The Roman Occupation


It was not until 30 years after the invasion of Britain by the Emperor Claudius that the conquest of the Lancashire area was undertaken by the Romans. The civil war of A.D. 69 in Italy encouraged a palace revolution among the Brigantes, in which the pro-Roman queen, Cartimandua, was driven out by her former husband, Venutius. The Romans quickly recovered from the civil war, once Vespasian had emerged as the new emperor, and two expeditions were sent against the Brigantes. The first, under Petilius Cerialis , broke the backbone of Brigantian resistance in the campaigns of 714. The second, led by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, took place in 78-9, when the latter, who had been Cerialis ‘ lieutenant on the earlier occasion, returned to Britain as governor and completed the conquest of the north.

Although the details of Agricola’s campaign are not fully known, his route seems to have followed the western foothills of the Pennines, with diversions to explore the forests and estuaries. His ‘base line’ was the axial road linking the two new legionary fortresses of Chester and York. In preparation for the campaign, Agricola had moved Legion XX Valeria Victrix from Wroxeter to Chester and had already led it to victory in north Wales. The starting-point for the Roman campaign in the north-west was probably Chester, but a timber auxiliary fort may already have been established at Manchester (Mamucium), on the road between Chester and York. Historians assume that Agricola’s line of march roughly followed the first Roman road to be built through the north-west which ran north out of Manchester (along the modern A56), crossing the Irwell at Radcliffe, through Edgworth and Blackburn, to the Ribble crossing at Ribchester (Breme-tennacum), a total distance of about 25 miles (40 km). This was further than the Romans normally marched in • day, but no other camps have been found in the area. At Ribchester • temporary turf fort was erected in the typical Roman manner: • double ditch, the inside bank of which was reinforced with bricks of turf bonded with layers of brushwood. On the top of the bank the soldiers would have put up a fence of stakes, usually about seven feet long, placed about six inches apart and tied together in the middle. North of Ribchester, on Mellor Hill, a signalling station was set up at a strategic point for the Ribble valley and Aire Gap route through the Pennines. There are remains of another Agricolan turf camp at Carr Hill, just outside Kirkham and 15 miles (24 km) west of Ribchester. From here, the general could have contacted the fleet, which probably accompanied him northwards. Later the Romans built a road, known as the Danes Pad, north-west from Kirkham. Perhaps somewhere on the Wyre estuary lie the remains of the port of the Setantii, mentioned on Ptolemy’s famous map, but as yet undiscovered. The Danes Pad has been traced as far as Hardhorn, and one suggestion has been that its destination was Skippool.

The Roman North-West

Agricola’s main thrust was northwards from Ribchester over the Trough of Bowland and up to Burrow-in -Lo ns dale (Galacum). Early Flavian remains at Lancaster suggest, however, another diversion, once again to the estuary of a major river – this time the Lune – where the general could renew contact with his fleet. The next Agricolan fort was that of Burrow-in -Lons dale, from where he con­tinued north, to Watercrook, near Kendal, by-passing Furness. Such a programme is a matter of conjecture, but, at the very least, archae­ological evidence tells us that penetration to the west coast from the line of forts in the Pennine foothills rapidly followed the initial advance.

A second north-south route was made 20 years after Agricola’s first conquest of the north-west. Usually referred to as the coastal route, this road ran north through the Lancashire plain and was probably built to provide a service link to the frontier in lowland Scotland. It ran from Middlewich and Northwich in Cheshire and crossed the river Mersey at Wilderspool, opposite modern Warrington.

From Wilderspool the road passed northward through Winwick and Wargrave to Wigan (perhaps the site of Coccium), crossed the river Ribble at Walton-le-Dale, and thence proceeded north to Lancaster and Watercrook. This road was part of Route 10 on the Antonine Itinerary, and was a great addition to Chester’s communications, as well as providing better means of policing the Lancashire plain.

As already mentioned Agricola sited the legionary fort for the north-west at Chester, where it could be provisioned and relieved, if occasion demanded, by sea, and from where it could keep a close watch on the mountains of Wales as well as the western Brigantes. A string of auxiliary forts was established in Lancashire, and they provide us with the main evidence of Roman occupation. Later buildings have made the excavation of many of these difficult. Even at Ribchester, where a series of excavations since the late nineteenth century has revealed a great deal, many of the fort details remain uncertain.

According to Mr Ben Edwards, the county archaeologist, the lay­out of Ribchester followed the standard pattern of many auxiliary forts. Originally built of turf and wood, like the other Lancashire forts, Ribchester was soon rebuilt in stone. The chief building was the headquarters (principia). This was situated at the centre where the roads from the four gateways crossed. It consisted of the usual colonnaded drill hail and chapel for the regimental standards, built round a courtyard containing a well. Nearby was the commander’s house (praetorium), and to the north were the granaries, with flagged floors and timber roofs, where the regiment’s vital food supplies were kept. Around the perimeter were the barrack blocks, grouped in pairs, each with its own veranda. The bath-house was situated outside the fort. It had a boiler-house and four rooms (cold, warm, hot and hot and dry). The three heated rooms were connected to a boiler-room by means of stoke-holes and flues. Other finds suggest the existence of a temple for the garrison.

The troops stationed in the Lancashire forts came from various parts of the Roman Empire. Very few came from Italy. Ribchester was garrisoned at different times by cavalry units from Asturia in north Spain and from Sarmatia on the Danube. The Sarmatians were sent to Ribchester by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 175, as part of a plan to strengthen the frontiers of the empire. Manchester was at one time garrisoned by Rhaetians from Switzerland and Noricans from the Tyrol. At Lancaster there was a cavalry unit of Sebosians from Gaul. Gravestones from Ribchester and Lancaster show that the north-west was manned by soldiers from as far afield as Trier on the Rhine, Asia Minor and Portugal.

Civilian settlements (vicz) were attached to each fort. Judging by the excavations at Manchester and Ribchester, these grew up on the roads leading to the main gates of the fort. The presence of the soldiers attracted a variety of services. Some of the shops in Church Street, Lancaster, have Roman foundations. At Ribchester there was ribbon development of single-storey, timber-frame buildings stretching northwards. The timber-framing was primitive. The up­rights were merely driven into the ground. The walls were of wattle and daub, the floors of clay, covered with straw. To judge from these buildings the civilians at Ribchester obviously did not grow particu­larly rich from the trade provided by the fort, or perhaps the houses were for the wives and relatives of the soldiers. From the gaming counters, knucklebones and broken amphorae (wine-bottles) found near the east gate of the fort at Manchester, it is clear that an inn or gambling-house was situated there. Such a vicus as Manchester would have been largely self-sufficient except in wine, Samian pottery and other luxuries.

Some settlements were purely commercial. Walton-le-Dale and Wilderspool were in this category. Although some maps suggest that there was a fortlet at Walton-le-Dale, no hint of military occupation has ever been found there. Wilderspool – strictly in Cheshire but undoubtedly supplying much of south Lancashire in Roman times – has revealed some of the most spectacular finds in the north-west. From its foundation in about 85, the community was industrial. Furnaces indicate glass-making and metal-smelting of various kinds, principally of iron objects for agriculture and hunting purposes, such as axes, sickles, mattocks and arrowheads. Pottery and tiles were manufactured on an extensive scale, as were enamel brooches and glass beads, which doubtless became gifts to soldiers’ wives and British women. An example of a smaller industrial site is the pottery at Quernmoreq where a potter by the name of Tritus supplied the garrison and fort at Lancaster.

In the countryside the patterns of farming established in the Iron Age continued virtually unchanged. The cattle and horse breeders of the Pennines still lived in their stone huts, with walled enclosures nearby for their beasts. Contact with the Romans would have been slight. Beyond collecting taxes – probably in the form of hides – the Romans did not interfere much in the life of these hill farmers. Yet three centuries of Roman occupation did not leave them com­pletely untouched. They undoubtedly benefited from the roads which they helped to build, and by the second century A.D. there was a whole network of minor roads, quite apart from the main routes. The towns attached to the forts gave them opportunities to sell their cattle products and their horses. One theory, based on bone remains, is that a larger breed of horse was introduced into the north-west as a result of this trade between soldiers and civilians. Finds of coins and pottery in their villages imply that the hill-farmers bought some of the new wares available at places like Wilderspool.

The existence of religious cults popular with the troops is clear from historic evidence at Hulme (Manchester) and Wigan, and from the lamp inscribed with the Christian ‘chi-rho’ monogram at Lancaster. The Manchester cryptogram (ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR) decoded as PATERNOSTER, dates from the second century and may provide the earliest evidence of Christianity in Britain.

The Romans were not particularly interested in improving the agriculture of the north-west as a whole, but it is quite likely that veterans from the forts settled in the neighbouring districts. Some of this settlement was probably on virgin land, and it is believed by some scholars that Roman veterans were among the first to start draining and cultivating the Fylde. One tends to associate the Romans with arable cultivation, but there is no reason why the settlers in the north-west may not have taken up cattle-farming like the Britons. The valleys. of the Lune and Ribble may well have seen villa-type settlement, although as yet, no Roman villa has been identified in the county. Of possible sites, one of the most likely is Folly Farm, near Lancaster, where an altar has been found dedicated by a retired cavalry officer, Julius Januarius, to a local Celtic god, Romanized as Jalonus Contrebis. Contrebis was the Roman name for Lunesdale.

North West Britain c. 300 A.D.

How far the Romans brought law and order to the north-west is debatable. Their forts were scattered throughout the region, and a good road system allowed for ease of access. Nevertheless, some areas remained remote and were possibly always subject to looting and cattle -rustling, even at the height of Roman rule in the second century. The Roman garrisons were not withdrawn until about 400. Yet, even before then, life had undergone major disruptions in the third and fourth centuries. Southern Scotland was no longer occupied by the Romans at the end of the second century, so restor­ing to the north of England the frontier zone status of earlier times.

Three major incursions by the Picts occurred in 196, 296 and 367, and there were prolonged periods of civil war. The north-west no doubt benefited from the protection given by the Pennines, but many Picts attacked from the sea, and Lancashire would have suffered from a second scourge – raiding parties from Ireland. The redevelopment of Lancaster as a shore fort in the fourth century provided only temporary relief, dependent on the effectiveness of a fleet or coastguard system.

Once the migration of the fourth and fifth centuries had got under way, there was little that Roman soldiers or walls could do to stop them. After the disasters of 196, 296 and 367, the forts were repaired and order restored, but the security of the second century was never to be regained. Many of the Roman sites have suggested a violent end – usually destruction by fire – followed by abandonment. When did the end come? Troops were withdrawn by usurping generals in 383, 402 and 407. In 410, the Emperor Honorius ordered British towns to organize their own defences against the barbarians. In Lancashire the Pictish and Scottish raids probably became fiercer and more penetrating. The archaeological sites have so far revealed less about the end of the Roman military occupation than we could wish. Roman Lancashire was subject to periodic raids from the late second century onwards. Some sites were re-occupied after destruc­tion, others were not. Although civilian settlements like Walton-le­Dale and Wilderspool suffered from the disruptions of the late second century, there are signs that economic life resumed there in the third. The fort of Kirkham was no longer garrisoned after the second century, but Ribchester, Lancaster and Watercrook were all occupied by troops until the late fourth century, as was the legionary fortress of Chester. Lancaster, like Chester, was rebuilt in the fourth century, to which the so-called ‘Wery Wall’ still stands testimony at the top of Vicarage Fields. The fort’s reconstruction seems to have been a western continuation of the line of coastal defences known as the forts of the Saxon shore, and it probably served as a base for the Roman fleet as it kept a look-out for the flotillas of the Pictish and Scottish raiders. Without the fleet and without a garrison, such shore forts became useless. Lancaster probably survived no better than Pevensey (Anderida) in Sussex, where the Saxons won a major victory in 491.

How much the Britons continued to live in the townships formerly sheltered by these forts is hard to say. The economic life which the Roman military occupation had fostered declined when its presence was removed. Lancashire may well have suffered, like other parts of the empire, from plague and famine as well as war, all tending to­wards a reduction of the population. In such circumstances one would expect reversion to the scattered British farmsteads. There can be no certainty in such speculation. The initial attraction of the forts and their adjacent townships as places rich in booty must soon have faded from over-exploitation, and life perhaps carried on among the ruins of past military grandeur. When the raiders came to settle, they tended to establish colonies in new places away from Roman or Romano-British occupation. This may have been an additional incentive to continue in the older communities. If so, they were small and life was at a much more primitive level. The little archaeological evidence that there is suggests the abandon­ment of any attempt at Roman standards of living.