The Romano-British Settlement of Britain

Within the RBO WebSite, the convention dictated by the excellent publication from the Ordnance Survey, The Historical Map and Guide - Roman Britain, is followed throughout. The Ordnance Survey separates the settlements of Roman Britain into several types:

Provincial Capital - Londinivm was unique in the landscape of Roman Britain, a major battle was fought here, followed by a succession of forts, and the thriving military port soon became established as the centre of commerce and administration for the Roman province.
Roman Colonies - A Colonia was a planned settlement for retired veteran soldiers who became citizens of Rome upon discharge, with all the privileges and social freedom that Roman citizenship afforded. Four Roman Coloniae were established in Britain by imperial decree;
  1. Camvlodvnvm (Colchester, Essex) AD49 (Claudius)
    Colonia Clavdia Victricensis Camvlodvnensivm
  2. Lindvm (Lincoln, Lincolnshire) c.AD95 (Domitian)
    Colonia Domitiana Lindensivm
  3. Glevvm (Gloucester, Gloucestershire) c.AD97 (Nerva)
    Colonia Nervia Glevensivm
  4. Ebvracvm (York, North Yorkshire) c.AD200 (Caracalla)
    Colonia Eboracensivm
Tribal Civitas Capitals - These were the Roman centres of administration of each of the tribal domains, or civitates, of Britain. Fourteen are listed on the OS Map but the existence of several others can be surmised. (vide infra)
Romano-British Towns - These are large settlements containing prestigeous civic and administrative buildings and all surrounded by some form of defensive system.
Major Settlements - These are smaller, undefended settlements containing several substantial Roman buildings, which are normally indicative of a centralised civic administration.
Minor Settlements - The smallest Roman settlements are distinguishable from the major settlements in that they contain no evidence of substantial Roman buildings.
Fortified Towns or Burgi - These settlements, essential to the military supply and administration of Britain, were fortified during the fourth century to ensure secure military communication. They lie mainly along the course of Watling Street through the Midlands.
Spa Towns - The Roman spa towns of Aqvae Arnemetiae (Buxton, Derbyshire) and Aqvae Svlis (Bath, Avon) are also distinguished as a separate category by the OS and are both named after local water deities.

The First Romano-British Settlements

The Roman Spa Town of Bath
Aquae Sulis (Bath, Avon)

Many of the Romano-British settlements in Britain began life as small civilian communities in the vicinity of a Roman auxiliary fort. The soldiers' regular salaries attracted the attentions of merchants offering all kinds of merchandise and every sort of service which would tempt a Roman soldier to reasonably part with his money. Apart from the obvious ale-houses, bakeries and brothels, there would be tailors, cobblers, smiths and other tradesmen.

Even though it was not permitted for any of the common Roman soldiery to be legally married, plenty of illicit affiliations were constantly going on - such is the nature of man. It is very probable, therefore, that a substantial proportion of each of these initial settlements would be composed of the soldiers' dependants.

Canabae and Vici

These small settlements were termed vici, as they tended to develop along either side of the street or vicus leading from the main gate of the parent fort, with their frontages opening onto this main road. A settlement of this nature established outside a large fortress, was termed a canabae from the type of four-posted hut (Latin canaba) which was prevalent. It seems that both of these types of Romano-British settlement were under some degree of military jurisdiction, due to their proximity to the local fort or fortress. This military involvement in the local administration very likely lapsed as soon as the garrison moved on. The settlement left behind either survived or declined as local circumstances dictated.

The Development of Towns

If a fort was garrisoned for a long period of time, or the local natural resources made possible the establishment of substantial local industries, in time, a vicus may develop into a more substantial settlement or town. The presence of local industries and their associated markets increased trade and brought wealth into the area, which attracted more of the civilian population to settle there.

As these settlements became more populous and prosperous, the local governing bodies were able to fund civic building projects such as Fora to encourage general social interaction and market trading, Basilicae for the advancement of local government and the enforcement of civil law, also Bath-houses Temples and Amphitheatres for the entertainment of the masses.

The British Tribal Civitates and Pagi

Corinium Dobunnorum - The Tribal Capital of the Dobunni
Corinium Dobunnorum
(Cirencester, Gloucestershire)

As in Gaul, the Roman government of the province of Britain was broken down into large administrative areas based on the existing territories of the conquered tribes. This system made use of the established communication links between these tribes and has the fortunate side-effect of preserving the ancient tribal boundaries, which has substantially helped in our understanding of the inter-tribal relationships in pre-Roman Britain. These administrative sub-divisions of Roman provincial government are known as civitates. A further sub-division of these administrative areas, termed pagi were centred on other towns and major settlements within each tribal canton. These settlements were politically answerable to the local civitas capital.

Most of our information regarding the place-names of Roman Britain has come from five main written sources, three of which contain the names of British Civitas capitals: the Antonine Itinerary, the Ravenna Cosmography and the Peutinger Table. These ancient documents list the names of cantonal capitals with tribal suffixes appended, such as Calleva Atrebatum. In this manner, eleven Romano-British towns are confirmed as civitas capitals in one or more of these documents:

  1. Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester, Hampshire) - civitas capital of the Atrebates
  2. Venta Belgarum (Winchester, Hampshire) - civitas capital of the Belgae
  3. Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough, North Yorkshire) - civitas capital of the Brigantes
  4. Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury, Kent) - civitas capital of the Cantiaci
  5. Ratae Coritanorum (Leicester, Leicestershire) - civitas capital of the Coritani
  6. Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire) - civitas capital of the Cornovii
  7. Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester, Gloucestershire) - civitas capital of the Dobunni
  8. Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter, Devon) - civitas capital of the Dumnonii
  9. Venta Icenorum (Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk) - civitas capital of the Iceni
  10. Noviomagus Regnensium (Chichester, Sussex) - civitas capital of the Regnenses
  11. Venta Silurum (Caerwent, Gwent) - civitas capital of the Silures

The above list omits several Romano-British towns which are now known to have been tribal administative centres:

  1. Verulamium [Catuvellaunum] (St Alban's, Hertfordshire) - Possibly because it's official status as reported by Tacitus, was that of a municipium, the highest civil status of a Roman town below that of a Colonia, which resulted in the chief town of the Catuvellauni being listed simply as Verulamium, without the tribal suffix.
  2. Durnovaria [and/or] Lindinis [Durotrigum] - The Durotriges tribe may have been split between the major settlements of Dorchester in Dorset and Ilchester in Somerset.
  3. Petuaria [Parisorum] (Brough on Humber, Humberside) - Possible cantonal capital of the Parisi. 'A peculiar case' (TaCiRB).
  4. Moridunum [Demetarum] (Carmarthen, Dyfed) - The only known large Romano-British settlement in the territories of the Demetae.

The fact that these known cantonal capitals are not listed as such in the major sources proves that these documents are not complete lists of the Roman settlements of Britain, only those that lay along well-established military highways and the primary trade-routes.

Another important ancient source is that of Ptolemy the geographer and astronomer, from whom we learn the names of many of the rivers and coastal areas of Britain, as well as the names of several of the smaller British tribes. The Notitia Dignitatum also adds further details to our overall knowledge.

Further information regarding the physical extent of the territories of the British tribe is available under the individual web page entry for each tribe. Vide British Tribes. An invaluable book on the subject of the Roman settlement of Britain, Town and Country in Roman Britain, by A.L.F. Rivet, is unfortunately out of print but may be available at your local library. the RBO webmaster

Page Citation: Mike Haseler, Kevan White (2018) "Roman Britain: Settlement"