The Roman Town of Leicester
Mention the city of Leicester in the UK and what is the first thing that comes to mind? For some it will be its modern cultural diversity, for others its hosiery industry. More recently, the city has found itself firmly on the historical map with the rediscovery of the body of Richard III in 2012 and its controversial reburial.
Many people felt that siting the last resting place of a King of England in what they viewed as a provincial town was inappropriate. However, leicester may be small but it is by no means provincial in historical terms. It is one of the oldest citties in Britain, situated at a nexus of roads and territories that made it strategically important to a variety of peoples.
It was the Romans that first established that city. And Ratae Coritanorum as it was known, was anything but unimportant and unsophisticated.
Pre Roman Leicester
Before the Roman invasion, part of the land that became Leicester was occupied by the Coritani, the Celtic tribe whose lands encompassed Leicestershire and the surrounding counties.
This early iron age settlement occupied land on the east bank of the River Soar, on the outskirts of what was to become the modern city centre.Traces of roundhouses, pits and ditches have been found, but non of the features we associated with a town.
But Celtic Ratae was no rural backwater. High quality continental goods such as pottery and jewellery have been found proving that the settlement had close trade links with the continent and by definition the rest of Britain.
The Roman Fort
Post 43AD, the Romans established the earliest post conquest frontier in Britain between Exeter and Lincoln. This border was marked by a series of forts, linked by one of the earliest British Roman roads, Fosse way. One of those forts was situated at Leicester.
The exact position of the fort cannot be conclusively established. A defensive ditch and bank formation were excavated along the River Soar, 200m from the center of the old Roman town. Using pottery, the structure was dated to the early first century AD, making it contemporary with establishment of the Roman defences of the settlement. This, coupled with its alignment at right angles to the Fosse Way makes the feature a possible, if tenuous part of the fort.
How vital this fortification was to the frontier is debatable. It seems that defences may have been strengthened during the period of the Boudiccan revolt of 60-61AD although the town was never attacked.
Instead, Roman Leicester’s development was along more peaceful lines.
The Early Roman Town
Archaeology offers more evidence for the first Roman town. Excavations in the city center during redevelopments in the 1990s by Connor and Buckley show that a Roman style settlement began to develop in the early first century AD.
The city’s first buildings were unimpressive, consisting of timber and mud walls. Many followed the same alignments as the Iron Age buildings beneath them. Rough roads, however, were being constructed, dated by pottery found in their ditches to the earliest phase of the town’s history.
Despite this relatively unimpressive start, the fledgling town did have monumental public buildings, probably the first recognisably Roman structures in the town –and the first to be built of stone. Excavations on the periphery of the modern city center have revealed substantial walls which survive up to half a meter in height, complete with mortar floors and possible stylobates. This suggests an important civic feature, particularly as it would have been situated at the heart of the Roman town.
By the second century AD, Leicester had became the centre of administration or Civitas for the Coritani, The new tribal capital was renamed accordingly as Ratae Coritanorum.
By now, the town had a recognizable Roman form. Covering an area of 100 acres, it was laid out in classic grid pattern with metaled roads. According to ULAS excavations, these roads were well built and substantial. The Tripontium Road, the principle southern approach to Leicester was between nine and 11m wide surfaced in compacted pebbles and accompanied by drainage ditches.
Good roads were essential. The civitas of Leicester occupied a strategic position on the road system of Roman Britain. It was at a junction formed by three vital imperial routes: Fosse Way, Watling Street and Gartree Road which led to Colchester. These roads linked Leicester to many important centers of commerce. The town’s economy began to flourish as it traded local goods for luxury items from around the empire.
At the same time, a forum and basilica were constructed as well as public utilities such as bath houses and temples. Domestic timber buildings began to give way to stone ones. Many houses had floor heating, private bath suites and fashionable decor. High proportions of glass found in excavations also suggests many of the city’s homes had glazed windows.
Third Century Boom Time.
By the third century, Roman Leicester was at its peak. A substantial 4m high stone wall had been added to the earlier ditch and rampart defences. But this was not a sign of troubled times: far from it. Instead, Leicester’s walls were a symbol of its success. Blank suggests that these new fortifications went beyond the old city walls, effectively increasing the town’s limits. This suggests that the new defenses were built to accommodate a town which had outgrown its old walls.
New civic buildings constructed at this time empahsis this prosperity which was very much centred around trade. A macellum-the equivalent of a modern day indoor market or shopping centre was constructed just to the north of the forum. This was a place for locals to buy and sell not only locally produced but imported goods.
The Fourth Century: Continuity or Decline?
The late Roman period was an unsettled one as the Roman Empire began to decline. In Leicester, the city walls were now improved and strengthened yet again-this time, possibly in response to growing troubled times.
Although trade seems to have continued and there is even evidence of road maintenance (4th century pottery has been found amongst the fine gravel used to resurface roads) the fourth century marks the start of a decline.
Many of the town’s residential areas show signs of abandonment. Some became rubbish dumps. Others such as the Vine Street Villa were converted into workshops. Connor and Buckley’s excavations show how certain residential areas became used for sand and gravel quarrying. Tesserae and wall paintings found in layers relating to the period suggest high status buildings were left unrepaired and may even have been demolished.
Leicester’s life may well have continued safely behind its city walls. But it was in a diminishing state.
Blank, E, 1970, A Guide to Leicestershire Archaeology. Leicester Museums
Connor, A and Buckley, R 1999. Roman and Medieval Occupation in Causeway Lane, Leicester Leicester Archaeology Monographs no 5 1999: University of Leicester Archaeological Services
Morris, M, Buckley, R and Codd, M, 2011, Visions of Ancient Leicester: reconstructing Life in The Roman and Medieval Town from the Archaeology of the Highcross excavations. University of Leicester Archaeological Services.
Todd, M, 1991. The Coritani. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd.
University of Leicester Archaeological Services:
Examining Leicester’s Southern Suburb,
Sanvey Gate Excavations: The Town’s Defenses,
Merlin Works, Bath Lane, Leicester: The Roman Town Defences and a possible Public Baths Building,
Excavations at St Nicholas place