Venta Silurum (Caerwent)

British Civita and Capital

Venta Silurum or Venta Silvrvm – The Market Town of the Silures – The Roman name for Caerwent first appears in the Antonine Itinerary of the late-2nd century. Iter XIV of this document, “an alternate route from Isca [Silurum] to Calleva [Atrebatum]“, lists a station named Venta Silurum, 9 miles from Isca (Caerleon, Gwent) and 14 miles from Abona (Sea Mills, Avon), this latter part of the itinerary likely represents a journey by ferry across the Bristol Channel to the seaport serving the thriving Romano-British spa-town at Aquae Sulis (Bath, Avon).

The town is also mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, this time as Ventaslurum (R&C#48), between the entries for Pontes (Staines, Surrey) and the unknown road-station Iupania. The name of the Roman town, Venta Silurum, means ‘the market town of the Silures‘, and is partially carried through in the present name of the modern town Caer-went, which is Welsh for ‘fortified place with a market’.

Epigraphic Evidence from Venta Silurum

A grand total of seven Latin inscriptions on stone are recorded for Caerwent in the R.I.B.. Two of these texts are only fragmentary, and another two, reading ABCD and CDRF (RIB 313 & 314) may have been teaching aids; the remaining three texts are all shown and translated on this page, the most famous being the so-called Civitas Silurum stone (RIB 311; depicted above right; text below).

RIB311 - Building dedication to governor Tiberius Claudius Paulinus

To [Tiberius Claudius] Paulinus, legate of the Second Legion Augusta, proconsul of the province of Narbonensis, emperor's propraetorian legate of the province of Lugudunensis, by decree of the council, the Canton of the Silurians (set this up).
For Tiberius Claudius Paulinus see (PIR¹ i 391 no. 758) PIR² ii 231 no. 955, RIB 1280, CIL xiii 3162. After holding the posts specified above (legate of the Second Legion, proconsul of the province of Narbonensis, and imperial governor of the province of Lugdunensis) Paulinus became imperial governor of Lower Britain under Elagabalus (a.d. 220). The present inscription, therefore, dates shortly before a.d. 220.For a civitas see RIB 288 (Wroxeter).

This stone appears to have been the base of a statue (now lost?), and bears an important inscription which confirms the existence of the Civitas Silurum or the Romanized self-governing body of the Silures tribe. The so-called ‘Civitas Silurum Stone’ is now on display in Caerwent church.

“For Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, legate of the Second Augustan Legion, proconsul of (Gallia) Narbonensis, imperial propraetorian legate of (Gallia) Lugdunensis. By decree of the ordines for public works on the tribal council of the Silures.”

TI[berio] CLAVDIO PAVLINO LEG[atvs] LEG[ionis] II AVG[vsta] PROCONSVL PROVINC[iae] NAR RBONENSIS LEG[ato] AVG[usti] PR[o]PR[raetore] PROVIN[ciae] LVGVDVNEN[sis] EX DECRETO ORDINIS RES PVBL[cae] CIVIT[atis] SILVRVM: RIB 311; statue base; dated: c.220AD; see RIB 1280 at Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumberland)

The “Model Settlement”

The Roman town of Venta Silurum, the civitas capital of the Silures tribe, underlies the present town of Caerwent in Gwent. The main Roman road from the colonia at Glevum (Gloucester) to the legionary fortress at Isca Silurum (Caerleon) passed through the geometric centre of the settlement. Thankfully, when the route was widened in recent times to become the modern A48 trunk road, Caerwent was bypassed to the north and this historic site was preserved.

The town was founded c.75AD after the tribe had been finally subdued by the campaigns of Sextus Julius Frontinus. The majority of the remaining population of the tribe was gathered from the hills and valleys of Gwent and Monmouth and housed together in a new settlement at Caerwent, which site was obviously chosen in order to keep separate the subdued parts of the tribe from those still causing trouble further to the west. The routing of the road through the centre of the settlement was also deliberate, in order to let the people who were relocated see the benefits of Roman civilization which were paraded before their eyes each day along the military supply route.

The towns defences were comprised originally of a single massive earthen rampart and ditch, which enclosed an area of forty acres (eighteen hectares). These early defences were replaced in stone during the late second or early third centuries, together with an external double ditch. These later stone walls may have originally reached a height in excess of twenty-seven feet (eight metres).

Within the defences described above, a regular grid of streets divided the town into twenty insulae (literally ‘islands’) or City Block’s, of roughly equal size. Several public buildings have been identified, as one may expect, clustered near the centre of the settlement. A forum and basilica take up the entire central insula to the north of the main road, and a public bath-house was situated in the north east corner of the insula opposite, fronting onto the southern side of the main road. A small amphitheatre was built to the north-east of the forum at a later date; it violates the neat pattern of the street grid, being built over the top of the northward internal road leading from the north-east corner of the forum complex.

The houses in the settlement were generally small and modestly appointed, with only a few in possession of tessalated or mosaic floors, hardly any having hypocaust heating or adjoining bath-houses. The Silures were, it seems, never to attain the refined Roman qualities and its associated wealth, as did their close neighbours the Dobunni from Gloucestershire and Hereford & Worcester, who were to build many villas in the hills surrounding their own civitas capital at Corinium (Cirencester, Gloucestershire). There is no such outlying pattern of villas surrounding the Silurian capital.

No military finds have been recovered from within the enclosure, which points to the town being founded on a virgin site.

Excavations at Caerwent/Venta Silurum

ST467907 – Excavations in 1971 on the north-west polygonal angle-tower revealed that this structure had been added to the already-existing town wall some time before the mid-4th century. A hoard of coins having a terminal date c.350AD was found beneath the cobbled floor of this tower.

The Caerwent Temples

Romano-British Temple 1

Located in a temenos beside the forum. This square temple has an “eccentric” apse on the north wall of the cella and buttresses on the outer portico walls which may be an indication of some height to the building, but it is essentially a temple of the Romano-British type. The outer portico measured c.46 x 43 ft. and the cella c.24½ x 23 ft., with all walls a uniform thickness of c.2 ft. There are indications that an earlier shrine was associated with the temenos while a Romanised “temple” was later built on the same site, post 265AD. The temple faced south. (Type Ic or Id)

Romano-British Temple 2

This octagonal temple lies in a temenos outside the town walls, just to the north of the east gate. The exterior “portico” wall was about 1½ feet thick and c.66 feet across, the diameter of the cella about 53 feet. The temple possibly faced east.

Possible Classical Temple 3

The only evidence at Caerwent for a temple built along classical lines is a solid podium built in the middle of the west side of the forum facing east. This possible temple base measures 35 ft. wide by 50 ft. in length and stands about 4 ft. high. Signs of possible vaulting in the superstructure suggest an important civic building on the site.

Altarstones to Warrior Gods and Heroes

RIB310 - Altar dedicated to Mars Ocelus

To the god Mars Ocelus, Aelius Augustinus, optio, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.
For Mars Ocelus see RIB 309, 949. An optio was an under-officer to a centurion, his second-in-command.

A Roman Legionary Retirement Home?

Given the proximity of the legionary fortress it is not inconceiveable that a veteran optio, upon receiving his discharge at Isca, may have chosen to live close to his old legionary buddies in the settlement at Venta, especially if he had taken a native Silurian wife, for example. Optiones would not be particularly rich, and the lower-status houses here, within easy sailing distance of the luxurious spa town at Aquae Sulis only twenty miles or so across the Bristol Channel, would have been an excellent retirement home. It should also be noted that although not rich by Roman standards, Augustinus would have been a veritable Croesus in comparison with many of his Silurian neighbours, after all, he had spare cash enough to dedicate an altarstone to Mars (RIB 310 supra), and it may not be by chance that this stone is one of only a few so far discovered (i.e. there are no others to be found). In addition, his Roman citizenship and military training would have made him a natural contender for a place on the town council, especially if, as I have surmised, he took a native wife.

RIB309 - Dedication to Mars Lenus or Ocelus Vellaunus and to the Divinity of the Emperor

To the god Mars Lenus or Ocelus Vellaunus and to the Divinity of the Emperor Marcus Nonius Romanus, in return for freedom from liability of the college, gave this gift from his own resources on 23rd August in the consulship of Glabrio and Homulus.
For Lenus Mars see (Trier) CIL xiii 3654, 3970, 4030; AE 1915 no. 70 (Trier) Leno Marti | et Ancamnae | Optatius | Verus Devas | ex voto | posuit. For Mars Ocelus see RIB 310 (Caerwent), RIB 949 (ILS 4579) (Carlisle).Vellaunus is identified with Mercurius in CIL xii 2373 (Allobroges). For this expansion of N. Aug. in the singular see note to RIB 152.Collegnium, for collegium. For a similar form collignium see RIB 2102, 2103 (Birrens). This appears to be a collegium Martensium.6. For Homulus instead of Homullus see CIL xiv 250. This Caerwent inscription was dedicated in a.d. 152 on 23 August; whether it is significant or not, this was the festival of the Vulcanalia (see Snyder, Yale Class. Stud. 7 (1940) 284).

What’s to see Now

The principle visible remains are the complete circuit of the town walls, in places still over sixteen feet (five metres) high, the foundations of several Roman houses and shops to the west of the forum in Pound Lane, and a small Romano-British temple, octagonal in outline, which lies outside the eastern gate to the north of the road. Some finds may be viewed at Caerwent church, but the majority are on display in Newport Museum and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

References for Venta Silvrvm

  • The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd Ed., BCA, London, 1995) pp.378-391 & fig.170;
  • Britannia iii (1972) p.302 & p.353; Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966);
  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
  • Air Reconnaissance of Southern Britain by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. xliii (1953) pp.81-97;

Map References for Venta Silvrvm

NGRef: ST 469 905 OSMap: LR171/172

Roman Roads near Venta Silvrvm

W (6) to Bvlmore (Coed-y-Caerau, Gwent) NE (30) to Glevvm (Gloucester, Gloucestershire) NW (12.5) to Lydney Park River Wye: N (16) to Blestivm (Monmouth, Gwent)