16 April 2017

Roman Wales: Caerleon

Suggest a visit to Roman ruins and, before you can say Carpe diem, my shoes and jacket will be on, my camera in my backpack, and I’ll be waiting at the door! 

So, when my equally Romanophillic friend Jill came to visit, I didn’t take any persuading to spend a day looking around the Roman ruins at Caerleon (and nearby Caerwent, but that’s for another blog).

In Roman times, from around 75 to 300AD, Caerleon was known as Isca and was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain

In its heyday, it was home to over 5000 soldiers of Augustus’s Second Legion. 

Nowadays, it’s a small town that acts as a satellite commuter suburb for the city of Newport but it stills has some significant Roman ruins and so is an important tourist destination.

We started at the museum, which has an impressive collection of artefacts found during local excavations. Finds range from the expected pieces of military equipment and domestic goods to children’s teeth and a treasure trove of gemstones recovered from a drain in the bath house. There is even a recreation of a burial, with a model of the face of the deceased made using modern forensic techniques.

Next we visited the ruins of bath complex. Though only a small portion of the huge original complex remains, you could certainly get a feel for how big it must once have been, and the interpretation boards, displays and lighting were very well done. I was particularly impressed with the decorative drain cover and the sculpted stone head, the exact significance of which is not known.

Quite a large portion of the fortress wall remains so we walked alongside that to return to where the car was parked. Though much eroded and with the guard towers long since robbed of their stones by local house-builders, it was still possible to imagine how tall and impenetrable it would once have looked to enemy forces.

Sitting just outside the wall are the remains of the amphitheatre, one of 75 such structures in Britain and the best preserved. Wooden grandstands, erected on the base that we see today, would once have held up to 6000 people, watching military parades and bloody battles. Bizarrely, in medieval times, people thought this structure was the site of King Arthur’s legendary round table. It would have been an extremely large table!

Our last piece of Roman Caerleon was a very brief look at the remains of one of the barrack buildings – brief because, although we had successfully dodged the rain and hail showers thus far, another wintery blast forced us to beat a hasty retreat. Though the centurions enjoyed reasonably large rooms, the legionnaires’ quarters were small and spartan, with eight men sharing a very cramped space. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a Roman soldier.