Roman Chester, City of the Eagles

By Fulford, Michael | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Roman Chester, City of the Eagles


Fulford, Michael, Antiquity


DAVID J.P. MASON. Roman Chester, city oft he Eagles. 224 pages, 145 figures, 8 tables, 37 colour plates. 2001. Stroud & Charleston (SC): Tempus; 0-7524-1922-6 paperback 17.99 [pounds sterling] & $29.99.

ROSALIND NIBLETT. Verulamium: the Roman city of St Albans. 160 pages, 75 figures, 25 colour plates. 2001. Stroud & Charleston (SC): Tempus; 0-7524-1915-3 paperback 15.99 [pounds sterling] & $26.99.

K. BUXTON & C. HOWARD-DAVIS. Bremetenacum: excavations at Roman Ribchester, 1980, 1989-90. xvi+455 pages, 110 figures, 57 tables, 20 plates, CD-ROM. 2000. Lancaster: Lancaster University Archaeological Unit; 1-86220-083-1 (ISSN 1343-5205) 45 [pounds sterling].

Such is the volume of information that is accruing from continuing archaeological research that more and more of the major sites of Roman Britain deserve or have received the book-length reviews of the kind that we find in Roman Chester and Verulamium. When Wacher's first edition of The towns of Roman Britain was published in 1975, only London and Silchester had been individually treated in this way. Now about a third of the major Roman towns of Britain have been thus considered, with London receiving two fresh appraisals since 1990. Legionary fortresses, and Chester in particular, though not regarded as urban in the legal sense -- despite their considerable populations -- have not fared so well. Caerleon and York, two of the three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain, have received synthetic treatment, but Chester has not enjoyed comparable review. Thus the appearance of Roman Chester, the first attempt to pull together a mass of data -- much of it unpublished -- for this legionary fortress, is particularly welcome.

Although there would appear to be little common ground in the subject matter of the books reviewed here, they do reveal how much our knowledge is dominated by the first hundred years or so of the Roman administration of Britain for which a relative abundance of written sources has driven archaeological research, much of it related to the history of the conquest. And this paradigm will undoubtedly continue to be influential. For example, with Bremetenacum we see the potential of dendrochronology which has the precision for us to relate different episodes of the site with the activities of individual governors in a way rarely possible when relying solely on the evidence of material culture. So, too, with Verulamium, the combination of Tacitus and the physical evidence for a disastrous fire consistent with the destruction attributed to Boudicca provide a benchmark against which the city's early development can be evaluated. While this may have been the period when events in Britain were regularly headline news in Rome and the resources of the empire were being devoted to its conquest, there remain three centuries or more of Roman Britain which cry out for comparable attention.

Against this background we find that the majority of Roman Chester is devoted to exploring the first hundred years or so of the fortress' life, from its foundation in the 70s to the re-building associated with the arrival of its `permanent' legion, legio XX Valeria Victrix, following the Roman withdrawal from Scotland. Mason argues that the first period of the fortress was particularly grandiose, pointing to the presence of major buildings, such as the enigmatic 'Elliptical Building' for which no convincing parallels are yet known elsewhere in the empire. The fortress, he suggests, was intended to be the residence of the governor and, bearing in mind its strategic location which could both look west across the Irish Sea and north into Scotland, the centre for a possibly intended new province of `Britannia et

Ivernia'. Such an idea reminds us how little we know of the nature of relations between Britain and Ireland throughout the Roman period and of the similarities and dissimilarities with other regions in the west of Britain. …

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