Monmouth (Blestium) Roman Fort

Auxiliary Fort and Vexillation 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. Blestium was a fort and iron working centre in the Roman province of Britannia Superior, part of Roman Britain. Blestium was situated on the major road between Silchester and Caerleon.

Neronian or pre-Flavian military fort at Monmouth (Blestium)

The initial fort at Monmouth would have been a large Vexilation Fort (possibly Neronian 54 A.D. – 68 A.D), making it the earliest Roman fort in Wales.  The fort may have been established by Publius Ostorius Scapula  or his successor Aulus Didius Gallus), 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. It was very large and extended eastwards from No. 20 Monnow Street.
“This was in the middle of the First Century AD and it was at this time that the Romans also built a Fortress at Usk, housing some five or six thousand soldiers – a quarter of a century before the stone Fortress at Caerleon was established. The Romans suffered very heavy casualties and in the ensuing guerrilla war, the early Welsh held out against the invaders for thirty years.

Second Roman Fort at Monmouth (Blestium)

The south-east corner of a second Fort was discovered in a building site beside the medieval town wall, near Dixton Gate. The fort covers an area bounded by Monk Street, St. James’ Square, the Burgage and to the south of the New Dixton Road. This smaller Auxiliary Fort was probably built in the later 1st or early 2nd century.

Why was Monmouth important to the Romans?

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.

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 2007 a ditch was discovered while building a bungalow.  The sharp angle of the edge of the ditch suggested that it was a military fortification. A second, similar ditch edge was found on the west of the site, converging onto the first. It is thought that the ditch would join a deep ditch discovered in the front gardens of the Royal George in 1982. That ditch had uncovered a Roman coin of the Emperor Gallienus dated AD 260-268. The distance from the Town Wall fort corner to the Pitman’s Court corner – some 120 metres – together with the known limits of the Monk Street ditch form the classic playing card shape of a small Roman Auxiliary Fort.

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).