Monday, 22 February 2016

Caerleon and the National Roman Legion Museum - Part One

This week Carolyn and I spent a very pleasant weekend away in Cardiff enjoying being a couple again and taking in a bit fine dining, shopping and culture.

The culture side of our weekend away meant following up on a long term plan to visit the 1st Century base of II Augusta Legion at Isca Augusta, modern day Caerleon in South Wales. This visit dovetailed perfectly as a follow up to my post in December last year to the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter that covered in some detail the history and artefacts of II Augusta's first base in Isca Dumnoniorum, modern day Exeter.

The Roman II Augusta Legion is thought to have relocated its base of operations from Exeter to Caerleon sometime around 74-78 AD after having possibly temporarily located to Gloucester in the mid 60's where the legion provided men for pacification of the northern borders under Emperor Vespasian's chosen governor, Peteillius  Cerialis (71-74 AD). It then moved into South Wales or rather the territory of the Silures under the command of the new governor Sextus Julius Frontinus, an experienced soldier picked by Vespasian to deal with this stubbornly fierce tribe who had been resisting Roman occupation for nearly thirty years, inflicting several punishing defeats to the legions in that time.

We arrived in Caerleon on a very wet Sunday, though thankfully not as wet as the Saturday where we dashed between shops in Cardiff in driving wind and rain. I wonder if the II Augusta were treated to similar weather when they got down to constructing the first level of defence for their new base.

The National Roman Legion Museum is in Caerleon but, understandably, doesn't open until 2pm on a Sunday and so we spent the morning looking at the remains of the legionary baths, amphitheatre and barracks before a light lunch and off to the museum. Needless to say, I took plenty of pictures to share and decided to split the post into two parts to mirror the day.

The map illustration of Caerleon today and the Roman related sites dotted around the town is taken from my excellent guide book purchased in the museum.
The map above should give you an idea of the layout of Caerleon and the Roman sites open to visitors. We started at point 10 on the map (top centre) which is the bath house and has a handy car park for getting ones bearings. We then moved on to the amphitheatre point 7, and donned waterproof trousers and walking boots to explore it (centre right) and a short walk to the barracks, points 1-4 (centre bottom) before returning to the bath house car park to partake of a well earned cup of tea and a piece of cake for lunch.

The Fortress Bath House

Impression of the fortress bath complex as it may have appeared in 80 AD - Paul Jenkins, National Museum of Wales
The picture of the bath house above helps capture the look of this impressive piece of archaeology now housed under a modern day building with great lighting displays designed to bring the stonework to life.

The remains of the open air pool as seen in the illustration above with a lighting effect to simulate water 
The open air pool and bath house at the top of the picture form the centre piece of the visitor centre.
The special light projector presents the image of a legionary swimming and occasionally "bombing" into the pool. It is really well done and brings the whole scene to life.

The construction of the baths began around 75-77 AD, about the same time as the fortress itself and the vaulted concrete main building would have towered over the other buildings and compares to medieval cathedrals such as that at Wells in Somerset for the footprint and height of the hall and vaulted ceiling.

One aspects of history that always appeals to me are the personal details that link the people of then to the people today, and it was great to see the 2,000 year old footprint of one of the legionary builders, together with his dog's paw-print left in the Roman tile clay.

One man.......

and his dog!
Oh and just to remind you who was here, the II Augusta Legion logo or brand mark can be seen emblazoned on a tile.

LEG II AUG - No doubting who built this place.
One piece of evidence that linked II Augusta's stay in Exeter and their move to Caerleon was a dolphin style roof gutter piece that was found in both sites. A similar water spout on the fountain that graced the baths had a similar dolphin design as seen on the information board below.

Alongside the open air bath the excavation reveals part of the frigidarium or cold bath hall with the plunge pools and ornate drain covers set off against skilfully placed silken drapes showing where the windows, walls and columns would have stood and giving an impression of the building's shape and appearance.

The Amphitheatre

Impression of the Caerleon Amphitheatre by John Banbury
The Caerleon amphitheatre was excavated in 1926-27 by Dr R.E.M. Wheeler and his wife Tessa and it remains the most fully excavated amphitheatre of Roman Britain.

The rail in the centre of the processional entry or Portae Pompae serves to protect some of the original Roman paving stones
The amphitheatre served two purposes, namely to provide the legionaries with off duty entertainment during the many festivals in the form of traditional Roman blood sports, but also as a ready made training ground for the soldiers to practise their skill at arms.

Carolyn looks nervous as she prepares to enter the arena - "we who are about to die salute you"
Construction of the stone built amphitheatre is thought to have begun around 90 AD and it is interesting to note that no trouble was expected by the Silures at that time, in that it is situated outside of the main fortress wall and would have obstructed any field of fire in that direction.

The sign at the main entrance to the central arena was a timely reminder that this building was as much a monument to man's inhumanity to man as an archaeological wonder and the rain on the day just seemed to add to the melancholy feel of the place.

The inner walls would have once been covered in white plaster painted with red lines to give a dressed stone appearance.
Military training as depicted by Peter Connolly
A drain runs under the centre of the arena through the south gate, centre top, that still carries water out and down to the River Usk to this day.
One of the side entrances with steps thought to have lead up to a private box
The other preserved domed side entrance is thought to have served as a shrine to the Goddess Nemesis with a VIP box above 
A lead curse tablet was found in the arena with a scratched curse written on it dedicated to the Goddess Nemesis cursing an unknown thief of a cloak and pair of boots, with the request "may he not redeem them, save with his life blood".

The brick wall at the side entrance provided a small waiting area under the stand possibly for other gladiators or animals to wait before their entrance into the arena from the side
The Barracks
By following the Roman wall along to the north west corner of the fortress one comes to the Prysg Field barracks uncovered in 1927-29 by Victor Nash-Williams.

These are the only legionary barrack blocks visible in Europe.

The four rows of barrack blocks with the semi-circular remains of the legionary ovens for cooking the rations
The picture above shows the first barrack block close to the wall separated from the line of ovens by a drainage ditch and the Via Singularis or perimeter road designed to give rapid access to the ramparts should the need arise.

The remains of the earth ramparts can be seen around the top of the picture, interspersed with cook houses backing on to the guard towers. At the far end of this block are the larger quarters of the Centurion and junior NCO's.
Modern reconstruction of one of the barrack rooms at the National Roman Legion museum
The cook house foundations with the basement of the guard tower behind forms a gap in the earth ramparts beyond the barrack room wall
Despite the drizzly weather the tour around Caerleon was fascinating and whetted the appetite for seeing some of the finds from the excavations along with other items now housed in the National Roman Legion Museum situated in the centre of town - to be covered in Part Two.

Sources referred to in this post
Caerleon Roman Fortress - Jeremy K. Knight
Caerwent Roman Town - Richard J. Brewer


  1. Weather looks miserable but the travelogue is first rate! Always enjoy your travels and photos, Jonathan.

  2. Wow! I had completely forgotten but remember visiting here in 1990 when I was working in Cardiff for a few days (while working overseas for a few months). I am glad you had a good time, and glad you posted and jogged my memory!

  3. A very nice place indeed...thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for your comments chaps.

    We were a bit unlucky with the weather, but the site more than made up for having to dodge the showers

  5. You're missus is very forgiving mate, but she doesn't half look ticked off in the photo. I would have thought you would have learnt that women and muddy fields in the peeing rain don't mix.


    1. No she's not looking ticked off about the rain, it's more about I don't want to be in one of your blog pictures. Actually the love of my life is in to her history ever since a tour of Gettysburg in the back of a horse and trap on her honeymoon and I'm lucky to have a fellow enthusiast, come rain or shine.