Roman Hampshire

Roman Hampshire

The real conquest of Britain began in A.D. 43 on the order of the Emperor Claudius. One of the reasons for his decision was the appeal of the last of the Atrebate princes of Hampshire, Verica, against Caractacus, and the violence of ‘Cymbeline’s’ other successors. Southern England could have become a dangerous centre of resistance to Roman rule, and at this point Claudius ordered the conquest of Britain, for she was too independent and her wealth made her a desirable addition to the Roman Empire. The military subjection of Hampshire was part of the successful campaign of the Roman general, Vespasian (the later Emperor) in command of the Second Legion. The capture of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, was a climax in his campaign, and perhaps implies the subjection of Hampshire. It was certainly accompanied or followed by the annexation of the Isle of Wight. There is no evidence to suggest that the native inhabitants either in the mainland or on the island offered much resistance. Caractacus was betrayed to the Romans by the queen of a rival tribe.

Unlike great areas in the north of Britain, the Roman occupation of Hampshire was not primarily of a military nature. Roman local government areas or cantons only partially coincided with the old Celtic tribal boundaries. The power of the Atrebates was not revived, and only a small section of the north of the county was included in their canton. This included the capital Calleva A trebatum, but the Roman town there did not coincide entirely with the older settlement of Silchester. The rest of the coast, including apparently the Isle of Wight, formed a large part of the canton of the Belgae. This canton stretched far to the west, where its chief town was Aquae SuNs (Bath), but the eastern, Hampshire sector, included the cantonal capital Venta Belgarum (Winchester). In this sector were a number of other important Roman settlements, a port of Clausentum (Bitterne, near Southampton) and road stations at Vindomis (perhaps on a site at Cuckoo’s Corner in Holyboume), and Brige, thought perhaps to be the small market town of Stockbridge. The canton of the Belgae, a large area, appears to have been an artificial creation of the Romans who also left some important tribal centres to decline, for example Hengistbury Head, where there had been a mint of the Durotriges.

Map 1 Roman Hampshire Reproduced from the Ordinance Survey Map with the sanction of H.M. Stationary Office. Crown Copyright reserved.
Map 1 Roman Hampshire

A predominantly British population continued to work the land and to live in the towns, with the addition of some ‘Roman’ landlords, many government officials, and some retired soldiers, as well as the garrison troops. The land was worked from a number of farmsteads. Certain ‘villas’ were apparently official centres of large government Fanning enterprises. There are large stock enclosures at Rockbourne and Damerham, and that great authority on Roman Britain, R. G. Collingwood, believed that the existence of a government weaving mill at Venta Belgarum, making cloth for the army, indicated widespread official sheep-farming on the Hampshire downs, replacing the corn grown in Celtic times.

Other villas were just pleasant and smaller country houses for wealthy Romano-British gentlemen. There were a number of these small villas in the Isle of Wight, though the most famous villa there is the large composite group at Brading, including a bath block and domestic buildings with very fine mosaic pavements. On the mainland the important villa at Rockbourne, near Fordingbridge, has only recently been partially excavated. It stands in the midst of good farming land, was perhaps an important stock centre, and was lived in, though not continuously, until the end of the Roman occupation. Its many rooms include a ‘red room’ with a floor of tesserae in swastika pattern, and walls decorated with Pompeian red plaster and a grey and black dado. Many other villas cluster round Andover and Winchester. West Wood (Sparsholt), Grateley, Fulltrton, Longstock and Abbott’s Ann, have all been excavated and belong to the later years of the occupation. To the fourth century A.D. also belongs Lodge Farm, near North Warnborough, an earlier homestead, not on the direct line of any known Roman highway, which was turned into the bath-house of a simple ‘villa’ perhaps occupied by farm servants or other humble Romano-British folk. It was large, but its wattle partitions and chalk floors suggest that it was occupied by farm hands or domestic staff. These houses were probably in private ownership. Of course not all owners were ‘Roman’, some were Romanised Britons. The Romanisation of British life began when Agricola was governor of Britain (A.D. 77-84), perhaps with government backing, though the majority of the native inhabitants continued to live squalidly and simply in huts. Some made use of the new and improved type of pottery produced by many Roman kilns in the New Forest. The villagers of Stockbridge Down possessed a few luxuries such as imitation Samian bowls. Though the conquerors brought a new coinage (there was perhaps a mint at Clausentum) Celtic coins knitinued to be the currency of the more backward part of the county.

Map 2 Simplified Plan of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester)
Map 2 Simplified Plan of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester)

A greatly improved road system was. a more obvious and material result of the coming of the Romans. The roads probably date from the early years of the occupation; military need rather than trade was the reason for their construction. Venta Belgarum (Winchester)’ was an important focal point in the system. How far, if at all, the city .had been developed as a Belgic market town before the invasion is as yet impossible to say though there’ is much evidence of pre-Roman habitation  around it, on St. Catherine’s Hill, on Hockley Down, and on the western down of St. Paul’s Hill. The site of Venta is still a flourish­1ng and occupied part of modern Winchester, and excavation has therefore been only of a limited nature. Enough has been done to show that there were large and important buildings in the centre of the city and that part of the city wall is Roman in origin. The site of the government weaving mill has not yet been discovered.

In contrast to Winchester, Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) is the only ‘Roman town in England to be fully excavated. The whole of Calleva was laid out on a grid system of roads whose sides were crowded with shops, houses and administrative offices. There can be no doubt that this town played an important part in the Romanisation of northern Hampshire. Some of its bricks bear an official Neronian stamp. Recent re-excavation has confirmed the existence at Calleva of England’s only Christian church of the Roman occupation, a building small in size when compared with the town’s pagan temples, forum, public baths and rest house for the Imperial post.

In the later years of the Roman occupation, when Saxon pirates were already active, Roman settlements and ports on the Hampshire coast played their part as defences against the invaders. The great i-fortification of Portchester still remains, with its walls and bastions. A shore-fort at Carisbrooke helped to defend the Isle of Wight. The port of Clausentum was at first fortified by a simple wooden stockade across its peninsula (A.D. .120-150). A late stone wall suggests that its defences were reconstructed by order of Count Theodosius, Civil Governor of Britain in A.D. 368. Yet despite the potential strength of the coastal fortifications once the decision was taken to withdraw the Roman army, the fate of Hampshire and of Britain was settled. A new era of history began with the Adventus Saxonum, the coming of the Saxons.

Tradition and archaeology both suggest that Christianity first reached Hampshire in the Roman period. It is probable that the faith came with the traders who crossed the Channel in the wake of the army rather than with the army itself, where Emperor worship and the cult of Mithras were formidable rivals to Christianity. British bishops were present at the Council of Arles in 315, and about 100 years later the Pelagian heresy was rife in southern England, a heresy combated by the preaching of St. Germanus of Auxerre who is said to have landed on the Hampshire coast between Portsmouth and Southampton and healed the son of the leading man of the region, a tradition which suggests that Christianity, for a short while at least survived the withdrawal of the Roman army. A gold ring found at Silchester in 1786 inscribed with a common Christian formula, a small lead seal or stamp with a Christian monogram (formed from the Greek letters Chi and Rho) from the same town, and the small Christian church near Calleva ‘s ‘forum’ are the only archaeological traces of Christianity in Roman Hampshire.

When the conversion of Hampshire began again in the seventh century, the inhabitants were said to be heathen. This disappearance of Christianity was perhaps significant; Romano-British civilisation did not prove to be a permanent foundation for the future development of Hampshire