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, 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.
The 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.
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.