Romano-British Wiltshire

Romano-British Wiltshire

The Iron Age

In the succeeding Iron Age, so-called because iron-working had become widespread and common, Wiltshire had lost its early advantages. It was now only one of many areas of easily-cleared and farmed land, the magnetism of its early monuments had evaporated or been replaced by revulsion, and it was no longer an important cross-roads of major trading routes. Yet continental products and influences still reached it from the south by way of the port at Hengistbury Head (now in Dorset) and to a lesser extent up the Thames valley from east-coast ports.

Map showing location of Iron Age Tribes and Forts

There was an increase of population and increasing conflict between different sections of this population. From about 400 B.C. a large number of extensive hill forts were built. Some of these were on or adjoined earlier ceremonial sites, like that on Whitesheet Hill near Mere, and some were enlargements of late-Bronze-Age forts like that at Yarnbury, 15 miles to the east, but many were on new sites like that at Bury Wood near Colerne, or Scratchbury and Battlebury which were only a mile apart on the north side of the Wylye valley. There were also many smaller defensive earthworks, but the major forts, which could soon be found from Sussex to the Severn estuary, had certain similarities. They all had multiple fortifications of two or three banks and ditches and they were extensively modernised from time to time. These large forts are now seen as ‘capitals’ of small regions covering, in Wiltshire at least, about forty square miles of downiand. Few have been excavated (the most thoroughly explored is that at Danebury across the Hampshire border) but it is likely that most were occupied by numerous families, particularly towards the end of the pre-Roman era, and indicated rising insecurity.

‘Celtic dispersal’

By the second century there had been considerable infiltration (immigration may be too strong a word) from the European mainland, part of a great ‘Celtic dispersal’ which reached England largely from the mouths of the Rhine. These people were called ‘Belgic’ by their neighbours in the Roman empire but, in Wiltshire at least, they showed little homogeneity or unity. Thus there was a division by the end of the pre-Christian era between the peoples of north-east and south-west Wiltshire. The division varied but ran roughly along the line of the Salisbury Avon and Wylye rivers. It was marked by differences in pottery styles and, later, in the design of coinage, as well as by the creation of a threatening series of forts facing each other across the Wylye valley.

While these new forts show considerable complexity in their fortification and some in their internal planning (as far as it can be deduced), domestic settlement away from these ‘capitals’ was as far as ever from sophistication. Careful excavation of a contemporary farm at Tollard Royal illustrates a common pattern. Here the farmhouse consisted of a simple round hut 14 feet in diameter; nearby were four granaries above ground and 33 pits, some of which were suitable for more grain storage. They were all within a kite-shaped enclosure less than a quarter of an acre in extent and surrounded by a three-foot-deep ditch. The large space between the buildings left plenty of room for the penning of the farm’s stock. Similar development of native farms has been found at Little Woodbury and at Boscombe Down on Salisbury Plain. While this may be the norm, some more complex farmsteads have been found such as those along the Great Ridge at Barford, Hanging Langford, Ebsbury (near Great Wishford) and Stockton, which have interlocking enclosures, themselves enclosed within a wide and substantial ditch; at Stockton the farmstead is 100 acres in extent. Most of these survived well into the era of the Roman conquest.

Roman interference

By the time of the exploratory invasions of the country by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 B.C., silver coins were well distributed in Wiltshire. Both the Durotriges, as the people of Dorset and south-west Wiltshire were now known to the Romans, and the Atrebates of Hampshire and northeast Wiltshire copied Roman forms. After these invasions, when the power of Rome had been felt, the Atrebates minted coins showing the name of their leader as Commius, a Gaul who had had dealings with Julius.

Commius had taken a pro-Roman stance and been used by Julius as an intermediary with other British leaders, but he later supported the revolt of Vercingetorix against the Romans in central France and after the latter’s defeat in 51 B.C. was lucky to escape back to Britain. He was succeeded in about 25 B.C. by his son Tincommius, who like most of the leaders in Britain was now opposed to making treaties with Romans, in part because they now thought themselves safe from invasion. But ten years later it was significant that the Atrebatic coinage was now modelled on the Roman denarius (the basis of our old penny) and minted by a skilled die-cutter who was probably an immigrant from the Roman Empire. It is deduced from this that the Atrebates were more friendly to Romans and may even already have had a treaty of friendship with them. Whatever the date, change there was and this was due to pressure on them from the Durotriges on their south-western flank and from the still more aggressive Catuvellauni, who were expanding from their Essex base up the Thames valley.

Tincommius was succeeded by Eppillus and then Verica, both of whom adopted the Roman title of rex, but, opposed by an anti-Roman party, Verica fled to Rome. The Romans had long been considering the conquest of Britain and Verica’s arrival may have given Claudius the pretext of legitimacy he sought, in defending a client king, for the conquest and exploitation of Britain, which was known as a refuge of enemies and was thought to be rich in valuable minerals. Claudius’s well-planned and successful invasion in A.D. 43 led to the submission of his chief opponents (and enemies of the Atrebates), the Catuvellauni, at Colchester. Verica was then restored as king of the Atrebates although he was almost immediately replaced by a younger and more Romanised leader, Cogidubnus.

Use was now made of the Atrebatic kingdom, which included a safe harbour at Chichester, as base for the conquest of the still hostile Durotriges and other clans in the west of England. It was from here that the general Vespasian, later emperor, took the Second Legion on its show of strength across the south-west, probably by way of Old Salisbury, to smash opponents defending the Durotrigean fortresses of Hod Hill and Maiden Castle (Dorset) before marching on into the territory of another hostile clan, the Dumnonii, to establish a military base at Exeter by A.D. 47.

At the same time the Roman army was used to secure and then work the silver and lead mines of the Mendips. By about A.D. 49 pig-lead was already being exported to the continent across Wiltshire by a new road via the Great Ridge and Old Salisbury to the channel ports at Chichester and Southampton.

Roman occupation

Another important and still largely surviving road, known as the Fosse Way, was built to connect bases on the western frontier zone from Bath to Lincoln. It ran along the Cotswolds on the north-western edge of the county and through a new administrative centre established at Cirencester (Gloucs.). Other roads were made across the county from Cirencester to Salisbury and the south coast, to Silchester (Hants), another important centre of the Atrebates, and from Silchester southwesterly through Salisbury (where it crossed both the ‘lead route’ and the road south from Cirencester) to run on to Dorchester, the new administrative centre for the Durotriges. One other important new road was made, from Silchester westerly to Bath by way of Silbury Hill, and this forms part of the modern Bath Road. By the A.D. 60s southern England had been pacified and the process of civilian Romanisation, which was already advanced in east Wiltshire among the Atrebates, was under way among the other peoples by education and example. The army was now pulled out for further service in the conquest of Wales and the North. The new city of Cirencester, just beyond the northern tip of modern Wiltshire, was promoted into a regional capital from which south-western Britain was governed for most of the Roman occupation. More local administration was conducted from the sub-regional capital at Silchester, but there was no home rule of, or delegation to, the modern county area.

Map showing Romano-British Wiltshire

The effects of invasion and occupation on the county were not as dramatic as on many other parts of Britain and apart from giving many peasants and slaves another change of masters, tended to sterilise the status quo for much of four centuries. In spite of a network of good roads which greatly improved the movement of such commodities as lead and grain to the ports and also of soldiers and administrators, few of the road junctions stimulated urban growth to the extent that might have been expected. Only at Mildenhall did a small town, named Cunetio, succeed as a market and service centre, and it was even enlarged and refortified in the troubled fourth century. There were smaller settlements at Sandy Lane, called Verlucio, and at Wanborough, called Durocornovium, on the road to Cirencester. The last became a small manufacturing centre and was given a ‘mansio’, that is a posting house to receive travelling administrators and other imperial guests. But at Old Salisbury, adjoining the Iron Age fort where five roads met and provided the biggest junction in Wiltshire, there is little sign of much development. It should be mentioned here that Old Salisbury was not normally called ‘Old Sarum’ until perhaps the 18th century. The Roman name for the place was Sorviodunum. The first mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (for A.D. 552) calls it Searobyrg. The medieval abbreviation for its name was ‘Sar’, and when misguided pedants wanted to Latinise it, they made of it ‘Sarum’.

As southern England became more prosperous under its pacification the wealthier British traders and farmers followed the example of Roman administrators in building ‘villas’, country houses usually headquarters of an estate, which were of increasing complexity and of luxury. Their sites have been found concentrated around the Romanised towns of Bath and Cirencester prom which they spread into north-west Wiltshire. More are scattered arc.snd Cunetio and Verlucio, in the Avon valley below Salisbury and near West Dean on the south-east border. But there is a marked absence of them from most of the chalk downiand and particularly in the huge area south of the Vale of Pewsey, west of the Salisbury Avon and south to Cranborne Chase on the present Dorset border. In this extensive area only two villa sites have been found, at Netheravon and at Pit Meads near Sutton Veny. From this absence it has been reasonably deduced, though not proved, that the area was taken from its former owners, whether hostile or not, and treated as a huge imperial estate supplying corn direct to the army or for export overseas, so having no need of a local market and providing no opportunity for local farmers and traders to become rich enough to build villas.

Most of the population, however, whether on chalk or elsewhere, still lived in isolated houses or tiny hamlets, although a settlement at Hamshill Ditches near Groveley Wood covered some forty acres. Other, smaller, villages in a nuclear form are also found on the Great Ridge near to the ‘lead route’ and some in a more linear form on the downs further north, e.g. at Chisenbury Warren and West Overton, but none had the formal layout of a Roman town or fort. Nevertheless, under a stable administration agricultural production increased for the first three centuries of occupation, and the small square fields of the ‘Celtic’ farmers were replaced by larger rectangular fields worked by heavier and stronger ploughs, which were able to tackle heavier land. The population rose with this agricultural growth.

In respect of local customs the Roman administrators were tolerant, at least where these did not conflict with strategic aims or inhibit tax-collection. They readily absorbed local gods into official worship. Pagan temples were built at Nettleton Shrub on the Fosse Way, which became an important religious centre, and a less important shrine on Cold Kitchen Hill, near Maiden Bradley and the ‘lead road’, which had existed for centuries before the Roman Conquest, was given a more permanent temple. But few other pagan religious centres are known although all the towns must have had their temples.

Britain, with the rest of the Empire, became officially Christian under Constantine I, a little after A.D. 313, but there is little evidence of Christian worship of these times in Wiltshire, though a temple-like structure at a villa in Littlecote Park may have had a Christian function. Wiltshire did not have the long tradition of Christian worship that was found further west in Somerset. From the third century onwards there was an extension of both arable land and of sheep rearing so that both the corn and wool exports from Wiltshire grew. But there was a decline in the prosperity of the smaller towns due first to a concentration of administrative and manufacturing functions, and then of markets, in larger centres. Increasing taxation to support the Roman occupation seems also to have had a deleterious effect but the population of Wiltshire and much of Britain fell during most of the fourth century due to a variety of causes.

The decline of Roman Britain

More serious instability was created by affairs on the continent where leadership of the Empire was frequently disputed. Much of the Roman army in Britain was taken to the continent, from which it did not return, to fight for various pretenders to the imperial crown. In this period of weakness there was a joint attack on Britain by Franks, Picts, Scots, Irish and Dutch, known as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’, in A.D. 367. This spread chaos over much of the country north of the Thames and encouraged separatism. The Bokerly Dyke on the Dorset border was rebuilt to block access from Wiltshire as though it was from Wiltshire that pillage and massacre would come, while a line of villas from Bath across to Verlucio seem to have been burnt about the same time, possibly from a raid up the Britol Channel. But, apart from the contemporaneous destruction of villas in northern Wiltshire (which may not have been connected, but only coincidence) and some increasing emigration from the countryside, it is difficult to see the effects of these fourth-century troubles. Luckily stability was restored in 369 when Valentinian (emperor 364-75) sent his general, Theodosius, to Britain, for Theodosius restored order in the province and reorganised its frontiers. In line with his policy of consolidation, the town of Cunetio was reinforced. Its walls were largely rebuilt with an improved dry-stone core between mortared-stone faces some 16 feet wide at the base. These were extended on the west side of the town to enclose a larger area, and projecting bastions to take artillery were added as well as a wide, flat-bottomed ditch to keep attackers at a distance. Here, at Cunetio, has been found early evidence of the stationing of troops with German tastes in decoration, if not actually of German origin, who had presumably been brought by Theodosius. Certainly the practice of employing German mercenaries was common by now and many of them may have been settled upon lands in Wiltshire abandoned after the barbarian incursions.

But in spite of reorganisations and refortifications stability was soon threatened again by continental disputes. Near the end of the fourth century there were three separate occasions on which local commanders took armies from Britain to fight for the imperial throne. Few troops returned, so that the effect of the removal of so many able-bodied men from the countryside, particularly a sparsely populated area like late-Roman Wiltshire, was severe. Even more serious was the reduction in the amount of Roman coinage brought in to pay the troops. After the third continental expedition, by Constantine III (emperor 407-11), imperial officials were thrown out by the British, who were being pillaged by unruly mercenaries while the country was being fragmented amongst local tyrants. The ‘Dark Ages’ were beginning.

It was at the turn of the century that the succeeding emperor, Honorius, told the city regions in Britain that they must be responsible for their own defence, but even though it was not recognised at the time Britain was already lost for ever from the Roman Empire. One Briton, who called himself Vortigern, a British name which means ‘high king’, appears to have led the anti-Roman party in Britain and yet to have maintained the province intact against attacks by Picts and Irish, then the most dangerous of its enemies, by employing Saxon mercenaries and rewarding them with land in Kent. They appear to have been used to guard the east coast and inland as far as Dorchester (Oxon.). But he was himself upset by a revolt of the mercenaries and was replaced by Ambrosius, one of the last patrician Roman Britons and leader of the pro-Roman party.

Sometime between A.D. 446 and 454 Ambrosius addressed a last appeal to Rome for military assistance. It is called ‘The Groans of the Britons’ for he complained that ‘the barbarians drive us into the sea; the sea drives us back to the barbarians’. It went unanswered. But there was no immediate collapse in the Romano-British way of life, which to the barbarians must have seemed one of unparalleled luxury and one which many of them were anxious to adopt, for even Bede, although writing much later, admits to periods of peace and prosperity. There was certainly a slow decline which followed from the loss of the Roman soldiers, however. First the loss of coinage, then the loss of markets, then the decay of the highways, which became unsafe for travellers. Roman coins ceased to be imported about A.D. 400 and by 430 were hardly in use in the province.