Roman Essex

Roman Essex

There is no doubt that Essex was the centre of the stage in the great drama of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. One reason for the invasion was the acquisition of further territory through armed superiority. The Romans had overcome the larger country of the Gauls but after Julius Caesar landed in Kent in 54 BC, he could not sustain a presence. A hundred years later Emperor Claudius saw that much personal prestige could be gained from a successful invasion and a triumphal procession through Rome with slaves and booty. Some Roman traders were already settled in Essex. They, the members of the Emperor’s entourage and the officers of his army were all keen to benefit from a share in the spoils. Another reason for the invasion at this time was that Cunobelin had just died. He was of the line and tribe of Cassivellaunus, and he had conquered the Trinovantes to rule at Camulodunurn (Colchester) as well as at Verulamium (St Albans), and possibly had overcome the northern tribe of the Iceni. He has been called the first British King. Suetonius, the contemporary Roman biographer described him as ‘Rex Britannorum’.

Cunobelin had trouble with his son Adminius, finally expelling him from Britain and when he died he left his kingdom to his other two sons. Adminius meanwhile had sought the help of Emperor Caligula, who himself died in AD 41. Thus was set in motion the invasion under Aulus Plautius in AD 43 when Emperor Claudius was in power. It was a glorious victory. As Camulodunum was the capital of such a large area and the most important town in Britain at that time, the Romans came in on the Kent coast, crossed the Thames and headed for it with the utmost speed. What the Romans found was a big, busy town at the head of the Colne on a promontory of rising ground which was a 100 ft high plateau aligned east—west, protected on the north by the river Colne, on the south by its tributary the Roman River, with marshes on the south and east and woodland on the north and west. Three and a half miles of earthworks had been built across the neck of this promontory as further protection, marked on today’s maps as ‘Gryme’s Dyke’. This settlement had been trading with Rome for 50 years already, so the coming of the soldiers was more in the nature of an enforced takeover than a laying-waste. Emperor Claudius was determined to introduce to the tribes of Essex and beyond the civilised, systematic way of life as lived in Rome. The sheer power of Roman military and civil government organisation impressed the tribal chiefs and aided pacification. Their prowess in road building allowed speedy movement of troops and the improved transport of exports through Roman merchants.

The site of the first camp set up by the expeditionary fbrce south east of Camulodunum was discovered in 1931, and here it was that, in about AD 50, the Romans set up their new town of Colonia Victricensis – a settlement for discharged soldiers who did not wish to return home. It was utterly destroyed within twelve years during the Boudiccan revolt. Undeterred, the Romans rebuilt the whole town, enclosed its 108 acres in a 3,100 yard long wall and set out the streets on the usual grid plan of right-angled intersections. One famous archaeologist, Dr Wheeler, suggests that the great Balkerne Gate in those walls was specially built to celebrate the completion of the long straight roads out of the ‘Colonia’ to London and St Albans. Others have taken its history further by referring to the name ‘Balkerne’ as meaning that this gate was blocked up to ‘balk’ attempts by raiding Danes or Saxons to enter the town from that direction. The importance of the Colchester of those days is indicated by the great temple of Claudius, remains of which are to be seen to this day in the cellars of the Castle. It demonstrated the town’s status as the religious centre of the whole province. Yet for some unknown reason the town did not grow and soon London had surpassed it in trade and administrative importance. At least four other places in Roman Britain soon ranked above the old British capital and Colchester gradually became a small country town with a modest trade with the continent.

With the capital in their hands, the Romans set about appeasement and pacification. They developed points of entry for supplies at Fingringhoe Wick, serving Colchester and the northern area, and at Heybridge, already a trading port, serving central Essex and the garrison at Chelmsford. It is possible that Bradwell-on-Sea, where later a shore-fort was built, had been a Roman naval base.

It is hard to believe from the peaceful, rural view of Great Chesterford today that it was once a major military fortress covering 30 acres, built by the Romans after the Boudiccan uprising. There is no sign of a single stone on the surface and much of the subsoil which would have contained remains has been carried away in gravel extraction. It would seem that it controlled the several routes leading north to the Icknield Way. The Romans pacified the natives by improving their smaller towns, which attracted people from the surrounding countryside with their shops, stalls and crafts, providing for the everyday needs of the inhabitants. Examples have been found at Heybridge, Kelvedon and Chelmsford. Details of this type of Romanised smaller town can be gathered from reports by archaeologists like Drury and Rodwell, including the CBA Research Report No 34 of 1980. Cropmark evidence in aerial surveys shows that Iron Age and subsequent Roman settlement was extensive on the lighter soils north of the Thames and on the vales of the Colne, the Blackwater and the Stour. Roman occupation made no great change in the Essex countryside. Small Iron Age settlements became villages or small towns, usually at road junctions or river crossings. Gradually the larger Roman’villas’ were built in selected spots from which their rich and influential owners could commute to centres of government administration, business and trade.

It had been thought that the great invasion left little trace of its passage through Essex because military occupation and government was so brief, but recent excavations have brought more evidence to light. Marching camps were at river crossings to water man and beast of burden, and to allow the column to catch up. One such stopping place would have been at Chelmsford by the rivers Can and Chelmer, roughly halfway between the Thames and the great capital at Colchester. A ditch was discovered which bore the marks of the stakes which made a crude but effective palisade against surprise attack. That camp developed into a trading centre, winning over the local tribe by peaceful means, but a military presence is thought to have remained for some 40 years. Though the Trinovantes had long been allies of Rome, no chances were taken. The Romans sited small forts along the high road they had soon engineered. One is known to have existed at Kelvedon and it is thought that there were others at Braintree and Great Dunmow.

At Orsett an enclosure with three surrounding ditches suggests such a fort, but no military finds have come to light. Wickford, Hadleigh and West Tilbury have also produced evidence of defensive earthworks. Durolitum, a fortified settlement mentioned by Roman historians, has not yet been identified, though Rodwell places it near Chigwell from external evidence. Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Great Wakering, Marks Tey and Waltham Cross have all yielded items of military significance. As the tribe settled peacefully under Roman rule, these fortified settlements took on urban status. Places like Chelmsford developed as tribal market centres. Its Latin name – ‘Caesaromagus’ – means, according to some, Caesar’s Market.

With todays rapid building developments, more prehistoric and Roman remains have been discovered in Essex in the last 20 years than ever before. Many of them have been covered up again, smashed by great earthmovers or carried away unnoticed in massive lorry-loads of unwanted subsoil. Essex Count Council has set up an archaeology department to investigate an reported finds. A good idea of the extent of the Roman occupation of Essex can be gained from a glance through the pages of the volume produced by the Victoria County History in 1963 to provide a gazetteer of all the places in Essex where evidence had been found of Roman activity. To take just one place as an example – Great Chesterford. Apart from Colchester it is the only Roman town in Essex known to have been walled all round. Yet, as recently as 1943 a rush job had to be made of archaeological excavation in advance of gravel working which was being allowed to strip the whole site.

Long before then, back in the 18th century, the Roman walls were being pulled down for the valuable building rubble they afforded. Coins were so plentiful all over the area, including those of Cunobelin, that an archaeologist reported they were universal all over the ground.’ In 1719 Stukeley, the well known antiquarian, said that the landlord of the Crown Inn was selling such coins at 4d a time. It is not surprising that there was so much money about, for one of the buildings of which archaeologists recently found the foundations was a Roman tax office – built around AD 200.

The Romans did not have it all their own way. Archaeologists digging today in Colchester and Chelmsford often come across a layer of burnt material – mute evidence of the day when the Iceni rose in open revolt. The circumstances and the outcome are well described in the introduction to William Cowper’s poems published in 1782:

‘Boadicea, or Boudicca, was the wife of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni, the people who occupied during Roman times the greater part of the country now called East Anglia. On the death of Prasutagus, in AD 60, Boadicea became head of the Iceni. Although a warlike race, the Iceni, as a result of revolts, had been reduced by the Romans to a state of virtual servitude. Taking advantage of the will of Prasutagus, under which the King’s property was to be divided between his daughters and the Roman Emperor, the Roman officials claimed the whole. Boadicea was flogged, and her family outrageously treated.

Led by Boadicea, the Iceni, joined by the Trinobantes [sic] of the south, rose in revolt. Colchester was taken by them and even London itself. The Roman Governor, who was away in Anglesey, returned to meet the Iceni. Before the battle, which ended in defeat for the Iceni. Boadicea roused her army by driving with her daughters through the lines of her warriors, reminding them of all the insults she had suffered. Boadicea ended her life by poison and the Roman power became supreme in Eastern England.’

There is no doubt that the fury of Boudicca’s tribesmen left complete devastation in their wake as they laid waste to Colchester, burned much of Chelmsford and then attempted to set light to London. The site of the last battle against the Romans, when her troops were routed, has never been positively identified, though legend has it that it was at Ambresbury Banks in Epping Forest.

In all the burning and the looting, the killing and the maiming, there is one strange tale of how a Roman soldier’s tombstone was preserved through the vandalism of Boudicca’s men. It is a tombstone to a Roman soldier who died peacefully while serving as a ‘corporal’ in the First Regiment of the Thracian Cavalry, stationed in the ancient British capital of Camulodunum, or Colchester, as part of the occupation force. Though the stone is broken the inscription on it can be read as distinctly as when it was first put up, around AD 60. It tells us that Corporal Longinus came from Sardica and was the son of Matycus Sdapeze. He had served 15 years with the army, probably came over with the expeditionary force in AD 43, and was 40 when he died. It is a splendid monument: the upper half shows, deeply carved, Longinus in all his glory as a Roman trooper, mounted on his stocky, strong-looking horse, trampling underfoot a cowering British warrior. The stone was vandalised almost as soon as it was put up because, when Boudicca led her troops through Colchester in revolt against the Roman yoke in AD 61, they pushed on through the Roman cemetery, and were incensed to see this monument showing one of their warriors being hacked down in the dust. They smashed the stone down, it was never re-erected and slowly became covered with the detritus of time. It was not found again until 1928 when it excavated from the Roman cemetery in Beverley Road and transferred to the Colchester and Essex Museum.

When the revolt had been put clown the old threads of cultured and civilised life were taken up again in that part of the Roman province of Britain we now call Essex. Some evidence of this can be gathered from other items on view in the Roman collection in that same museum: all kinds of pots and pans, in daily use in the Colonia’, reflect a well-provided kitchen for the better off, be they Roman or British; oil lamps of superior design and decoration which lit the winter nights, and luxury objects in glass, pottery and precious stones – art for art’s sake, and demonstrating the status and the taste of their owners. Of all the spheres of human activity represented in this absorbing collection the most surprising must be the wide range of aids to beauty which the Roman matrons maids could use to bring their mistress’s beauty to perfection. There are bottles and pots which contained the unguents, and the tiny, fragile bronze spoons to extract them; the cosmetics, eye-black and rouge from the long-necked miniature containers: tweezers, pins of bronze and bone – all are there: and in the days when they were in daily use the great Ovid gave advice which has been translated thus:

‘Always beware that from your lover’s eves You keep concealed these toilet mysteries; Though art assists, vet must that art be hid. Lest where it would invite it should forbid: For many things, when done afford delight. Which vet, in doing, may offend the sight.’

Further evidence of the increasing fraternisation between conquerors and conquered is shown in the Bartlow Hills in the parish of Ashdon, on the northern boundary of Essex, four miles north east of Saffron Walden. Bartlow is the name of the adjoining parish. Angela Green, writing Ashdon explains:

‘The most spectacular remains of the Roman period in the parish are the Bartlow Hills which lie within the Ashdon parish boundary. There some of the local inhabitants erected the burial mounds or barrows known as the Hills, in which they buried their dead. The Hills stood in two rows near the present road. The four larger, steep-sided mounds must have been conspicuous landmarks, the largest 40 feet high, and made of alternate layers of up to a foot deep of earth and chalk, so that before the grass had taken root, selfsown, on the steep sides the brightness of the white chalk contrasting with the earth must have made the new burial place visible from a considerable distance.’

There were at one time nine ‘hills’ standing close together, like old-time conical sugar loaves. These were the last resting places of the families of local rulers – people of consequence – who were absorbing many of the habits, customs and beliefs of their Roman overlords. As each person died, over a period of 50 years from the end of the first century AD, their kin arranged opulent funerals where the corpses were burnt on a pyre, the ashes collected, and placed in pottery or glass urns. A chamber was fashioned in the partially built mound and the urn was placed within it, accompanied by some of the deceased’s possessions for use in their after-life, such as a folding chair made of iron and bronze, an iron hanging lamp and a wooden bucket bound with bronze hoops. There is evidence that food and drink had been placed in pottery and glass containers, one brilliantly enamelled in the Roman ‘La Tene’ style.

These mounds stood up to 45 ft high and measured some 144 ft in diameter at the foot. Two of the smaller ones were ploughed down, one of them in 1586. Three others were levelled under the orders of the landowner, Henry. Viscount Maynard, in 1832. He had them carefully excavated and even called in the famous Michael Faraday, founder of the science of electro-magnetism, to examine and report on the utensils in the chambers. Faraday was also asked to look at the items found when a tunnel was driven to the centre of the largest ‘Hill’ in 1833. In 1838 and 1840 three more tombs were excavated, yielding bronze utensils and glass vessels. All were added to Lord Maynard’s private museum at Easton Lodge, except the enamelled jar, which went to the British Museum. In 1847 Easton Lodge was burned down in a terrible lire and all the museum exhibits were lost. How fortunate it was that the British Museum had been given the prize exhibit! When the line of the railway was excavated in 1865, bisecting these mounds, 13 skeletons were found, proof that after cremation was discontinued as a funerary rite the Romano-British people went on to bury their dead in this place revered by their ancestors.

Evidence of a more humble state of Romano-British life was found recently in a rubbish pit, four ft below ground level, sliced through by the blade of a bulldozer preparing the ground on the Widford Industrial estate, south west of Chelmsford. From the bits and pieces thrown into that rubbish pit by a Romano-British family some 1.800 years ago it can be deduced that the walls of their homestead were wattle and daub and the roof probably thatched. A hard tramped layer of clay over pebbles found nearby was the original floor. The farmer cultivated the land he had cleared from the forest down to the bank of the river Wid, growing cereals and keeping a few sheep and goats as well as the pigs which he turned loose in the forest to grub for acorns and roots.

The most evident reminder of the Roman presence in Essex must be those long, straight roads whose ruler-like directness can be appreciated more on the map or from the air than on the ground. There had been tracks tramped through forests from clearing to clearing by the British tribes, who had already developed trade routes for salt from the coast and the products of the Bronze and Iron Ages, but the Romans took them over where necessary and transformed them into wide roads based on proper engineering principles. They were already skilled in making roads throughout Europe to supply the garrisons of their vast empire, so, having captured the great British capital of Camulodunum, for use as their headquarters, they improved all the existing tracks which radiated from it and introduced new roads.

The track from the Thames to the native capital was upgraded into a well-paved road constructed of graded stones, cambered and drained. The old route from Camulodunum to Verulamium was improved in the same way, earning the name of Stane Street (the paved way), from their Saxon successors. The Ordnance Survey’s ‘Map of Roman Britain’ gives the most reliable and complete picture of the Roman road system throughout the county. The old A12 followed the line of the main Roman road from Colchester to London. In its path lay the Romanised settlements of Kelvedon (Canonicum), Caesaromagus (Chelmsford) and Durolitum – unidentified, but thought to be in the region of Romford.

Roads out of the East Gate of Colchester towards the next big town of Caister St Edmunds shared the same way down to East Bridge. When an opportunity arose to cut a section across it archaeologists found ‘… a cambered surface of gravel metalling 12 in thick, laid on 2 ft of clay’ (Victoria County History). Great Chesterford was at the centre of roads to Braughing in Hertfordshire, and to Cambridge as a continuation to the north. Its popular name, the Icknield Way, has been traced in written records as far back as 1208, when it is shown as Ykenild. A later mention, in 1387, of the Ikening Way may refer to the ancient track which ran through the land of the Iceni. Another road ran south east to Thaxted and Great Easton, and possibly, on to Great Dunmow. From Dunmow another road still runs straight to Aythorpe Roding. Putting a straight edge on a modern map, one can see a continuation of this important road south west all the way through the county to the large Roman settlement just east of the river Roding and the M11 in the parish of Chigwell. The first part, from Dunmow, is known by oral tradition as the Suffolk Way, but no continuation in that direction north east of Dunmow has been found.

Another very obvious Roman road is that from Chelmsford to Braintree, on up to Gosfield and Gestingthorpe, and so into Suffolk. The puzzle of the Roman network of roads has interested people from as early as the 18th century. Nathaniel Salmon, writing the New Survey of England in 1728, propounded a way from Colchester to Cambridge without touching Great Chesterford but excavations have not yet yielded evidence to support it. The same lack of success has attended efforts to delineate a road from Colchester to Mersea island. This is disappointing because the Island has yielded abundant evidence of a Roman settlement. It was a place already well peopled when the Romans came. The many Red Hills are proof of that. Roman occupation in settled post-Boudiccan days is illustrated by the floor of a fine Roman house found lying beneath the churchyard and the Hall at West Mersea. Excavations in 1730 and 1956 in the garden and the adjoining burial ground allowed archaeologists to estimate that the complete and very beautiful mosaic floor measures 21 ft 6 in by 18 ft. Related finds around the Hall prove that this Roman villa was of huge proportions.

The striking find on this island was made about 200 yards east of that Roman villa. it is a Romano-British wheel tomb, so described because of its walls: the ‘spokes’ radiating out from a central chamber, the ‘hub’ meeting a circular perimeter wall, the ‘rim’ three ft thick and 65 ft in circumference. In the central chamber the ashes of a wealthy Romano-British inhabitant were placed in an urn of coloured glass. The urn was not found, but there was one in a simpler tomb found a foot deep just a few yards to the east. The late M R Hull explains the reason for this grand demonstration of status in the Victoria County History: ‘The monumental Roman tomb based upon the tumulus appealed to native aristocrats or dynasts, among whom the tumulus was still par excellence the form of a princely grave, and it came naturally to wealthy Britons to be buried according to the old fashion, in the new manner.’

Nearer the middle of the island is Barrow Hill Farm. its name commemorates the great Roman tumulus still standing here, excavated in 1912. It is 22 ft 6 in high, 16 ft wide at the top and with a diameter at the base of 110 ft. The actual chamber, in which the cremated remains of some local notable were found, measures only 18 in square and 21½ in high. The ashes were in a glass urn within a leaden casket.

As the Roman empire crumbled through the infighting of warring factions and the attacks of the ‘barbarians’ on its borders, the legions in outposts like Essex were first left to fend for themselves, and later, recalled to the desperate battles in their homeland. The question might be asked, ‘What have Essex people inherited from the Romans in terms of ways of life, art, language, literature, customs and crafts?’ One answer comes from Francis Haverfield, recognized authority on this period: ‘From the Romans who once ruled Britain we Britons have inherited practically nothing.’ Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the Roman occupation of Essex are the archaeologists – they are delving still.