Discovery of Roman fort changes history of occupation of Exeter
THE discovery of the Roman fort at the St Loye's site changes much of what was previously known about the Roman occupation of Exeter and how the native population of the time was subdued.
The Roman army reached Exeter around AD 50-55 during the conquest of south-west Britain on the orders of Emperor Claudius, commanded by a future Emperor, Vespasian.
It is likely that the newly discovered fort, rectangular and of wooden construction, was used as a base to quell uprisings by local chieftains as the army sought to establish a new base on the River Exe that would be more easily defensible.
This was ultimately created on a spur overlooking the Exe — a 42-acre "playing card-shaped" legionary fortress was built. This became the base for the 5,000-strong Second Augustan Legion and home to their families as settlements grew up outside the fortress gates, especially to the north-east.
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This fortress could be defended on two sides by steep valleys. The defences and buildings of the fortress were constructed almost entirely from timber and clay. The one exception was the bath house, which had walls of volcanic stone quarried from Rougemont Hill.
It was excavated in 1971-73 beneath the Cathedral Close; the remains, now covered over, have been preserved in sand.
In about AD 75, the legion was transferred to Caerleon in South Wales and the fortress was abandoned.
A few years later work began to convert the site into a civilian town, known as Isca Dumnoniorum. Its public buildings included a forum and basilica, a market place and public baths. It was the capital of the Dumnonii tribe, a British Celtic tribe who inhabited the South West alongside the Romans.
Nothing was known of the bath house until it was excavated by the Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit in the 1970s. It lay at a depth of up to 3m below the present surface of the Cathedral Close and was covered by Saxon and medieval cemeteries.
Following excavation, the bath house was covered with sand so that it will be possible to reopen the site at some future date and place it on permanent display. The remains are among the most impressive of any Roman bath house in Britain.
Of the invasion and creation of the fortress, Professor Timothy Wiseman, part of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter, told the Echo: "During the invasion of Britain Emperor Claudius's commander in chief, Aulus Plautius, had an army of four legions, three taken from the Rhine frontier, one from the Danube.
"One of the Rhine legions was II Augusta, commanded by Titus Flavius Vespasianus. We call him Vespasian. II Augusta was given the job of pushing westwards, and we know from Suetonius' biography of Vespasian in The Twelve Caesars, written about AD 120, that 'he fought thirty battles with the enemy, and brought under control two of the strongest tribes, more than twenty strongholds, and the island Vectis, which is close to Britain'.
"Vectis is the Isle of Wight, and the two tribes were probably the Durotriges in Dorset and the Dumnonii in Devon and Cornwall.
"Vespasian's command lasted from 43 to 47, when he returned to resume his career in Rome. It's disputed just how far west he got before he was superseded, and some people think he didn't get beyond the Axe Valley. But in that case, which was Suetonius' second strongest tribe? I think it's likely he got as far as Exeter.
"The Romans consolidated their position and built a permanent legionary fortress for Legio II Augusta some time in the late 50s, by which time Nero was Emperor. That was excavated in front of the west door of Exeter Cathedral in the 1960s.
"The fortress was abandoned in the mid 70s AD, when II Augusta was transferred to Caerleon in South Wales and the Roman city of Isca Dumnoniorum was in due course built on the same site.
"In 1980 the city celebrated its 1900th anniversary on a guesstimate of when that was."
In about 180-200 the city wall was built, enclosing 93 acres, a much larger area than that of the fortress and early town. About two-thirds of the city wall remains; it has been patched and repaired over the centuries, but some original Roman masonry can still be seen.
The sites of the gates were retained in the following centuries; but little remains of the Roman grid street pattern: only the northern part of High Street follows the Roman lines.
Displays of previous Roman finds from the city and fine models of the military bath house and barracks are in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street, which is closed for development.
Roman occupation ended in the fifth century and little is known of what happened to the city until its Saxon occupation in 658, who shared ownership with the Britons.
It was following this that its development into the city we know today began.