Shropshire History

Shropshire

City of Viroconium

Return

to Index

 

Viroconium (also known as Viroconium Cornoviorum or Uriconium) was the largest Roman settlement in Shropshire and became the fourth largest city in Roman Britain.  At its peak, it had a population of more than 15,000 and was known as a civitas. The name is a Latinised form of the Celtic word  Uiroconion, meaning place of the man-wolf. The modern village of Wroxeter only occupies one corner of it and much of what remains is buried. 

 

 

English Heritage owns most of the area and leases out a great deal of the land to local farmers.  The exposed remains of the bath house complex are open to the public with a visitor centre, shop and museum which houses a good selection of artefacts and interpretive displays. For details of opening times CLICK HERE.

 

 

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

 

Viroconium Cornoviorum

 

Wroxeter – Roman Britain’s 4th Largest City

 

Wroxeter Roman City

 

 

 

 

 

AD 50

The First Cohort of Thracians built an auxiliary fort guarding the River Severn crossing, just to the south of what was to become Viroconium. The cohort occupied the fort until relieved by the XIV  Gemina Legion. The Cornovii territory was used as a supply base for some of Rome's subsequent operations against the Silures and limited fighting against the Ordovices to the west, led by Roman Governor Aulus Didius Gallus. A small settlement of wooden buildings grew up either side of Watling Street in the area of the present village of Wroxeter.

 

AD 58

Fortress built by the XIV Gemina Legion during their invasion of Wales. Men from the legion are recorded on three tombstones.

 

Titus Flaminius, of the Pollentian voting tribe from Faventia, forty five years old with twenty-two years’ service, campaigning as a soldier of the Fourteenth Legion Gemina, Aquilifer. I am now following a more or less upright and happy life; whereas in the underworld they are compelling one to drink, the gods here are forbidding the fruits of wine and water as a means to live life as long as the stars, passing away time with honour”.

 

“Marcus Petronius, son of Lucius, of the Menenian voting tribe, from Vicetia, thirty-eight years old, a soldier of the Fourteenth Legion Gemina with eighteen years military service; he was the standard bearer. He lies here."

 

“Gaius Mannius Secundus, son of Gaius, of the Pollentian voting tribe from Pollentia, a soldier of the Twentieth Legion, fifty-two years old with thirty-one years’ service, beneficiarius of the pro-praetorian legate. He lies here”.

 

Some of the wooden buildings of the civilian settlement were demolished to make way for the southern defences of the fortress. The settlement thus gradually gravitated from the area between the southern ramparts and the Severn crossing to the north side of the defences, along either side of Watling Street where it entered the northern gate of the fortress.

 

AD 68

XIV Gemina Legion was recalled by Emperor Nero to help suppress the revolt of Julius Vindex in Germany and were replaced by XX Valeria Victrix Legion who were moved up from Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter).

 

AD 88

Fortress abandoned by the military and taken over by the civilian settlement that had grown up around the fort. It became one of the Coloniae, a community for Roman citizens, principally retired servicemen, created to show the benefits of civilization to the native tribes. By this time, Viroconium had already established a sizeable civilian population, largely drawn by the relative safety of the fort and the economic opportunities offered by supplying the needs of the troops stationed there. Declared the capital of the Cornovii and given both its own administration and good measure of local autonomy, the city's development subsequently grew along the typical grid-line pattern characteristic of such tribal centres.

 

AD 96

Work started on constructing a bath house but it was abandoned whilst only half-completed. A civilian tombstone recorded two internments, inscribed on two faces.

 

 

“To the spirit of the departed Placida, aged fifty-five years, the responsibility for this undertaking fell upon her husband of thirty years”.

 

“To the spirit of the departed Deuccus, fifteen years old, his brother was responsible for undertaking this memorial”.

 

AD 130

The settlement had expanded to cover an area of more than 173 acres. It had many public buildings, including a bath house, colonnaded forum dedicated to Emperor Hadrian, temples and shops. A monument was erected in the forum reading “To Imperator Caesar Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus, the son of the divine Trajanus Parthicus, the grandson of the divine Nerva, Chief Priest, holding tribunician power for the fourteenth time, consul three times, Father of the Fatherland, the Civitas of the Cornovii”.  An inscription on the bath house read “For the good of the state”. The bath house was joined to a huge exercise hall which opened onto Watling Street to the west and formed the formal entrance hall to the baths themselves. Also adjoining the baths along Watling Street there was a large public lavatorium and a square indoor market. These four buildings occupied a complete block of the Roman city grid. During this period, the waters of a tributary stream of the Severn were diverted via a V-shaped aqueduct channel, to feed the public bath complex. A regularly laid-out street system divided the city into spacious rectangular blocks, many of which were occupied by large opulent residences of local tribal magnates, whose houses often contained over 20 rooms on the ground floor, some with private baths and flush toilets.

 

2nd Century

Viroconium mentioned in the “Antonine Itinerary”. It appears as Urioconio and is listed as 11 miles from Rutunium (Harcourt Park), 11 miles from Uxacona (Redhill) and 27 miles from Bravonium (Leintwardine).

 

Late 2nd Century

 

The inscription in the forum fell from its place during a catastrophic fire which destroyed the front of the building and was found almost intact. It was amid toppled stacks of pottery, which probably represent the working stocks of a wealthy pottery salesman who could afford the rent charged for this choice location from which to ply his wares.  Many more houses, colonnades and other fine buildings were built and Viroconium had grown to become Roman Britain's fourth largest city. The ramparts which enclosed the city extended for over two miles.

 

3rd Century

This was a period of unrivalled prosperity, with many moneyed settlers moving to Britain from less secure parts of the Empire, such as the Rhineland and Gaul. Some of these would no doubt have settled in Viroconium.

 

4th Century

This was a period of mounting unrest within the Roman Empire as inflation soared, civic regulation grew and bureaucratic interference became widespread. Although Britain was largely unaffected, many regions suffered repeated incursions from barbarian tribes. For Viroconium, the growing political turbulence, coupled with spiralling maintenance costs, gradually led to many of the once great buildings in the city lying unused and ultimately becoming derelict. Some were subsequently dismantled, while others fell into increasingly poor repair. The only known British military unit, the First Cohort of Cornovii, was recruited in the area and sent to serve at the Pons Aelius (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) garrison at the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall.

 

AD 339

The baths and basilica ceased to be used.

 

AD 408

The last of the Roman legions was withdrawn so Britain effectively ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire.

 

AD 410

Emperor Honorius wrote to Viroconium and other British cities to confirm that they were now on their own and could expect no help from Rome. Much of the former Cornovii territory came under the control of Vortigern, who quickly became the main figure in British politics.

 

5th Century

 Viroconium continued to be occupied but many of the buildings fell into disrepair. It became the headquarters of a British chieftain and it has been speculated that it was the Camelot of the King Arthur legends.

 

AD 530-570

While most Roman urban sites and villas in Britain were being abandoned, there was a substantial rebuilding programme at Viroconium.  The old basilica was demolished and replaced with new timber-framed buildings on rubble platforms. These probably included a very large two-storey building and a number of storage buildings and houses. In all, 33 new buildings were constructed to Roman measurements using a trained labour force. Who instigated this rebuilding programme is not known but it may have been a bishop. Some of the buildings were renewed three times and the community probably lasted about 75 years until many of the buildings were dismantled for some reason.

 

7th Century

Viroconium mentioned in the “Ravenna Cosmology”, where it is listed as Utriconion Cornoviorum between the entries for Levobrinta (Forden Gaer) and the unknown station Alauna. Unlike many other Roman cities, Viroconium was not redeveloped as a Saxon or medieval centre, with the result that the Roman layout of the city can easily be seen. Stones from Viroconium were used in the construction of Wroxeter parish church, a short distance away.

 

AD 717

 

The site of Viroconium was known in Welsh as Caer Guricon and it had become the capital of the Kingdom of Powys until Mercian encroachment forced the British to abandon it and relocate to Mathrafal Castle. After its collapse into ruin, the bath house was robbed of much of its building stone but the supports of the hypocaust (underfloor heating system) were left in situ, covered by the remains of the baths superstructure.

 

1859

Workmen began excavating the baths complex.  The present site was exposed and thronged with fascinated visitors, including Charles Dickens. The land was donated by the landowner for public viewing so Viroconium became one of the first archaeological visitor attractions in Britain.

 

2011

 

In a project between English Heritage and Channel 4, a replica Roman town house was erected at the visitor centre. А Channel 4 television series, “Rome Wasn't Built іn а Day”, showed hоw іt wаs built using authentic ancient techniques.

 

Today

Viroconium has been described as one of the best examples of 2nd Century town planning. With the majority of its 200 acre site still awaiting excavation, Viroconium already boasts one of the largest surviving sections of Roman wall in Britain together with extensive remains of the city's baths and hypocaust, making it a uniquely important site in Britain.