Canterbury (Durovernum) Roman Fort

British Capital, Claudian Auxiliary Fort (AD 43–54) and Oppidum

Durovernon was the Roman Name for Canterbury. The Romano-British town covered about 100 acres. Evidence has been found of Roman military timber buildings, and also of a large Gallo-Belgic oppidum on the same site as the later Romano-British town. The military buildings were probably part of a fort built by governor Aulus Plautius in the face of the first signs of British resistance, and was built to cover his rear before attempting to cross the Stour.

Evidence for the Roman Name of Canterbury

Next to these,¹ but farther eastward, are the Canti² among whom are the towns: Londinium³ 20*00 54? Daruernum³ 21*00 54? [and] Rutupie³ 21*45 54?.

  1. The Atrebates tribe of Hampshire and Berkshire.
  2. The Cantiaci tribe inhabited Iron-Age and Romano-British Kent.
  3. Of these towns, the assignation of London (Londinium)to the Cantiaci is doubtful, especially since the later provincial capital was situated on the north bank of the Thames, also the prefix of the Canterbury entry Dar-uernum is suspect, and has led to Canterbury being erroneously identified in past times as an ancient druidical site through the resemblance of Ptolemy’s spelling with the native British word for the Oak Tree, *Dyr, a potent symbol of Druidism. The last mentioned station, Richborough (Rutupiae), is undoubtedly in Kent.

Another classical geography to mention the ancient capital of the Cantiaci is the Antonine Itinerary of the late-second century. The same name, Durovernon, occurs in three separate itinera in the British section of this document; in Iter II, 12 miles from Durolevum (Ospringe, Kent) and 12 miles from the southern terminus at Portus Ritupis (Richborough, Kent); in Iter III, 25 miles from Durobrivae (Rochester, Kent) and 13 miles from Portus Dubris (Dover, Kent); and in Iter IV, again 25 miles from Rochester and 16 miles from Portus Lemanis (Lympne, Kent).

The last classical work to mention Canterbury is the seventh-century Ravenna Cosmology, where the entry Duro auerno Cantiacorum (R&C#72) is listed between Dubris (Dover, Kent) and Ritupis (Richborough, Kent). The Ravenna prefix confirms the Antonine spelling and stems from a native British word *Duromeaning ‘stronghold, fortified enclosure’. The suffix is from another native word *verno, which may be related to the Welsh gwern ‘a swamp, particularly of Alder trees’. The trailing title ‘of the Cantiaci‘ confirms Canterbury as the Romanized civitas capital of the tribe. The Romano-British name for canterbury then, could be translated as ‘the Enclosed Settlement of the Cantiaci near the Alder Swamp’.

Nennius, writing in the ninth? century, names the town Cair Ceint ‘The Stronghold of Kent’. The Saxon Chronicle of the late-twelfth century refers to the town variously as either Cantwaraburh, Cantwarabyrig or Cantwareberi, all various forms of its modern name, meaning ‘The Town of the Men of Kent’.

Roman Canterbury (Durovernon) – The Epigraphic Evidence

There are five inscriptions on stone recorded at Canterbury in the R.I.B., all but one being heavily damaged. The only (almost) complete text is a tombstone (RIB 43 infra), and another testamentary text reads … VLPIAE FILIAE … A MATER … “[…] to the daughter of Ulpia […] from her mother […]” (RIB 41; tombstone). The remaining texts are too fragmentary to be of much use.

RIB 43 - Fragmentary funerary inscription

To the spirits of the departed …]erna, aged fourteen ..

[...] M
[...] XIV

No commentary.

Development of Roman Canterbury (Durovernon)

There is no evidence of much development in Durovernum until the Flavian period (69-96), after demilitarisation. It became the civitas capital of the Cantiaci (Cantii) tribes. A large religious and administrative complex was soon established at its centre, consisting of forum and basilica, temple enclosure and theatre.

Roman Theatre at Canterbury (Durovernon)

Although nothing can be seen now the theatre was located in the area of present day Watling Street (different from the Roman street) and St. Margaret’s Street.

There were two phases of theatre building. The first was a simple theatre of sorts started here in Flavian times (AD69-96); it was probably an oval shaped gravel bank with wooden seating on top. The second theatre was estimated to have been built around AD 220, was one of the largest in Britain, accommodating approximately 3,000 people, similar in size to the theatre at St Albans (Verulamium). To protect the audience from bad weather, an awning would have been utilized. It was now a massive superstructure four storeys high and was now semi-circular with a diameter of some 70m.

The internal design of a Roman theatre was mostly derived from the Ancient Greeks. Some of the Romano-British theatres, such as the one in Colchester (Camulodunum), were built into a natural slope in the landscape, much like Greek theatres. However, the location selected for Canterbury’s theatre was very flat since the town’s core is in a valley. As a result, a free-standing structure was constructed.

Canterbury (Durovernon) Temple Complex

It is probable that there were several small temples in Roman Canterbury. However, the primary temple precinct appears to have been discovered northwest of the theatre, separated by a street. Gaul provides numerous examples of theatres and temples erected in close proximity, and the same holds true for the Romano-British towns of Colchester(Camulodunum) and St Albans (Verulamium). It is likely that there was a functional relationship between the two, and the theatre perhaps accommodated large crowds during religious festivals. A significant amount of Canterbury-made pottery was discovered in the temple precinct, which could have served as a marketplace. It is believed that the precinct was vast and encompassed at least three sides of a spacious covered walkway (portico). Within the precinct stood a splendid temple, lavishly adorned with exotic marble. Evidence indicates the presence of a fountain situated directly opposite the theatre, and there was at least one small shrine.

Canterbury (Durovernon) Basilica & Forum

The Basilica and Forum have not been located precisely but would have probably been located in area of the nearby High Street, White Horse Lane and Guildhall Street beneath the County Hotel and Fleur de Lys Hotel.

The Public Baths at Canterbury (Durovernon)

The Roman public baths complex at Canterbury is thought tostraddled the northern (High Street) end of present day St Margaret’s Street, lying beneath the general area of the Marlowe Shopping Arcade and the old Waterstones Bookshop on one side and St Margaret’s Church (now converted into The Canterbury Tales experience) on the other.

We think the first public baths were constructed around the beginning of the 2nd century AD and then underwent several periods of alteration during their lifetime.

References for Roman Canterbury (Durovernon)

  • The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd Ed., BCA, London, 1995) pp.189-207 & fig.88;
  • Roman and Medieval Canterbury – Historical Map and Guide by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1990);
  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
  • The Saxon Chronicle – AD 1 to AD 1154 translated by Reverend J. Ingram (1823);

Roman Roads near Roman Canterbury (Durovernon)

NNE (9) to Regvlbivm Watling Street: WNW (11) to Dvrolevvm (Ospringe, Kent) Watling Street: E (11) to Rvtvpiae (Richborough, Kent) SE (14) to Portvs Dvbris (Dover, Kent) S (14) to Portvs Lemanis (Lympne, Kent) Watling Street: WNW (11) to Ospringe S (14) to Portvs Lemanis Sarre Wall: ENE (14) to Westgate Possible Tidal Causeway or Ferry: WNW (9) to Tanatvs (Isle of Thanet)

Visiting Roman Canterbury (Durovernon)

Canterbury Roman Museum

The Canterbury Roman Museum in Canterbury, Kent, houses a Roman pavement which is a scheduled monument, in the remains of a Roman courtyard house which itself is a grade I listed building. The pavement was discovered after World War II bombing, and has been open to the public since 1946. The museum was established in 1961. It houses many excavated artifacts from Roman Canterbury, including the important late Roman silver hoard known as the Canterbury Treasure, together with reconstructions of the Roman town.

The City Wall

The city walls follow the 1.7 mile Roman Circuit, built in the late third century. The Roman wall would have had crenallations with a substantial bank with a walkway behind it. Although the wall you see today has been rebuilt several times you can identify the Roman parts by its water rounded boulders and large rounded flint pebbles (unlike Medieval knapped).

A considerable section of Roman city wall can still be seen where it was incorporated into the north wall of the old St Mary’s church in Northgate. To find it, you must turn into St Radigund’s Street off Northgate and stop at the small grassed garden area to your left. The section of Roman wall is then straight across the grass in front of you.

The Quenin Gate

The closed entrance of Quenin Gate in the mediaeval wall of Canterbury. The gate is made of Kent Greensand and Ragstone blocks (from a nearby site) supporting a red brick arch; it may just have been a postern gate but is wide enough to accommodate a wagon at just under 3m. wide, but no noticeable road is associated with it. It is located to the right of the Quenin Gate entrance to the war memorial, by the square tower.

Sites near Canterbury (Durovernum) Roman Fort