Eburacum (York)

Colonia, Legionary Fort and Marching or Temporary Camps

At the start of the campaign season of 71AD the new Roman governor of Britannia province, Petilius Cerialis, established a new fortress for the Ninth Hispanic Legion in the Vale of York to secure a firm base of operations for his planned campaign against the troublesome Brigantes tribe of northern England. York has been continually occupied ever since.

The Legionary Fortress lay just to the north-west of the confluence of the River Fosse with the River Ouse, and was thus protected on the south and east by the aforementioned streams. The civil settlement and the later colonia grew on the south bank of the River Ouse alongside the road leading from the rear gateway of the fortress.

Classical Evidence for Eburacum

The ancient name for York was Eburacum or Eboracum, and this name – or further variations of it – occurs in all four major classical geographies which cover Roman Britain.

In Ptolemy’s Geography of the second century AD, York is listed among the nine towns attributed to the Brigantes tribe of northern Britain. Ptolemy wrote in Greek so the name of York in his work appears as ΕΒΩΡΑΚΟΝ or Eborakon. The entry occurs between OLENACVM (Elslack, Lancashire), and CAMBODVNVM (Slack, South Yorkshire). Ptolemy also tells us that the town was the home of the Sixth Legion at the time.

The town also appears in no less than four (out of fifteen) routes in the British section of the Antonine Itinerary, produced in the late 2nd century AD:

In Iter I – “from the ‘Entrenchments’ (i.e. Hadrian’s Wall) to Praetorium (possibly Bridlington)”, Eburacum is listed as the home of Leg. VI Victrix, 17 miles from the civitas capital of the Brigantes tribe, ISVRIVM BRIGANTVM (Aldborough, North Yorkshire), and 7 miles from DERVENTIO (Malton, North Yorkshire).

In Iter II – “from Hadrian’s Wall to Portus Ritupis (Richborough, Kent)”, Eburacum once more appears 17 miles from ISVRIVM, and this time 9 miles from CALCARIA (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire).

In Iter V – “the route from Londinium (London) to Luguvalium (Carlisle, Cumbria) on the Wall”, Eburaco (sic) is listed 21 miles from LAGENTIVM (Castleford, South Yorkshire), and again 17 miles from ISVRIVM BRIGANTVM.

As the starting-point of Iter VIII – “The route from Eburacum to Londinium, two-hundred and twenty-seven thousand paces”, with LAGENTIVM, the second on the itinerary, again reported as 21 miles distant, confirming the distance reported in Iter V.

In the Notitia Dignitatum of the late 4th century, the entry for York appears under the heading Sub dispositione uiri spectabilis ducis Britanniarum or ‘At the disposal of the respectable man, the Duke of the Britains’. The full entry reads Praefectus Legionis Sextae or ‘The Prefect of the Sixth Legion’, which erroneously omits the actual name of the Legionary base. Interestingly, the second fort under the command of the Duke of the Britons is named Praesidium, which may tie in with the Praetorium in Iter I of the Antonine Itinerary, tentatively identified with Bridlington (vide supra).

The Meaning of the City’s Name

Eburacum of the Romano-British Period

York’s original Romano-British name Eburacum – later Colonia Eboracensium – is well documented, and several references are quoted throughout these web-pages. It may be interesting to digress for a while to study how the name has evolved over the many years since the Romans left Britain at the beginning of the fifth century.

Cair Hebrauc of the Dark Ages

York appears at the head of Nennius’ list of 33 ‘British Towns’ as Cair Hebrauc, which consists of two components; a mangled form of the town’s Old British name, prefixed by the Welsh/Gaelic word cair meaning ‘fortified place’ (q.v. Welsh: caer, gaer).

Eofer-wic of the Anglian Kings of Northumbria

York features many times in the Saxon Chronicle, under a number of guises; Eofer-wic, Eofor-wic, Efer-wic, Euor-wic, Eofer-wic ceaster & Euer-wic, other variant spellings in other works include Eouerwic, Eouorwic, Euerwic & Eworwic. The somewhat variable prefix is likely an even more distorted carry-though of the Old British name, suffixed by the Scandinavian word vik meaning ‘creek, river or bay’, here Anglicised to -wic. The additional ceaster suffix is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Welsh/Gaelic word cair used by Nennius.

Jorvik of the Viking Age of Danelaw

The modern name of York stems from its ninth-century Viking name Jorvik, which would appear to be a straight carry-through of the Anglic name Eoforwic, further distorted by the heavy accents of the Scandinavian occupying army. An alternate suggestion is that the prefix may be a Viking forename, but this is unlikely.

Eburacum – The Place of Yews

“York Eborakon c.150, Eboracum, Euruic 1086 (DB). An ancient name (Welsh/Gaelic) meaning ‘estate of a man called Eburos’ or (more probably) ‘yew-tree estate’. Yorkshire (OE scir ‘district’) is first referred to in the 11th cent.” Entry from the Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills.

The above statement by Mills is very difficult to reconcile with any of the relevant names for the Yew tree. The Latin name for yew is Taxus baccata, the modern English name stems from the Saxon iw, also the Germanic iwa and Scandinavian yr; also compare Welsh ywen. A possible clue lies in the modern German name for the tree, Eibe.

Entries in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain for Eburacum

For York, there are over seventy inscriptions on stone recorded in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB), six of which have been added since the work was first published. These entries may be broken down as follows:

  • 21 altarstones (inc. 7 of non-standard form),
  • 24 tombstones (inc. 1 tomb finial),
  • 9 coffins (inc. 1 sarcophagus),
  • 1 statue,
  • 1 statue base,
  • 1 lead cannister,
  • 1 inscribed gold leaf,
  • 1 base,
  • 1 relief,
  • 6 building inscriptions
  • and 5 undefined.

A selection of the most interesting RIB entries are reproduced and translated on this page, the most important of which are those that can be accurately dated. Unfortunately, despite the apparent profusion of textual data only three dateable stones exist: RIB 665 (vide infra) dated to 107-8AD, the fragmentary RIB 666 (not shown), evidently dedicated to the emperor Hadrian and therefore dateable to between 117-38AD, also the building inscription RIB 667 (vide infra etiam) which dates sometime between 211-35AD.

Legionary Units Stationed at York

The only units known to be permanently stationed in the Legionary fortress at Eburacum were Legio IX Hispana, themselves responsible for the original fortifications c.70-71AD, also Legio VI Victrix who accompanied the emperor Hadrian on his trip to Britain and replaced the Ninth at York during 122AD. The Sixth were to occupy the Eburacum fortress for the remainder of Roman military rule in the islands.

Legio Nonae Hispana – The Ninth Spanish Legion

There are only four inscribed stones from York which attest the presence of this legion, including the tombstones of a standard-bearer and an ordinary soldier. The most interesting is R.I.B. 665 (see below), which is one of only three inscribed Roman stones from Eburacum that can be dated, and the only one dateable to within a couple of years, in this case 107-8AD.

Building Inscription from the South-East Gateway of the Fortress

[rib id=”665″]

Altar to Silvanus by a Cornicularius of the Ninth Legion

[rib id=”659″]

Tombstone of a Signifer of the Ninth Legion

[rib id=”673″]

Legio Sextae Victrix – The Sixth Victorious Legion

Altar from the Temple of Serapis by a Legatus of the Sixth Legion

[rib id=”658″]

Tombstone of a Veteran of the Sixth Legion

[rib id=”671″]

Tombstone of a Prefect from the Sixth Legion

[rib id=”707c”]

Altar to the Matres Afrae Italae et Gallae by a Gubernator of the Sixth

[rib id=”653″]

The Gods of Roman York

Altar to the Genio Eboraci

[rib id=”657″]

The genius was a minor deity or spirit associated with the physical well-being of a specific location or object; in this case, the town of York.

There have been over twenty altars to the gods recovered over the years from the town and fortress of Eburacum. In many cases a god is mentioned on a single stone, and only two gods from the classical pantheon are represented by more than one altar, namely Mars with three and Fortuna, having two dedicated solely to herself, sharing another with Bona Eventui.

[rib id=”644″]

There are two altars to the Numinubus Augusti or the ‘living spirit of the emperor’, also five to the genius loci or the ‘spirit of this place’, including one shared with Neptune, and one dedicated both to the Emperor’s spirit and to the spirit of York itself (Vide supra).

[rib id=”640″]

Possibly an unknown Germanic deity, though there is evidence to suggest that this may have been one of the guises of Mercury, the messenger of the gods (vide RIB 1123 at Corbridge).

An officer-trainee drawing a regular soldier’s pay, on the staff of the centurion; see Roman Military Glossary.

Dedications to single gods include the classical deities: Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Mercury, Silvanus and Veterus, also Serapis from the Egyptian pantheon, and Britannia herself.

[rib id=”643″]

Altar to the Matribus Domesticus

[rib id=”652″]

The Civilian Inhabitants

Coffin of a Decurion of Colonia Eboracensis

[rib id=”674″]

A member of an elected board of ten men, who saw to the administration of the Roman colony at York.

Evidence for the names of civilians in Roman towns comes mainly from tombstones, but at York several stone coffins and sarcophagi bearing Roman inscriptions have also been unearthed. Some of the most interesting, and touching, examples are reproduced and translated below.

Coffin of a Child Aged Ten Months

[rib id=”690″]

Coffin of a Centurion of the Sixth Legion

[rib id=”670″]

Lead Funerary Urn of a Twenty-Three Year Old Woman

[rib id=”691″]

Tombstone of a Mother and Daughter

[rib id=”686″]

Tombstone of the Entire Family of a Veteran of the Sixth Legion

[rib id=”685″]

Demetrius of Tarsus

[rib id=”663″]

Both of these deities are Titans, brother and sister, two from a total of twelve siblings born of Uranus and Gaea. They married and were to produce all of the world’s rivers and streams, known as ‘the three-thousand sons of Okeanos’, also the oceanides, their many daughters who inhabited all the depths and shallows of the worlds seas.

Two bronze votive plates, RIB 662 (below) and 663 (above), both dedicated by someone named Demetrius and found close together at York, may be connected to the Demetrius of Tarsus mentioned by Plutarch (Moralia 419e), who tells of his expedition by boat to some of the more remote British islands on the instructions of the emperor Vespasian. It is possible that Demetrius’ mission may have been reconnaissance in aid of the governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, which would place these two inscriptions in the last Quarter of the first century A.D., therefore among the earliest at York.

Another Bronze Votive Plate Dedicated by Demetrius

[rib id=”662″]

Pre-Legionary Military Presence at Eburacum

Among the many different varieties of Roman pottery uncovered at York are several pieces of Lyon ware attributable to the Claudian-Neronian period, which suggests the existence of an earlier auxiliary fort lying undiscovered perhaps beneath the later fortress which was established in 71AD. This suspected fort – if it does exist – may date to the administration of governor Vettius Bolanus in 69 or 70, though may conceiveably belong to either of his immediate predecessors.

Production of these types of wares ceased at Lugdunum in southern Gaul during the Civil War of 69AD when the factories were appropriated for military use and production concentrated in other areas. The Eburacum finds may, however, represent surplus stocks of old samian-ware which were moved north with the Ninth Legion from Lincoln.

Legionary Movements in the late First Century

After the fourteenth legion had been suddenly removed from Britain by Nero in 67AD, the province was left severely under-strength throughout the next three years. The tyranny of the emperor had been ended by his condemnation by the Senate and his subsequent forced suicide in 68AD and he was replaced by a new emperor elected by the Senate, the inflexible Galba, then governor of Hispana province. The murder of Galba in January 69AD triggered a year of civil war on the continent which ended in December with the appointment of Vespasian, then governor of Judaea as princeps. One of Vespasians first acts on his arrival in Rome was to appoint a new governor for Britain, the able commander Petilius Cerialis, who had recently put down a revolt of Batavian auxiliaries under Julius Civilis in Germany. By the time the new governor had arrived in Britannia with the newly-formed Legio II Adiutrix, the military situation in the province had degenerated and the powerful Brigantes tribe who inhabited almost the entire north of England were threatening their more Romanised neighbours, the Coritani of Lincolnshire and the Cornovii in Staffordshire and Cheshire.

The first act of the new governor when he entered the province, possibly in the winter of 70-71AD, was to leave the Second Adiutrix at Lindum (Lincoln), and proceed with Legio IX Hispana deep into the Vale of York to build a new legionary fortress just north of the confluence of the River Fosse with the River Ouse. His reasons for taking the Ninth Hispana instead of the Second Adiutrix were primarily because the Second was decidedly inferior in field experience, having been only recently recruited during the civil wars of 69AD from veterans of the asiatic fleet, but also because the Ninth was Cerialis’ old legion with which he had spent his earlier time in Britain as Legionary Legate; a force he could trust, where the centurions already knew him and he probably knew each of them by name.

By the end of the first century, there were three permanent legions stationed in Britain; Legio XX Valeria Victrix at Deva (Chester), Legio II Augusta at Isca Silurum (Caerleon) and Legio IX Hispana at Eburacum (York). This was to remain the military situation in Britain for almost the whole of the second century, and for this reason, the associated civil settlement or canabae outside each of these fortresses became respectably-sized towns.

For further information of legionary movements in Britain during 67-70AD see the RBO entry for Glevum. Further information on the career of Petilius Cerialis can also be found in the RBO page(s) on the Roman Governors of Britain, in particular the Cerialis page.

The Legionary Fortress and its Canabae

The defences of the original fortress constructed during Cerealis’ early campaigns against the Brigantes, consisted of a single ditch and rampart, surmounted by a timber palisade with wooden interval and corner towers, the area enclosed by these fortifications was some fifty acres.

The fortress had its exterior defences and its principal buildings replaced in stone by the Ninth legion Hispana during the reign of the emperor Trajan in either late 107AD or 108AD, prior to this date the interior buildings were of timber and tile construction. This is the last recorded action of the Ninth legion in Britain, indeed, after this date there is no record of this legion anywhere, other than legionary tiles bearing the legion’s stamp unearthed at Nijmegen in Holland, and dated to the early second century.

In 122AD the emperor Hadrian almost certainly visited Eburacum on his way north to plan the construction of his lasting monument in Britain, the line of fortifications which were to become known as Hadrian’s Wall. He brought with him Legio VI Victrix who were to replace the Ninth Hispana at York.

The canabae of the fortress at Eburacum lay across the River Ouse on its opposite south-western bank, the main road which issued from the south gate of the fortress crossed the nearby Ouse via a bridge constructed from ‘masses of the strongest stone-work’, and proceeded in a straight line towards the south-west through the middle of the settlement. Following the arrival of the Sixth Legion at York the settlement grew in prosperity and the appointment of its buildings became of a higher standard. Towards the end of the second century growth was rapid, many public buildings and monuments were erected and large private dwellings appeared over terraces on the steep slopes above the River Ouse to the south-east.

When Hadrian’s wall was first overrun by the Scottish tribes following the withdrawal of the British garisson by Albinus at the end of the second century, the fortress at Eburacum remained unscathed; at least, no evidence of any damage has been found which can be positively attributed to this period in history.

Eboracum – Capital City of Britannia Inferior

Under the emperor Septimius Severus in 197AD the province of Britannia was split into two, outwardly for administrative purposes, but also to avoid the concentration of British legionary power into the hands of a single governor. This situation had occurred earlier that same year with his own trusted general and adopted heir Decimus Clodius Albinus who had removed the British legions and marched upon Rome, to be defeated in battle near Lugdunum (Lyons) in southern France by Caracalla, the elder son of the emperor’s wife. The peaceful and Romanised southern tribes of Britain and the long-pacified tribes of Wales were amalgamated to become the Consular province of Britannia Superior with two legions based at Isca (Caerleon) and Deva (Chester), and administrative capital at Londinium, whilst the troublesome north, which required a more militaristic Praetorian governor, had a single legion but the bulk of Britains auxiliary forces (garissoned along the wall), became Britannia Inferior and was to be administrated from Eburacum where the legionary force was also based.

Emperor Septimius Severus at York

“He died at Eboracum in Britain, having subdued the tribes which appeared hostile to Britain, in the eighteenth year of his reign [212AD], stricken by a very grave illness, now an old man.” Extract from The Augustan History – Severus by Aelius Spartianus, translated by Anthony Birley.

In the winter of 208/9AD the emperor Septimus Severus arrived in Britain with a substantial force of legionary, praetorian and auxiliary cohorts after being called upon by the governor of the northern province who was worried by increasing violence of the Caledonian tribes. Accompanied by his imposing and formidable wife Julia Domna and his two sons Geta and Caracalla, Severus made Eburacum his base of operations for his planned campaigns into Scotland. Leaving his younger, natural son Geta behind at Eburacum to continue the imperial business, Severus took his elder adopted son Caracalla on campaign with him and is thought to have constructed the large camp at Carpow on Tayside during the summer of 209AD. The campaign ended with the surrender of the Caledonians and the imperial family spent the following winter at Eburacum; the fortress walls being apparently reconstructed during this era. In the summer of 210AD the Maeatae, another major Scottish tribe revolted. The climate in Britain seems to have been too much for the aging emperor however, and he was too ill to lead the campaign himself, sending Caracalla in his stead with orders to be absolutely merciless. These orders were carried out with relish by the bloodthirsty prince but remained unfinished as the weather conditions worsened and Caracalla was forced to winter with his army at the Carpow fortress. The emperor’s health deteriorated during the winter and he died on Febuary 4th 211AD while in residence at York. The imperial family left for Rome in the spring, carrying with them the body of Severus. Geta was murdered by his elder brother the following year.

The Domus Palatini at Eburacum

The actual location of the domus palatini or imperial residence at Eburacum, implied in the biography of Severus from the Augustan Histories, remains unproven. The remains of a large bath-house, one of the biggest in Britain, were recorded on the site of the Old Station Yard in York during construction work in 1929. Lying on the north-western side of the main Roman road through the original canabae settlement and aligned with it, these substantial buildings presumably preceeded the formation of the colonia and lay on a different alignment from the street-grid imposed during the associated reorganisation of the town. The argument has been made on these grounds that the bath-buildings may have been part of the imperial residence of Severus.

The Roman Colonia

Building Inscription Dedicated to Caracalla

[rib id=”667″]

The first four names of the emperors Caracalla (imp. 211-217AD), Elagabalus (218-222AD) and Alexander Severus (222-235AD). The stone may thus be dated within the reigns of these three emperors. The most favoured period would be the earlier reign of Caracalla, who is known to have resided at Eburacum with his father Severus.

The civil settlement at Eburacum was promoted to the rank of colonia, the highest legal status a Roman town could attain, probably during the career of Caracalla (198-217AD). The exact date is not known, although Aurelius Victor describes Eburacum as a municipium when Severus died there in 211AD, while an inscribed altar from Bordeaux dedicated in 237AD by one Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, confirms its status as a colonia by that date.

Emperor’s Constantius and Constantine at York

“Constantius died at Eboracum in Britain in the thirteenth year of his reign, and was deified. …”
“On the Death of Constantius, Constantine, his son by a somewhat undistinguished marriage, was made emperor in Britain, and succeeded to his father’s position as a very popular ruler. …” Above extracts from the Breviarium of Eutropius (X.1.3 & X.2.2)

On 25th of July 306AD the emperor Constantius died at York; his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor by the men of Legio VI Victrix, then stationed at Eburacum, perhaps instigated by the German noble Crocus, who was commander of an auxiliary regiment of Alamanni then serving in Britain. This was in direct opposition to the legislation of Diocletian which had been formulated to prevent blood-line succession, and in accordance with Diocletian’s new laws Maxentius was proclaimed princeps by the senate in Rome. This resulted in a period of civil war for the control of the Roman world which ended with the partition of the empire by Constantine in 313AD.

Constantine invested a great deal in the refortification of the legionary fortress at Eburacum. The walls were extensively rebuilt, and the south-western wall fronted by the River Ouse was adorned with massive multangular bastions which must have looked especially imposing from the site of the colonia on the opposite bank. It is possible that the lavish refurbishment of many of the colonia’s public buildings was also undertaken by Constantine, but date evidence is lacking, and the building may have been started during his father’s stay at York.

It is interesting to note that at the Council of Arles in 314AD, Britain was represented by three Bishops of the Christian church; Eborius of York, Restitutus of London and Adelphius of Lincoln, together with an unnamed priest and deacon who may have been the representatives of a fourth Bishopric.

Other Roman Sites in the Area

A number of Roman marching camps have been recorded over the years at Bootham Stray just outside the northern suburbs of York.

Map References for Colonia [avrelia?] Eboracensivm/ Ebvracvm

NGRef: SE 603 521 OSMap: LR105; Roman and Anglian York.

Roman Roads near Colonia [avrelia?] Eboracensivm/ Ebvracvm

Itinera I?/II/V: ENE (9) to Bvttercrambe Moor (nr. Stamford Bridge, North Yorkshire) Itinera II/V/VIII: Ryknild Street: SW (10) to Calcaria (Tadcaster, North Yorkshire) Itinera I/II/V: NE (17) to Derventio Brigantvm (Malton, North Yorkshire) NW (15) to Isvrivm (Aldborough, North Yorkshire) SE (28) to Petvaria (Brough-on-Humber, Humberside) ESE (15) to Hayton E (17) to Delgovicia (nr. Millington, Humberside)