The Romans ruled over Britain for almost 400 years and left behind a remarkable legacy including an extensive network of roads, sanitation and sewage systems, major cities – Manchester, York and London were all founded by the Romans – and a more unified country. The remnants of the Roman Empire are so integrated into the United Kingdom that many don’t realize how much the country was shaped by one of the great empires of history.
When the Romans were here it was known as Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sulis, and the Great Roman Baths were built over hot springs that were dedicated to the goddess Sulis. The original temple was built around 60 AD and over the next 300 years the bathing complex was constructed. Oak piles were used to create a stable base for a lead-lined chamber surrounding the spring that was later enclosed with a vaulted structure. The baths were divided into three separate chambers; the calidarium or hot bath, the tepidarium (warm) and the frigidarium (cold).
Today the baths are one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world and steaming water still fills the chamber. In addition to bathing facilities, archeologists have found bits of metal known as “curse tablets” in the sacred spring. Citizens would ascribe a curse to someone they felt had wronged them and throw the tablet into the waters with a request that Sulis take care of the evil-doer for them. These, along with a hoard of Roman coins found near the bath, can be seen in the museum.
The museum also holds parts of the Roman Temple that stood near the baths. Carvings on the pediments feature the servants of the god Neptune, and a fierce Gorgon’s head designed to cast fear into those that might think to dishonor the gods.
The baths themselves are considered unsafe in part due to the lead-lined pipes that carry water from the spring and partly due to infectious organisms that inhabit the water. A new tap was sunk into the springs in recent years and visitors can now safely taste the waters that brought many Romans to Aquae Sulis to take the cure.
2. Chedworth Roman Villa
The Cotswalds are a series of utterly charming villages in Gloucestershire, known for having a delightful walking path and one of the largest Roman villas in the country. The building was constructed over some 200 years, transforming from a simple dwelling into a three-winged structure around a courtyard. It’s just off the ancient Roman road known as Fosse Way and is one of about 50 villas that were located in the Cotswalds. A nearby spring was both a water source and a shrine to the water nymphs.
The final piece of construction during the 4th century enclosed the courtyard and added mosaics to the dining room. The baths were altered to allow both damp and dry heat and mosaics laid in many of the other rooms. Eventually an additional dining area was added. The mosaics are typical of styles found in other Roman villas throughout the country with the most elaborate design found in the dining room.
Nearby are the remains of a Roman temple that is too badly destroyed to identify much more than the altars. Another was destroyed during the construction of a railway in 1869, but findings there include coins, tiles and a stone relief of a hunter with a hare, dog and stag, possibly the depiction of a god.
3. Caerleon Roman Ruins
It would be difficult to find a site more steeped in history than this village on the River Usk. Not only is it the location of a Roman Fortress and an Iron Age fort, it’s also thought by some to be the location of Camelot, the seat of King Arthur’s rule.
Isca Augusta was both a fortress and a settlement that is now partially buried beneath the modern village of Caerleon in South Wales. It was first used during the conquest of Wales by the Romans and subsequently used to quash rebellions and protect the coast from invaders. After the Roman Empire fell, the fortress was put to other uses and the basilica in particular was turned into a cattle pen.
Many of the ruins have been excavated and identified including baths, barracks and an amphitheatre. The baths are well preserved and visitors can see the caldarium, teidarium and frigidarium. Changing rooms have been identified along with exercise rooms and a large swimming pool.
A bit farther down the road, Caerwent has the remains of the Roman town of Venta Silurum. A temple, basilica and forum have been excavated as have what appear to be a blacksmith and a marketplace. The temple was possibly dedicated to Mars, but a few artifacts suggest that Christianity had already entered into the picture.
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