Sunday, 24 July 2016

Caerwent - Roman Town

The Roman City of Caerwent
   Caerwent was established by the Romans around 75 A.D. as a civitas or city centre for the relocation of the tribal leadership of the local troublemakers,: it was called Venta Silurum, the market town of the Silures. They had probably lived on a nearby hill fort, Llanmelin, dating from the early Iron Age, and used the port of Sudbrook or Caldicot Pill.
   Caerwent is unique in this respect since, although it had some defences, it was not primarily a fort. The remains of its walls, originally 5.2 metres high and more than 2 metres wide at the base, are also unusual, being the most impressive town defences to survive from Roman Britain and amongst the most perfectly preserved in Northern Europe. They are 500 metres long on the south side, with 6 towers, and are constructed of limestone, sandstone and grit with pebble fillings, being held together with extremely durable cement. Caerwent (44 acres) is the only Romano-British town in Wales and was the administrative centre of Britannia Secunda, a division of early Britain.

At that Time
   As conquerors, the Romans seem to me to have pursued a policy of subjugation, pacification and integration (appropriately Latinate words!) and this is evident in their dealings with the warring and nearly intractable Silures of South East Wales. The battles with them had lasted 25 years. This civitas was a largely successful result of the whole process and in it can be seen a key to the fusion of Romano-British culture. The tribal aristocracy probably adapted to Roman practices quite quickly: from the early 3rd century there exist inscriptions of a tribal senate of the "Respublica Civitatis Silurum", a body organised on Roman lines yet retaining a local character, consisting of 100 men with responsibility for public works, registering transactions and raising taxes. There is also evidence of the amalgamation of religious practices, twinning Ocelus, an important Silurian war-god, with Mars. 

   A sophisticated way of life developed as the foundations of colonnaded shops, houses, a temple and a market place reveal - there would also have been farms, large public baths, a library, a club, lavish villas, administrative buildings and a mansio, an inn for travellers which was probably maintained financially by the Silures. Wealthier houses boasted hypocaust under-floor central heating, wall paintings and mosaic floors. The temple had a private inner shrine surrounded by a semi-circular walk and enclosed by a sacred garden or temenos. The whole was laid out in the familiar playing-card shape of Roman settlements and was, over the centuries until the 4th, enclosed within walls with towers (though at first there were probably only earthen banks with deep ditches). The rectangle was crossed by 3 streets running east to west and 4 going from north to south, providing 20 blocks or insulae where between 2000 and 3000 people lived.

The Church of St. Stephen and St. Tathan
  This church is worth a visit in its own right and it also has interesting Roman relics. In the porch are 2 carved stones: one was originally the plinth where the War Memorial stands and is in honour of Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, Venta Silurum's patron, one-time commander-in-chief of the 2nd Augustan legion at Caerleon and governor of a province of Gaul; and the other is dedicated to Ocelus Mars. There are more relics such as a Cinerary Urn, carvings and a mosaic on the floor:

   St. Tathan, despite his name and Irish ancestry, possibly arrived by sea from Gwynedd, though he may have sailed up the Severn from Ireland, where the community was facing pressure from Cunedda, chieftain of the Votadini tribe and his sons. He then founded his monastic church here, commenting on: "The good, fertile, lofty, noble city of Caerwent". This is one of the earliest Christian sites in the county, probably in Wales. He also established a college for instruction in arts an sciences. Some writers hint at the 5th century but there seems an reluctance to commit to dates, apart from a historian who states that his boat ran aground at Portskewett after being blown across the Bristol Channel circa 540 A.D  An excellent guide-book to the church is available there or on their web-site. Other relics may be seen at the museum in Newport.

Finding it all
  The remains of the temple are opposite the bus stop (where the toilets are found: remember my motto: Go before you go!) If you walk down past them and bear left you will find other foundations and, again keeping left at the turn and past a few houses, you come into Pound Lane with yet more stone bases. The next place to visit is the Church from which a lovely stone stile at the back of the churchyard leads to a quiet path and down to the walls where there is also an early Norman motte. The village and Roman remains are pleasantly quiet and relaxing.
   Caerwent is on the 73 bus route from Chepstow (where you can visit the castle or lounge by the River Wye) to Newport (where you can complete your Roman findings in the museum). I know some of you cheat (tut! tut!) and go by car: you are not far from Roman Caerleon in that case or, if you play by the rules, you can transfer to the no 60 bus or local services at Newport to go there.

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