1981-Mar-pg11-13_Roman Invasion of the South-West

1981-Mar-pg11-13_Roman Invasion of the South-West

This article came from Chronicle published March 1981. Page:11-13


Roman Invasion of the South-West

Author: W.T.J.Chapman


Picture a small cluster of timber huts nestling in a clearing shrouded in morning mist; wisps of smoke rise vertically from their thatched roofs. A muddy track runs through the settlement which exudes the characteristic dank smell of earth and dung, One becomes aware of numerous sounds emanating from the awakening village, dogs barking, the clang of metal on metal, and the voices of people engaged in early morning chores.

Suddenly there is commotion. A rider has appeared out of the mist, both man and animal show signs of having ridden long and hard. Almost incoherent from exhaustion, the rider gasps out his message – Dunum (Maiden Castle) has been attacked the battle has been lost . . . the Romans are coming!

In this sort of way the news that the romans had arrived in the South West might have been conveyed to our Iron Age ancestors living in the area.

The Romans, to be more specific, were Legio II Augusta, all the way from St.rasbourg.on the Upper Rhine. This legion, one of four selected for the invasion of Britain in A.D.43, was commanded by the future Emperor Vespasian. It had moved into the West via the kingdom of Verica in Sussex, ruled by Cogidummus, one of the first of the native leaders to ask for a treaty with Rome. His allegiance was extremely valuable to the Romans in that it ensured a safe base for operations against the Durotriges and Belgae of Dorsetshire and Wiltshire.

It is interesting to speculate as to the route of the II Augusta through the West. Suetonius speaks only of two very strong tribes, the assault of twenty native fortresses (oppidi) and a successful operation against Vectis (Isle of Wight). This latter aperation clearly indicates the presence of the navy and there is a possibility that this force continued to support the legion as it advanced down the coast. In its movement from Verica for operations against Vectis, one cannot rule out the possibility of action against the Belgae, in the Winchester area. (Winchester later becoming Venta Belgarum ).

There are several sites in our area that have yielded tantalizing information relating to the passage of Vespasian’s army. Preliminary excavations at Lake, near Wimborne, suggest that this extensive complex (possibly of 16 ha.) could have been a temporary base camp dating from the invasion period. If this is the case, one might speculate that its siting could have been influenced by the proximity of an extremely good harbour a few miles to the south,

If one looks at the map of Dorset and follows the line of the Stour valley north from Wimborne, one soon encounters a chain of fortified positions which give some indication of Roman military activity dating from the invasion period.

At Spetisbury Rings (an Iron Age fort of 2 ha.) the construction of the railway during 1857 revealed a mass grave of 120 skeletons. It would appear that this earthwork is in an unfinished state, and that these unfortunate people may have been the victims of a rapid Roman thrust from the south which took them by surprise.

Further north, Hod Hill and Hanabledon Hill would without doubt have been on Vespasian’s list of captured hill forts. Hod Hill, in particular, has shown evidence that at least the chieftain’s hut was subjected to ballista fire by Roman artillery. There is, however, no suggestion of direct assault, which might mean that the occupants were frightened into offering only a token resistance.

On ejecting the inhabitants from Hod Hill, the Romans then proceeded to establish a fort of their own within the Iron Age fort. This new camp was large enough to house a legionary detachment of 600 men and an auxiliary cavalry unit of about 250 men. It is extremely interesting when one visits Hod Hill to compare the geometrical layout of these fortifications with the Iron Age works.

The stabilization of the northern front would have left the II Augusta free to proceed along the valley of the river Frome to attack Maiden Castle. The excavations of Sir Mortimer Wheeler between 1934 and 1938 have vividly revealed the destruction caused by the legionaries when they stormed the east gate, including several hastily buried Durotrigian battle casualties. A visit.to this site is recommended along with a call at the museum in Dorchester to see a selection of the finds from the Wheeler excavation.

In what direction did the II Augusta move after Maiden Castle? All attempts at tracing the route would be pure speculation, but constitutes an interesting exercise. It is possible that it continued along the coast, operating in conjunction with a naval presence at least as far as Exeter, ensuring the passive allegiance of the Dumnonii of Devon and Cornwall.

Excavations carried out in Exeter over the past few years have revealed evidence which suggests that around A.D.50-55 the Second Legion constructed a fortress enclosing approximately 16 ha. This fortress continued in use until A.D.67 when the legion moved to Gloucester. It appears that the only stone-built building within the Exeter fortress was the bath-house which was situated beneath the present Cathedral Close.

At this point it is worth while considering the tactics of the Roman army moving through hostile territory. It is not necessarily correct to assume that the legion and its auxiliary contingent, operated continually in one major body under campaign-conditions. We have seen that at least 600 infantry and a detachment of cavalry were deployed at Hod Hill. The policy of the natives in withdrawing to fixed fortifications when whole areas were threatened, worked to the Romans’ advantage. It meant that auxiliary reconnaissance units could readily assess the strength at each point of potential resistance and therefore only those forces necessary to deal with that resistance were deployed.

It would appear that the terrain in most areas of the West would not have been conducive to the use of chariots in large numbers, hence the use by the tribes of numerous defensive positions. If we assume that the encampment at Lake near Wimborne was a base, then it follows that it could also have been used as a springboard for operating north to Salisbury Plain and then west towards the Mendips. We know that in A.D.49 the legion was in control of the lead mines at Charterhouse. The II Augusta subsequently built the fortress at Glevum (Gloucester) and later, c.A.D.75, took up its permanent headquarters at Isca Silurium (Caerleon) on the Usk, where it remained for centuries.

As far as the Yeovil area is concerned, there is no evidence of military activity during the invasion period. We do know from excavations that there was a military presence of some sort at Han, Hill, segments of body armour having been found. We also have the appearance of what might have been an army working party on South Cadbury towards the latter half of the first century. It is possible that the legions’ task in this area was made easier as they moved northwards by the fact that warriors from all parts of the Durotrigian territory had been neutralized in the initial battles at Ham Hill and Maiden Castle.

Only further excavation of our many oppida will throw more light on this invasion period. However, as one stands on the summit of a hill fort it is not too difficult to conjure up a picture of the legion marching slowly through the countryside.

‘Twenty-four miles in eight hours neither more nor less, head up, spear up, shield on your back, cuirass-cellar open one hand’s breadth, and that’s how you take the Eagles through Britain.?

Bibliography and suggested reading

Roman Britain : I.A.Richmond.

Roman Dorset : John Bugler and Gregory Drew (Proc.Dorset Natural History and Arch.Soc. Vol.95,pp.57-70,1973).

The Agricola and the Germania : Tacitus.

The Great Invasion : Leonard Cottrell.

Still Digging : Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

War Commentaries of Caesar,

Southern England – An Archaeological Guide : James Dyer.

Britain in the Roman Empire : Joan Liversidge.

Iron Age Communities in Britain : Barry Cunliffe.

The Roman Army : Graham Webster,

The Roman Army : Peter Connolly,

‘By South Cadbury is that Camelot’ : Leslie Alcock.

South Western British Roman Collections : Max Hebditch, City Museum, Bristol.

Roman Sites in the Mendips, Cotswold, Wye Valley and Bristol Region : Max Hebditch and Leslie Grinsell.

The Mendip, Hills in Prehistoric and Roman Times ; John Campbell, David Elkington, Peter Fowler, and Leslie Grinsell.

Excavations in the Cathedral Close : Exeter City Museum Archaeoligical Field Unit

Exeter in Roman Times : Aileen Fox.