (the latter notorious for moonlighting as the former). They are ‘infamous’ in the original sense of suffering infamia, or public disgrace, because of what they do. Anyone who has been a gladiator is barred from holding political office in local government, from serving on juries or from becoming a soldier; they also lose another privilege of Roman citizenship—freedom from physical assault—and on being recruited into a gladiator training school they must swear to bind themselves body and soul to their lanista, or manager.37 The people who freely hire themselves out as gladiators are known as auctorati (bondsmen), and in this shady pecking order they hold a higher status than the slave gladiators, who in turn are rated more highly than the venatores, or hunters, and the stagehands who bring on the prisoners and the beasts.

Many gladiators are highly trained fighters, who are first and foremost expected to put on a great show. The best of them command a huge following and can be hired out for large amounts of money. As far as the most skilled fighters are concerned, it is in their managers’ best interests to keep them in tip-top condition and ensure that they stay alive. Doctors are provided to treat injured gladiators: this is how the famous medical writer Galen started his career, trying to work out how to reinsert the intestines hanging out of gladiators’ gaping wounds.38


There are plenty of salacious digs about women’s attraction to gladiators. Juvenal satirizes the predilection in his misogynistic Satire VI, relating the story of Eppia, the senator’s wife, who abandons her family and her wealth to run off to Egypt with an ugly old gladiator well past his prime. He concludes that ‘it’s the sword that they love’ (ferrum est quod amant), ‘sword’ (ferrum) being very likely a vulgar pun. Juicy gladiator gossip never loses its appeal.*11 Gladiators are only too happy to promulgate their ladykiller status: ‘Celadus, the Thracian makes the girls pant’ (suspirium puellarum Celadus Tr(ax)), to quote just one boast scrawled in graffiti by the gladiators of Pompeii.39

The poets might joke, and gladiators might boast, but to be a gladiator is to enter not just a different social class but a different state of existence—one that hovers even more precariously between life and death than that of the average person, and one that many find both ignominious and terrifying. It is so disgraceful a prospect that, on one occasion, twenty-nine prisoners strangled each other to death rather than submit to the arena. In the first century AD, a German prisoner of war condemned to fight as a hunter in a beast show made an excuse to slip to the lavatory before the performance and rammed a sponge down his throat, choking himself rather than suffering the horrible fate that awaited him.*12

The fact is that, however carefully a lanista has his gladiators’ wounds tended, spectators at the arena expect to see people die, and anyone who foots the bill for a show—be it an emperor or a local magistrate—will gain kudos from the perception that he is rich enough to pay for the deaths of numerous men and beasts. As an inscription from a provincial town in Italy boasts so brutally of one such patron, ‘over four days he put on 11 pairs and of these he had 11 of the best gladiators in Campania killed and also 10 bears cruelly killed’.40 Emperors spend extraordinary money on shows. To celebrate his conquest of Dacia, Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan spent millions of sestertii, providing 4,941 pairs of gladiators and 10,000 beasts, both tame and wild, during games that lasted more than 120 days.41 Roman emperors, of course, have the best resources available, including the imperial gladiator schools in Rome, of which the Ludus Magnus, as its name suggests, is the largest and is situated conveniently near the Colosseum. They also have the provincial procurators and army at their disposal to help capture and transport beasts from all over the empire. One centurion of the Legion I Minervia based in Bonna (Bonn) boasts of having caught fifty bears for the arena in the space of six months. Britannia also exports bears and stags, while soldiers serving in northern Britannia are probably charged with procuring bears for imperially sponsored shows, possibly hunting them north of the Wall.42

For your average provincial magistrate, however, putting on a gladiatorial show is hugely expensive and fraught with logistical problems.*13 What do you do if, having advertised gladiatorial games to win political favour, you are faced with a nasty surprise, such as that mass suicide of prisoners on the eve of your show, or the loss of your consignment of bears in a shipwreck? And what if the animals you do have are too mangy and lethargic after a traumatic journey to provide much drama in the arena?43

The aristocracy in Britannia, however, appear to be singularly untroubled by such problems. For whatever reasons, they seem reluctant to pay for gladiators, bears or public works of any description, and they do not indulge in the sort of competitive public munificence displayed elsewhere in the empire. As a rule, privately sponsored games featuring gladiators in non-military amphitheatres are unheard of.44 The schools of gladiators that appear in Britannia and on international tours of Gaul, Spain and Germany do so under the surveillance of an imperial procurator, indicating they are funded by the state.45

Despite the apparent reluctance of private individuals in Britannia to foot the bill for gladiators outside the legionary forts, images of gladiators are found everywhere—decorating wall-paintings, mosaics, vases, glassware, ceramics, sculpture, penknives and oil lamps, and catering to all pockets and tastes. Fights are depicted, but also popular is the theme of the dying gladiator: the moment at which he lies defeated, poised between life and death, is often rendered with a combination of brutality and sentimentality. Winged cupids acting out the roles of gladiators on mosaics appeal to similarly mixed sentiments.46

Large numbers of glass cups from Gaul showing gladiators may be found the length and breadth of Britannia.47 But local craftsmen also cater for the demand. The Camulodunum potters have a whole range of gladiator motifs in the moulds they use,48 and the potters from around Durobrivae (Water Newton, near Peterborough), who specialize in drinking cups with hunting scenes, also produce cups depicting gladiators.49 Clasp-knives with gladiator terminals and blades that fold into their handles, like penknives, are also perennially popular. Probably imported from Gaul, they are made in copper alloy, bone or ivory.50

As in Londinium, on show days at Isca there are stalls outside the main entrance to the amphitheatre that sell drinks, snacks and souvenirs such as glass cups bearing scenes of chariot-racing. In the amphitheatre, spectators show their support for their favourite fighters by carving graffiti. One supporter of the ‘net men’ (retiarii)—those gladiators who, clad only in a loin cloth, wield a large wide-mesh net and a trident—indicates their favour by drawing a trident between two images of the distinctive shoulder guard (galerus) worn on the left arm of a retiarius, as well as a palm frond denoting victory.51

Different types of fighters have their own following. There are the fans of the ‘small shields’, who are nicknamed parmularii (after the parmula used by Thracian fighters), or there are the scutarii, the ‘big shields’ (after the scutum used by secutores).52 Asecutorwears a helmet that covers his whole face leaving just two small holes for his eyes. He thus has very limited vision and needs to get close to his opponent—extremely hazardous if he is fighting against a retiarius, who can cast his 3-metre-wide net to ensnare him. By way of compensation, the secutor is armed with a sword as well as his large shield.53

A gladiator called Lucius who has somehow or other ended up in Ratae Corieltauvorum (Leicester) seems to have had at least one fan, a woman called Verecunda.54 Verecunda is a ludia (literally ‘show girl’), an actress or performer—or a gladiator’s moll, which is how Juvenal uses the word when he asks how the senator’s wife Eppia could possibly have run off with a gladiator: ‘What does she see in him that it’s worth enduring the label ludia?’55 Are Lucius and Verecunda members of a professional troupe on tour in the provinces? Does Verecunda love her Lucius as passionately as Eppia had her lover? If Juvenal’s sneering words are to be believed, the allure of gladiators is strong enough to make a woman abandon her family, her home and her country.56

One thing is certain: if you are married to a gladiator you can look forward to an early widowhood, as happened to Aurelia in Verona, who buried her husband Glauco after he ‘fought 7 fights, died on the eighth, lived 23 years and 5 days’.57 Inscribed on his tombstone is the advice: ‘I warn you not to put your trust in Nemesis. That is how I was deceived. Hail and Farewell’. It is Nemesis, that ‘winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice’, who is the deity most closely associated with amphitheatres.58 Nemesis, who is sometimes equated with Fortuna and depicted with her attributes of wheel and rudder, can distribute good or bad fortune, success or failure, life or death. Shrines to Nemesis are found around amphitheatres throughout the empire.59Nemesis is also associated with the huntress goddess Diana, appearing together especially in the context of the amphitheatres’ hunts (venationes). A temple dedicated to Diana is situated near the amphitheatre.60

People also ask Nemesis to help them regain their stolen goods and to take vengeance on the thief. Whoever has left a lead curse tablet at her shrine at Isca’s amphitheatre promising ‘Lady Nemesis, I give thee a cloak and a pair of Gallic sandals; let him who took them not redeem them (unless) with his own blood’61 is evidently less of a skilled negotiator than the visitor to Londinium’s amphitheatre who promised: ‘I give Diana my headgear and scarf, less one third. If anyone has done this, I give him, and through me let him be unable to live.’62

Mercury, too, is honoured at Isca’s amphitheatre. One of the most popular gods in Britannia, he is commonly associated with merchants and travellers, but he is also connected with the dead through his Greek incarnation as Hermes, who—as Hermes Psychopompus—conducts the souls of the dead to the underworld. In some places, masked attendants dressed as Mercury, with his winged cap, brandish a burning hot model of his cadeuceus, or wand, to check if those who appear to be dead truly are: ‘We have laughed at the sport of your midday game of the gods, when Father Pluto, Jove’s own brother, drags away, hammer in hand, the remains of the gladiators; when Mercury, with his winged cap and heated wand, tests by branding whether the bodies were really lifeless or only feigning death.’63


The legionaries who sit in the arena can on the whole expect to live longer than the gladiators whose performances they watch. Soldiers such as Julius Valens, who is buried at one of the cemeteries that lie along the roads leading from the fortress, lived to be a hundred years old. He, like many of his comrades who were able to enjoy their retirement, settled in the canabae, or civilian settlements that have grown up around the fortress. Here, the veterans congregate at the taverns, where they drink out of cheap, locally made beakers while snacking off shellfish such as oysters, mussels, limpets and cockles.

Julius Severus and his party will ride through these outlying canabae as they take up the next stage of their journey—towards Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter). This was once the site of a legionary fortress that spearheaded the conquest of North Wales. Now, with the region long subdued, Viroconium is a flourishing civitas capital and the legionary base there has been transferred further north, to Deva (Chester).

The party will pick up the main road north, Watling Street West, at Blestium (Monmouth). Although the most direct route north from Isca is the busy road through Burrium (Usk), a high official on a tour of the province will no doubt be expected to visit the localcivitas capital at Venta Silurum (Caerwent). It lies across the River Usk, about 8 miles east of the fortress. The main settlement in the area around the fort lies in the lowlands of the Vale of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, where there is good farmland for growing cereals and rearing cattle. The easily flooded Gwent Levels have been drained, a task possibly involving the local soldiers, and the land now provides pasture for horses, cattle and sheep.

Venta Silurum was founded within a very few years of the Silures’ final defeat. Despite the Roman threats during the early years of the campaign in Wales, it was not in their best interests to punish the Silures too savagely for giving them such a hard time for so many years. Besides, their defeat came at the advent of Agricola’s governorship in AD 75, as he pursued his policy of ‘Romanizing’ the defeated tribes. It is unlikely that the Silures remained dediticii, or without political status or rights, for long. They were evidently granted, under the watchful eye of the nearby legionaries at Isca, land, a form of self-government with their own council, and help with building their town centre, the forum and basilica. They may have had to hand over hostages for a period—perhaps the sons of high-ranking families, who could be sent to a more civilized place to acquire a little Roman polish.64

It is also possible that Venta Silurum was populated with veterans from Isca and elsewhere. There are certainly clues that the legionaries helped out with building and planning the town, providing cranes and other lifting devices, together with sculptors to carve the capitals of the forum basilica’s fine (30-foot-high) Corinithian columns from local sandstone. The town is near enough to Isca to be a destination for the soldiers and an alternative to the canabae outside the fortress as a place to spend their cash when on leave.

At about 44 acres, Venta is one of the smallest tribal capitals in Britannia and covers a smaller area than the 50 acres of nearby Isca.65 Although divided into twenty street blocks or insulae, there are many open spaces within the street grid, and it is really not much more than a straggle of buildings along the main road to Isca.*14 Shop fronts open out onto the main street, with their workshops and living quarters behind. Some houses are surrounded by yards, paddocks and agricultural buildings, and town quickly blurs into country, with farms on its very fringes.

Visitors enter the forum through an archway on the north side of the main street. It occupies the whole of the central block (insula VIII),66 with shops on the ground floor, each of them a single room with a large open front that can be secured with wooden shutters at closing time; there is also a shellfish snack bar in the north-east corner. The basilica, where the town council sits, is a single long hall with an office at one end and is small compared with those of other civitas capitals.67 Across the road from the forum are the public baths (insula XIII) and an adjacent temple (insula XII). Visiting officials and dignitaries can stay in a newish mansio in the south-west corner of town, set back from the street. Consisting of a courtyard house with a large basin fountain at its centre and a separate baths building, the mansio is comfortably appointed, with identical suites of rooms in its north and south ranges and a dining room and kitchen. But as yet it has no central heating, and the rooms are warmed with braziers. The house only seems to cater for officers and officials—those of lesser rank must find accommodation elsewhere in town.68

Having passed through Venta, Julius Severus and those accompanying him must now make for the crossroads at Chepstow, where there is a bridge over the River Wye and a road leading east to the colonia of Glevum (Gloucester), a former legionary base. Severus, however, follows a direct, though hilly, route north to Blestium, a distance of 12.5 miles (20km). The road keeps to the high ground to the west of the spectacular Wye gorge and much of it affords splendid views over the surrounding countryside. On leaving Blestium, where the road is joined by the busy direct route from Isca, there is a long ascent through a narrow valley—the first stage of a 40-mile stretch to the small roadside settlement of Branogenium (Leintwardine), at the crossing of the River Teme. The journey must be broken somewhere, and one possibility is to make a small diversion to Magnis (Kenchester, near Hereford), a market town for the Dobunni tribe, which has a mansio. At Branogenium, officials and military men can stay at the mansiooutside the fort that lies a short distance to the south-west (at Buckton). They will be among the last visitors to stay here, as the fort is very soon to be vacated.69

Throughout his tour, Julius Severus will not have to worry about any of the logistics of travel himself, as he has his own strator consularis (transport officer) to depend on, as well as the insights of people with local knowledge; but, as a military man, he will expect to have access to detailed plans of the whole region. A good leader must know not only the distances by the number of paces but also the quality of the roads, the shortest routes and all the by-roads, and detailed information about mountains and rivers. The best-prepared officers have maps containing both annotations and drawings, to enable them to see the best route ‘in front of their very eyes’.70

For everyday use, civilian travellers are more likely to have a type of route planner, showing the main roads depicted as a series of continuous lines, with the distance between various places written below in numerals, and mainly in Roman miles. (Although in parts of Gaul distances are traditionally measured in leagues, 1 leuga or league being equivalent to 1.5 Roman miles.71) Symbols on the route planner depict what is on offer at various places. In addition to showing the large harbours, lighthouses, mountains and major rivers, there are bird’s-eye views of towns and the different sorts of facilities available en route: spas (aquae), inns with stabling, and major temples. The maps, produced in sheets in papyrus form, can be wound on two wooden cylinders, or rollers, and packed in luggage. Route planners also exist as lists, giving the start and finish of each itinerary, the total mileage, together with stopping places and distances between them. Maritime routes are available in this form too, listing journeys by sea along the same lines and mainly measured in stadia.*15

Were he to consult his maps, Julius Severus would see that from Branogenium to his next main destination, Viroconium, is a distance of 24.5 miles (39km). The road, which makes its way through the hilly country of the Strettons, keeps to high ground above the valleys, with decent views where possible and maintaining a direct course for long distances.72 The town the new imperial governor is making for is a substantial one—the civitas capital of the Cornovii. For Viroconium Cornoviorum, AD 130 is a significant year.

*1 Trajectus is probably on the site of today’s Bitton.

*2 The fort might have been called Tamium, but that is not certain.

*3 The River Usk was, in the Roman period, much further east than it is now. The quay, wharf and warehouses are all conjectural.

*4 Possibly all ten cohorts were serving on the Wall, but inscriptions attesting their presence have been found from only seven of them. It might be that they returned to Isca during the winter months.

*5 From the Latin for the vexillum, or banner, under which detachments of soldiers served and fought.

*6 At Pumpsaint—it was perhaps called Luentinum.

*7 Its length was 41 metres (135 feet).

*8 When the pool was also shortened to 25.5 metres (84 feet) in length.

*9 A total of eighty-eight gemstones have been found in the drain.

*10 Caerleon has the most complete and thoroughly excavated legionary amphitheatre in Britain.

*11 Towards the end of the second century, rumours abounded that the Emperor Commodus was the product of his mother Faustina’s affair with a gladiator rather than the natural son of Marcus Aurelius.

*12 The source is Seneca (Letters) LXX1, 9–21.23. This is, incidentally, one of the very few references in literature to the Romans using sponges on sticks to wipe their bottoms. Such sponges would have had to be imported into Britannia, and there is no convincing material evidence to suggest that anyone ever bothered to do so; they more probably used moss and rags as substitutes. For another rare sponge-on-stick reference, see Martial (Epigrams) XII, 48.

*13 By AD 177 such was the consternation about the expense of mounting provincial gladiator shows that Emperor Marcus Aurelius abolished the tax on the sale of gladiators and tried to fix a scale of prices for putting on shows.

*14 Even in the third and fourth centuries, the population numbered only between 2,400 and 3,800 inhabitants.

*15 As in the Antonine Itinerary. Although the subject of much discussion regarding its purpose and discrepancies within it, this third-century itinerary no doubt had earlier equivalents, which would have provided a useful reference source for a journey to Britain in AD 130.

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