Blestium (Monmouth) Fort

Roman Fort

A Roman fort called Blestium was established at what is now Monmouth at the very outset of the Roman advance into Wales, around AD 55. The fort was situated on the major road between Silchester and Caerleon. The fort may have been established by Publius Ostorius Scapula, who headed the first Roman attack against the powerful Silures tribe in south east Wales. The fort probably housed about 2000 soldiers during the campaign, and was retained as a minor fort after the first military campaign ended.
Monmouth lies on the border between two native British tribes, the Silures in Glamorgan and Gwent to the west, and the Dobunni in Gloucestershire to the east. It is very likely that the settlement was associated with neither of these peoples, and was under military jurisdiction. The lack of any Roman building stones suggests that the living conditions here were very poor, any buildings being of timber construction at best, a situation more appropriate to a slave compound than a civil settlement.

Roman Monmouth

Graham Webster in his superb work Rome Against Caratacus classified Monmouth as “a possible fort site near a later settlement”, and also pointed out the possible military use of a trackway north-west from here to “a postulated fort site with no evidence” at Pontrilas. A.L.F. Rivet in his Town and Country in Roman Britain also argued in favour of a Roman fort sited at Monmouth.

Archaeological Evidence for Blestium

In 2010 workers digging for a new gas main uncovered evidence of the Roman fort. The fort seems to have covered most of the current town centre, and definitely existed at least as early as 55 AD. Archaeologists recovered hundreds of pieces of pottery and bones before the construct work continued. The dig also uncovered the route of a Roman road following the line of St John’s Street.

Classical References to Blestium (Monmouth)

The only classical reference which identifies the Roman name for Monmouth is the Antonine Itinerary, which contains details of many of the major trade routes in the Roman empire during the late second century. The British section of this document lists fifteen such routes, one of which deals with the road through Monmouth. The thirteenth itinerary is titled “the route from Isca to Calleva“, and details the road between the fortress of Legio II Augusta at Isca Silvrvm (Caerleon, Gwent) and Calleva Arebatvm (Silchester, Hampshire), the tribal capital of the Atrebates. The name Blestium appears near the beginning of Iter XIII, lying a uniform 11 miles from Bvrrivm (Usk, Gwent) and 11 miles from Ariconivm (Weston under Penyard, Hereford & Worcester), and the reported distances place this Roman station squarely in Monmouth.

The name is possibly derived from the Greek word βλαστος  (Blastos), meaning ‘shoot, sprout’ or ‘scion, offspring’, the place-name Blestium perhaps being translated something along the lines ‘The Offshoot Settlement’. This may be in reference to the major settlement at Ariconium, which is thought to be the main administrative centre for the iron industries in the Monmouth area.

Other Roman Industrial Sites

Aside from the Iron-Mines at Monmouth itself, there are others situated to the south-east at Scowles (SO5708) and near the Villa/Temple complex at Lydney Park (SO6202), both in Gloucestershire, also at Whitchurch (SO5417) near the Huntsham Villa (SO5617) to the north-east, and at Peterstow (SO5624) near Ariconium further north, these latter sites all lying within Hereford & Worcester.

The town was the later home of the famed historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote his History of the British People here in the early-twelfth century.

References for Blestium

  • Rome Against Caratacus by Graham Webster (Batsford, London, 1993).