Romano-British Settlements

The First Romano-British Settlements

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

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 Celtic tribes. This system made use of the established communication links between these tribes and has the fortunate side-effect of preserving the ancient Celtic 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.