Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) Roman Fort

Legionary Fort

The city of Exeter is located at the south-western terminus of the Fosse Way at the head of the Exe Estuary in Devon, and has been permanently occupied for almost two thousand years, which means that the Roman occupation levels now lie many feet below some of the principal parts of the modern city. However, the Second World War created an ideal opportunity for archaeologists to study the early history of the town, when German bombs dropped on this important south coast city/port, penetrated down to the Roman occupation levels.

The first Roman military building to be so identified was the principia or regimental headquarters of a Neronian legionary fortress, which was built c.55-60AD and lay below the monumental administrative buildings of the later Flavian period. This H.Q. building lay at the centre of a 37 acre (15Ha) enclosure which is rather small for a legionary fortress, which were usually around 50 acres (20ha) in area, and it seem likely that the camp was never intended to house the full complement of the Second Augusta. This reduction in the legionary complement could be for two main reasons; either the legion had suffered losses of over a thousand men during the earlier campigns throughout southern England, or a number of cohorts were housed elsewhere, perhaps at Corinium in Gloucestershire or even on the Continent. The fact that the fortress was built on a reduced scale must prove that the Roman military did not expect these missing men to suddenly return.

It is probable that there was an auxiliary fort at Exeter itself, which remains to be found below the later legionary base.” (Webster, p.159)

Legio Secundae Augusta – The Second Augustan Legion

For a long time the passage in Ptolemy (vide supra) which placed Legio II Augusta within the lands of the Dumnonii was thought to be in error, whereby the ancient author had mistakenly copied the data for Isca Silurum in South Wales, where a legionary base of the Second was positively known to be situated. However, recent finds have confirmed the presence of this unit during early Neronian times.

The legion’s presence at Exeter is supported by the appearance of a stamped roofing-tile there, in a layer dated to the region of 60AD.” (Salway, pp.98/99)

A legionary bath-house was built inside the fortress sometime between 55-60AD and underwent renovation shortly afterwards c.60-65, but by c.68 (possibly as early as 66) the legion had transferred to a new fortress at Gloucester, whereupon the Exeter fortress was dismantled and the site abandoned.

Classical References to Isca Dumnoniorum

Next to these, but more to the west, are the Dumnoni,¹ whose towns are: Voliba [14*45 52?] Uxella [15*00 52?] Tamara [15*00 52?] Isca,² where is located Legio II Augusta³ [17*30 52?].

  1. The Dumnonii tribe occupied the area now contained within the modern counties of Devon and Cornwall in the extreme south-western part of England. Their neighbouring tribe in Somerset and Dorset were the Durotriges.
  2. The first of these Dumnonian towns remains unknown, but the others are Launceston in Cornwall and Plymouth in Devon respectively, the last-named town being, of course, Exeter.
  3. The Second Augustan Legion is also known to have been stationed at Gloucester and at Caerleon in Wales.

Exeter is listed in two routes of the late-second century Antonine Itinerary, however, it would appear that its inclusion in Iter XII is an error. The remaining route, Iter XV, the last in the British section, is entitled “the route from Calleva to Isca Dumnoniorum“, wherein Exeter appears as the southern terminus, named Isca Dumnoniorum and listed some 15 miles from Muridunum (nr. Honiton, Devon).

Exeter also appears in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, this time as the somewhat garbled entry Scadu Namorum (R&C#16), between the unknown entries Melamoni and Termonin, whose names are also probably corrupt.

The Civitas Capital of the Dumnonii

Around 75AD work on the town’s forum and basilica had begun on the site of the former principia and by the late-second century the town walls were built, 10 feet (3 metres) thick and 20 feet (6 metres) high, enclosing the same area as the earlier fortress. The town was in decline by the late-fourth century but one of the major public buildings continued to be occupied into the seventh, and it is known that a colony of “Britons” who lived together in a quarter of the old town were expelled by the Saxon king Aethelstan in the tenth century.

Other Roman Sites in the Area

The fortress was served by a contemporary port at Topsham on the Exe Estuary to the south-east, which continued to serve the later town and civitas capital.

There are a couple of Roman fortlets within sight of the fortress at Ide (SX8888) to the south-west and Stoke Hill (SX9295) to the north. A number of tentative Roman roads may also converge on Exeter; west from the forts at North Tawton and Okehampton, south from the natural harbours at Dartmouth and Salcombe, and possibly north from the fort at Tiverton.

References for Isca Dvmnoniorvm

  • The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd Ed., BCA, London, 1995) pp.335-343 & fig.151;
  • The Roman Invasion of Britain by Graham Webster (London 1993) p.159;
  • Roman Britain by Peter Salway (Oxford 1981) note, pp.98/99.

Roman Roads near Isca Dvmnoniorvm

Fosse Way: ENE (18) to Whitley Castle (Whitley Castle, Northumberland) SE (3) to Topsham (Devon) W (17) to North Tawton WNW (17) to Okehampton Fosse Way: ENE (18) to Mvridvnvm

Sites near Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) Roman Fort