Burrium (Usk) Legionary Fort

Fort and Legionary Fort

Burrium or Bvrrivm was a legionary fortress in the Roman province of Britannia Superior or Roman Britain. Its remains today lie beneath the town of Usk in Monmouthshire, south east Wales. The surrounding vicus seems not to have developed into a small town, although it may have had an official mansio.

Sheppard Frere suggested in 1967 that the vexillation Fortress at Usk may have been built during the governorship of Aulus Didius Gallus (52-57AD), and based this suggestion on the words of the Roman historian Tacitus, who says;

… Didius Gallus maintained the ground gained by his predecessors, and pushed forward a few forts into remoter districts …” (Tacitus Agricola xiv)

Subsequent excavation in 1978 on the site at Usk confirmed that the fortress was constructed c.54AD.

By c.65AD the fortress was occupied by Legio XX Valeria Victrix, though whether this was the legion which originally constructed the fortress is unconfirmed.

In c.68AD the Twentieth Legion were transferred from Burrium to Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire) to replace Legio XIV Gemina which was removed from Britain by the emperor Nero. The legionary presence in the south-west was maintained by Legio II Augusta, who were moved at this time from Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter, Devon) to a new fortress at Glevum (Gloucester, Gloucestershire). It is very likely that a number of cohorts from this legion were stationed at the Usk fortress sometime during this period (vide RIB 396 supra)

By c.69AD the Burrium fortress was totally evacuated and possibly demolished. The settlement continued to prosper until the 4th century.

Excavations at Burrium

SO379007 – The east gate of the fortress was excavated in 1971 and was found to have admitted a double carriageway 25 feet (7.6m) wide flanked by projecting timber towers each measuring 10 x 20 feet (3.1 x 6.1 m). The post-holes and remains of a timber bridge across the ditch were buried and preserved by a stone-revetted causeway of packed clay was later constructed across the ditch before the gateway. The original Claudian defences were part-levelled during the Neronian period, to accommodate a large store-base. This rampart was resurrected by the end of the second century as part of the defences of the later civil settlement. Finds attributed to this settlement/industrial period included three very well preserved iron-working furnaces and three wells, one of which remained in use until at least 350AD.

Large-scale excavations revealed two groups of granaries – used to store the provisions necessary to feed the large invasion force – a workshop and part of an officer’s house, all built of wood. More recent work suggests that an auxiliary cavalry regiment (known as an ala) may also have been stationed with the legion.

Classical References to Burrium (Usk) Legionary Fort

More toward the east¹ are the Silures² whose town is Bullaeum 16*50 55°00

  1. Eastwards from the Demetae tribe, who themselves occupied the area around St. David’s Head in Dyfed, south-west Wales.
  2. The Silures tribe occupied much of south-east Wales.

Aside from the entry above, from Ptolemy’s Geography of the early-second century AD, Usk is mentioned in two separate road lists in the Antonine Itinerary of the late-second century. In Iter XII “The route from Moridunum (Carmarthen, Dyfed) to Viroconium (Wroxeter, Shropshire)”, Usk appears as Burrio or Burrium, lying 9 miles from Isca Silvrvm (Caerleon, Gwent), the home of Legio II Augusta, and 12 miles from Gobannivm (Abergavenny, Gwent). Burrium also appears in Iter XIII “The route from Isca to Calleva (Silchester, Hampshire)”, again listed 9 miles from Isca but this time 11 miles from Blestivm (Monmouth, Gwent). Although the Usk settlement is not mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmology (R&C#243) compiled during the seventh century, the River Usk is, listed between the Abona (River Avon) and the Tamion (River Taff, Glamorgan) and named the Isca.

It is possible that the Roman name may be translated something along the lines of ‘the [place of the] Knobs’, from the Latin word bulla ‘bubble, knob, stud’,¹ here in its genitive plural form. This idea is not difficult to promote, for the site of the Usk fortress is encircled by a number of small rounded hills, which may be viewed as the source of this curious name without overly stretching the imagination. The modern English name is a ‘back-formation’ from the nearby River Usk, the name of which is Welsh/Gaelic for ‘river’ or ‘water’, while the modern Welsh name is Brynbuga, meaning ‘the Hill of the Bogey[man]’.

  1. Also the name of a protective phallic amulet worn around the necks of male Roman children.

RIB396 - Fragmentary funerary inscription

Primary
... lived 3 years, 5 ... Secundus, ... of the Second Legion Augusta, had this set up
Secondary
...]a, his mother, set this up to her son.
The last line seems to be a secondary addition, and the letters P at the end of l. 4, and M at the end of l. 5 seem a tertiary addition.

Among the pottery recovered from the site during excavation was a mortarium with graffito scratched around the rim;

‘mixing bowl from the contubernium¹ of Messor’.

  1. An eight-man section, who shared a tent when on campaign or a single room in a garrison barrack-block.

References for Bvrrivm

  • Britannia iii (1972) p.302;
  • Britannia ii (1971) p.247 & fig.4;
  • Britannia i 1970 p.273;
  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).

Roman Roads near Bvrrivm

S (6) to Bvlmore (Coed-y-Caerau, Gwent) NW (10) to Gobannivm (Abergavenny, Gwent) Iter XIII: NE (11) to Blestivm (Monmouth, Gwent) Itinera XII/XIII: S (6) to Isca Silvrvm (Caerleon, Gwent)