Widecombe History Group Talk on the Romans in South West England


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Romans in Britain by Derek Gore

Britain was invaded by the Romans in AD 43 and the leader eventually became Emperor Claudius. Britain was still in what is known as The Iron Age, and the natives were no match for the highly trained and well equiped Roman Army. About 40000 well equiped troops are believed to have landed on the South and South East Coast of Britain, in the summer of that year and quickly dispersed in three directions. One group headed North, one North-West and the third is thought to have advanced into the South-West peninsular including Devon and Cornwall.

The Roman Empire stretched over most of Europe and amounted to some 60 million people. The Mediterranean was completely under their control so it is thought that they decided to capture the British Isles to the North-West as an extension to the Empire. They stayed in Britain for about 350 years.

A distribution map was shown that depicted all the known FORTS, but it was stressed that there are for sure many more to be found. Aerial Photographs have been so successful in this quest and in dry periods the outlines of these forts and other camps and buildings become visable when viewed from above. Most of these forts are considered to be ‘winter quarters’ as the Roman Army is thought to have withdrawn to these during the bad winter weather and ventured out when the summer made progress far easier. We were to consider the following during the address:- Hodhill in Dorset, Hembury in East Devon, Nanstallun (the only one known to date in Cornwall), and of course Exeter, a brief look at Charterhouse on the Mendips, and one near Tiverton showed that there were cases when the Romans took over existing Forts, those of the local Iron Age peoples.

The 1960 excavations at Hodhill show the extent that they took over the existing fort and those at Charterhouse tend to point at the proximity of the Lead and Silver Mines in those areas and within six years it is thought that they were under the control of the Romans who suppervised the working of these mines. The recent excavations on Exmoor and the Blackdown Hills prove that this theory is correct. Hembury was another Iron Age Fort taken over and controlled by a Commander by the name of Vespasian. He too became Emperor of The Roman Empire some 20 years later years.

These Roman Forts are described as being of a ‘playing card shape’ - rectangular with rounded corners and there is a good example at Bolham near Tiverton, and excavations have shown that the exsisting earth ditches were incorporated into these forts. AD47 sees the Exe Valley being occupied by the Romans who are believed to have been ruthless and brutal in the treatment of any that resisted their occupation. The natives were used as slaves, and tyrany led to most of the opposition being quashed. Then began a period of public relations, a policing operation where locals were involved, for example in helping in establishing the 41 acre site of Exeter. This was a fort for a legion of some 5000 men or more. By about AD55 the present Cathedral Green area, was a stone built bathhouse and surrounded by a mainly timber and earth fortress. This bathhouse, a form of clubhouse for recreation, had hot air underfloor heating with a mosaic floor.

The Romans also built many roads, Axminster Bypass site is a good example, simply enlargements of existing tracks, these can be found with particular effect in the alignment of the A30. East of Exeter shows this clearly and the A30 as it skirts the northern edge of Dartmoor near Sourton and as it passes on to Cornwall. These roads were vital for communication, sending messages, supplies to the forces, some have been excavated and shown to be as much as 20 mtres wide. Rivers and the sea were also used for these supply purposes as the Romans moved further west.

During the period about AD75 after conquering the peninsular, much of the Roman Army were posted into Wales.

Archaeological finds have shown that much of the pottery used by the invading forces was imported from France, Spain and other Mediterranean countries. Some tableware pottery from Lyon in France, quality food and wine containers from Spain and an example of a carrot shaped ampule from the East Mediterranean, possibly Cyprus, for holding olives, oils and wine. Other finds have shown lamps, cups, bowls and mixing bowls and pestals and mortars, these brought by merchants perhaps, for the use of the army. It has to be remembered that cross channel trading had been in existance for years before the Roman invasion. Later products from nearer to home were used, for example Poole in Dorset, and pottery from East Devon, this too transported west by boat, much of this was coarse pottery and would need to be discarded after 7 or 8 uses due to contamination.

With the control of the lead, iron and silver mines, coins would have been produced locally, and some have been found. This would have given the occupying forces means of paying some of the local ‘big-wigs’ as reward for their support. Those that chose not to cooperate would lose their status, so it not surprising that when Exeter was vacated those ‘big-wigs’ were given even more encouragement and rewards, in the form of a Tax Free status, if you do not cooperate ‘you will be taxed’.

Exeter became a "Self Governing Area" Civitas Dumnonii (ISCA City) and before long it doubled in size to a population of 2000. This was a ‘Market Forum’, an Administration Area, for Devon, Cornwall and perhaps part of Somerset, a place where business could be transacted, and here in the year 2003 AD, two thirds of the old Roman Walls still exist.

Some aerial photographs of the open countryside outside Exeter, show the sites of circular buildings, "Rudge", enclosed with a ditch. These are fortified farmsteads. These would have been producing mutton, beef, cereals and all the rest of the food necessary to maintain an army and its supporters. Romans stimulated farm production by taxation. About ten Roman Style buildings, Villas, have been traced in East Devon alone.

To summarise at one time there may well have been as many as 15000 Roman soldiers in Devon.

It is very doubtful that the Romans had much effect on Dartmoor, it has to be remembered that at that time Dartmoor was sparsely inhabited and not that productive to have been of much interest to the Romans. The vastness of the Exeter walls was mainly due to prestige, if invading forces were needed to be impressed, these thick walls would have had that effect on the locals, Britain being an island meant i

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