Roman Gallery Text

Below is a copy of the text on the graphic panels in the Roman Gallery of the Corinium Museum.

FROM FORT TO TOWN

Towns were unknown in Britain before the Romans arrived.  Town life formed the basis of Roman civilization. From their arrival, the Romans sought to encourage the growth of towns, establishing a series of administrative centres or civitas capitals throughout all the tribal areas.

Many of these towns were established near to or on the sites of the pre-existing Iron Age tribal centres.  It is likely that Corinium (Roman Cirencester) was founded to replace the Iron Age Dobunnic centre at Bagendon.  Towns provided a market place for the exchange of goods, a convenient way of collecting taxes and supplies, and were used to impart Roman culture.

By 75 AD the Roman garrison at Corinium had been transferred elsewhere.  This reflected the changing military situation in the southwest, the threat from Wales having been removed.  The fort buildings and its ramparts were dismantled and ditches filled in.  The vicus or civilian settlement that had built up around the fort was sufficiently well established to survive.  It’s population increased, and it continued to act as a local market.

 

CORINIUM DOBUNNORUM

Corinium Dobunnorum, Roman Cirencester, was the second largest town in Roman Britain.   Its walls eventually enclosed 96 hectares.  The town was the tribal capital and administrative centre or civitas for the Dobunni, the pre-Roman local tribe.  It has been estimated that it had a population of between 10,000 and 20,000.  This compares to modern day Cirencester which has a population of around 18,000.

After the departure of the army the vicus was remodelled and a street grid based around Ermin Street was laid out.   The streets were laid out in straight lines at right angles to each other.  These formed rectangular plots of building land, called insulae.   These insulae measured on average 160 metres by 100 metres and were allocated for development. In the centre of the town, bordering Ermin Street, stood the main public buildings, the basilica and forum.

Shops, private houses and public buildings such as temples and baths and a theatre were built elsewhere in the town.    By the 3rd century the town was equipped with walls and monumental gateways.  The roads leading out from the gates were lined with the town’s cemeteries.

As the main market for the surrounding area, the town probably had many shops, bars and food stalls as well as public buildings.   Corinium would have been a prosperous and bustling town just like modern day Cirencester.

 

FORUM BASILICA : THE BUILDINGS

In the centre of the town, at the junction of the Fosse Way and Ermin Street, stood the forum and basilica.   This massive structure was 103 metres long.  Originally built about 110 –130 AD, it was modified in the mid 2nd century, and again at the end of 3rd or early 4th century. 

The basilica consisted of an aisled hall, approximately 85 by 26 metres. A paved apse on the southwest end accommodated the tribunal or law court.  The hall was divided into a nave and aisles by dwarf walls, which carried a colonnade.  Beyond the southeast aisle lay a range of rooms flanked by an external veranda.   Internally the basilica was decorated with mouldings of purbeck marble and parts of the walls covered in Italian marble veneer.   It contained at least one bronze statue, the eye of which was found in the apse.

Excavations show the forum consisted of a piazza 103 by 84 metres adjacent to the basilica.   The piazza was floored with flagstones and surrounded on at least two sides by a range of rooms with internal and external verandas.  Sometime in the 4th century the forum was modified.  On the northwest and northeast the porticoes were filled in and tessellated pavements inserted.   A secondary cross wall, dividing the piazza into two parts, was also added.

 

THE FORUM BASILICA : ITS FUNCTION

In the Roman world, every self-governing community would have had a forum and basilica.   The basilica housed the meetings of the town council and the local courts of justice.  The forum was the main public open space where assemblies or public ceremonies took place, markets were held and people conducted business or met their friends.   

A council, known as an ordo, administered each tribal area in Roman Britain.   It was usually about 100 strong.  Membership was limited to men of the landowning classes known as curiales or decurions.  The minimum age for membership was thirty.  The decurions were responsible for the collection of the imperial taxes. 

Each ordo had a number of elected magistrates the most important of which were the two duoviri iuridicundo. At Corinium they are recorded on a partial inscription from the Beeches Road town house.   They were assisted by two aediles who were responsible for the maintenance of public buildings. 

 

THE AMPHITHEATRE

Corinium had one of the largest amphitheatres in Roman Britain.  It was a centre for entertainments and events, which could hold the entire free adult population of the town.  Its impressive remains are still visible to the southwest of the modern town centre.

The amphitheatre was constructed in the early 2nd century AD  and was probably planned as part of the civic building programme of Corinium.  It was oval with two entrances on the long axis, one in the northeast and one in the southwest.  The original walls may have been made of timber or stone and were plastered and painted.  Sometime after the mid 2nd century it was substantially rebuilt in stone.   The seating banks, originally rising to 10 metres, had tiers of wooden seats laid on low dry stonewalls.

It is assumed that the rear terraces were for standing spectators.    It is estimated that it could accommodate 8,000 people.  By the early 4th century it had fallen into disuse.  Favourite attractions probably included gladiatorial combat, bear-baiting, animal hunts, boxing and wrestling.

 

EVIDENCE FOR OTHER PUBLIC BUILDINGS

Over the last two hundred years excavations have revealed evidence for some of the other public buildings and amenities of Roman Corinium.  These include a theatre, a meat market and possibly a temple site.

In the northwest corner of the town a structure, consisting of two concentric curved walls linked by small cross walls has been found, the overall diameter of which is 58.5 metres.  This structure has been interpreted as the foundations of a theatre. 

A cattle market lay to the southwest of the forum.   By the 2nd century a stone building occupied this site.  It consisted of a range of rooms with an external colonnaded walk.  Pits discovered around this building were filled with sawn and cut animal bones giving rise to the interpretation that it was a meat market or macellum.

The exact locations of the town’s public baths and major temples are not known.   There is evidence to suggest that the baths stood next to the macellum.  A temple enclosure, or temenos, may have existed on the   southeastern side of the Basilica where excavations revealed a courtyard surrounded on three sides by porticos.

 

SHOPS 

Butchers, bakers, cutlers, cobblers, drapers and innkeepers traded side by side in the busy shopping areas which developed around the centre of the town. 

Archaeologists have found the best-preserved shops, immediately south of the basilica, on Ermin Street. The original shops built around 80 AD were timber-framed structures with solid mortar floors.   These shops have a common plan and dimensions, and were possibly prefabricated structures.   Goods for sale were displayed on open counters, which were closed by shutters at night. 

The wooden buildings were gradually replaced by stone ones.   By the end of the 2 nd century the Ermin Street frontage was equipped with a colonnade.  Yards and alleys separated the building plots. The shopkeepers and their families often lived behind or possibly above their shops.   Some of the living quarters were furnished with mosaic floors and decorated with painted plaster.  The shops continued to be modified and used until at least the end of the 4th century. 

 

STRIP HOUSE RECONSTRUCTION

This reconstruction in the Museum shows part of a typical strip-building dating to the 3rd century.  It has an open shop at the front and part of the living accommodation at the rear.   

It represents the house of the less wealthy citizens found in the commercial areas of Roman Corinium.   The reconstruction is based on evidence from archaeological excavations undertaken in 1975 of a series of shops on the frontage of Ermin Street in St Michaels field, Cirencester.   These buildings were originally partially or wholly timber framed but some were later rebuilt in stone.  The floor is made of opus signinum, a mixture of hydrated lime and crushed tile, a cheap alternative to mosaic pavements.  There was no hypocaust heating.  The partition walls have a timber frame, which were in filled either with wattle and plaster or with limestone blocks and lime mortar.   These were then plastered and painted.

 

KITCHEN RECONSTRUCTION

This room reconstruction in the Museum shows how a kitchen in Corinium may have looked in about 200 AD.  Food was cooked over a charcoal fire on a raised stone hearth.  The cooking pots stood on iron tripods or gridirons. The pot-hanger, in the case, shows that some food was also cooked in a cauldron suspended over an open fire.

On the table are utensils and pots used for preparation and serving.   Food was often heavily seasoned with herbs and salt, spices and pepper were expensive imports used only by the rich.   A special type of bowl called a mortarium with a pouring lip and roughened inside surface was used for crushing and grinding. 

Standing by the table and leaning against the hearth are two amphorae.   These were large two-handled vessels used for transporting and storing olive oil, wine and sauces.  The circular quern stone on the floor was used for grinding corn into flour.  Some households made their own bread in small clay ovens; others would buy it from the local bakery.

 

A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE

The largest and most impressive house ever found in Roman Corinium was uncovered in Dyer Street in 1849 while digging sewer trenches.   It contained four beautifully designed mosaics, three of which date to the 2nd century AD. 

These were a marine mosaic (unfortunately now destroyed), and the Hunting Dogs and the Seasons Mosaics.

Excavations revealed part of two ranges of rooms meeting at right angles within a large stone built house, furnished with exquisite mosaics, painted wall plaster and hypocausts.   The house was of the courtyard type and probably occupied the entire northwest corner of insula XVII (40 X 32 metres).  One wing included the famous Seasons and Hunting Dogs mosaics.  Other mosaics found close by, including a marine scene and mosaic depicting Orpheus, also seem to form part of this house.  Several of the mosaics date to the mid 2nd century AD, but show later repairs, and the Orpheus mosaic was laid in the 4th century.  It seems probable that the building was constantly occupied from the 2nd to the 4th century.

 

KEEPING WARM

Some of the larger and wealthier houses in Corinium had an under floor heating system, or hypocaust.   This type of heating was also used in some public buildings and villas.

The floor of the room was supported on small columns called pilae.   These were made from square tiles cemented together, one on top of the other, or solid stone blocks.  Larger tiles bridged the spaces between the pilae and a floor was laid on top.  At one end of the house there was a stoke hole where a fire was kept burning, usually by slaves.  

The hot air and smoke circulated under the floors and up through the walls in hollow tiles, or tubuli, known today as box flue tiles.  The fumes escaped through vents at the eaves.   The system worked well although tending the fire carefully was the only means of controlling the heat, and there was a constant threat of a fire burning the house.

Only the wealthiest people could afford hypocausts.   The less well off would have heated their houses with a  fire situated in the centre of the room or by using braziers.

 

HOUSE AND HOME

The earliest houses in Corinium were timber framed structures, with tiled or thatched roofs.   The internal walls were plastered and some decorated with wall paintings.  The floors were usually brick-mortar (opus signinum) although some houses had mosaic pavements.   By the middle of the 2nd century many of these houses were replaced with new ones built in the local limestone and roofed with clay tiles.

These houses were of various forms.   The most common type were simple houses consisting of a single row of rooms linked by a corridor or portico.   The walls of the main rooms were decorated with painted plaster and gradually provided with mosaic floors.

Excavations in the town have revealed only six houses, of the more complex courtyard type, where the ranges of rooms are built around two or more sides of a courtyard.  Some of these houses had their own baths, and many had under floor heating in their main rooms.

 

THE PROPERTY LADDER

The various types of domestic buildings found in Corinium reflect not only the increasing sophistication of the town but also demonstrate the differences in wealth between the richest and poorest inhabitants.

The wealthier members of society built increasingly elaborate houses in stone, many of which were rebuilt in the 3rd and into the 4th centuries.  One of the two Beeches Road town houses had 21 rooms with five mosaic floors and two hypocausts, whereas the other had 16 rooms and no less than twelve mosaics and five hypocausts.  The largest of its three barns had been partitioned off to provide low status accommodation, presumably for the farm labourers.

The poorer members of society had to make do with simple two-roomed timber-framed structures without the elaborate decoration or central heating systems.   

From the 3rd century onwards in Corinium, as in many of the other towns of Roman Britain, as the houses of the wealthy were abandoned or demolished, the poor squatted in the ruins or constructed crude huts on top of the demolition debris.  This occupation of vacant plots within the town by the poor was associated with the continuance of elaborate rich town houses elsewhere in the town.

 

HUNTING DOGS MOSAIC

The Hunting Dogs pavement, named after the hounds of the central roundel, was found, as was the Seasons Mosaic, in Dyer Street, Cirencester in 1849.   It is a mix of two contrasting styles.  Half the pavement appears to have been re-laid in antiquity, probably the result of a partial collapse into the hypocaust. 

The original floor, which dates to the 2nd century, depicts a marine subject and includes heads of sea-gods, a medusa head and a panel containing a sea panther. 

The remainder of the pavement, which was probably laid at least a century later, is completely different.   No attempt has been made to match the original design.  Instead of filling the panels opposite the sea-gods with similar designs, one was filled with a flower and another with a plait or guilloche pattern.    Even the sea leopard is a poor copy of the original.  The central roundel is also a later addition and probably replaced one with a marine scene.

 

DINING IN STYLE 

The dining room or triclinium was the principal room of a Roman town house or villa.   It was here the family entertained their friends and guests. This room was designed to impress, with great importance being paid to its decoration. 

The Romans dined reclining on a couch.  Traditionally there were three couches arranged round three sides of a square table.  This was the triclinium, the name therefore being applied to the dining room.

This room reconstruction is based upon one of the rooms from the Dyer Street town house.  The elaborate Seasons Mosaic covered the floor, and the walls and ceilings were brightly painted with panels and friezes.  The mosaic depicts figures associated with Bacchus, the god of wine, a suitable subject for a dining room.

The room would have had little furniture by modern standards.    Couches, small tables and chairs were usually the only items. The furniture was made of wood, basketry and very occasionally of carved shale.

 

FOOD AND DRINK

Archaeologists can find out what people in Roman Corinium were eating by studying remains from excavations.   Rubbish pits often contain animal and fish bones, seeds and grains. 

Beef and mutton were eaten along with pork.   Chicken, ducks and geese were also represented. Fish does not seem to have been a main part of the diet although salmon bones have been found.  The majority of the diet was made up of cereals, pulses and vegetables.

Wealthy Romano-Britons had slaves for their kitchen work, but many poorer people had no kitchens and probably only ate hot food in bars or taverns.  The rich drank wine while the poor made do with beer or water.

Roman authors give us a good idea of the diet of richer people.   The main meal of the day could be quite lavish and consist of a number of courses as the menu below shows.

First Course – Gustatio

Oysters

Mussels

Snails fattened on milk

Beetroot, endive and radish salad

Main Course – Fercula

Boiled ham with honey baked in a pastry case

Roast peacock, served with a spice sauce

Roast venison

Roast suckling pig

Stuffed dormice

Vegetables;

Asparagus, cabbage, parsnips and turnips

Dessert

Plums, cherries, quinces, pomegranates and grapes

Pastry cases filled with honey

Raisins, dates and nuts

Bordeaux Wine

 

THE SEASONS MOSAIC

The Seasons Mosaic was found in Dyer Street, Cirencester in 1849.  It dates to the mid 2nd century and is one of the most impressive pavements ever found in Roman Britain.  The mosaic depicts the four seasons and scenes from Roman mythology, which are associated with Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility.

The mosaic was originally composed of nine octagons, of which three are now missing.   Each octagon framed a roundel containing a figurative panel.  One of the missing roundels depicted Bacchus.  In the centre roundel, the forelegs of a horse survived possibly depicting a centaur, which are often depicted as followers of Bacchus.

Only three of the original four corner roundels, depicting the seasons, survive:

Spring: Flora, goddess of flowers, wearing a garland.

Summer: Ceres, goddess of agriculture, carrying a sickle.

Autumn: Pomona, goddess of the orchard, carrying a pruning knife.

Winter:   Now missing, probably depicted a hooded goddess holding a bare branch. 

The other two complete roundels represent Silenus, guardian of the god Bacchus, riding on a donkey, and Actaeon the hunter, being transformed into a stag and attacked by his own dogs as a punishment for spying on the goddess Diana bathing.   In two surviving small squares between the octagons are a head of Medusa and a Bacchante or follower of Bacchus.

 

A TIME OF CHANGE

From 235 AD the Roman Empire was rocked by a half century of civil war and internal chaos, with no fewer than twenty-six emperors ruling in that period.    This was accompanied by devastating epidemics, runaway inflation and invasions by northern barbarians.  As a result the structure of Roman society changed and it became increasingly militarized and regimented. 

In 286 AD, a Roman general called Carausius established an independent kingdom in Britain, which lasted for ten years until it was reunited with the Empire. Under the harsh conditions of the 3rd century robber bands appeared in many parts of the Empire.  Many people fleeing the heavy tax demands and compulsory public service swelled these bands. Those who suffered the heaviest economic burdens were the town decurions, who were liable with their own property for imperial taxes due from the local population

As the century progressed professions, the social structure, and employment became hereditary.    Peasants became tied to the land they farmed.  This was an attempt to maintain the tax base.  These changes in society divided people into two classes, the upper known as honestiores or potentiores and the rest being called humiliores or coloni.  The humiliores were forced to seek the protection of the honestiores, anticipating the medieval feudal system. 

 

THE RISING COST OF LIVING

Inflation, whereby the price of goods rises and the purchasing power of money decreases, was part of life in Roman Britain.   In the 3rd century as a result of mounting inflation, the emperors resorted to reckless debasement of the coinage.  Ultimately the government refused to accept its own coinage for many taxes and insisted on payment in kind. 

By the late 3rd century inflation in the Roman Empire had reached staggering proportions. The full effects of this inflation can only be guessed at.  To counter this problem the emperor Diocletian, issued a price edict in 301 AD.  This fixed the maximum prices chargeable for goods and services throughout the Empire.

In this list, a day’s pay would be 50 denarii:

A pair of workman’s boots Two and a half day’s pay
A pair of women’s shoes One day’s pay
A soldier’s cloak of best quality Eighty days’ pay
A shirt Twelve days’ pay
A commoner’s or slave’s loin cloth Four to eight days’ pay
  Denarii per day
Shepherds, farm labourers 20-25
Linen Weaver 40
Stonemason, cabinet maker, carpenters, lime burners, mosaic worker, wagon wright, blacksmith  50
Wall mosaic artist, shipwright of sea going vessels  60
Wall painters, plaster model makers 75
Figure painters 150

Other payments were reckoned on piece rates so it is therefore impossible to guess the average earnings of, for example, an armour polisher who was paid 100 denarii per scabbard, or a top class goldsmith who received 2,400 denarii for each ounce of gold he worked.

The scale of teachers pay reflects the order of importance the Romans placed on the subjects which were taught.

  Denarii per pupil per month
Gymnastics 50
Arithmetic or shorthand 75
Architecture 100
Greek and Latin literature, Geometry 200
Rhetoric 250

Each of the items on the following list could be bought for 50 denarii:

One half measure of wheat (enough for three weeks or more)

Almost a whole measure of barley

A quarter measure of rice

One third of a pint of best olive oil

Two pints of good wine

Twelve pints of Gallic beer

Twenty-five pints of Egyptian beer

4lb pork

1½ lb of pork sausage

One fifth of a fattened pheasant

Two chickens

One dozen dormice

Fifty oysters

Twenty-five artichokes

Fifty eggs

6 lb cream cheese

 

CORINIUM : A PROVINCIAL CAPITAL

In the early 4th century the emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into twelve regions or Dioceses and these were subdivided into provinces.  The Diocese of Britain was divided into four provinces (Britannia Maxima Caesarensis, Prima, Secunda and Flavia Caesarensis).  Britannia Prima probably took in the whole of the south west of Britain and Wales. It is likely that Corinium was its capital.

Evidence from many of the other towns of Roman Britain suggests that they were in decline in the 4th century with their public buildings neglected or deserted.  Corinium was different; its occupation continued and peaked about 350 AD.  It is possible that a new palace for the Praeses (governor) and a church for the metropolitan bishop of the province were built at this time.  Certainly the town’s defences were maintained and modified by the addition of bastions.   Finds of large numbers of late Roman military fittings suggest the presence of the Roman army or at least government officials.  The refurbishment of the Basilica Forum complex also shows a continuing if not enhanced, administrative function.  However some areas of the town were deliberately cleared, possibly for the storage of taxes in kind (the Annona).

Up to the end of the century a number of large town houses were built or refurbished, including the Beeches Road town house.   These may have been the houses of the administrative aristocracy, although some were possibly the centres of agricultural estates working land outside the town walls.

 

TOWN AND COUNTRY

The establishment and growth of Roman Cirencester with its large population would have provided a ready market for agricultural produce.  Its effect is perhaps most marked in the intensification and restructuring of agricultural activity and production in the upper Thames valley between Fairford and Lechlade especially at Claydon Pike.

During the economic crisis in the 3rd century peasant farmers and small landowners deserted agricultural land.   Around Corinium, this may be reflected by the growth of increasingly elaborate large villas.  It may well indicate the concentration of land in the hands of a few powerful individuals and the growth of huge agricultural estates.

By the 4th century the collection of taxes in kind, the Annona, would have had a dramatic effect on the relationship between town and country.  Increasingly the government required more and more supplies from the countryside.   The presence of Roman soldiers or officials is attested, by finds of military style belt fittings, on many of the villa sites (Chedworth), small towns (Kingscote) and even villages and farmsteads. This is almost certainly associated with the overseeing of the collection of taxes.

 

A SMALL TOWN

The Roman settlement at Kingscote lies 18 kilometres west of Cirencester.   The site covers 30 hectares and was occupied from the late 1st century AD through to its heyday in the 4th century.  It may have been a small town or  villa estate.

Several areas of the settlement have been excavated.   One site produced evidence of a series of strip buildings replaced in the 4th century by a house within a walled compound.  The house had mosaic floors, including the Venus Mosaic displayed here, hypocausts and high-quality wall-plaster paintings.

Agricultural activities probably formed one of the main occupations of the settlement. There was also evidence of several industries including metalworking, carpentry, masonry and leather working.

The presence of some finds of metalwork decorated with symbolism associated with the imperial family, has led some scholars to suggest that the settlement formed part of an Imperial estate.   Certainly evidence in the form of military style belt-fittings suggests an official presence in the later 4th century.

 

THE KINGSCOTE WALL PLASTER

The wall painting was recovered from the same room as the Kingscote Mosaic.   It has been reconstructed from thousands of fragments.   The painting is believed to represent a continuous scene depicting Venus and Cupid with the armour of the god Mars.  The other figures in the scene are thought to represent other gods and goddesses.   The wall painting was executed in a fresco technique, i.e. painted while the plaster was still wet.  It is probably contemporary with the mosaic and so dates to the end of the 3rd or early 4th century AD.

 

THE ROMAN ARMY IN THE 4TH CENTURY

At the end of the 3rd century AD, the reforms of Diocletian dramatically increased the size of the Roman army.  The emperor Constantine and his successors changed its nature.  They built up more centralized mobile field armies often billeted in towns and drawn from the frontier garrisons.  

By the 4th century, the army and possibly the civil service had become hereditary castes and were readily identifiable by their uniforms and accessories such as belt fittings and brooches.  Outside forts and near towns soldiers were buried with their clothing, brooches, knives, and military belts.  After London, Corinium has produced the largest assemblage of 4th century military equipment found in any urban area of Roman Britain. Indeed when the rural distribution around the town is plotted Corinium appears to be the centre of the largest distribution of this type of equipment in Roman Britain.  The volume of such finds must reflect the town’s status as a provincial capital and it is probable that it was a centre for their manufacture and distribution.

Whether these represent the presence of civil servants or field army units in the town cannot be stated with any certainty.   However, many of the finds indicate a military and administrative presence up to the very end of the 4th century.

 

END OF ROMAN CORINIUM

The collapse of the Rhine frontier and the fall of Roman Gaul (France) to Germanic invaders in 407 AD effectively severed Britain from the rest of the Empire.   The subsequent failure of the Roman state to re-establish its garrison and administration marked the end of Roman Corinium.   

In 410 AD the Emperor Honorius wrote to the cities of Roman Britain telling them they could no longer expect any military help from him, and to look to their own defences.    As a provincial capital Corinium was dependent on the political and economic infrastructure of the Roman Empire.  Without it the town collapsed and its inhabitants drifted to the countryside.

Undoubtedly some houses were actively maintained up to the early years of the 5th century, but evidence for public buildings is lacking.  There are traces of squatter occupation from a handful of sites within the town as late as the end of the first quarter of the 5th century, but there is no evidence to suggest a continued urban existence or administrative presence.  Likewise evidence from the upper Thames Valley at Claydon Pike shows that in the early 5th century much of the land and buildings were abandoned, the town of Corinium, the main market for its produce, having collapsed. The drainage ditches became blocked and the site