You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Barracks (see an overall view in the introductory page): (above) main gate; (below) latrines
And now Ostorius (Roman governor of Britain in 47-52) was within measurable distance of the sea which looks towards Ireland, when an outbreak of sedition among the Brigantes recalled a leader who was firm in his resolution to attempt new conquests only when he had secured the old. The Brigantian rising, it is true, subsided on the execution of a handful of men, who were beginning hostilities, and the pardon of the rest; but neither severity, nor clemency converted the Silurian tribe, which continued the struggle and had to be repressed by the establishment of a legionary camp.
Tacitus - Annals - Book XII - Loeb Edition
The passage describes the campaign undertaken by Ostorius to subdue a group of hostile tribes. The Silures lived on the northern shore of the Bristol Channel, between Gloucestershire and Southern Wales. The legionary camp mentioned by Tacitus was most likely at Gloucester. Isca Augusta aka Isca Silurum, a second legionary camp in the territory of the Silures, was established in ca 74 at the time of Emperor Vespasian.
Few places in the kingdom will better repay the labours of the antiquary than Caerleon. (..) The shape of the ancient fortress may be traced very distinctly, partly by the remains of the actual walls, and partly by an elevated ridge formed from their ruins.
Excerpts from: Lee John Edward - Delineations of Roman Antiquities found at Caerleon - 1845 and Description of a Roman Building and Other Remains Lately Discovered at Caerleon - 1850
Initially the legionary camp was protected by timber palisades and earth mounds. At the time of Emperor Trajan when the site became the permanent headquarters of Legio II Augusta, a stone and concrete (opus caementicium) wall was erected; it was protected by a ditch.
Likely site of the Roman river harbour and the Norman Round Tower at the Hanbury Arms public house
Caerleon appears to have had several names: in the Itinerary of Antoninus it is called ISCE LEGVA AVGVSTI, evidently a corruption of Isca Legionis secundae Augustae: it was also called Isca Augusta, and Isca Silurum. The word Isca occurs also in the ancient name of Exeter, Isca Damnomiorum; it is in fact the British word Wysg with a Roman termination, and signifies that the place was situated on the banks of a stream: the word is still preserved in the name of the Usk, the river on which Caerleon is situated. (..) The modern name of Caerleon is generally supposed to have been derived from Caer, the British word for a camp or fortified city, and leon, a corruption of legionum, thus making it "the city of legions". L. J. Edward
The site of Isca Augusta was chosen because of its proximity to the River Usk, a stream which was navigable from there to the Severn Estuary and to the Bristol Channel. In this way the fortress could more easily receive supplies and its harbour could house some warships for patrolling the area, similar to what was done on the River Rhine.
In the field to the left of the Broadway, without the walls, is the amphitheatre, evidently Roman, which commonly goes by the name of King Arthur's Round Table. Giraldus Cambrensis (an archbishop and historian who wrote a description of Wales in 1193) states that there were walls standing in his time, but certainly none are to be seen at the present day. It is said, that within the memory of some individuals now living at Caerleon, numbers of small tesserae were found just beneath the surface, as if some part of it had been covered with a tessellated pavement; but (the general) opinion is that they have been brought there by accident, as this was evidently an open amphitheatre, (..) and no tessellated pavement would have borne the exposure to the frosts of a British winter. L. J. Edward
An amphitheatre with a timber seating area was built in ca 80. Archaeologists found evidence that it was destroyed by fire in the early IInd century. It was rebuilt in 138 and a third and final time during the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus in Britain in the early IIIrd century. A similar military amphitheatre was found at Carnuntum, a legionary fortress in Austria (it opens in another window).
Amphitheatre: one of the entrances
The facility was most likely used as a training ground for the garrison of the fortress and for ceremonies and parades, although some rebels or criminals might have been sentenced to fight among themselves for the entertainment of the legionaries (ludi damnatio, condemnation to the gladiatorial games). Pancratium fighting contests were perhaps held in the amphitheatre to maintain the soldiers' aggressiveness in time of peace (and to provide the audience with an opportunity for betting).
|Other ancient amphitheatres in this web site:|
The Colosseo of Rome
The Amphitheatre of Albano
The Amphitheatre of Capua
The Amphitheatre of Catania
The Amphitheatre of Pompeii
The Amphitheatre of Syracuse
The Amphitheatre of Sutri
The Amphitheatre of Urbs Salvia (Urbisaglia)
The Amphitheatre of Pola in Istria
The Amphitheatre of Salona in Dalmatia
The Amphitheatre of Arles in France
The Amphitheatre of Nīmes in France
The Amphitheatre of Trier in Germany
The Amphitheatre of London
The Amphitheatre of Italica in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Merida in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Tarragona in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Caesarea Maritima in Israel
The Amphitheatre of Carthage
The Amphitheatre of Mactaris (Makhtar) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thapsus in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thysdrus (El Djem) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Uthina (Oudna) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna in Libya
Baths: "natatio", outdoor pool and a modern light effect; (inset) assumed aspect of the baths
When the earth had been cleared away sufficiently to afford a general idea of the arrangement of the rooms it appeared very evident that the building had undergone one or perhaps two alterations during its occupation by the Romans. (..) A court floored with large flags or slates covered (..) a very complete and well preserved bath. L. J. Edward
The baths are located at some distance from the barracks and it is assumed that they too were built in ca 80 AD, although their remains belong to a later period. An outdoor pool and a palaestra, a porticoed courtyard for exercising (see that of Pompeii), were located at the side of the building which housed the heated halls.
Baths: halls with evidence of "hypocaust", heating system
In one or two instances the low walls and even the bases of the pillars of a hypocaust were covered by the concrete floors of the later occupation. L. J. Edward
The Roman legions did not need to hire architects or master masons to build aqueducts, baths, amphitheatres and many other civilian facilities. Praefectus fabrum was a military officer at the head of a body of technicians who supported the operations of a legion. The use of the title fell into disuse in the second half of the Ist century AD, but the legions continued to be able to open roads, cut forests, build bridges and towns, etc. as testified to by the reliefs of Colonna Traiana.
(left) Baths: fragment of a mosaic (above) and relief depicting Medusa's Head (below); (right) Museum of Caerleon: Mosaic of the Labyrinth from the headquarters of the barracks (see another mosaic at Italica with the same decorative motif)
In this place was found a large stone; (..) it belongs apparently to the pediment of the building and bears a striking resemblance, though of far inferior workmanship, to that which is now preserved in the museum at Bath. In the centre is sculptured a head of Medusa entwined with snakes. The dampness of the earth in which it had been lying for so long a time has caused a part of the face to scale off and even what now remains will be preserved with some difficulty. L. J. Edward
One might think that the buildings where the legionaries lived had a pretty spartan aspect; this was not the case at Isca Augusta, where the baths and the barracks headquarters were decorated with complex black and white floor mosaics, most likely laid down by Italian craftsmen, because they reflect the fashion prevailing at Rome (e.g. at Villa di Livia).
The profits if any arising from the sale of this pamphlet will be devoted to the funds of the Museum of Antiquities at Caerleon. L. J. Edward
The Antiquarian Museum of Caerleon was opened in 1850; the building was redesigned and enlarged in 1987 and it is now known as National Roman Legion Museum.
(left-above) Museum of Caerleon: inscription celebrating Emperor Trajan and mentioning Legio II Augusta; (left-below) British Museum: milestone of the time of Emperor Hadrian found seven miles from the Roman fort of Kanovium in the northern part of Wales; (right) Museum of Caerleon: tombstone of "Tadia Vallaunius (..) and Tadius Exuper(a)tus, her son, lived 37 years, having died on the German expedition; Tadia Exuperata, the devoted daughter, set this up to her mother and brother beside her father's tomb"
The inscription celebrating Trajan was carved on Italian marble; this and its fine lettering suggest that it was made in Rome and then sent to Caerleon. Perhaps the travel time was longer than expected and when it arrived Trajan was already consul for the third time (100 AD) and a local stonecutter had to add an "I" to the original "COS II". This very minor addition is immediately noticed because it disrupts the perfect central alignment of the text.
The construction of large fortresses to control a region would have been useless without a net of military roads which allowed the troops to rapidly and safely reach the locations where their presence was needed. After the dramatic defeat of P. Quinctilius Varus in 9 AD when three Roman legions ventured into a thick German forest relying on the guidance of local allies, Roman emperors were wary that the same mistake could occur again. Hadrian visited Britain in 126 AD and made recommendations to strengthen its military defences. He might have visited Isca Augusta and attended an exercitatio (military exercise) as he did two years later at Lambaesis in Algeria; at the end he delivered a speech to the troops which was recorded in a long inscription. He reminded the local commander that: The regulations of Emperor Augustus prescribe that the cavalry not advance carelessly out of its cover, and that it pursue cautiously: if the rider cannot see where he is going or cannot bring his horse to a halt whenever he wants to, he will plunge into pitfalls.
The tombstone of Tadius Exuperatus shows that, when needed, the emperors could move army units as pawns on a chessboard. He was most likely a member of a vexillatio, an elite regiment of a legion which was detached for a particular purpose, a sort of rapid deployment force.
Which of the German expeditions Tadius Exupertus served in, cannot be positively decided as there seem to be no data to enable us to form an opinion except the shape of the letters. (..) The characters are of the form used in the time of Severus and his immediate successors. Two different interpretations may be given of the words "defunctus expeditione Germanica": the first "served or performed his part in the German expedition", the other "died in the German expedition" (..) in this case the tomb would merely be a cenotaph to his manes. (..) On the whole I am of opinion that the word defunctus bears the common meaning of dead (..) it seems to me to agree best with the last words of the inscription "secus tumulum patris posuit" which convey a pleasing touch of natural feeling. L. J. Edward
Museum of Caerleon: Great Bulmore Gravestones
In a field by the road side leading from Caerleon to Bulmore a large number of inscriptions already published were found several years since. This field forms the side of a rather steep hill and many remains of interments have been found there; it has now been dug over to form a potato garden, so that probably nothing further will be brought to light. L. J. Edward
The tombstones mainly relate to wives and daughters, but that at the centre says Julius Valens, veteran of the Second Legion Augusta, lived 100 years ("C" in Roman numbers); Julia Secundina, his wife, and Julius Martinus, his son, had this set up. The great age of the veteran does not fail to impress those who read the inscription, because Julius Valens is the only centenarian in Roman Britain. It must be noted however that according to Pliny a high number of centenarians was reported in the 74 census of Italy (Historia Naturalis - Book VII - Chapter: The Greatest Length of Life). The Romans named the year after the consuls who were in charge; the consuls often had pretty similar names or held the office more than once; it is highly possible that a very old person confused their names and thus his/her age was wrongly recorded in the census.
Museum of Caerleon: luxury items: (left) seals; (centre/right) ivory carvings
The most interesting objects which have yet been found at Caerleon are two ivory carvings; they were discovered by Mr Jenkins in digging a drain about five feet deep near his house, not far from the large building (the baths), but within the ancient city walls. When first taken out of the ground they were washed in order to free them from the dirt and very unfortunately this operation caused the ivory to exfoliate in one or two places; this will be noticed in the head and arm of the female figure; the same thing happened to the face of the boy; but the piece was preserved so that the features are now perfect. After having been exposed to the air for some days the ivories began to crack in various directions and would inevitably have been lost, had they not immediately been well washed with a solution of isinglass in spirits of wine. (..) One of them represents a female figure placing a basket of fruit on the head of a cupid, the other a tragic mask. (..) They appear to have been fastened down by round pins or pegs to something behind. L. J. Edward
Museum of Caerleon: (left) altar to Mithra; (centre) altar to Fortuna et Bonus Eventus (Good Outcome); (right-above) inscription related to a Temple to Diana by Titus Flavius Postumus Varus, commander of the legion in ca 235-258; he was probably from Africa; (right-below) altar to Salus by Publius Sallienus Talamus from Hatria (Central Italy), commander of the legion in ca 198-209
The legionariese came from all parts of the Empire, but their commanders were often of Roman origin or belonged to Roman families who settled in the provinces; this until the early IIIrd century. The altars and religious inscriptions found at Caerleon are similar to those found in other regions of the Empire with a strong military presence, e.g. in Germany. Of particular interest is the pretty rare altar dedicated to Fortuna et Bonus Eventus. Pliny mentions two statues of these gods in the Capitolium and Ammianus Marcellinus states that a portico of a temple to them was erected as late as 374 AD. Initially Bonus Eventus was a deity associated with good crops, but eventually it became a symbol of imperial divine protection.
Museum of Caerleon: Ist/IInd century "denarii" (silver coins): 1) Vespasian; 2) Hadrian; 3) Antoninus Pius
The importance of Isca Augusta began to decline towards the mid of the IIIrd century, during a period of military anarchy. The fortress was probably dismantled at the end of that century when a separate empire was established in Britain and Northern Gaul by Marcus Aurelius Carausius in 286.
The image used as background for this page shows the inscription Leg II Aug on a pottery bowl.
Plan of this section:
Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa)
Isca Augusta (Caerleon)
Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and nearby Fishbourne Palace
Portus Adurni (Portchester)
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Verulamium (St. Albans)
Roman Villas on Vectis (Isle of Wight)
Roman Villa of Lullingstone
Roman Villa of Bignor
Roman Villas in Dorset/Somerset