St Albans (Verulamium) Roman Settlement

British Capital and Flavian Auxiliary Fort (AD 69–96)

Verulamium was a town in Roman Britain. It was sited southwest of the modern city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, England. A large portion of the Roman city remains unexcavated, being now park and agricultural land, though much has been built upon. The ancient Watling Street passed through the city. Much of the site and its environs is now classed as a scheduled monument.

The History of Verlamion – The Catuvellaunian Oppidum

The Catuvellauni tribe had first come to the attention of Rome during the expeditions of Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, during which time the Trinovantian king Mandubracius had petitioned Caesar to lend him aid in his fight against the Cassi warlord Vellaunus, who was the founder of the Catuvellauni people.

After Caesar had finally left Britain, Verlamion was one of several settlement centres of the Catuvellauni which thrived during the latter half of the first century BC, and very likely became the capital town under Tasciovanus, who issued gold coinage stamped with the mint-mark VER on the obverse, probably when he came to the throne around 20BC. This king, perhaps the son of the Cassi Vellaunus, used Verulamion as the base from which he renewed the aggression towards the Trinovantes. Judging from the coinage record, it seems that he even managed to capture Camulodunon for a short while towards the end of the 1st century BC, as he was to release another coin issue between 15-10BC with the mint mark CAM on the obverse. The Catuvellaunian occupation of Camulodunon was not to last long, however, before Tasciovanus was driven back to Verlamion once more. The status-quo between the two tribes was to last for the next twenty years.

The destruction of three Roman Legions in the Teutoberger forest by Arminius in 9AD gave the Catuvellaunian prince Cunobelin the impetus to finally invade the territories of the Trinovantes and to recapture their capital Camulodunon. Cunobelin was allowed to govern the annexed kingdom of the Trinovantes whilst his ageing father continued to govern the Catuvellaunian heartlands from Verlamion.

Following death of king Tasciovanus c.10AD, and the accession of Cunobelin, it was decided that the centre of Catuvellaunian government was to be moved from their old capital to a new one based in the Trinovantian oppidum, primarily because Camulodunon was much better situated than Verlamion with regard to overseas communication. It would appear, however, that not all of the Catuvellaunian nobility removed themselves from Verlamion, and due to their presence and influence the town continued to expand and develop, becoming the seat of Cunobelin’s son, Togodumnus, around 40AD.

The Seat of Prince Togodumnus

The princes Togodumnus and Caratacus had removed themselves from the pro-Roman court of their father at Camulodunon around 40AD, and established themselves at the old Catuvellaunian seat in Verlamion. Here they planned their joint campaigns to remove all pro-Roman opponents from the British Isles; the older brother Togodumnus was to remain at Verlamion in the homelands, and was to provide his younger brother Caratacus with men and supplies for his campaign against the Atrebates. Because their father Cunobelin was still alive in Camulodunon, while his brother Caratacus was able to issue coin in the newly-conquered territories in the south-west, Togodumnus was restricted in his role as prince-regent and was unable to issue coinage of his own from Verulamion.

Following the Roman invasion of Cantium and the subsequent defeat of separate British forces under the personal command of Caratacus and Togodumnus, the advance was halted at the oppidum at Durovernon on the River Medway. The battle which subsequently developed lasted two days – a rare occurrence in ancient warfare – during which Togodumnus was killed. The death of this prince hit the people of the lower Thames valley very hard, and after the Roman advance to the Thames, no further resistance seems to have been offered, until the march upon Camulodunon under the personal command of the emperor Claudius.

Razed During The Revolt of Boudicca

Verlamion was granted the rank of a municipium in 50AD, which conferred either Latin, or full Roman rights on the inhabitants, depending on the charter drawn up by Rome. It is very likely that the main reason why the town was granted this honour at such an early date was in reward for the tribes early surrender to the Roman army following the death of Togodumnus. Around 55AD the settlement’s first defensive system was constructed, consisting of a large bank and ditch which enclosed an area of 119 acres (48 hectares).

These town defences were soon to prove inadequate, however, for during the emperorship of Nero, king Prasutagus of the neighbouring Iceni tribe died, and the subsequent depredations of the Icenian homelands by the procurator of Britain, Decianus Catus, was to foment rebellion within the otherwise peaceful client-kingdom in East-Anglia: –

While this sort of child’s play was going on at Rome, a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was almost lost to Rome. …

(Cassius Dio History of Rome LXII.i; epitome of Zonaras.)

The above passage is among the most famous in early British history, but Dio tends to provide his audience with plenty of sensationalism and little historic detail; for instance, he does not even mention the names of the towns sacked and pillaged, this is left for the historian Cornelius Tacitus:

… A similar catastrophe was reserved for the municipality of Verulamium; as the natives, with their delight in plunder and their distaste for exertion, left the forts and garrison-posts to one side, and made for the point which offered the richest material for the pillager and was unsafe for a defending force. …” (Tacitus Histories XIV.xxxiii)

The early Roman town was built mainly out of timber, with wattle and daub walls, and it is very likely that every single standing structure was razed to the ground during the looting frenzy described above by Tacitus.

Vervlamivm Catvvellorvm

Verulamium in the Classical Geographies

The town is mentioned in Geography of Ptolemy in the section following the Coritani:

Next are the Catuvellauni, among whom are the towns: Salinae¹ 20*45 55? (and) Urolanium 19*20 55? …

  1. The Catuvellaunian town Salinae is still unidentified.

St. Albans also occurs on three routes in the Antonine Itinerary: in the middle of Iter II it appears as Verolamio, 12 miles from Dvrocobrivis (Dunstable, Bedfordshire) and 9 miles from Svlloniacis (Brockley Hill, Greater London); it also occurs at the beginning of Iter VI as Verolami and at the end of Iter VIII as Verolamo, in both cases 21 miles from Londinivm (London, Greater London) and again, 12 miles from Dunstable.

The name Virolanium is also mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmology (R&C#96), between the duplicated entry Lactodvrvm (Towcester, Northamptonshire) and Londinivm Avgvsta (London, Greater London).

Epigraphic Evidence From Saint Alban’s

Despite the long settlement history of Verulamium, there remains little evidence of the Roman occupancy period in the form of stone inscriptions. There are only eight entries from St. Albans in the original Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB), and all are illegible. The only inscription of any worth is RIB 229.a, fragmentary inscription from the forum, which is rendered below:

RIB 3123 - Dedication slab to Titus

To the Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus, son of the deified Vespasian, Pontifex Maximus, in the 9th year of tribunician power, acclaimed Emperor 15 times, consul for the 7th time, designated for the 8th time, censor, father of his country and to the Caesar Domitian, son of the deified Vespasian, consul for the 6th time, designated for the 7th time, member of all the priestly colleges when Gnaeus Julius Agricola was imperial propraetorian legate…

This fragmentary inscription was recovered from the forum at Verulamium, which has been alternately dated 79AD or 81, and may be taken as evidence that Agricola supported a civil advancement scheme, which he probably supervised during the winter seasons.

Vespasian and Titus both bore the cognomen Vespasianus, but since it occurs twice in line 1 the inscription cannot belong to their joint-reign (71–79): 1 could not contain Vespasian’s name and titles, and the name of Titus as well. Instead, the inscription must belong to the reign of Titus as sole emperor (23 June 79–13 September 81).

1–4.  Lines 1 and 2 carry the name and titles of Titus, and the erased lines, 3 and 4, which can still be read in part, carried the name and titles of his brother Domitian. Titus is described as consul designate, which he was in 79 and 81, but not in 80. The exact restoration of lines 1–4 depends on which year is chosen, whether 79 (after 1 July, when he became TR P VIIII) or 81 (before the news of his death on 13 September), but archaeologically and epigraphically this choice cannot be made. 79 is preferred because of the coincidence with Tacitus, Agricola 21, which dates Agricola’s encouragement of temples, fora and private houses, to his second winter (almost certainly 79/80), but this is not decisive. Titus in 79 (from 1 July) was TR P VIIII, IMP XV, COS VII DESIG VIII; in 81 he was TR P X and XI, IMP XV COS VIII DESIG VIIII. Domitian in 79 was COS VI DESIG VII, and in 81 COS VII DESIG VIII (presumably, since he was COS VIII in 82). The surviving fragments do not allow us to decide exactly how the various titles were abbreviated, or whether the form VIIII or IX was used, so there are too many variables for the question to be decided by reconstruction drawings. No fragment indicates the case of the names of Titus and Domitian, but the dative is much the most likely, the inscription being conceived as a dedication of the forum and its buildings to the Emperor by the town of Verulamium. The status of the town, whether civitas or municipium (see below), is disputed, and this inscription is too fragmentary to resolve the question. 5.  Contains the name and title of Agricola, probably as an ablative absolute, although a preposition (SVB or PER) is possible. 6.  Probably named the dedicator(s), and referred perhaps to the building(s) dedicated, but fragments (c) and (d) are inconclusive. In (c), the letters VE and the vertical stroke can be read as either VER or VEL, part of either [civitas Catu]vel[launorum] or [municipium] Ver[ulamium] (Frere 1967). The second is more likely, if we press Tacitus’ reference to the destruction of Verulamium in 61: eadem clades municipio Verulamio fuit (Ann. xiv 33). His language should be specific, since he has just noted that London was not a colonia. Fragment (d) can be located towards the end of 6, in view of its place in Agricola’s titulature (5). The letters NATA suggest the past participle passive of a first-conjugation verb (e.g. ornata), but the case-ending is not necessarily complete.

The Temples of Verulamium

Romano-British Temple – Verulamium 1

This square temple lies in a temenos behind the theatre within the town. The portico measured 53 feet square, the cella 24 feet square, all walls a uniform 2½ feet thick. The temple faced north-east and was originally built c.90AD. A temenos was added soon afterwards and rebuilt around the turn of the 4th century at the same time as annexes were added to the central temple; this work is thought to be contemporary with the inauguration of the theatre. The temenos burned down and was replaced around the turn of the 5th century but was to fall into disuse later that century. (Type Ia or Ib, possibly IIa/b)

Irregular Temple – Verulamium 2

One of the first stone buildings in Verulamium, this temple occupied a prominent position just inside the south gateway of the city, where its facade would have been the first thing to greet the eyes of any travellers from Londinium. It has a truncated triangular shape due entirely to its location at the junction of two side-streets, with a street to the rear of the building linking them. The side walls are each 97 ft. long, the back wall 83 ft. wide, narrowing to 31 ft. wide at the front. The temple was approached from its apex, where one entered a trapezoidal gravel courtyard with paved and roofed colonnades at the entrance and along the sides. The column bases found here were about 2 ft. wide, which would indicate a column-height of around 16 ft. At the rear of the court three large archways led into a roofed cross-hall containing three rooms, two in each of the rear corners and another, the cella, set in the centre of the floor. This central sanctuary contained a raised rectangular platform towards its rear which supported a cult statue, the two corner sanctuaries each contained a central brick-lined tank, about 3 ft. square and 1 ft. deep, both containing evidence of burning, with burnt pine cones in the western one. The external walls of the temple was decorated bright crimson.

Classical Temple – Verulamium 3

This temple was built onto the southern end of the south-west side of the forum, after much of the area had been damaged by fire during Antonine times. It opened out into the forum colonnade and it is thought that the roof of the temple was extended across this peristyle corridor and rested on columns set upon a massive stone base on the edge of the forum proper. The temple podium measured 34½ ft. wide by 63¾ ft. in length. A circular plinth at the south-west end about 4 ft. 8 ins. in height and 20 ft. in diameter, was accommodated in a semi-circular apse in the rear wall and protruded out into the cella of the temple; this no-doubt housed the cult statue of the deity. The side walls are 7½ ft. thick, which suggests a tall building, perhaps with a vaulted ceiling. In support of this, curved sections of painted plaster were recovered during excavation, and the central part of the coarse, geometrically-patterned mosaic floor had been damaged by stones falling from directly above.

Classical Temple – Verulamium 4

Situated on the south-west side of the Antonine forum at the western end, the main part of this massive building had walls 9 ft. thick, which must have supported a vaulted roof and measured about 52 ft. wide by about 102 ft. in length; a squarely-built apse protruded a further 27 ft. at the rear. The outside of the building was decorated with large, semi-engaged columns, five down each side, with another two at the rear, set to either side of the apse. The facade of the temple, like its southern counterpart, Temple 3, rested on a large plinth on the edge of the forum. The temple consists of three distinct parts: the front part of the main temple formed a square atrium opening out onto the forum between two columns, with another set of colums at the rear, all of which appear decorative rather than load-bearing; the rear of main temple building contained a large, square area which appears to have been raised about 10 ft. above the floor of the atrium on a series of interconnected box-like cellars; protruding from the back of the temple was an apse with walls only 3 ft. thick, consisting of two rooms, a rectangular room about 41 ft. by 17 ft. set along the back wall of the temple and accessed by a 12 ft. wide opening in the rear-wall of the temple proper, behind which was a small sanctuary, its internal mesurements just 7 ft. deep by 14 ft. wide, which must have housed the altar or a cult statue.

Possible Apsidal Temple – Verulamium 5

In insula xxviii there is a wealthy town-house, beneath which was found an underground passageway accessed via a ramp leading down from street-level. The ramp teminates in a cross-corridor with a short dead-end passage on the left and a longer the corridor to the right, which sported three niches along its right-hand wall and terminated at the south end of another long corridor with an apse at its northern end. It is though that this underground feature perhaps represents some sort of shrine.

Verulamium – The Romano-British Municipium

Romano-British Temple 1 Irregular Temple 2 Classical Temple 3 Classical Temple 4

Verulamium was almost completely destroyed in the revolt of Boudicca during the winter of 60/61AD, but was soon to recover from the predations of the Icenian rebels, and quickly rebuilt. The town soon boasted a macellum and several large town houses, built into a typical Roman grid-like pattern of streets, which was probably first laid out before 49AD. By 79AD the town’s first monumental forum and basilica was completed, and by the early second century the town had expanded to such a degree that the first century defenses had to be removed in many places to allow communication between the extra-mural parts of the settlement.

Around 155AD a fire destroyed almost 52 acres (21 hectares) of the town, but the new settlement that arose from its ruins was twice the size of the old one, with more stone than timber used in its construction. This new city had two monumental arches, one at either end of Watling Street within the town walls, and a small theatre which was built in the insula next to the forum and basilica. The half-demolished Claudian defences were completely razed at this time, to be replaced by a massive bank and an enormous ditch which surrounded the entire town, pierced by monumental twin-arched gates on all four sides. Over the next two centuries the town established itself as a wealthy market centre, perhaps the most important in Roman Britain, with comfortable houses, fine mosaics, Italian marble and a piped water supply.

By the fourth century, Verulamium was the third-largest city of Roman Britain after Londinium (London) and Corinium (Cirencester). By the mid-4th century, the theatre had become a rubbish dump, and by 430AD the town had fallen into decline.

Saint Alban

St. Alban was allegedly the earliest Christian martyr in Britain. According to tradition Alban was a citizen of Verulamium who sheltered a Christian priest during a time of persecution and was converted to Christianity by him. When the authorities came to arrest the fugitive, Alban offered himself up instead. Under interogation and torture Alban refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and was executed for blasphemy. … Three widely differing dates have been proposed: 208-11, 251-59, and 303-11. … Excavation has shown that the late-Roman cemetery of Verulamium was on a hill outside the town, which later became the site of St. Albans abbey and in due course the focus of the modern town of St. Albans: …” (Fletcher 1989)

References for Vervlamivm [catvvellorvm]

  • The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd Ed., BCA, London, 1995) pp.214-241 & fig.99;
  • Who’s Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Fletcher (London 1989);
  • The Verulamium (1960) Hoard of ‘Barbarous Radiates’ by Harold B. Mattingly in Britannia ii (1971) pp.196-199;
  • Britain in the Roman Empire by Joan Liversidge (London 1968);
  • 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);
  • Historiarium of Cornelius Tacitus translated by C.H. Moore (Loeb, Harvard, 1925);
  • ??????? ?????? by Cassius Dio translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb, Harvard, 1914).

Map References for Vervlamivm [catvvellorvm]

NGRef: TL 134 072 OSMap: LR166

Roman Roads near Vervlamivm [catvvellorvm]

Itinera II, VI & VIII: Watling Street: NW (9) to Dvrocobrivis (Dunstable, Bedfordshire) WNW (12) to North Chvrch (Hertfordshire) Itinera II, VI & VIII: Watling Street: SSE (8) to Svlloniacis NE (8) to Welwyn (Hertfordshire)

Sites near St Albans (Verulamium) Roman Settlement