Roman Cirencester

Roman Cirencester was known as Corinium Dubunnorum and was the civitas capital of the Dobunni tribe who lived in that area when the Romans invaded. Cirencester is likely to have started out as the vicus that grew around the fort placed near the Iron Age hillfort of Bagendon in the mid-40s AD. Bagendon continued to prosper and was still in occupation at around AD60, but the growth of the vicus presumably attracted the population away from the hillfort (Wacher 1975, 304).

The fort was evacuated in AD70 and the vicus expanded to fill the gap, with the ditches filled in and built over. This caused the basilica to suffer subsidence problems as it was built over a ditch (Wacher 1975, 306).

When Britain was divided into four Provinces in 312-4AD, the Province of Britannia Prima was probably governed from Corinium (de la Bedoyere 2010, 89).

Corinium Amphitheatre

Grid Reference: SP0201 0141

Site Overview

The site today is visible as grassed-over earthworks of a considerable height: it still looks very much like an amphitheatre and the two entrances are clearly discernable. Much of the land around the amphitheatre is also noticeably altered and this area has been used to quarry stone from the Roman period onwards (Wacher 1975, 305).

amphitheatre

Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre. Copyright K Bragg 2011

The amphitheatre is oval, with the central arena area measuring 41m by 49m (Pastscape Website 2010) with the entrances at the centre of the points of the oval. The widths of the banks that were used for seating platforms were probably about 30m wide (Wacher 1975, 308).

Amphitheatres would have been paid for from the public purse, or a rich sponsor, but not by the Roman authorities (Wacher 1971, 6). It would have been a sign of great status to be able to sponsor entertainments and games, and would have been a way to show to your neighbours how successful you were and also, how Roman you were by subscribing to their ideas of civic benefaction (Cleary 1999, 161).

Investigation History

The amphitheatre was excavated in the 19th Century, and again in 1960 by J S Wacher (Pastscape Website 2010). He excavated the Northeastern entrance to the arena, and part of the seating bank.

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The earliest phase of the amphitheatre was constructing with seating set on limestone rubble overlaid with turf. The entrances were partially revetted with stone and lined in timber. The amphitheatre was later reinforced, by the addition of masonry walls, during the early 2nd Century (Wacher 1975, 307).

Amphitheatres were used for displays of combat be it using gladiators or wild animals (Mattingly 2007, 282). Owing to the dangerous nature of these displays, the amphitheatre was usually located outside the town walls, to protect the citizens (Branigan 1980, 108).

When Christianity became the state religion, it may have been prohibited to have displays of gladiatorial combat, or wild animal hunting in the arena (Wacher 1971, 26). Whatever the reason, excavation shows that the amphitheatre at Corinium was altered in the 4th century, and was possibly no longer in use for its original purpose and may have become a venue for trade outside the town walls (Wacher 1971, 26).

Corinium Wall

Grid Reference: SP 02735 02200

Site Overview

Visible today is an earthwork bank faced with a wall made using both rubble and faced stone. The outline of a bastion can also be clearly seen. It is worth noting from the outset that the Department of the Environment were responsible for stabilising the masonry remains (Cullen 1970) and therefore this should be taken into account when viewing the remains today.

Cirencester Roman Wall

Extant wall remains, Cirencester. Copyright P Bragg 2011

Corinium grew up from the vicus surrounding a dismantled fort (de la Bedoyere 2010, 114), and it seems that it was laid out deliberately to form a grid. What this plan did not include is walled defences (Wacher 1971, 11), perhaps because the South of the province was relatively peaceful and the troubled frontiers were Wales and the North (Wacher 1971, 13). So the town wall was not an original part of the town and was put in place after the main public buildings were in place (de la Bedoyere 2010, 154).

Investigation History

The wall was excavated by Wacher in 1960, then by Mr P D C Brown in 1966, and then reconstructed by the Department for the Environment (Cullen 1970).

Chronology and Current Interpretation

Wacher excavated the section of wall we visited and discovered that the first phase of the wall was a simple earthwork, easy to put up in a hurry and not requiring the services of skilled masons. He also notes that there is evidence for the Verulamium gate, grand and built in stone, having predated this earthwork bank and suggests that there was a plan to build in stone, but necessity to build quickly caused earthworks to be put up instead (Wacher 1971, 13).

A second phase of defence construction appears in the 3rd Century and the earthwork bank was made more permanent by the construction of a stone wall. Two different thicknesses of wall have been found, in alternating sections of the wall, and it is not clear if the whole town wall would have been walled in this manner, or if the different thicknesses reflect a change in plan on the part of the builders (Wacher 1971, 13).

Cullen notes that five phases were recognisable and confirms that the wall had two distinct widths (Cullen 1970). The phases Cullen lists were:
1) Earthwork bank
2) A tower was added to the top of the bank with the footings cutting through it, which was then protected by an earthwork rampart around the tower
3) Removal of the front of this rampart and turret and facing with a four foot stone wall and increasing the height of the rampart behind the wall
4) This wall was removed and replaced with a wider wall and heightening the rampart
5) A bastion was added to the front of the wall

Wacher considers the bastions to be a 4th Century addition to the wall, stating the war with the Picts as a cause of increased tension and towns looking to their defences (Wacher 1971, 25). This tie-in with historical events to explain the phases of town evolution is contradicted by de la Bedoyere (de la Bedoyere 2010, 154).

Further work to the wall was performed and a flood gate added to stop the diverted River Churn from undermining the wall. It had been diverted away from the centre of the town, to flow around the outskirts (Wacher 1971, 25).

Bibliography

  • Branigan, K., 1980. Roman Britain: Life in an imperial province, Reader’s Digest.
  • Cleary, S.E., 1999. Roman Britain: Civil and Rural Society. In J. Hunter & I. Ralston, eds. The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution. Milton Park, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 157-175.
  • Cullen, P.R., 1970. Cirencester: The Restoration of the Roman Town Wall, 1967-68. Britannia, 1(1970), p.227. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/525842
  • de la Bedoyere, G., 2010. Roman Britain: A New History, Thames {&} Hudson.
  • Mattingly, D., 2007. An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC – AD 409, Penguin.
  • Pastscape Website, 2010. Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre [online]. Available at: http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=1089343 [Accessed May 5, 2011].
  • Wacher, J., 1971. Corinium, London: Ginn and Company Ltd.
  • Wacher, J., 1975. The Towns of Roman Britain 2nd ed., London: Batsford Ltd.
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Written on January 9th, 2011 , Certificate Year One, Field Trip Tags: ,

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