What did the Romans do for us?
Not much, it seems, if you’re on the Welsh side of the Severn. Apart from spending 30 years beating the locals into submission, that is. And Dr. Mark Lewis should know, as a local man himself and a curator of Caerleon Legionary Fortress Museum. Mark gave a very entertaining and interesting account of the Romans in the Severn Vale to the April gathering of Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society.
From the finds of Roman coins in the Severn Vale it seems that the Silures, the ancient British tribe of South East Wales, were kept on a pretty tight budget compared with their neighbours over the river, the Dobunni. Coin hoards abound on this side of the river, one of the largest recently found in Thornbury, whereas they are rare on the Welsh side. Times were tough.
The Romans were very astute politically and liked to take over an area by adopting existing social structures, customs, religions and names, while organising commerce centrally to make tax collection easy. This was quickly accomplished on this side of the Severn. It took less than four years after the invasion of AD 43 to establish a military front along the Fosse Way with forts at Exeter and Kingsholm in Gloucester. The river and its goddess were called Sabrina after the Celtic name. A beautiful diadem from Lydney shows Sabrina riding a chariot drawn by four horses, perhaps embodying the Severn bore. Other local gods were adopted such as Nodens at Lydney temple and Sulis at Bath. Thriving commercial centres were quickly established, such as Cirencester and Sea Mills.
Things did not quite go to plan on the Welsh side, however. All through the 50s (the 0050s, that is) the Silures adopted guerrilla warfare, even defeating a Roman legion, which was a rare event. The Forest of Dean was a continual battleground. There are lots of temporary camps, one recently found just outside Chepstow. The legion that was trying to hold down the Silures had to decline an invitation to go east to fight Boudica because they feared they would lose all their recent gains in Wales. Eventually, after decades of fighting, the Silures were subdued (or else forgot what they were fighting about) and a centre of commerce was set up at Caerwent with a permanent fortress at Caerleon, just in case.
So was it all worth it for the Romans? Well, this area was noted for being very good at arable farming, and was a net exporter of grain (very important for feeding the army). It was also important for making iron, from ore mined in the Forest of Dean, and for mining lead in the Mendips. It was also noted for making a type of Kagoule, useful for the English (and Welsh) weather. The Severn was a major conduit for trade. Items found in this area come from every corner of the Empire. And a diploma from AD 105 cites a soldier fighting in a legion on the other side of the world, from the Dobunni tribe. Maybe the question should be, ‘What did we do for the Romans?’
Caerleon Legionary Fortress Museum is a fascinating and free local amenity just the other side of the river. Go and find out what the Romans really did.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.