Roman Dorset

Roman Dorset

The Roman conquerors reached Dorset very soon after the original landing in 43 AD, and the Second Legion commanded by the later Emperor Vespasian had some of its fiercest fighting with the Durotriges. Hill forts like Spettisbury Rings, Hod Hill, Maiden Castle (and probably Badbury) were stoutly defended and had to be taken by storm. At Maiden Castle the British dead were buried at the east entrance where the Romans burst in, and their relics may be seen in the Dorchester Museum. A Roman earthwork fort was erected within the ramparts at Hod Hill, and garrisoned for some twenty years till the area was completely pacified. The main road from London to the South-West via the old British towns of Silchester, Old Sarum, and Badbury, was begun almost at once, though not till about 70 AD was the new town of Dorchester founded at the point where this route crossed the River Frome.

It is probable that most of the territory of the Durotriges, because of their resistance, became Imperial Domain under the direct control of the Emperor’s stewards. Life went on much as before, except that heavy taxes had now to be paid in corn or hides for the upkeep of the Army. Few villas have been found in the areas which had been most populated in pre-Roman times, and most of these appeared only towards the end of the Roman period. Villas were romanised houses which generally formed the headquarters of a large farming estate, and they imply private land- ownership.

On the lower ground round Sherborne, however, and particularly round Ilchester in Somerset, many villas were built in areas which had previously carried little population. Their owners (mostly wealthy Britons) had enough capital to develop the pastoral farming to which the land was suited and which became increasingly important in later Roman times. Ilchester itself began as a small market town at a road junction. It was not walled till much later than Dorchester, and covered only 32 acres, but it seems to have become a separate capital for the northern Durotriges.

Dorchester was the only romanised town in the county, but romanised villages grew up at the ports of Radipole, Wareham, and Hamworthy, and on the main road at Woodyates and Badbury (which were probably posting—stations where oflicials and travellers could get rest and a change of horses). Apart from such places, and the Villas, people still lived in huts no different from those of re—Roman times; and only occasional coins and pottery show that they date from the Roman period. The Cerne Giant was probably cut by the people of the surrounding villages at this time, and may represent a Celtic god identified with the Roman Hercules.

Pagan temples are known at Maiden Castle and at Jordon Hill near Weymouth, but so far the only sign of Christianity is the Chi—Rho symbol found in a mosaic floor at the Frampton villa and showing the first two Greek letters of the name of Christ.

As the road system developed, earlier ridgeways remained in use and were sometimes incorporated in Roman roads (as in the routes west and north from Dorchester). Purbeck Marble and Kimmeridge Shale were quarried, and the latter was used for table-legs and floor-tiles as well as for personal ornaments: examples have been found in North Wales and on Hadrian’s Wall. The most flourishing non-agricultural craft, however, was the making of pottery from the clays around Poole Harbour which are still used for the purpose.

Late in the fourth century, when Roman power in Britain was beginning to break down under the pressure of Saxons, Picts, and Irish, the Durotriges built a frontier rampart now called Bokerley Dyke to cover the four-mile gap between the woods of the New Forest and Cranbome Chase and to block the great Roman road. It may well date from 367, when there was a complete though temporary collapse of the armies and each tribe had to look to its own defence. The road was later reopened, but closed again when the Roman Peace finally ended. The frontier thus marked was successfully .held against Saxon settlers till well into the seventh century, and it remains the county border to this day. It will be found on the following map, since it really belongs to the post—Roman period.