20th October 2014

History of Leicester Part 2

The Romans in Leicester

By Trevor Locke


It was after the Iron Age and the era of Roman settlement that we saw the earliest formation of Leicester as a place of continuous human settlement. Many experts believe that there was already a community in place, on the banks of the river Soar, by the time the first Roman legions arrived.
Roman contact with the early people living in the British Isles goes back long before the invasion of 43 AD. It was during the second century BC that Roman traders crossed the channel and began to trade with the people living in, what we now call, England. They traded commodities such as metals and grain, wine, jewellery and possibly weapons. Much of this would have been transported by boats using coastal routes and rivers that lead to major settlements. Before the Romans there were no made-up roads, only tracks that were rough and followed the routes made by herds of wild animals. Travel by water was often the easiest and quickest way to get around. The Romans cut canals and drainage ditches such as Fosse and Raw Dykes.) One of the oldest trackways known to exist in pre-historic Britain was The Ridge Way, which ran which ran from Wiltshire to the River Thames. About 87 miles in length, it is thought to have been used for some five thousands years. It had a series of Hill Forts, used to defend it. It was a trail that was not made up in any way or maintained. It often followed a route along high ground, on the ridges of hills. Similarly the Icknield Way, ran for about 100 miles from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk (in today’s language – such areas did not exist in pre-history.) The Sweet track in the Glastonbury fens, Somerset, is believed to be the oldest purpose built road in the world and has been dated to the 3800s BC. The Fosse Way was constructed by The Romans in the first century and it possible that they followed the routes of pre-historic trackways. The most important prehistoric route through the territory of the Coritani was the Jurassic Way.
People were mainly organised into tribes and the Romans would have visited them to negotiate diplomatic agreements well as to trade. There is evidence that the Romans visited Britain and had relationships with the Iron age tribes here, particularly in the south of the country. Even before the Romans came here, England was known for its rich farmland and agricultural produce – which might well have been one of the reasons why the Roman Empire wanted to overrun and rule it. Various areas of England also provided metal ores such as tin and iron. The East Midlands provided a good deal of minerals, including lead from Derbyshire and Iron, which had been mined before the Roman invasion particularly in Lincolnshire, Rutland  and adjacent parts of Leicestershire (Todd 1973). Iron production was a significant part of Roman industry in the East Midlands. A large number of sites have been discovered in the area. This included all stages of production, from ore extraction through to the making of iron implements [3]. The evidence shows the existence of mining, smelting and smithing. In fact the East Midlands was the third most important area for iron production in Britain. Much of the iron deposits occurred on the Jurassic Ridge (the Jurassic Limestone belt across the east Midlands.) Evidence of bronze and iron age metal working has been discovered at Beacon Hill. Metal working moulds were found at Breedon on the Hill and Ketton.
The quarrying of stone was another aspect of Roman industry, given the large amount of building construction that went on. The quarrying and working of stone flourished in the second century. Various types of stone found in Leicestershire provided building stones and even coffins in many parts of Britain. The Romans made good use of the limestone of the Jurassic Ridge and the volcanic rocks found in Charnwood. They quarried Granite at Enderby, Groby, Mount Sorrell and Markfield to provide stones for the buildings (Baths, Forum and walls) in Leicester. They also used slate from Swithland. Stone was also used by Cortianian craftsmen to fashion statues and carvings, probably at workshops in Leicester and Lincoln  (Todd, 1973). It is likely that stone would have been transported by water rather than by road ways, as far as possible.

Leicester before the Romans arrived.

Leicester was already settled in the Iron age. There were iron age hill forts at Beacon Hill, Burrough Hill, Breedon on the Hill and Ratby (Clay, 1988). Archaeological finds show that people were living on the banks of the Soar early in the first century AD. Todd (1973) argues that pre-Roman Ratae may presumably have been an extensive and disarticulated scatter of huts. Even so, it was an important centre within the territory of the Coritani.  The Settlement at Leicester probably evolved from a small site originating about 50 BC, which over the next hundred years, grew to an area of about forty acres along the eastern side of the River Soar (Clay, 1988). Other archaeological sites give us a clue as what the area was like around Ratae, prior to the Roman invasion.
In the year 2000, an open air ritual site was discovered in Hallaton in East Leicestershire. It was one of the most important discoveries in recent years from the Iron Age and Early Roman Britain. Over 5,000 Iron age and Roman coins were found on the site. Most were made locally and issued in about 20 to 50 AD. These coins were probably made by members of the Corieltavi tribe. The Hallaton Hoard included one of the oldest Roman coins to be found in Britain. It was dated to around 211 BC – long before the Roman invasion. The coin is thought to have been minted in Rome.
In 2014, a hoard of Roman and late Iron Age coins was found in Dovedale, in the Peak District, discovered in a cave where they had lain there for over two thousand years.  According to the BBC report, ‘Archaeologists discovered 26 coins, including three Roman coins which pre-date the invasion of Britain in AD43, and 20 other gold and silver pieces which are Late Iron Age and thought to belong to the Corieltavi tribe.’ In 2012 ten gold coins were discovered on farmland in Peatling Magna, near Market Harborough. They are thought to have been made in Europe between 60 and 50 BC. This suggests that there was contact between people in this area and those on the continent of Europe. When the Roman army arrived in Leicester, local people would already have been trading with people in Europe. People in Leicester were producing coins in the late Iron age; these were Corieltauvian coins (Clay, 1988).
The discovery of Roman coins in Leicester and Leicestershire, which pre-dates the invasion of AD 43, suggests that the area was important as a centre of trade between the British Isles and Europe. Local people would have been familiar with the Romans before the conquest of the country during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Prior to the Roman invasion, Leicester had become one of the most important settlements in the Midlands.
Britain enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar’s expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age [2].
Late Iron age life revolved around farming. The area around Leicester would have been divided into fields, for growing crops or providing pasture for animals. At this time we know that two types of wheat were grown: Emmer and Spelt. These varieties generated high yields from Iron age farming methods, so much so that some of it was exported to Europe. Iron age farmers had domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep. Leicester was also located near to woodlands that provided timber for building and branches for fuel. Clay maintains that up to 200 trees would have been needed for the construction of a single Iron age roundhouse. The most common type of building that would have been found in pre-Roman Leicester was the circular roundhouse, constructed from wood, with walls made of wattle and daub and a roof made of thatch (Clay, 1988). Apart from these dwelling houses, people also built structures to house their animals, barns for storage and sometimes separate cooking areas.

The origins of Roman Leicester.

Prior to the Roman Invasion of AD 43, the settlement on the banks of the Soar seems to have become an important centre for the Coritani tribe (Corieltavi or Corieltavauri).  They would have had trading connections with south east Britain and beyond, perhaps extending into other parts of Europe.

Excavations have revealed pottery from France, Italy and southern Spain in Iron age tribal settlements. The Coritani ranged across what is now Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and parts of South Yorkshire. They were a collection of like-minded people who shared the same outlook and social practices. Ratae was the capital  town (civitas) of the tribe; the Romans called it Ratae Coritanorum (in effect what we would today call the local authority.)  The name Ratae is though to be Celtic in origin. Excavations at the Jewry Wall site found pottery and some bronze objects from the Iron age and which are believed to have associated with the Coritani tribe, although this is far from certain (Todd, 1973). Discoveries of late Iron age pottery in Leicester indicates a considerable time-spread of occupation (Whitwell, 1982). There is archaeological evidence that the Roman town of Ratae was built on a site that had Iron age origins and which might well have been a regional centre for the Coritani tribe. The finds date from the first century. Todd refers to ‘Iron Age C’  pottery and to coins dating from this period. The picture that emerges is that there was a tribal settlement on the Soar in the late Iron age and that the Coritani was the principal people who administered the region surrounding the site of present-day Leicester. Todd (1973) argues that the boundaries of the Coritani tribe were not clearly defined.
Prior to the occupation of the Romans, there was little or no written accounts of the Coritani, other than inscriptions on coins and the evidence offered by other artefacts. The writer Claudius Ptolemy (circa AD 90 to circa 168) referred to them in his Geographia. In this he compiled all that was known about the world at the time of the Roman Empire. His work was often based on sources derived from earlier writers. He mentions the Coritani and believed them to be based at Lindon (Lincoln) and Rhage (Ratae.) A Roman source – the Antonine Itinerary –  contains reference to the region occupied by the Coritani and refers to Ratae as the tribal capital.

The Roman Invasion

Four legions of the Roman army probably landed in Kent in 43 AD (some people believe, or we might say the south coast if we do not want to be so specific.) Within a matter of weeks they had seized the important capital of Camulodunum (the place where Colchester now stands) and the legions founded their base there, in the 40s,  on the site of the Celtic stronghold.  During the year they rapidly overran the southern areas and the tribes put up little resistance. Legion XIV came from Colchester along the new roads arriving at the Fosse Way near to Ratae [1]. The Roman army reached the area of the Coritani in the years immediately after 43 AD (Liddle, 1982).

Todd (1973) argues that  the Coritani do not figure in the surviving Roman accounts of the occupation of Britain between AD 43 and about AD 70 (based on studies between 1965 and 1970.)  There is no evidence of how they reacted to the Roman invaders. Within one or two years of the invasion, most of the territory of the Coritani was under Roman rule. The Romans set up a network of forts based on the routes of Ermine Street and the Fosse Way. The eastern part of England was occupied by the ninth legion (Legio IX Hispana) together with their auxiliary troops. In the early phase of their campaign they established marching camps. The Legio IX Hispana was sent north towards Lincoln (Latin: Lindum Colonia) and within four years of the invasion it is likely that an area south of a line from the Humber to the Severn estuary was under Roman control. Legio XIV might have been joined by IX and the two legions might have worked together on the conquest of the Coritani (Whitwell 1982).

That this line is followed by the Roman road of the Fosse Way has led many historians to debate the route’s role as a convenient frontier during the early occupation. It is more likely that the border between Roman and Iron Age Britain was less direct and more mutable during this period however. [4] Forts were constructed to house troops during the winter or as temporary bases. These were often positioned at river crossings or road junctions and the general pattern that we see from where they are positioned suggests that one was constructed on the banks of the Soar where the road crossed the river from west to east. A forty foot ditch was found on land adjacent to the Soar, in which first century Samian pottery was found (Whitwell, 1982). At least two ditches of probably military origin have been found. A V-shaped ditch, steeper on the north face than the south, was discovered; pottery from the filling suggested that it was disused after about 65 AD. Metalwork from the town suggests both legionaries and auxiliaries were present (Liddle, 1982). There may be credible evidence that the Roman forts were sited away from the main part of the Coritani settlement.
Some kind of post, possibly a fort was established, at Ratae,  by Legion XIV (they were withdrawn in 66 or 67 but sent back in about 69). A second fort was constructed between 55 and 65 AD. The army was camped here during the Claudio-Neronian period and quite possible constructed a fort not long after their arrival. The Romans were aware of the tactical importance of Leicester. It was situated in the heart of the country where roads converged, and with an important river flowing through it. It is believed by archaeologists that a Roman military base (or fort) was established on the eastern bank of the Soar, just below the native Iron Age settlement, and became the new home of the conquering Legion XIV. The fort housed about 500 men and was surrounded by a ditch and earthen rampart. It was built to guard the intersection of two of Britain’s greatest Roman roads – Fosse Way and Gartree Road – at the river crossing. With the arrival of the Roman army, came money. Traders and other settlers gathered near the fort. A minor civilian settlement such as this was called a vicus. [1]
It seems likely that the Roman army conquered much of southern Britain and the Midlands within about 20 years. Major campaigns continued until around 83 AD, including responding to the revolt lead by Boudicca in 60 – 61.  The invasion of 43 was under the emperor Claudius who reigned from 41 – 54. The Romans’ main interest in the British Isles would have been, arguably, metals and grain. The Roman armies were under the rule of Governors.  Aulus Plautius was the first governor of Britannia from 43 to 47. Scapula disarmed the Britons in 47. Aulus Didius Gallus was governor from 52 to 57 and Quintus Veranius from 57 to his death in 58.
The military garrison is unlikely to have remained at Leicester for long after 70 AD, argued Todd (1873) and at around this time the civitas Coritanorum would have become an independent administrative unit.  The date at which the Roman armies left Rate is unclear; Whitwell (1982) believes that evidence from the excavation of forts suggests it would have been around 80 AD. Although the legions left, a civil administration was left in place. The civitas was somewhat similar to our present-day county council. The whole country was divided into civitates. Later the word civitas became synonymous with the word city.

Ratae as an important town

According to one source

Leicester was unaffected by the Boudicca uprising however, and between AD 71 and AD 85, the province more than doubled in size. But in AD 83, the Roman occupation began to evolve. The Roman army in Britain was considerably weakened by a sudden recall of men to the continent. By AD 92, Britain had lost its major Roman legions. The Leicester forts were evacuated and the town was no longer a military stronghold. But it remained under Roman rule. As the soldiers departed, the forts were dismantled and land handed over to civilian use. The vicus (the civilian settlement outside the walls of the fort)  of Leicester was granted the power of local legislation and became a civitas capital of Britain. That meant it was an administrative centre of a tribal territory – in effect, the capital of the East Midlands. [1]

If this account is credible it would suggest, I would argue, that there was little resistance to the Romans by the Coritani; in fact the development of Leicester as an important civic centre of government suggests that the people who were there when the Romans arrived decided to get on with them rather than fight them. It is possible that these members of the Coritani had already traded with the Romans. In other parts of Britain there was struggle against Roman rule and that would have taken many of the soldiers away from Ratae.

The Roman settlement at Leicester.

The very name Ratae Corieltauvorum gives us a clue to how people responded to Roman occupation.  Ratae means ‘ramparts’ and harks back to the Iron age fort that probably stood on the northern banks of the Soar. Corieltauvorum refers to the Coritani tribe for whom the settlement was their civitas or centre for government. A similar situation could be found in Colchester where an iron age fort became the base for the Roman army.

Todd (1973) argues that the withdrawal of military garrisons from the tribal territory in the last first century implies that government of the region was now formally handed over to tribal authority of the municipal civitas.  In the last years of the first century, Leicester (or Ratae) became the hub or the tribal organisation, its principal meeting place and where its records were kept.  The more wealthy and influential members of the Coritani lived there. Later in the Roman period, the town appears to have been granted the status of a municipia. This indicates that the inhabitants had become thoroughly Romanised and some of its residents would have become Roman citizens.
The Roman settlement is thought to have been a rectangular area, surrounded with perimeter fortifications, in which there were four gates. There is doubt about whether the river side of the enclosure was walled, like the rest. Because the river itself offered a natural barrier, it is thought that the walls on this side were not as extensive as the rest. The surrounding walls began to be demolished in the fifteenth century as suburbs grew up.
The Fosse Way was an important Roman Road linking the fortresses of Exeter and Lincoln. This passed near to Ratae Corieltauvorum. Following the Roman invasion, the Fosse Way marked the western frontier of the Roman territory. The current A46 follows the path of the Fosse Way between Lincoln and Leicester. Nearing the city, it’s route is now marked by Melton Road and Belgrave Road. It would have terminated roughly at the position of Clock Tower and continued along the line of the present Narborough Road.

As the invading legions pushed northwards, it is thought they would have crossed the Soar near to the present West Bridge. This is likely because that was the point at which prehistoric routes would have crossed over the river, at a point which would have offered a suitable crossing, based on the shallowness of the water and the lie of its banks.
Early in the second century, the town was built up using a grid pattern. The streets defining the insula appear to have been laid out at the end of the first century (Whitwell, 1982). The square blocks resulting from the grid pattern were known as insulae.   It was around 130 to 140 AD that the forum was constructed (Whitwell, 1982). The basilica and baths were constructed between 150 and 160 (around 145 according to Liddle), the ruins of which can now been seen at the ‘Jewry Wall’ site.  Substantial town houses were also built, having central heating, floors of fine mosaics and painted walls.  There was also a temple dedicated to the god Mithras (there were other temples.)

This signifies that Ratae was an important seat of government and continued to be so right into the fourth century by which time many of the local inhabitants had become Romanised. It is likely that the civitas Coritanorum was recognised by the late first century with Ratae as its administrative capital (Whitwell, 1982). A Forum was constructed, from around 120,  immediately east of the public baths. The Forum had a central courtyard surrounded by rooms and on the northern side there was a Basilica. There were shops and a great Hall. The whole structure might have been completed by 130 to 140 (Todd, 1973.) There was a commercial area known as the marcellum (built in around 180 AD) which would have been a feature of many Roman towns of this time. It is thought likely that the market accommodated a variety of markets and trades with goods being traded from many parts of Europe. In Vine Street there were villas that had central heating system called hypocausts. One fine villa started life as a row of houses that fronted on to the junction of two streets.  These were then linked together and extended and had corridors that surrounded a central court yard.
The surviving remains (still above ground) is known as the Jewry Wall  part of the baths complex constructed by the Romans.  The complex includes a large basilica an exercise hall and the bath houses. The remains that can be seen today were the dividing wall between these two. It contains two entrances between the baths and the exercise hall.  There was rooms for cold bathing and possibly containing plunge pools. There were warmer rooms and rooms for hot bathing.  Much of what we know about the plan of the structure is derived from similar sites, many of which have been excavated in other parts of the country, particular at Bath. The site was extensively robbed of its stone, some of which was used to build the nearby church of St. Nicholas and some taken by incoming Saxons for the construction of their buildings.
After the end of Roman occupation, as the great Roman buildings fell into ruin, their stone was used to build new structures, such as the church of St. Nicholas. The regular pattern of the Roman streets began to be overlaid by the buildings of later centuries as ground level rose several feet above what would have the level of the original Roman town. I recently looked at research into the Roman settlement of Ratae on the banks of the river Soar. The researchers drew a cross section showing how the level of occupation in Roman times was very substantially lower than the current surface. The Roman surface was several metres below the current day surface. This begins to explain why archaeologists have to dig down to find earlier remains of settlements. In their report the researchers put forward a number of reasons why the level has increased. They postulated that generations of building was one of the factors why deposition raised the level.  Many other factors can be guessed. Whilst the course of the river has not changed that much in 2000 years (at this particular location) its contours have. The flow of the river changed a lot over that time. Flooding might also have deposited some layers, although Ratae was sited on a ridge over looking the river, so alluvial deposits cannot be a major factor. Deposition of waste and rubbish over centuries of occupation might well have contribution to the changes we see in surface level.

The decline of the Roman period.

Roman influence began to decline in the late fourth and fifth centuries. Alterations were made to the defences of Roman towns, including the construction of towers and ditches. This was probably in response to increasing raids by tribes from Europe.

Defended towns were more able to withstand attack but the open settlements were far more vulnerable and many of them declined. The production of pottery continued even after 400, as did metal working, which had become well established during the Romano-British period. There was a large cemetery at Thurmaston with graves dating from the middle of the fifth century. The positioning of Anglo-Saxon burials close to those of Romans is evidence for foederati. (Whitwell, 1982).  Foederati were nations or tribes that provided Rome with military service in exchange for various benefits.
These were cremation burials, indicating Anglo-Saxon influences. The Saxon-type burials might have been those of the soldiers that were brought to the country as part of the army in the last fourth century. These people came from communities in Europe that had been federated to the Empire. The Roman villas began to be disused after the 4th c. Anglo-Saxon pottery has been found at some villa sites but this might indicate that the buildings were used only temporarily and were not maintained once their Roman occupants had left. The incoming Anglo-Saxons took over the farms but built their own residences on new sites rather than using the villas left behind by the Romans. It is likely that the land that used to belong to the villas continued to be farmed. Despite increasing archaeological evidence of early Anglo-Saxon farming, the relationship between the old Roman farms and those of the incoming Saxons is far from clear.

Leicester as a microcosm of England.

Many historians have viewed Leicester as being a microcosm of England – throughout its history. There is much about the place that reflects and echoes what was happening in the rest of the country. Leicester is in the centre of England and in its way of life, it activities and people, it is typical of middle England. The things that happened in the rest of England also happened in Leicester. The history of Leicester reflects and contains pretty much everything that happened in the rest of the country. This is a justification (if any were needed) for the study of Leicester’s past. Of course the same could be said for many other long-established English towns but Leicester’s position in the centre of the country and its two thousands years of human habitation make it a mirror of English life.
Next:  Coming up – Leicester and the Anglo-Saxons.


[1] The website
[2] Wikipedia.
[3] Roman iron production in Britain:: technological and socio-economic landscape development along the Jurassic Ridge, British Archaeological Reports,  380, 2004.

Clay, Patrick, 1985, Excavations in Bath Lane, Leicester, Leicestershire Museums, Arts Galleries and Records Service, Archaeological reports series No.10.
Clay, Patrick, 1988, Leicester Before The Romans, Leicestershire Museums Service.
Clay, Patrick, 2002, The Prehistory of the East Midlands Claylands – aspects of settlement and land-use from the Mesolithic to the Iron age in central England, University of Leicester.
Frere, Sheppard, 1978, Britainnia -a history of Roman Britain (third edition, extensively revised), Routledge & Kegan Paul
Henig, Martin, 1995, The Art of Roman Britain, BT Batsford Ltd
Jarvis, Paul 1986 `The early pits of the Jewry Wall site, Leicester’, Trans Leicestershire Archaeol Hist Soc 60, 1986 7-15
Liddle, Peter, 1982, Leicestershire Archaeology – the present state of knowledge, Volume 1 To the end of the Roman period, Archaeological Reports Series Number 4, Leicestershire Museums, Art Galleries and Records Service
Todd, Malcolm, 1973, The Coritani, Duckworth.
Whitwell, J B, 1982, The Coritani – some aspects of the Iron age tribe and the Roman Civitas, BAR99
Wilkinson, Philip, 2000, What the Roman did for us, Boxtree

Watch documentaries about the Roman invasion of 43 AD On Youtube

See also:

The History of Leicester, Part 1

Leicester Castle

Queen Aethelaed

Heritage news

Find out more about the Story of Leicester