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Roman Cardiff

The Roman Conquest of South Wales

 

When the Emperor Claudius launched a full-scale assault on Britain in AD 43, the tribes of the South-east, valiantly though they fought, were unable to withstand the highly-trained, well-equipped Roman army. Within five years the legions had penetrated as far as Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire and the time was ripe to make inroads into the territory of the Silures in South Wales.

Tacitus tells us that the Romans, using Gloucesteras their land base, built small forts as they moved westward. At the same time, vessels, pulled by galley slaves, patrolled the SevernSeafrom harbours in Devon, closely observing every movement of the Silures along the Glamorgan coastline. In open battle, Celtic chariots, slings and spears were no match against relentless Roman discipline, though the Silures were to prove more adept at waging guerrilla warfare from the Welsh hills.

Before AD 55 the Romans had built their first major fortress in South Wales. Erected at Usk, it housed the Twentieth Legion under the command of Didius Gallus. It was also about this time that the Romans constructed their first castrum along the banks of the Taff at Cardiff.

The Romans constructed similar forts at Abergavenny and at Clyro, near Hay-on Wye, as they advanced ever more deeply into the territory of the Silures. The conquest of South Wales was delayed for a time as soldiers were withdrawn to crush the Iceni rebellion in Eastern Britainbut, in a campaign lasting from 74 to 78, Julius Frontinus and Julius Agricola ended the resistance of both the Silures and their allies in North Wales, the Ordovices. Tacitus wrote that the army of Frontinus "reduced the Silures, a powerful and warlike tribe; he surmounted not only the valour of the enemy but also the difficulty of the land.' The Romans now took steps to ensure that the native population remained subdued and passive.

First, the legionary fortress at Usk was replaced with a new headquarters at Caerleon. Up to 6,000 troops of the Second Legion could be garrisoned there, more than enough to daunt the most belligerent Silurian warrior. Though much of the fortress is buried under modern Caerleon, the remains of the  baths and barracks are still substantial. The amphitheatre in particular, despite its peaceful grassy veneer, evokes images of a bloodthirsty past when gladiators fought to the death before baying crowds.

Caerleon was the lynchpin of the vice-like grip in which the Romans now held South Wales. The legionary headquarters could be supplied from the sea and it was conveniently situated for the construction of a road along the coast. Under the supervision of army engineers, slave workers toiled to build a highway  from Caerleon to Cardiff, before linking up with the old prehistoric trackway through the Vale towards Neath and Carmarthen.

Every 12 miles or so along this route, forts were established at Cardiff, Cowbridge, Neath, Loughor and Carmarthen.(see; the Roman fortress) With typical Roman thoroughness, additional roads were built inland, guarded by forts at Caerphilly, Penydarren and Brecon. Normally, a token force of auxiliaries was sufficient to keep the vanquished Silures under surveillance. However, if the Pax Romana was in danger, reinforcements, marching at the legionary pace of 4 (1/2) miles an hour and carrying up to 80 lbs. of equipment, could travel more than 60 miles a day to deal with the crisis.

 

 

Further Research:

 

The Roman gallery at the National Museum of Wales

Webster P.V.”The Roman Period”, in “Glamorgan County

             History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams

            (Cardiff 1984).

 

The Roman Fortress

 

The site of the first Roman fortress at Cardiff, excavated between1974-1981, was erected about 55AD.It was much larger than subsequent fortifications and stretched north into Bute Park and east beyond Kingsway. In the west it was closer to the river than later forts, the south-west corner being located near the present site of the AngelHotel.

The castrum was surrounded by high banks of earth and, within the enclosure, apart from the usual barracks, stores, workshops, and a road running from north to south, traces have been found of a timber-framed house which may have been the private quarters of the commander. The fort was not intended to withstand a lengthy siege nor would the Romans have exposed their elite legionaries to sudden slaughter at a mere outpost. It is likely that the fort provided accommodation for a battle group of auxiliary troops, probably supported by cavalry who would have been very effective in the open countryside of the Vale.

The Romans occupied this hitherto uninhabitable site for two reasons. First of all, the land was at a lower level 2,000 years ago than it is today. Consequently the castrum was much closer to the sea and could be used as a naval base to control the northern shore of the Bristol Channel. Another base at Martinhoe in Devon gave them mastery of the entire channel. Secondly, the Romans were able to command the busy ford across the Taff where, in centuries to come, CardiffBridgewould be built.

When Caerleon became the lynchpin of the Second Legion,the Romans extended their control of South Wales by building a road as far west as Carmathen.(See; The Roman Conquest of South Wales) Forts were established every 12 miles or so along the route and 

about AD 76 the castrum at Cardiff was rebuilt and greatly reduced in size. The northern boundary remained where it was but, in its modern context, the southern rampart stretched across the Castle Green from the Norman keep to the eastern perimeter wall. Square in shape, the fort was surrounded by a ditch in front of a rampart of clay and turf.

As South Wales was threatened by attacks from Irish pirates in the third century, the castrum at Cardiff became vital to local defences and about 250 the fort was rebuilt on its present site. The slag heaps of the earlier civilian settlement became the foundations for new timber barracks, cookhouses, stables, bath-houses and latrines. For the first time, sturdy stone walls were erected, 10 feet thick and banked with earth to give additional protection. A deep moat acted as a further barrier and projecting polygon-shaped bastions, 17 feet high, were constructed to provide firing platforms for giant catapults and ballista.

The Roman remains at CardiffCastle were first excavated by the Third Marquess of Bute. In 1889, while workmen were clearing a passage to Bute's garden in CathaysPark, a mass of stone masonry was revealed  when a portion of the east bank was cut away. The Marquess was a keen archaeologist and further trenches were cut until the Roman wall was uncovered. In 1923 the Fourth Marquess of Bute embarked on an ambitious scheme to re-erect the perimeter walls. Meticulous research was undertaken to make the reproduction as authentic as possible and the North Gate, with its guard chambers and Romanesque archway, is an example of this attention to detail. Even the bridge which crosses the moat at the North Gate is designed along Roman engineering principles.

Along

Duke street
the wall presents an impressive view, though rather unnecessarily the Roman work is outlined in red Radyr stone. The most spectacular section of the original wall can be seen within the castle precincts where it is protected from the elements. This section of the wall stretches for 270 feet and, while it does not reach its original height, it still has a formidable appearance. To stimulate the modern visitor's imagination, sculptured murals by Frank Abrahams depict the everyday life of the Silures and the arrival of the Romans in South Wales.

In these closing years of Roman civilisation, the castrum seems to have resembled a small fortified town and the earlier civilian settlement was abandoned. Cardiff became part of the SaxonShore defences, a land base to support the fleet which, it was hoped, would repel the raiders from the sea. It was a safe haven where vessels could load and unload supplies at the quays, which may have been along the West Wall or near the South Water Gate.

 

The latest Roman coins discovered at Cardiff date from the reign of the Emperor Gratian who died in 383. Slowly, the walls of the fort at Cardiffcrumbled, the barracks of the Roman army rotted away, and once more the local people sought protection in the hills. The site may not have been completely deserted, but it ceased to be of major importance until a new invader saw its possibilities in the eleventh century.

The story of Cardiff begins with the Romans. They saw its strategic advantages and provided the network of roads which served the region until the eighteenth century. Even Cardiff's name stems from the Roman occupation, for despite differing opinions about the placename, there is general agreement that it refers to "the fortress by the river'.

         

Further research:

 

The Roman gallery at the National Museum of Wales

Webster P.V.”The Roman Period”, in “Glamorgan County

             History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams

            (Cardiff 1984).

Grant J.P.D. Cardiff Castle; its History and Architecture   

             (Cardiff 1923)

 

The Effects of Roman Civilisation

 

Outside the Roman fort at Cardiff, pedlars and merchants traded with the garrison, while the soldiers, far from home, no doubt found themselves wives and girl friends among the local people. Gradually a more permanent  civilian settlement was established, which may have existed all around the fort, but definitive evidence has only been found on the southern side.

Coins and pottery , dating back to the Roman occupation, were found when the High Street branch of Lloyds Bank was built in 1892. Recent excavations at the Castle Green  have uncovered the remains of long rectangular buildings, while traces of waste slag suggest that some of the inhabitants were manufacturing iron on a fairly large scale.REF13 The importance of this civil settlement at Cardiff must not be exaggerated. It cannot be compared with the tribal capital at Caerwent, where the Romans built fine shops, temples, public baths, a forum with its own basilica, and an amphitheatre.

In introducing the tribal aristocracy to their luxurious way of life, the Romans hoped to persuade them to relinquish their warlike ways and, by the end of the first century, this aim was largely fulfilled. The region was pacified and, as the Silures came to terms with the conquest, many forts such as Usk and Abergavenny were abandoned. By 165 only Caerleon, Brecon and Cardiff were occupied in South-east Wales, all with much smaller garrisons. At Cardiffa token force of about 500 infantry was considered adequate to maintain peace in the area, hence the castrum was once more reduced in size.

Until the middle of the third century Roman Britain represented a peaceful and, for some, an idyllic way of life. Though the Latin influence was less pronounced in more remote areas, most of the Silures in South Walescame to regard themselves as Roman citizens. Examples of Samian pottery, Italian and Greek marble, beakers from Lyons, or wine from Italyand Gaul, have all been unearthed in the region near Cardiff. From Penarth Head, the merchant ships carrying these valuable cargoes became a familiar sight in the Bristol Channel

 

Further Research

 

The Roman gallery at the National Museum of Wales

Webster P.V.”The Roman Period”, in “Glamorgan County

             History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams

            (Cardiff 1984).


The Villa

 

The Roman theory, that subjugated populations could be civilised through the attractions of town life, had been successful on the continent but never met with the same degree of enthusiasm in Britain. (See; The effects of Roman Civilisation) The cost of building programmes escalated as the Empire grappled with the problem of raging inflation, and  successive governors were unwilling to risk unpopularity with a policy of high taxation. In fact, the great days of the Empire were coming to an end and, before the end of the third century, Romewas on the defensive against the barbarian hordes. Empty open spaces at Caerwent provide clear evidence that the town was never developed on the scale originally intended.

The wealthier classes preferred to make the villa their principal place of residence. At Whitton, the large round huts of the Iron Age settlement gradually gave way to a villa, where the buildings were grouped around a central courtyard. The grandest villa in South Glamorgan was at Llantwit Major and, while the site awaits further excavation, it was clearly owned by a person of substance. Another villa at Llandough was studied by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust in 1979. The original Iron Age homestead was rebuilt in stone about 120 and additional improvements were made a hundred years later. Among the remains of a bath complex, the Trust discovered the foundations of a cold plunge bath, including the iron collars of its wooden water pipes.

The foundations of the most important villa in the Cardiffarea,  examined by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1921, are now surrounded by the football pitches of TrelaiPark. But in the second century the site was within easy reach of the Roman highway which followed the route of modern Cowbridge Road to the ford at Rhyd Sarn, where Ely Bridge was later built. The excavations revealed a colonnade at the front of the house, with a further range of buildings and a bath suite to the west. Nearby quarries provided the Lias limestone for the walls and the pennant sandstone for the roof. Inside the villa were the comforts of Roman civilisation, as hired craftsmen from distant parts of the Empire painted artistic scenes on the walls and designed the mosaic floors. Chilly British winters caused little discomfort since coal was readily available to heat the bath-houses and the central heating system.

Villas were usually self-sufficient estates and only luxuries, wine or Mediterranean glassware for example, were imported. At coastal locations in South Wales, such as Whitton or Llantwit, shellfish seems to have been a popular item on the menu. The economy of the villa was usually based upon agriculture. Pastoral farming offered a steady supply of fresh meat and hides, while at Whitton the discovery of corn driers and granaries indicates a successful arable farm. A constant supply of slaves was available to provide a manual workforce.

The villa at Ely was an exception to this general rule. It could not rely on agriculture for its prosperity because the land was of poor quality, even after drainage improvements had been made. Instead, the estate became a centre for the manufacturing of iron. Coal was used in the smelting process and the iron ore originated from Wenvoe or Rhiwbina. In an attempt to improve the quality of the metal, manganese was imported from abroad.

By the third century storm clouds began to gather as Roman civilization was threatened by the barbarian onslaught.At Llantwit Major and Ely, ditches and banks were constructed to protect the villas. The discovery of 43 bodies at Llantwit, together with burnt masonry, gives credence to the possibility of a massacre in the fourth century and, if such a tragedy occurred, it would account for the evacuation of both villas at this time. Increasingly, inhabitants in lonely places sought refuge in the walled towns of Caerwent and Carmarthen, or in the forts of Caerleon and Cardiff

 

Further Research

 

The Roman gallery at the National Museum of Wales

Webster P.V.”The Roman Period”, in “Glamorgan County

            History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams

           (Cardiff 1984).

Robinson D.M. South Glamorgan’s Heritage: The archaeology

              of the county(Bridgend 1985)

Wheeler R.E.M. “Roman Buildings and Earthworks on the

               Cardiff Racecourse” in Transactions of the

               Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.(Cardiff

               1922)

 

The End of Roman Britain

 

By the third century storm clouds were threatening to destroy Roman civilization an era of tranquillity came to an end. Everywhere Roman civilisation was confronted by the barbarian onslaught. In South-east Britainit came from the Anglo-Saxon invaders but, in the Bristol Channel, it was Irish pirates who attacked the Welsh coast with increasing ferocity.

The fort at Cardiff was a vital defence but other measures would have been required to hold the invaders at bay.(See; The Roman Fortress) Evidence of their existence is sketchy but it is likely that a beacon at Penarth Head gave an early warning signal. There must have been strongpoints on the coast where the Roman fleet could shelter until the pirates appeared. In 1979 it was thought that such a site had been found at Cold Knap near Barry, where the sheltered bay seemed to be an ideal position for a naval base. Yet research so far has only indicated a large building of 21 rooms around a central courtyard. Constructed in the late third century, it might have been a mansio or an inn for government officials, but it could have been part of a more intricate system of defence, possibly involving other fortifications at Neath and Loughor.

All preparations to resist aggression  proved fruitless as Roman civilisation began to disintegrate throughout the Empire.Villas were abandoned and inhabitants in lonely places sought refuge in the walled towns of Carmarthen and Caerwent, or the fortresses of Caerleon and Cardiff.

At the end of the late fourth century even the forts were abandoned. In 410 Roman Britain was left to its fate, as the legions were withdrawn and the British were informed that henceforth they must defend themselves.As the walls of forts such as Cardiff crumbled, local people sought protection in the ancient hill forts

 

Further Research:

 

The Roman gallery at the National Museum of Wales

Webster P.V.”The Roman Period”, in “Glamorgan County

            History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams

            (Cardiff 1984).

Grant J.P.D. Cardiff Castle; its History and Architecture   

             (Cardiff 1923)