There were only three legionary fortresses in Roman Britain: Caerleon, Chester and York. Caerleon was the permanent garrison base for the II Augustian Legion and was the main base for the subjugation of the Silurians, the tribe who resided in this area. They put up quite a resistance over a number of years but were eventually conquered. At its height, it is estimated that the garrison held 6000 soldiers. If you take into account families, tradesmen needed to support the town and merchants Caerleon must have been a sizeable town.
The Roman name for Caerleon was Isca Silurum after the river and the area. The river is now called the Usk, and is navigable from the Severn, allowing the fort to be supplied and supported from the sea. Originally the legion had built their fort at Usk, 7 miles to the east, but as they made inroad into Silurian territory they moved to Caerleon and created their legion barracks here. The fort was occupied for 400 years until the Legions were recalled from Britain.
The amphitheatre is perhaps the most prominent remains left in Caerleon now. Though to be fair the main section of the fort is now the town and has been built on over the past 1000 years or so since the Normans built a castle and settled the area. The amphitheatre is situated to the south west just outside the main walls of the fort.
Built around 75 AD in the reign of Vespasian, the amphitheatre is oval in shape and measures 267×2226 feet in total. In its original form the central areas was surrounded by earthen banks, supported by stone walls and topped with banks of wooden seats. Large enough to seat 6000 people, it must have been a sight to behold when full. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in ‘Historiea Regum Brittaniae’ (The History of the Kings of Britain) placed Caerleon as the place where the coronation King Arthur took place. However,Mir must be said that this history must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Inside the main walls of the fortitude possible to visit the partially excavated foundations of the main bath house. Again the majority of the bath complex is under the foundations of the modern town. But it’s possible to walk around the outside swimming pool.
So in the words of the conspirators from Monty Python’s Life of Brian “what have the Romans ever done for us?”. Looking around the breath house quite a bit it seems. Some of it a bit more surprising and we might think.
The bath house has a number of different items that shows just how advanced the Romans were. Many of there are replicated by today’s hikers. From folding handled frying pans, folding spoons and knives to string bags.
One thing we can be certain about is that the real Roman soldiers would almost certainly be very different to today’s new recruit!
Near to the bath house is the small museum. This houses hundreds of archeological findings from the many excavations undertaken in the town. It’s a great place for kids where they can dress up in Roman legionnaire armour.
Scattered around the town are wooden sculptures which appear in the. Last unexpected of places.. These are not small by any means. The Roman head in the photo below is over four feet tall.
Back near the amphitheatre are the main barracks. Only some of these are visible, the remainder having been excavated and recovered to help with their preservation. We thought we had found the main exit from the barrack blocks, back to be car, but it turned out to be the toilet block. An exit of a different kind.
Living in the middle of the industrial area of South Wales, surrounded by the industrial history of coal mines and steel works it’s easy to forget about the thousands of years of history that is right on our door step. Caerleon is less than 20 miles away from our front door. If you get the chance come and visit. There is so much to see I. South East Wales.