Here’s our very first post on the first page of a brand-new website launched to celebrate the output of Voreda Books. The fresh website we’ve made to replace an obsolete earlier version.
Somewhere readers may learn more about our small-but-perfectly formed imprint, specialising in quality publications and mainly Roman Britain. Not exclusively fiction, but especially the historical novels of Clive Ashman, where we’ve laid some exciting plans for future titles to follow.
Second to no-one in our enthusiasm for this long-gone era, but mature enough to concede – when familiar patterns of daily life in Roman Britain are examined more closely – that there’s an underlying darkness to this period.
A mysteriousworld of ancient weirdness and casual cruelty, where life was short and men or women put to fight or death for public entertainment. Yet the rule of law still held some sort of sway.
Join us for a journey into the past. Those curiosities we’ll share, as oddities from our own time unroll in parallel, providing some contrast. Making occasional offerings of personal observation along the way, as we look far across the centuries together and through a glass darkly. Remark on whatever serendipities and treasures we sometimes notice or stumble across.
So join us in this personal odyssey through the remnants of Britannia, as and where we find them…..
In October 2020, before the land fell into autumn and another state of lockdown, I happened to be on Devon’s south-east coast. Where I remembered nearby Exeter and that phonetic connection with its predecessor, Roman Isca. Or ‘Isca Dumnoniorum’to be precise – Rome’s citadel for the soldiers and tax-gatherers they imposed on local tribes. So we jumped into the car and drove a short way west to find what remains of Rome, to see how much of Isca is extant at Exeter – which is more than you’d think.
In AD 43, when the Roman army arrived on the Kent coast – but unlike Julius Caesar, one hundred years before – they planned no passing visit. By AD 55, and despite twelve years of dogged British resistance, five-thousand ’ironsides’from Vespasian’s Second Legion (led by an emperor-to-be) had rampaged across Dorset, capturing hillfort after hillfort. By AD 55 they’ve also taken Devon, arriving finally here at Isca to establish their first fortress on its hill to see out the winter. The topography around so many of these old, legionary fortresses still speaks of Roman arrogance or confidence, and the same is true at Isca, its setting instantly reminiscent of Chester or Lincoln when viewed from their walls. Standing up here and raising your eye above modern rooftops, it’s easy to envisage that insecurity typical of an invading army – bivouacked in the field and surrounded on all sides by hostiles in the trees. As the blue, forested hills of Wales encircle Chester to this day, so would the Dumnoni around Isca. Tribesmen hiding-up unseen among their Devon greenwoods – hating and hiding, while legionaries in camp imagine an implacable, invisible enemy, camouflaged with woad.
Just when it seems like Rome has won and barely six years later, Isca’s resident Second Augusta spoils its hard-won reputation during Boudicca’s bloody rebellion of AD 61 – when its acting commander, Poenius Posthumus, prefect of the camp, disobeys a direct order from Suetonius Paulinus, Rome’s provincial governor in the field. Despite Paulinus’s urgent order to march east from Isca and help save the province, Posthumus declines his request. Leaving Londinium to burn, and Paulinus to try and recover Britannia alone with whatever troops were left. Outnumbered three to one, Paulinus somehow still manages it – stopping Boudicca dead in her tracks, somewhere in the Midlands. High on Isca’s central hill, Posthumus commits suicide as soon as he hears. With Boudicca dead, further resistance to Rome in the South West is futile and soon ebbs away, the need for a legion with it. By AD 75, the Second Augusta has marched out of Isca towards Caerleon in South Wales, which would remain the legion’s permanent depot for another two centuries at least.
In the social vacuum created by their departure, what began as an armed camp to the legion is soon transformed into a regular town – civic capital to a Romanised tribe. ‘Isca Dumnoniorum’develops fast – within twenty five years, there are public baths and a forum here; high on a hill whose elevated promontory projects towards the marshes of the River Exe, standing protected to the north and west by deep ravines and high cliffs. Somewhere safe for civilians to live and work, where suddenly there are prospects and life’s looking good. As the legion was once supplied in bulk by the ships and barges which navigate the River Exe and its estuary, so the sea trade now beckons and it seems merchants are everywhere. A busy hundred years go by without anyone noticing, and the world’s changed again – in the reign of the philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, construction work begins on an impressive new perimeter. Defensive stone walls and towers rise to protect a much larger town but hint at new threats, some of them Irish. What was fortified boundary to a forty-odd acre rectangle inherited from the legion expands to encompass more than twice that land. Walls crafted from a hard rock they quarry from an extinct volcano up at what the Normans would later call ‘Rougemont’, the old red hill in the north-east quadrant of this city. Running for approximately one-and-a-half miles and up to ten feet thick, twenty five feet high, these defences may have been raised first against the Celt but are undoubtedly intended for a wider audience – asserting Roman power.
The new enclosure to urbanism whose maximum extent now exceeds ninety acres in total only confirms how important this centre has become. Let another two centuries go by from its early expansion, and whilst Isca might still believe itself Roman, Dumnonian farmers still bringing their produce into market like their forefathers did; the latest word down in the forum is of how a great emperor far away in the east has been baptised on his death-bed into the new Church of Christ.
While his bereaved empire’s Rhine and Danube frontiers buckle under increasing attacks from Germanic barbarians, Constantine the Great’s successors as emperor fight off usurper after usurper in an endless cycle of internal struggles for power – yet more civil wars. No wonder then, that by AD 367 – the year of the ‘Great Barbarian Conspiracy’ when both Saxons, Picts, and the Attacotti of Ireland plot to attack a tottering province together – even modern archaeologists can detect how much Isca Dumnoniorum seems to have shrunk, as disease, dereliction, and decline creep inexorably in.
By AD 410, their chicken-coping emperor Honorius issues that final, hand-washing rescript advising his embattled province of Britain to look to its own defences; and whatever’s left of the mighty Roman legions are finally gone from this island. Gone to defend the indefensible against overwhelming odds. Though if their empire was lost – Britannia and Isca Dumnoniorum finally abandoned, perhaps a hundred years later – maybe there’s still flowering some successful defender of Roman tradition here in the South West. Perhaps a war-leader like ‘Artorius’ – what legend calls ‘Arthur’. Although if Isca’s involved, there’s little left from that era to survive as archaeology, even less to say whether its circuit of walls were by now even occupied. But the Anglo Saxon Chronicle will boast how successive invasion by Saxons become ever-more relentless – climaxing in AD 928, when their greatest king ever, peerless Athelstan, finally repairs an ancient circuit of walls first commissioned by some lost Roman garrison – Exeter being one of only four Saxon royal burghs in Devon.
Beyond whatever those outer walls might – or might not – tell us about the original fortress, little more Roman masonry from Exeter would be exposed until 1971 – ‘AD’ I should say – when a substantial military bathhouse dating from about 60-65 was discovered bang in front of a Cathedral founded in 1050; there on the lawn between its west front and the War Memorial.
Today, the Second’s bathhouse slumbers quietly under clipped grass and, when I entered the cathedral in October 2020, the person on duty at the till had no knowledge – although I hear from elsewhere there’s talk of disinterring its ruins for lottery-funded display. Which is not to say that Isca’s been forgotten in the meantime, because it was in 1954 that Rosemary Sutcliffe first published her seminal novel, ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’. The one where Marcus Flavius Aquila, orphaned son of a senior centurion in the ‘lost’(sic) Ninth Legion, is sent off to the ends of the earth. Sent out here to command a garrison of auxiliaries based at Isca Dumnoni,the frontier fort in the far west of Britannia whose outgoing commander is keen to warn him against will-o’-the-wisp Druids – peripatetic priests to the native Briton, who stir-up rebellion amongst any tribesmen willing to hear.Almost everything that Exeter represents today and which defines its long history occurred within this same walled enclosure. It was here where Romans lived and Poenius Posthumus committed suicide; where Saxons settled and the Danes laid waste. Liberated from Viking tyranny by Alfred the Great, then besieged by William the Conqueror.
A location for three great institutions of medieval life: the Norman castle, their cathedral, and the guildhall – together the beating economic, social, and political heart of this city for a thousand years. Later attacked by yet another usurper or pretender to power, by Perkin Warbeck in the sixteenth century, the city walls of Exeter would become surrounded and besieged twice more during the English Civil War; then bombed from the air by Luftwaffe aircraft during World War Two, who destroyed nearly as much of its half-timbered, mediaeval centre as they did Coventry’s.
Although still imposing, it’s sad to see how little is made of these walls – in October 2020, the reception desk inside Exeter Cathedral was at a loss to suggest anything of their Roman city which might survive above ground, and I was left to find it for myself.
Nor can you walk along the walls in Exeter as you might do in other walled cities of England, like York or Chester. That day I was there, increased infection amongst the student community had made Exeter into something of a ghost town but – unlike Chester or York – any suggestion these upstanding remnants might hark back to Rome seems almost downplayed. As if the city’s turned its back on them. Yet, properly managed and presented, they might provide a major feature for Exeter’s tourist industry; with guided tours for anyone interested in its history rather than its shops; whilst walking around below its ancient walls does at least offer you access on foot to some of the city’s few remaining attractive, historic areas. (Don’t even think of bringing a car here).
Yet, on leaving the Cathedral, my wanderings would reveal how large stretches of second-century Roman masonry can still be seen today, including sections of wall lucky to have escaped the modern bypass. Because it’s generally accepted that the purple-grey volcanic ‘trap’ seen in its upper two-thirds is original Roman stonework dating from the civitas of Isca Dumnoniorum. Characteristically square. However, changes in colour and style along the lower third are usually interpreted as where original ground levels have later eroded and earlier walling needed to be underpinned during the Middle Ages; using different types of stone, whatever was to hand.
By the time of the English Civil War the old city wall was tired and needed further repair; while new-style gun-batteries were being added along its southern and eastern sections, some of which remain. During not one but two sieges of Exeter – firstly in 1643, and then again in 1646 – the city wall was just component-part in a sophisticated system which included not only the new gun-batteries but a complex array of deep ditches and earthen ramparts. Although badly damaged by artillery in places, any gaps were at least repaired, but the Civil War represents the very last time these ancient walls would be relied upon in the active defence of Exeter.
Thereafter, the walls simply slide into obscurity. Houses were built right against them and the creeping Georgian or Victorian suburbs finally eliminated their tactical importance as city wall, as an important boundary or defence – although happily no-one (apart from the Luftwaffe and town-planners) would attempt to destroy it further. Because the greatest damage of all would occur during peacetime and our modern, post-war era. During the later Twentieth Century, when a particularly-long section near the old South Gate was completely demolished as part of major re-planning and rebuilding works happening right across the city.
Belated civic responses to the catastrophic Exeter ‘Blitz’ of May 1942 as, from the 1960s onwards – and outdoing both Cromwell and Hitler – local government uproots far more ancient walling to create a broad inner-bypass for the motor vehicle. (See photo). A tragedy for Exeter’s citizens and a triumph for Philistinism that’s doubtless comparable with whatever’s going on at the time in many other British cities. Places like Carlisle, for instance, where a similar dual-carriageway was driven directly between the city and its castle, severing pedestrian access. (Or maybe Newcastle-upon-Tyne). Taken from a built canyon seriously disfiguring Exeter to this day,my own photo’ illustrates how a shabby footbridge shunned by pedestrians spans this huge breach, carved into a circuit of walls which had otherwise survived pretty much complete until 1961. (Yet more significant Roman masonry was apparently buried behind Broadwalk House, across in Southernhay).
Fortunately, at least what’s left for us today survives intact, and is generally maintained. Although in 2020, were a disinterested observer to consider any part or portion neglected, maybe weed-grown, then such a situation could be longstanding? Because – back in February 2019 and despite Historic Englandhaving assessed their condition as “high risk” and “slowly deteriorating“(sic) only the year before (i.e. 2018) – it’s reported that a large section from these ancient Roman city walls suddenly fell into a public beer garden below. Happily, no-one was hurt, but it’s alarming to read that – despite surviving two thousand years and multiple sieges and bombings – this ancient wall’s huge stone blocks could so suddenly crumble into pieces, then allegedly fall onto a pub’s pergola, pieces of massy debris piled across the way. (A very similar episode reportedly occurring on Chester’s Roman city walls during 2020).
Because – if you can believe these stories in the press – modern Exeter has never been too good at this: at keeping safe, whatever’s left of Isca.
For another claimed example of that, let’s take an intriguing announcement made on 12th February 2018, where (under the banner headline: “MYSTERY OF EXETER’S MISSING ROMAN MOSAIC ART TREASURE”) the news website ‘Devon Live’ reported how a retired local art-dealer was trying to solve the mystery of Exeter’s missing Roman mosaic floor. With my first novel ‘MOSAIC’ being set around another missing Roman floor, this one stolen from a villa outside Hull in 1948, you can see why such a news item might catch my gimlet eye. In 2018 ‘Devon Live’ was reporting on how older residents of Exeter – with one good reason or another to visit their former police station and magistrates court in Waterbeer Street (demolished to build a new Guildhall Centre during the destructive 1960s) – could remember its entrance hall as decorated by a genuine Roman floor. First discovered when the police station was being built in 1887, the Victorian builders relaid it in situ. But if the missing mosaic had not been salvaged on demolition, for Exeter’s Royal Albert Museum (current custodians insist that, no, it never was….) then one alternative suggestion was that it might still survive, under a flowerbed in the Exeter Guildhall shopping centre……
Unfortunately, that idea’s apparently a definite ‘no-no’ too, because local historians and archivists were unanimous in confirming that – by 1972 at the very latest – this rare Roman floor had indeed been destroyed. (A familiar outcome for Hullensians – see the fate of the Brantingham mosaic, in my first book).
As an urban foundation from Britain’s early-Roman era, the city of Exeter and its strategic importance are vividly reflected in how strongly it has been fortified and fought-over during the long centuries following. Exeter’s Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval city walls define its soul and extent. They remain our most dramatic physical reminder today of its ancient significance; surviving as a roughly-rectangular enclosure of about 2.5 km in length, from which about 72% (1705m) is reportedly still visible as upstanding fabric, often up to 2.5m high. Of its four gateways, also of Roman origin (confirmed by excavations at the South Gate) most were taken down during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Repaired and rebuilt throughout succeeding Anglo Saxon, medieval and Civil War periods, it stands embellished by additional wall-turrets and bastions which – as at York – may equally be dateable to Roman, Anglo Saxon, or medieval periods; or maybe a mixture of each. As a majority of its residents undoubtedly do – all Exeter should be proud and celebrate the powerful evocations of its history contained in silent, venerable stones. Why I for one would hope that – once the current crisis is over – fresh effort and resources are applied to making rather more of them. Just as Isca deserves.
Clive Ashman – 29thNovember 2020
I very much enjoyed Clive’s round-up of Roman Exeter. At the rear of Marks and Spencers there is a protected section of Roman road. Customers just walk straight past it, but occasionally I have acted as a guide and drawn passers’-by attention to it, and there is genuine interest.
(Elaine Evans – 1st December 2020)
Thanks for mentioning this, Elaine – I definitely missed your Roman roadway, but it goes-to-prove-to-show. That the closer you look, the more there is to find …. archaeology by walking about!
Clive Ashman reflects on the search for an elusive Roman building which figures in his novel ‘MOSAIC’, beginning with the page where it’s first mentioned:
“The bathhouse was near the barracks. It had probably been built originally for military use, but the decline in the garrison and growth of the town seemed to have led to its take-over for the civic good. It was a rambling establishment of concrete-lined rooms which had gradually been added-to over the years as required. Next to it was the first monumental building he’d found in Petuaria. A theatre, whose embanked semi-circle of stone seats faced a proscenium stage of classical pillars and ornamental doorways. It was entirely deserted and grass was forcing its silently-violent way through the paving, whilst a lagoon of yet more stinking and stagnant water filled the area between the lonely stage and its empty seats. It looked as if the flanking-walls at the side had already received the attentions of stone-robbers, removing the dressed limestone for other more menial projects. It was a long time since any actor had declaimed in this melancholy place.”
It feels poignant when life comes full-circle but – after first writing about a derelict theatre at Petuaria Civitas Parisorum (Brough-on-Humber) in my fictional ‘MOSAIC’ (2008) – that was the overriding sensation when, in early September 2020, I found myself scrabbling away with a trowel in a sandy trench down there, seeking the very building. Privileged to be enlisted with a knowledgeable bunch of volunteers in the first proper search for that important structure to be made in nearly ninety years. Twelve years after ‘MOSAIC’ came out and suddenly life might be imitating art – but what if my description gets disproved?
The historical status of what’s nowadays just a nondescript, grassy playing-field across at The Burrs has been well understood for centuries. Its perimeter encloses a significant chunk – maybe one third – of an ancient walled town, but few professional archaeological examinations of the site have actually been held here.
In fact the last proper ‘dig’ carried out at The Burrs was during the 1930s, in the shadow of a looming World War that would render nearby Hull the second most-bombed city in Britain, after London. Even in April 1945, weeks before Hitler’s suicide, the last dregs of the Luftwaffe were still flying down major Hull thoroughfares like Holderness Road, machine-gunning shoppers.
Back in the 1930s, when Philip Corder and his team dug Bozze’s Field (as The Burrs were also known) these were horrors yet to come, so he and his helpers in collar-and-tie could concentrate on uncovering the eastern defences of Late Roman Petuaria. Finding its ramparts and ditches, and those ‘D’-shaped bastions capable of mounting mechanical, bolt-firing guns, maybe bigger catapults.
It was his faithful assistant, Bertie Gott, who in 1937 actually unearthed the famous inscribed stone recycled in Roman times for use in its walls. Sometime around AD 140, its formalised wording recorded the gift to a grateful community of the proscaenium stage donated by local magistrate and social-climber, Marcus Ulpius Januarius himself. Why, when ‘MOSAIC’ came out, we ensured it included on a flyleaf my own drawing of his inscription – the original of which can still be viewed at the Hull & East Riding Museum, in the High Street of Hull’s Old Town:
Fact is, before it closed in the Noughties, ‘Blockbuster Video’ was probably the last surviving outlet in Brough-on-Humber for disseminating popular culture. Why it must feel galling today for the taxpayers of Brough and Elloughton to realise that, eighteen hundred years previously, their forebears in Petuaria once enjoyed the facility of a proper theatre. But ‘Sic Transit Gloria’, as Brough folks like to say….
There this cultural discrepancy might have rested, if not for the march of modern technology and the impetus given by a happy combination of civic figures and academic firepower. Under the banner of ‘Petuaria ReVisited’, a community archaeology project run by the Brough Playing Fields Association (PFA) in conjunction with the excellent Archaeology department at the University of Hull, they have been driving recent efforts to survey the field with a view to its possible excavation.
Back in the halcyon days of ‘Time Team’, the popular C4 TV archaeology programme, once a televised dig hit the buffers or its celebrity archaeologists got stuck, the cry would go up: “Get Geofizz….!” Here at Petuaria, that fifth emergency service was provided by a combination of James Lyall (from Geophys.biz consultancy) and the amazing Ground Penetrating Rader (GPR) equipment of David Staveley. After their devices trundled over The Burrs like a Mars Explorer, the Petuaria they revealed was most definitely not that failed town dismissed by John Wacher in his ‘Towns of Roman Britain’(1974) but a teeming settlement packed with streets, workshops, and housing; busy to the end of Roman Britain. A defended enclosure towards whose middle, and amongst the square or rectangular sheds, glowed a distinctly ‘D-shaped’ structure. That specific shape which – around the Greco-Roman world – is generally the footprint of a theatre. A gift from Januarius?
On the basis of its ghostly imprint, the community team at ‘Petuaria ReVisited’, convened by councillor Martin Credland of the PFA but guided by a small team of professional archaeologists led by Iron Age & Roman East Yorkshire expert, Dr Peter Halkon of Hull University, and directed by James Lyall, enlisted a volunteer squad of mainly local diggers – plus me – to find if that’s what it really was. With the government slackening ‘lockdown’ and this site a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the permission to excavate won from Historic England was limited to two weeks only. Assembling all the necessary people and equipment needed for such a project probably took much longer. With all the usual construction industry or professional archaeology operational protocols to be emplaced, then rigorously observed, this must have been quite a task.
Organizing and running any dig is always a complex business, but in a Time of Covid the necessary extra hygiene and safety precautions prescribed for us diggers by (medical) Doctor Nicholas Somerton – amongst others – added an extra layer of procedures to be followed. Though since Nick was down there too – digging furiously away beside my own trench and insisting his the deepest – they were hardly issued from an ivory tower.
Under all this experienced oversight, with masks duly worn and social distancing observed, a huge, linear trench gradually opened-up above the mysterious ‘D-shaped’ structure suggested by GPR. Over the allotted fortnight, vast amounts of soil, earth, and rock were painstakingly removed in buckets and then sieved by a great many volunteers, both young and old. Some were absolute beginners, others experienced and knowledgeable enthusiasts from the East Riding Archaeology Society (ERAS); successful graduates or PhD students from Dr. Halkon’s popular course at Hull University; or principled and highly skilled metal-detectorists like Dave Haldenby or Chris Hannard. It was usually thanks to these latter guys that most of the few coins found here would be captured – one each from Carausius and Allectus (hero and villain respectively, in my “TWO-EIGHT-SIX”) or that lovely silver Antoninianus of the Empress Julia Domna (she of my latest book, yet to be released) which I briefly held on my palm.
Yes, but did they find the theatre….? you ask me, impatient of all this. Well, that’s more a matter for the archaeologists, but reporting from my small corner of the trench – and based on what I heard them tell journalists – we certainly found a pretty-big* building. (*NB: please treat this as a non-technical term). Since most other coin evidence seems to date the lowest level we reached to the early 300s AD, Januarius’s legendary theatre from the 140s AD would have long been demolished by then, absorbed into the town’s defences maybe forty years before – by the time of ‘TWO-EIGHT-SIX’. And if there are any traces of it left in that piece of ground where we looked, then they rest rather deeper than our team could dig in a fortnight.
The massive linear structure occupying my minor corner might have looked to the uneducated eye like heavy-duty rubble, but it’s thought to have comprised the core of a much larger, high-status, Roman building; probably dating from the early fourth century. Dating from the time of Constantine ‘The Great‘ then – a man declared emperor by his British legions at nearby York, during that hot July of AD 306. Most rememberednow for suspending the Christian persecutions and being baptized into the Church on his deathbed, in a busy career he also executed two of his sons, then boiled his wife to death in a sauna; not to mention founding Constantinople and attending that conference of bishops which settled the Nicean Creed.
Dating from his era but, as Candidus noticed himself,with its flanking walls already stripped of their finer facing-slabs by stone robbers just as he mentioned, this building in our trench probably once boasted a heated room, even rooms. It would certainly have been decorated by painted wall plaster, and based on the many pieces we recovered, one internal wall at least would have been decorated in cream, red, green, black and – most expensively of all – purple paint.
Considering the thickness of its rubble walls and even if it no longer is or never was a theatre, this Late-Roman structure was possibly still some sort of a public building, one which may well have stood more than two stories high. At the other end of our long trench, a uniformly-flat surface which others unearthed down there probably represented the spacious courtyard to its centre. A space producing no actors’ masks but plenty of evidence of Roman Britons’ well-known taste for fast-food: especially oysters, whelks, and mussels. Whitstable-on-Humber then, but no Theatre Royal?
Whatever the status of this imposing building, the real triumph for ‘Petuaria ReVisited’ surely rests in the great interest and deep pleasure this project inspired in the local community – not just for those taking part but everyone passing-by and catching-up on our daily progress. Witnessing the local pride and increased understanding about major historical events on their very own doorstep, what sense of place it gave them, represents a palpable good. Though the team camaraderie enjoyed and personal satisfaction obtained by each of my fellow volunteers in helping carry out archaeological investigations on such a scale; at such a significant location and in brave defiance of a global epidemic; was perhaps the happiest outcome of all. For everyone involved.
That – and finding myself down on my knees in the mud and debris of a Roman town I’ve written about, in both my first two books. Almost like Candidus…….
Beautiful piece Clive. I am enjoying your book too. Where shall we dig next? I am getting withdrawal symptoms! Nick.
September 23 2020, 09:51 pm
Hi, Nick, and thanks for your kind words re the blog. Glad to know you’re enjoying ‘TWO-EIGHT-SIX’ too.
And even if we didn’t find the theatre this year – there’s always next. With the digging season over and ‘Petvaria’ back to playing fields, you won’t find many other Roman urban sites being unearthed in the north, this side of 2021. Not even Aldborough.
So here’s hoping the PFA get permission for another go, maybe earlier in the year? I know Marcus Ulpius Januarius would be pleased – I think we owe him nothing less, don’t you?