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One of the great achievements of the Roman occupation of Britain was the establishment of towns as administrative and commercial centres. Iron Age Britain only had small farming communities and hillforts, so Roman towns (with all their amenities and civic buildings) came as quite a shock to the local population.
Modern day St Albans in Hertfordshire was a thriving town in Roman times, known as Verulamium. It was one of the largest towns in Roman Britain, along with Colchester (Camulodunum), Cirencester and London (Londinium).
Verulamium was in South East England. The town was built on the River Ver and was connected to other towns by important Roman roads such as Watling Street, which ran from London, through Verulamium and on to Chester. It was in the territory of the Celtic tribe called the Catuvellauni, a very powerful group.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Roman town of Verulamium was built at least partly on top of a Celtic settlement that already existed, although it is unclear whether the natives were forced off their land or whether they willingly allowed the building of the town. The pre-Roman town was called Verlamio (or something very similar) which means the place above the marsh. Before the Roman invasion, the landscape was probably pasture and farmland, with some wooded areas. There would have been a substantial Celtic population, who then became some of the early settlers of the Roman town.
The town may have begun with the foundation of a small fort. Ramparts have been found, but if this is the case, it was probably abandoned by 49 AD.
History of Roman St Albans
Verulamium has an interesting history. It was one of the first towns to be founded after the Invasion. Early Verulamium seems to have been a modestly sized town with a small street grid, all on the west bank of the river. It was the civitas capital for the Catuvellauni – their administrative centre, established by the Romans.
By 52 AD, the town was developing, though it was still not especially large during this period, with only a few workshops, shops and a few luxury buildings, which may not even have been completed. There were still many people living in the farming settlements around the edge of the growing town.
The most important period in the history of Verulamium is probably Boudicca's Revolt. Boudicca and her army of Iceni, Trinovantes and possibly other tribes, sacked the town, along with Colchester and London. Verulamium was razed to the ground. The Roman historian Tacitus says that the inhabitants who did not leave were slaughtered mercilessly. There is no mention of a defence by the army, implying that there certainly was no permanent military presence in the immediate area at this time.
Verulamium began to be rebuilt and to expand in the years after the Revolt, during and after the reign of the Emperor Nero. Unfortunately, it suffered more devastation and loss during another fire, which archaeologists have dated to between 155 AD and 160 AD. Excavations show that about a third of the main town was destroyed. The town was again rebuilt and continued to be prosperous until the 4th Century, when it seems to have gone downhill somewhat. There was renovation and new building, but the population was dwindling and so was the wealth of the town. Surprisingly, after the Romans departed in about 410 AD, Roman buildings - including private houses and public works such as streets and water pipes - were maintained for some time. Gradually, though, occupation of Verulamium moved away from the Roman town to the nearby site of the martyrdom of St Alban, the site of the current town1.
As one of the main towns in Roman Britain (particularly during its early days), Verulamium was an important administrative centre. As already mentioned, Verulamium was the civitas capital for the Catuvellauni – that is, it was the Roman equivalent of a modern British county town. It was therefore used for administering justice, storing the taxes of the local people and so on.
It was also important for commerce. Locals would have travelled to Verulamium for regular markets, exchanging their own goods for other essential or luxury items. Trade was an important part of life in Roman times and Verulamium was the perfect place to sell local farm produce. It was easily accessible to all, whether buying or selling, due to the presence of Watling Street and the other Roman roads. Produce could be taken to or from London (by now a major trading centre) in about a day.
Verulamium was not just a centre for trade and administration. Although most likely not the site of any real military presence, it was still occupied by Romans as well as locals. Rich inhabitants would have a townhouse as well as a villa or country estate.
The defences of the pre-Roman settlement of Verlamio were earthworks and this policy was continued in the early Roman period. One of these was found in 1955 and has (with great originality) been named the '1955 ditch' as a result of this. It was constructed in the mid-first century, perhaps after Boudicca's Revolt, as defence to prevent similar occurrences in the future. It is about 19.7 feet wide by 9.8 feet deep2 in parts. Houses were being built over it by the mid second century, and it was levelled in about 160 AD. A great earthwork known as the Fosse replaced it.
The Fosse was 42.7 feet wide by 13.1 feet deep3 with a large bank. It may have originally enclosed the whole of south-eastern Verulamium. It has been dated to the early 2nd Century AD, and it enclosed an area measuring approximately 200 hectares.
The Roman town wall was built in the early third century. The wall was originally 2.3 miles long, 8.2 feet thick and 13.1 feet high4 (height of the wall is conjectural as none remains to its full height) and enclosed 81 hectares. Only fragments remain above ground, but portions underground show that the wall was faced with dressed flint, with narrow layers of tiles laid horizontally along the wall at intervals of about 3.3 feet5, as was the Roman fashion. There was a huge ditch in front of the wall and strong bastions and towers on the south side of the wall, which seem to serve no particular strategic purpose. Perhaps they were just intended to make the town seem more impressive to anyone approaching from London.
At first, many of the inhabitants of Verulamium were presumably Catuvellauni who had decided to live in these new Roman surroundings. Others were Romans, originally those connected with the army, then traders and shopkeepers later on. Many would be farmers, some craftsmen, and a few were the local elite, staying for a while in their townhouses, while they conducted business or served as local officials.
Remains of Verulamium
Today, Roman remains can be seen in the Verulamium Museum and Roman Town which includes mosaics, a hypocaust6 and other finds such as coins, and a statue of the Roman goddess Venus. You can also visit the site of the Roman theatre.