Thursday, 7 July 2016

Caerleon: the Roman Legionary Museum

The Museum
   The classical frontage of the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon was constructed in 1850 and is described in Pevsner as "the handsome and scholarly four-column Greek Doric portico of Bath stone ashlar ... by H.F Lockwood of Hull." (Ashlar is finely worked masonry). The collection inside this small but delightful building contains half a million objects from Isca (Caerleon) and Burrium (Usk) such as pots, decorative pieces, replicas and genuine Roman and Medieval  surgical instruments (on temporary exhibition) and items connected with death and burial. Other vibrant exhibits are models of soldiers in full regalia and murals depicting military scenes. Outside is a lovely peaceful Roman-style garden where you can relax during your visit. The staff are particularly knowledgeable and helpful and are always keen to answer questions and point out items. The Museum is very child-friendly.

Roman Caerleon
   Building started circa AD 75 when the then Governor of Britain, Sextus Julius Frontinus, was given the task of settling the remaining unconquered areas of the country: particularly troublesome was the tribe of this part of Wales, the Silures. He selected Isca as a prime site as it could be reached by sea-going vessels if reinforcement or extra supplies were needed and Usk had proved liable to flooding. The original defences were of turf, clay and timber which were replaced around 100 AD by stone walls and towers. The Legio II Augusta stationed here was named after the founder emperor Augustus and was part of the original invasion force. The fortress contained barrack blocks, baths, a hospital and workshops for legionary craftsmen including blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers etc. Along with Chester, it was one of the two centres designed to subdue the intractable tribes of Wales with a system of forts and roads.

    Geoffrey of Monmouth (early 12th century) cites Caerleon as one of the most important cities in Britain. Archdeacon Coxe, visiting in 1798, quotes (in a florid translation from the Latin), Giraldus Cambriensis who wrote in the 12th century: "Many remains of its former magnificence are still visible; splendid palaces which once emulated with their gilded roofs the grandeur of Rome, for it was originally built by the Roman princes, and adorned with stately edifices."  Giraldus was also impressed by the "subterraneous [sic] buildings, aqueducts, and vaulted caverns; and what appeared to me most remarkable, stoves so excellently contrived, as to diffuse their heat through secret and imperceptible pores." The last remark seems a cry from the heart of a cold wet native. The Archdeacon himself was underwhelmed by what he saw but the ruins we now know were not then fully excavated and he would have been thrilled at what modern planners have done to make the heritage accessible and exciting.

Romans as conquerors
   Although the Romans exploited Britain for metals such as the gold found in the Dolaucothi mines of Wales, they brought benefits to the country with their roads, dykes, watermills, improved agrarian practices, sophisticated mining technology and trade and, whilst proving strong rulers, tried to have some degree of integration with the native inhabitants. They did not suppress religious beliefs and offered the possibility of Roman citizenship, "Civis Romanus Sum" (I am a Roman Citizen) being one of the proudest boasts a man could make. "Civis" resonates as a word full of meaning and implication. Their occupation, though not without harshness and troubles, contrasts with that of the early Norman period with its frequent major rebellions. There was a phrase "Pax Romana" (Roman peace) to describe the stability they brought to their Empire. It is interesting that our word "virtue" comes from the Latin "virtus" meaning all the best qualities a brave man could have.

Elsewhere in Caerleon
   Opening times for this museum are posted on its website and you may also like to view the huge and impressive amphitheatre as well as the foundations of the barracks (the only such visible in Europe) and the fascinating Baths (much less crowded than those in Bath). All these sites have free entry. I have put bus details on the other posts and added suggestions of nearby places of historic interest on local bus routes. I will write about the Baths later.

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