St Albans, located in Hertfordshire, South East England, is known as the burial site of Britain’s first Saint (see the site of England’s first Saint). St Alban actually lived a stone’s throw away from St Albans Abbey, in what was the third largest Roman city in England – Verulamium.
This week we are going to explore that once great vibrant Roman City and discover what life was like at its peak, what made Roman towns work so well and how this once lost town is now a public park with an amazing museum on the site of the former Basilica.
To begin, we need to go back even further than the Romans as Verulamium existed before their conquest in AD 43. It was originally a Celtic settlement called Verlamio, which translates into ‘settlement above the marsh’ and was inhabited by the Catuvellauni tribe.
The Catuvellauni, which means ‘good in battle’, would occupy the areas which today are the counties of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and South Cambridgeshire. Unlike some tribes who resisted the Roman invasions, the Catuvellaunis actually prospered and became a very powerful group in England. Their first known king, Tasciovanus, actually minted coins with his name on and went on to found a ritual centre in Verulamium around AD10.
What was different with the Catuvellauni tribe was their pro-Roman attitude; they accepted the Roman rule and way of life. This could explain the lack of Forts in Hertfordshire, in fact Hertfordshire could have even been a client kingdom of Rome. The evidence to support this view includes the excavation of a burial site in Verulamium found at Folly Lane, which shows to be a Briton rather than a Roman.
Items found with the cremated body of this Briton include enamelled horse equipment, a chariot, a tunic of iron mail armour and at least 15lbs of silver.
Evidence shows they were all placed on the funeral pyre along with the body, and most likely a number of other luxurious items which no longer remain. The identity for the burial will most likely remain unknown to us forever, however a possible candidate was one of the client kings, someone acceptable to both Romans and the natives in the City. It would explain the elaborate burial. ‘The whole sire is exceptional; the evidence of an elaborate ritual, the imposing character of the enclosure and its position overlooking the Roman town, the wealth of the grave goods and the fact that a Romano-Celtic temple was subsequently built on the site of the funeral pyre, are all proof that the rites and ceremonies performed here were of overwhelming significance to the local population.’ (Thorold, p10)
Other tribes, such as the Icenis, led by a female called Boudicca in AD 61, were against Roman rule and rebelled, ransacking large areas and burning the Roman capital of Colchester to the ground. They even attacked Verulamium before being defeated by the Roman army.
Roman town life:
Romans brought to Britain a basic structure of a regular grid of streets, dividing into square building plots. In the centre, there would be a Centre forum, which was the Roman marketplace, and a Basilica – the town hall and law court. The houses were pretty basic in structure and are termed today as ‘Strip Houses’. They were long narrow buildings built with the smallest frontage on the main street as possible, because of the high land rates. The front of the house would usually be used as a business premises, with a workshop and living quarters either behind or on the upper storey.
The Romans had three different types of Roman settlements in Britain, the highest being a Coloniae. The first in Britain was Colchester, the Roman capital of Britain. This was for retired legionaries granted land, and the city was built up from them. The second class was a Municipum and this community was made up of mainly native people. A Muncipium was allowed to retain some of its local tribe laws and customs as long as they didn’t conflict with Roman Law. This was the classification of Verulamium. Verulamium is the only town on record to have been given this, although there were most likely others. The lowest Roman settlement was called Civitates. These were towns which were already estbalished Celtic towns and were goverend by Celts themselves rather than the Romans (although they were closely supervised)
By AD 140 Verulamium had doubled in size as a city. It covered an area of 100 acres with all the buildings one expects to see in a bustling Roman town –a Forum, Basilica, baths, townhouses, temples and even a theatre. The Basilica was an enormous hall, 106 metres long with a central nave. Many of these buildings would be destroyed in a fire which broke out AD 155. The fire’s origins are unknown but it is thought to be accidental. Whatever the reason, the fire would destroy up to 40% of the town including the town’s basilica, forum, baths and many of its private houses. Some of these homes were not rebuilt until 50 years after the fire.
Also within the town would have been a number of temples towards the Roman Gods, and eventually towards Christianity. Many of the temples and shrines identified at Verulamium are classed as Romano-Celtic – this being more of a hybrid of Roman Gods and Celtic Gods combined. The shrines were usually square, round or polygon in shape with a central chamber and areas to walk in.
It wasn’t until the Romans invaded Britain that the native populations adopted the idea of housing their Gods within a temple, and these new temples would replace the sacred groves and springs of the earlier tribes. The large town houses would also have shrines referred to as lares. Along with housing their Gods in a temple, the Romans also brought with them the practice of writing down the names of these Gods for the first time. In addition, they instilled the idea of anthropomorphism – that the Gods looked like human beings.
After the Basilica and the Temples, one of the most important buildings in Verulamium was its theatre. This is because the theatre in Verulamium was different to many other Roman theatres. It had an almost circular orchestra in the front stage with tiered wooden seating, and is the only example of its kind in Britain. Unlike today, where we think of the theatre as being a place for shows and musicals, the Roman theatre was quite different. It would be palace of religious precessions, dancing, wrestling, combat and wild beast shows. Verulamium town was enlarged in AD 160-80 and the orchestra would now form a D shape but by AD 390, the theatre would cease to be used.
It was unearthed in 1847, with further excavations in 1935 and 1957-61. These later excavations uncovered rows of shops connected to the theatre, a villa and even a secret shrine from the first century. Today its foundations can still be seen, and information boards are set up around the excavation site to illustrate what was where. It really gives a sense of what a spectacle it must have been to have been seated there.
No Roman town would be complete without its baths, one of the great social hubs of Roman towns. The Baths would be a place of ablutions, gambling, gossip and exercise. ‘The town baths therefore consisted of a series of rooms, each raised to differing temperatures by a complex heating system, while external insulation ensured that the temperature of each room remained reasonable constant…after undressing in the apodylesium the bather entered the frigidarium and proceeded immediately to the repidarium, a room of medium heat from here he progressed to the caldarium, a room of intense heat which promoted sweating. After scraping the body with a stirgil to remove dead skin and dirt, the bather returned to the feridarium, a room possessing a cold plunge bath where he would immerse himself in the cold water to close the pores and prevent a chill. This would be followed by oiling the body to replace the natural oils lost during bathing(Bennett, pg12)
The heating systems would be managed using Hypocaust, which was also used to provide an under floor heating system in some of the Roman townhouses, and there is evidence at Verulamium this system was used. Hypocaust worked by having the floors raised on brick columns or trenches dug into the ground, allowing hot air to flow through, which heated the room. Remains of a Hypocaust system can be seen in Verulamium today, and is an excellent example of this technique. It’s believed it was used around AD 200 and heated a reception room in a Roman Villa. Verulamium Baths were destroyed on two occasions, both in the Boudicca attack in AD 60 and when the fire spread in AS 155. Like many buildings they were rebuilt but went out of use in AD 350, most likely when the Romans started to withdraw from Britain.
One of the main structures of Verulamium still seen today are the remains of its walls, which at one time surrounded the whole town. Most of the wall was built around AD 270 and would have been 3 metres thick, 2 metres high and 2.25 miles long, enclosing an area of 203 acres. This made Verulamium the third largest walled city in Roman Britain behind Corinium (Cirencester) and Londinium . In addition, there was an earthen bank and a defensive ditch 29 metres wide and 6 metres deep. As I previously mentioned, the people here were actually quite accepting of Roman rule in Britain. The wall also was not so much about a defence as it was a symbol of civic pride, as well as serving as fixed points for entry into the town.
Verulamium had four gateways into the city, with each gate large enough for two passageways, one for vehicles and the other for two pedestrian walkways. These gateways allowed those patrolling the gates to keep an eye on who was entering the town, in addition to collect dues on produce from traders entering the town.
As with most Roman towns, Verulamium came to an end when the Roman army began to depart from Britain and left the native Brits on their own once again. The provincial status of Roman Britain ended in AD410. Although literacy evidence indicates the Roman style administration continued into the 5th centre. ‘It is possible that the towns were gradually abandoned for the countryside as they no longer fulfilled their prime function, to be replaced by ami-autonoums rural groupings and that although life continued in the towns, town life, as such, ceased to exist’(Wilson, p36)
As for the town of Verulamium, it would gradually disappear, but the new town of St Albans would grow in its shadow. Much of the old Roman city’s stone was used as building material for the construction of the new town and its Abbey, named after the man Alban who was executed by the Romans for being a Christian. Over time, as with most of Britain, some of the sites were built over the Roman remains. By the 17th Century much of what was within the Roman city was gone with no trace other than the odd parts of the City wall.
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