Roman Caerwent: history of Venta Silurum
Caerwent lies on a low gravel hillock in the middle of the broad open Nedern valley, just over 3 km from the River Severn and close to the river’s crossing point in ancient times at Sudbrook. There is no evidence for pre-Roman Iron Age occupation in the city, which lies on the main Roman road from the colony at Gloucester (Glevum) in the east, to the legionary fortress at Caerleon (Isca) in the west.
The walled area of Venta Silurum covers some 18 ha. (44 acres), making it one of the smallest public cities in Roman Britain (its maximum population is estimated at just 2,500-4,000). The street grid divided the interior of the city into 20 insulae (literally ‘islands’ or blocks) and the most important public buildings were located in the centre facing on to the main road known as the decumanus, including the forum-basilica (market square and city hall) in Insula VIII and the large public baths opposite in Insula XIII.
A large well-appointed rectangular courtyard building in Insula XVIII against the south wall has been interpreted from its ground plan as possibly the city’s mansio (official resting place or inn), while the large elliptical structure in Insula IV in the north of the walled area was thought for many years to have been the city’s amphitheatre, although a livestock market is now considered more likely.
Numerous narrow-fronted strip buildings continued along the decumanus in the city’s centre, though these disappeared towards the gates where they were replaced by large stone courtyard buildings, which were found further away from the centre towards the north and south circuit walls too.
Unlike several other towns and cities in Roman Britain, Venta Silurum does not seem to have had extramural settlements. The recent geophysical surveys found no evidence for occupation outside the city gates, nor did they locate the presence of extensive cemeteries along the main road to the east or the west (Roman law stipulated that the dead had to be buried outside the urban boundaries). The only evidence for extramural burials comes from the Vicarage Orchard excavations in 1911 and 1912 just beyond the east gate, where a large octagonal building within a circular enclosure was discovered that it is thought was a temple or perhaps a mausoleum (30 late- and post-Roman burials were found nearby).
Roman high-status masonry buildings identified as villas have been identified at Five Lanes west of Caerwent and at Whitwell Brake (also known as Castle Tump), north of the city in the old Royal Naval Propellant site.
The native tribe in south-eastern Wales was known to the invaders as the Silures, who first came into contact with the Roman army as early as 48. Despite determined resistance, the Silures and the other tribes in Wales were eventually defeated by 77. The Roman city of Venta Silurum records the tribal name in its own romanised title (‘of the Silures’, or ‘Silurian’), and its foundation marked a significant turning point in the fortunes of the population of south Wales.
The area to the east of the River Usk had been under Roman military control from the early 50s and it has been suggested that the Iron Age hillfort at Llanmelin, situated 2 km north of Caerwent, could have served as a tribal centre of the pre-Roman Silures (though this is far from certain).
The first settlement at Caerwent seems to have consisted of a small industrial and commercial development spread out along the main road, concentrated towards the centre of the later city. A pottery kiln and an adjacent timber strip-building at Pound Lane (Insula VII) are dated to 65-85, while another wooden strip-building beneath the later temple in Insula IX was constructed before 100 (it is possible that the public baths in Insula XIII are also late 1st or early 2nd century). For many years it was believed that a conquest-period auxiliary fort must have existed at the site before the city’s foundation, but no evidence of a fort has been discovered and the notion that a military occupation predated Venta can be discounted.
After their final and total defeat in 77, the Silures and the other British tribes in Wales would have been treated as peregrini dediticii: the legal status of a conquered people who had surrendered unconditionally and, therefore, had ceased to exist as a political entity (although legally free, they had few rights other than as subjects of Rome). Dediticii most likely would have been governed directly by Roman military commanders and it has been suggested that the recently discovered complex of public buildings outside the fortress at Caerleon was where the earliest administration of the conquered Silures and other tribes in south Wales was located. After a period of time, however, the Silures left their defeated status behind and became a semi-autonomous civitas peregrina; the title given to communities of free provincial subjects of Rome who were not full Roman citizens.
The decision to elevate the Silures to the rank of civitas must have been taken by the highest authorities in Roman Britain, who would have conferred the new status on behalf of the emperor. The same authorities also are likely to have provided, or assisted in the provision of, the infrastructure necessary for the Roman Silures to fulfil the obligations this new legal standing brought with it; obligations that included, for example, standing for public office, maintaining the pax romana and collecting taxes, elite benefaction and public munificence etc. Each civitas had a ‘capital city’ where their administrative and other public functions were located, many of which also bore the same tribal epithets. Venta Silurum was the capital of the Civitas Silurum and the city was not just the ‘Market of the Silures’, but also the seat of local government for much of south Wales.
We know from epigraphic evidence that the body responsible for governing the civitas was the ordo respublicae civitatis Silurum (‘council of the community of the Civitas of the Silures’), whose members, the decuriones, would have assembled in the curia (council chamber), which has been identified in Caerwent’s forum-basilica. The council’s title is recorded on a statue base erected in the early years of the 3rd century to honour Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, previously commanding officer of the legion at Caerleon and a patron of the Civitas Silurum (the statue almost certainly would have stood in the forum piazza where the council’s gratitude to their patron would have been clear for all to see). The ‘Paulinus Stone’ can be seen in the porch of the Church of St Stephen and St Tathan.
The council would have been established at the same time the Silures received their new status of civitas peregrina and the construction of Venta’s basilica, with the council chamber, must have occurred very soon afterwards. Excavation of the forum-basilica revealed a well preserved sequence of building deposits that can be closely dated by coins and pottery to 115-20, which is a good estimate for the formal date of the creation of the Civitas Silurum. The decision to construct the forum-basilica at Caerwent marked a very significant turning point in the fortunes of the Silures, for whom the building represented (or projected), a new beginning.
The early expectation, however, seems to have been that the Silures were not able to sustain a large densely-packed city and, consequently, Venta Silurum was one of the smallest civitas capitals in Roman Britain. Perhaps the Roman planners took account of a small tribal population, or maybe a more modest expectation of acculturation on the part of the civitas’s inhabitants.. Although it seems likely that Venta Silurum was never a densely inhabited place or a centre of industry or manufacturing, it was the first and most important urban centre in Wales and the seat of Roman government, commercial exchange and consumption for the civitas of the Silures.
On the basis of the currently available (but limited) evidence, it appears that Venta Silurum expanded during the 2nd and 3rd centuries as the street grid was extended and occupation spread out from the city’s public centre and along the decumanus.
The extensive excavations of the early 20th century revealed several other public buildings, including at least two bath-houses and a temple. Unfortunately, these investigations were only able to identify the remains of masonry buildings, mainly thought to be late Roman in date (possibly incorrectly), and we do not know if these buildings were contemporary, or if smaller timber-built structures would have filled the spaces in-between the stone buildings (as was the case in Insula IX at Silchester after the second half of the 3rd century).
The more recent excavations at Pound Lane and the Romano-Celtic Temple site located sequences of narrow-fronted strip buildings along the decumanus (the former were replaced by a large courtyard building in the 4th century, the latter by the temple). The strip buildings disappeared away from the centre and were replaced by large stone courtyard buildings, a building type also found elsewhere in the walled area. The excavation of one of these courtyard buildings in Insula I showed the plot was first occupied in the later 2nd century before being rebuilt in the late 3rd century and then replaced again in the early 4th century with a substantial high-status house with mosaic floors, painted walls and underfloor heating.
Many other late mosaics are known from Caerwent, and the overall impression is of a Romano-British city with a small industrial and commercial centre around the centre, and large comfortable houses filling the remaining open spaces enclosed by the city’s boundaries.
The city’s walls are one of Caerwent’s Roman highlights and those on the south side are particularly impressive. The walls that we see today, however, were only the latest manifestation of the city’s urban boundary, which would have been first laid out at the time of Venta Silurum’s official foundation. The earliest surviving boundary consisted of an earth rampart with a ditch in front, thought to date to the later 2nd century. The rampart was some 10 m wide and would have been surmounted by a timber palisade and walkway. Four stone gates allowed access into and from the city, of which the east and west gates on the main road were the largest, while those on the north and south sides were much narrower (more like posterns than main access points).
A masonry wall was inserted into the front face of the earth rampart at some point in the later 3rd or early 4th centuries, and a second outer ditch was probably added at the same time. This wall would have stood up to 7.5 m high (in places on the south wall it survives to about 5 m in height), and it butts against the older masonry gates.
Eleven external U-shaped towers were added to the wall’s front face, though only on the south and north sides (6 and 5 towers respectively). A coin hoard found among construction debris in the northwest tower indicates that these were built around 350, requiring the deliberate infilling of the inner ditch in front of the new towers. It is unclear why towers were not added to the east and west walls where the main roads entered the town through large gates, which were defensively the weakest part of the walled circuit.
Religion played an important role in people’s lives in the Roman world and several temples are known from Caerwent. The best known is the Romano-Celtic Temple next to the forum-basilica, constructed in 330 on a plot that had been occupied by a sequence of industrial, or commercial, and domestic strip-buildings for the previous 200 years or so. The temple’s plan shows a syncretism of native British and foreign Roman traditions associated with the worship of pagan gods, although it was built at the moment when Christianity had been adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, the identity of the deity, or deities, worshipped at the temple in Insula IX is unknown, although 2 inscriptions show that adaptation of Roman and native gods was a familiar feature of religion in Venta. The first is a dedication to Mars Lenus or Ocelus Vellaunus and to the Divinity of the Emperor, while the second is an altar to Mars Ocelus dedicated by Aelius Augustinus, a legionary soldier most likely from the fortress at Caerleon. A carved stone head and a seated Mother Goddess, also in stone, illustrate the idols and cult statues that were worshipped in Caerwent.
Late Roman Caerwent appears to have been a prosperous place and there is little evidence for the gradual decline in population and urban life seen at other Romano-British towns and cities. The basilica was completely rebuilt in about 350, at the same time that the north-western tower was added to the city’s walls. As well as these major public infrastructure works, many of the large well-appointed townhouses away from the centre appear to have been built, or remodelled, in the 4th century. Caerwent has produced an unusually large number of mosaics and tessellated pavements, while the recovery of many hundreds of late Roman coins, including from hoards, is very different to the pattern at nearby Caerleon or from the rest of Wales (the city’s coin list is more similar to settlements in Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds).
The discovery of 2 characteristic late Roman heavy throwing ‘darts’ (plumbatae), as well as brooches and buckles of types that it is thought would have been worn by Roman officials, suggest that Caerwent’s inhabitants included soldiers and perhaps a military garrison (it is thought that the Second Augustan Legion could have vacated the fortress at Caerleon around 300).
Roman Britain ceased to exist around 410 and life in Venta seems to have changed significantly after that momentous event. The basilica’s hall was demolished towards the end of the 4th century when a new hypocaust was inserted into the building’s tribunal to heat its floor. Occupation of the city’s civic centre almost certainly continued into the 5th century, but how long a Roman way-of-life existed at Caerwent is not currently known.
148 burials excavated outside the east gate, at Vicarage Orchard, date from the 4th to the 9th centuries, while another 150 or more late- and post-Roman graves are known from around the parish church in the centre of Caerwent. Those at the Church of St Stephen and St Tathan must have been from the time when Roman funerary laws no longer applied in Venta, and it is interesting that a burial from the cemetery containing mid-4th century coins and a late Roman bracelet, produced a radiocarbon date of 570-770.
A 12th century glossary of saints’ Lives describes how, in the 5th or 6th centuries, the ‘whole of Caer-went’ was granted to a monk from Ireland called Tatheus, to establish a monastery and a church to the Trinity. Tatheus was later canonised and his monastery remained an important centre of pilgrimage and ecclesiastical teaching until the Middle Ages. The land was given to Tatheus by a king of Gwent by the name of Caradoc ap Ynyr, who, the manuscript also tells us, ‘sought a new site for his royal palace, allowing his horse to lead him without bridle and halter’. The early Welsh kingdom of Gwent took its name from Venta Silurum, though by this time the old Roman tribal capital is described as the ‘good, fertile, lofty, noble city of Caerwent’, not Venta.
The principal secondary sources for Roman Caerleon are the Cadw guidebook (Caerwent Roman Town) by Richard Brewer (1997, 2nd edition 1997; 3rd edition 2006); The Towns of Roman Britain by John Wacher (2nd edition, 1995); ‘Venta Silurum: a civitas capital’ by Richard Brewer in Roman Towns: The Wheeler Inheritance edited by Stephen Greep (1993); ‘The Romans in Gwent’ by Richard Brewer in The Gwent County History edited by Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Ray Howell (2004); and ‘The Forum-Basilica at Caerwent (Venta Silurum): A History of the Roman Silures’ in the journal Britannia by Peter Guest (2022).