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Roman York: Its Life from Its Antiquities

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On account of its importance as the chief military base in Britain, York (then called Eboracum) has a prominent position in the references to the island during the four centuries when it formed a province of the Roman Empire.

At Eboracum two famous emperors died, and the proclamation of a successor in one instance and- perhaps both-took place there; and besides these events of imperial consequence, it was there that the organization of great military operations took place. It is because of these outstanding occurrences that the town with its strongly fortified legionary base has sometimes been described as the capital of Roman Britain. But it was never that. Its geographical position gave it importance as a base for operations against the barbarians of the northern half of the island but deprived it of consequence as a convenient position for commercial and administrative purposes. Therefore it should be borne in mind throughout that York in Roman times was primarily a military centre. It is probable that had it been decided to remove the base of the Legion further north, to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, York would have languished and shrunk, but the very last reference to Britain's defences places the Sixth Legion at Eboracum, and the place was therefore busy and important right up to the end of the period.

In spite of the fact that York has been occupied as a city ever since the Dark Age, it has managed to preserve considerable relics of its Roman period, and by means of them it is possible to re-create the life which took place there to a considerable extent.

It was not until about a.d. 71, or twenty-eight years after the conquest of southern Britain by the Emperor Claudius, that York is heard of, although the site seems to have been an important tribal town or perhaps the capital of the Brigantes, that most powerful tribe occupying a large but uncertain territory extending from the Humber to the Tyne and stretching across England to Lancashire and the Westmorland hills. The Roman governor of Britain at this time was Petillius Cerealis, and as he selected the place as his military base and was responsible for the first entrenched Roman camp there, he may be regarded as the founder of the Roman colony. His successor, the famous Agricola, found no better sue for a great military headquarters in this part of Britain, and therefore the first temporary camp of the Ninth Legion developed into a permanent one.

The presence of this busy military centre with its many needs, to which the locality could contribute so materially, led to the development on the opposite side of the river Ouse of a busy colony which eventually was sufficiently important to be raised to the rank of a " unicipium." It is not easy at the present time to trace the evidences of the Brigantian town on the site, but enough has been found to indicate the existence of a British centre of life. It may be that the north bank of the Ouse, where the great legionary camp was established, was unoccupied, and that the first camp was placed immediately opposite the Brigantian town which was already a convenient centre of roads and waterways. It was the famous and ill-fated Ninth Legion which began the work of creating a Roman centre of military life at York, latinising the British name, which may have been Aberach or Ebrauch, or something similar, from which was produced Eboracum.

From what has survived of the great fortress it is possible to re-create something of the appearance and the life of the military base. The area enclosed by the massive walls was fifty-three acres, and the length of the front towards the river was four hundred and sixty-eight yards. Like most of the known Roman fortresses, the plan was an oblong and not a square, there were great bastions at the angles facing the Ouse, and the chief gate, the Porta Praetoria, was midway between them. This principal entrance had double archways flanked by square towers which were heavily buttressed on the outer side. The angle bastion which faces the west is well preserved, and adjoining it in the garden of the Yorkshire Museum there stands a long length of the curtain wall in a remarkably fine state of preservation. It is about twenty-two feet in height and half-way up the stonework is broken by courses of Roman bricks.

It seems fairly clear that the castra was originally built with rounded angles such as that to the east which has lately been uncovered, and that at a later period, perhaps at the beginning of the fourth century, when it was thought desirable to strengthen the river front, multangular angle bastions were added.

A very remarkable survival of the defences of the north-west side of the fortress was discovered in about 1840, when the medieval wall standing upon its earthen mound was cut through. On removing the earth a long length of the Roman structure was laid bare-and then destroyed! A mound had been raised in the Roman period upon which were erected at intervals turrets for the accommodation, it seemed, of additional artillery, for one of them showed, level with the top of the wall, worn channels apparently caused by the moving of some heavy machine upon it. This would doubtless have been a ballista, which threw stones or large iron-headed wooden bolts, or perhaps a scorpio or catapult, a lighter machine which slung stones. The turret was destroyed, but farther along the wall in the direction of the multangular bastion there still exists a stone-built chamber some twelve feet in height and 6 ft. 6 in. wide. This is roofed by a simple barrel vault of stone and is the only Roman structure of its kind existing in England to-day. At the present time entrance to the chamber is attained through an opening made in the wall itself, and unfortunately a layer of soil four or five feet in thickness which has accumulated upon the floor prevents one from seeing the structure in its proper proportion, in fact the arched entrance in the side only shows its semicircular head, the rest of it being hidden by the soil. Notwithstanding this, one can easily enter the little chamber standing upright and find oneself under a Roman roof, which it is only possible to do elsewhere at Colchester. There, however, the vaulting of the substructure of the castle is of such rough rubble work that it is unconvincing in its appearance.

This is not the only Roman roof still extant in York, for on the Mount, south-west of Micklegate Bar, there can still be seen a spacious burial vault of one of the Romano-British inhabitants which is as perfect to-day as when it was closed in some sixteen hundred years ago. In this case the barrel roof is of concrete; in the chamber on the wall it is of dressed stones. It is not clear what was the purpose of the structure built against the castra wall, but it might well have been a storehouse for ammunition.

Such survivals of the defences of the great legionary camp as this little chamber and the polygonal bastion adjoining help one to visualise in a fairly clear fashion the whole appearance of the fortress, although recent discoveries show, that the various faces did not present similar features, a projecting tower having been found on the south-west front, while elsewhere, except at the two angles mentioned, the structures found have all been internal.

The light which has been shed upon the development of the defences of Roman York as the result of excavations which have taken place at the eastern angle and on the two faces adjoining enables one to form more accurate impressions than had hitherto been possible. It now seems very probable that the first earthen rampart with its ditch and walls of turf, perhaps strengthened with turrets of timber, was replaced with a stone wall in the reign of the Emperor Trajan, for there was found at York in the ditch outside the Roman south-east gateway an inscription (now in the Yorkshire Museum) commemorating a work of some importance in the year 108-9, and there is nothing so probable as the construction of a more permanent defence.

Where the excavations were carried out in 1925 it was found that an earlier wall was at a subsequent date replaced by a much stronger-one just within it. When this took place it is not easy to say. It is possible that it occurred soon after a.d. 120, about which year the Ninth Legion met with a disaster so complete that it entirely disappears from history. If that defeat, wherever it took place, resulted in the destruction of the base camp with its somewhat weak defences, then the later and much stronger wall is easily explained.

It is, however, possible that the alluvial slope upon which the wall was built towards the east caused it to give way after a comparatively short number of years; or there is a third suggestion, which points to the period of tierce warfare with the Caledonians early in the reign of Commodus, when the country north of Hadrian's Wall had to be abandoned, and it has been thought possible that the fighting included York.

The second wall built around the camp was 6 feet in thickness and stood 12 ft. 6 in. above its concrete foundation. The angles were rounded and had internal towers for artillery and other purposes. This, at any rate, appears to have been the case at the angles facing east and north, for at the former, which has been excavated, there seems to have been no external bastion or tower, whereas towards the river these, as already mentioned, were added at a time of increasing danger.

On account of the very careful bonding of the bastion with the curtains and the continuity of the courses of brickwork, it has been suggested that at the western angle a rebuilding took place subsequent to the date of the wall recently laid bare at the eastern corner of the castra. If this be proved correct, it may be that the camp walls facing the river suffered during a period of warfare late in the third or early in the fourth century, or, failing that, it is possible that some subsidence of the ground had made a reconstruction necessary.

It certainly seems clear that the river front was the most exposed to attack, and the fact that the western portion of it has survived to our own times is not a little remarkable and adds very great interest to this monument of military Rome in Britain.

Some traces of the pavement and the stone channelling of the street which led from the Porta Prae-toria facing the river to the Via Principalis have been found in Stonegate, a picturesque old street which now represents the Via Praetoria. This led directly to the Praetorium, which was situated, no doubt, where now the Minster stands. It is more than likely that the choice of this site for King Edwin's "noble basilica of stone" may have been brought about by the existence on the spot of a ruined Roman structure which might be easily repaired and converted into a fine church. Indications of another Roman building of some importance are still existing in the Treasurer's House (in Chapter House Street), and in many places throughout the area of the camp have been found traces of the walls of buildings, pile foundations and the paving of streets.

The army life within and without the walls of the camp went on close to the civilian town which faced it on the opposite bank of the Ouse. It was only necessary to cross the bridge to enter the colony, whose backbone was no doubt formed by retired veterans of the legion. But it should be remembered that the legionary soldier from the reign of Hadrian could be recruited locally, and thus the veteran was often a Briton or, failing pure British stock, had very often a Brigantian mother, and if everybody in the civilian portion of Eboracum spoke Latin it is exceedingly likely that the majority, if not four-fifths of the population, also spoke the local British dialect.

In time the town grew and spread up the hill now called the Mount and many stately buildings were erected. They have all vanished, and the modern ground surface is from six to twelve feet above the level upon which the Romano-British population dwelt. At a depth of over eight feet were found in situ the bases of about a dozen columns no less than three feet in diameter. They belonged quite probably to a temple standing beside the main street of the town which led to the bridge and also to the castra.

On the other side of this thoroughfare, whose existence was proved by the discovery of long lengths of paving in two places, were baths which appear to have covered a considerable space of ground not far from the existing walls of the city. It was only by accident that these interesting remains came to light, and the building operations were gushed on so rapidly that they were destroyed piecemeal, making it difficult to obtain a true idea of the arrangements of the different buildings; but in spite of this a plan was made, and in the Yorkshire Museum there is a small model of the foundations and also the actual brick furnace by means of which one of the hypocaust installations was heated.

Close to the baths was found an inscription (also in the museum) recording the dedication of a temple to Serapis, the Egyptian god of healing The building was due solely to the generosity of a general of the Sixth Legion, whose name was Claudius Hieronymianus. Besides this it is known that there were temples in Eboracum to Hercules, Bellona, the Divine Majesty of the Emperors and to the soldiers' god Mithras. To this last there was found in Micklegate a sculptured slab which has fortunately been preserved and is in the museum. It shows Mithras in the usual position in the act of sacrificing a bull, but the stone is fairly soft and the details are not so perfect as in the case of a similar sculptured stone which has been discovered in London.

Of mosaic pavements the three found in York were all north of Micklegate. One of them was destroyed, although fortunately a careful drawing of it was made before this act of vandalism took place. There can be little doubt that this had been the floor of a dining-room or triclinium, for into the design were introduced a representation of deer and, strangely enough, joints of venison. The choice of such a subject for the decorating of a Roman or indeed any floor is, I think, quite unique.

The cemeteries of Roman York were, as to be expected, on the roadways leading away from the town, and the most important appears to have been that to the south-west along the highway from the capital and between it and the river. It was mainly due to the construction of the present railway station that the majority of the discoveries were made. The number of massive and somewhat roughly hewn stone sarcophagi which were found was remarkable. Many were without inscriptions, and some of them are still near the sites where they were discovered, no one having troubled to move them.

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Pictures for Roman York: Its Life from Its Antiquities

A fragment of Empire
A fragment of Empire >>>>
Plan of Eboracum, the Roman city that has become York
Plan of Eboracum, the Roman city that has become York >>>>
Traces of Eboracum kept in the Yorkshire museum
Traces of Eboracum kept in the Yorkshire museum >>>>
Life-size statue found in a garden
Life-size statue found in a garden >>>>
Family monument of a Roman soldier
Family monument of a Roman soldier >>>>
York, City of two Empires: the Roman wall and Minister
York, City of two Empires: the Roman wall and Minister >>>>

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