Home Features Calleva Atrebatum: Historical novel draws me to the ancient city of Silchester

Calleva Atrebatum: Historical novel draws me to the ancient city of Silchester

A reference in a historical novel draws Mike to the remarkable Roman city of Calleva Atrebatum.

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To the right and left of this gravelled path lies the huge area of Calleva Atrebatum, the capital city of the Atrebates. Everything about this city, apart from the ramparts, has disappeared beneath the earth, reduced to ideal grazing ground.

Imagine how the area would have looked nearly two thousand years ago. Roads lined with shops and public buildings, with the forum off to the right of this path. Calleva Atrebatum was one of the major cities of Roman Britain and, unlike the majority of such settlements, it was completely abandoned around about 1400 years ago. The site of Calleva is now known as Silchester, a name shared with the nearby modern village, and lies just 50 miles west of London.

This gravelled path runs right through the centre of what was once the city of Calleva Atrebatum. The Forum lay off to the right, just on the other side of the hedge

Calleva was an important point on the Roman road between Londinium and the west, now known as Devil’s Highway. Along this now-deserted thoroughfare, legions would have marched and goods would have moved back and forth between the two major cities. These days, there is a wider thoroughfare between London and the west, running just to the north of Silchester. It’s called the M4 motorway.

Up the Junction

At Calleva, the Devil’s Highway split into three separate routes, emphasising the importance of this city as a major junction serving the west and south-west and the cities of:

  • Portchester (Portus Adurni), via Winchester (Venta) and Southampton (Clausentum).
  • Old Sarum (Sorviodunum), offering connections to Exeter and Dorchester (Durnovaria).
  • Caerleon (Isca Salurum), the base of the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta), via Gloucester (Glevum Colonia).
All that remains of the Roman walls of Calleva Atrebatum. Visitors can follow the wall protecting the now-deserted city

I, Claudius, got it wrong

From around the year 45, Calleva Atrebatum was part of the kingdom of Cogidubnus who, some historians believe, was Togodubnus, son of Cunobelinus and brother of the rebel Caractacus. He is said to have accepted Roman dominance in return for the welfare of his people who might otherwise have been enslaved.

The main street runs from the south to the north gates (Wiki Commons)
Calleva Atrebatum during the four centuries of Roman Britain

According to some accounts, Togodubnus adopted the Roman name of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus at the command of Emperor Claudius and thus became “King of the Britons”.

It has been suggested that the emperor mangled the king’s name because he couldn’t get his tongue around the British pronunciation. Others say that Togodubnus and Cogidubnus were two different people. But I prefer to think of them as one and the same. It makes a good story.

Togodubnus’s brother Caractacus was captured after being turned over to the Romans by the northern British queen, Cartimandua. However, he was treated well and, after an impassioned address to Claudius in the Senate in Rome, his life was spared and he lived in Italia with his family for the rest of his life. He never returned to Britannia.

The remains of the west gate of Calleva Atrebatum. The illustration below is an artist’s impression of how it would have looked in the first century.
Image Mike Evans, taken from a display on site at Silchester

Abandoned

As a city of major importance, Calleva Atrebatum is unusual in its total abandonment. There are many long-defunct Roman sites throughout England, but most of the larger cities, such as Calleva once was, soldiered on into the future.

Examples, apart from Londinium, are Verulamium (St. Albans), Camulodunum (Colchester), Durovernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury), Derventio Coritanorum (Derby), Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester), Mamucium (Manchester), Aquae Sulis (Bath) and Eboracum (York). Imagine, New York could have been Eboracum Novum if the Romans hadn’t abandoned Britannia.

Even my home town of Wigan (which has now become more famous internationally for its football club) was the Roman settlement of Coccium. Somehow, The Road to Coccium Pier probably wouldn’t have appealed to Orwell.

Hidden hobbies

Just why did I decide to visit Silchester for the first time in my life? It is only an hour’s drive from my home, but it is one of the few local “attractions” I’ve never felt moved to visit. Why, I don’t know, because I am sure it would have become a favourite haunt, especially for the pleasure of walking and soaking up the atmosphere.

It’s a long story. By way of background, one of my hobbies, apart from editing Macfilos, is proofreading and sub-editing books. One of the authors I help is Amanda J. Mackenzie creator the Zodiac series, with all her novels based in the days of the Roman Empire.

I’ve enjoyed this work immensely. Novels of the Roman period are one of my special interests and I’ve read most of the genre. I’ve tramped with the legions across almost every conceivable part of the empire; I’ve lived the fictionally enhanced lives of many of the more recognised emperors and quite a few of the ones most people have never heard of.

Historical novels are an invaluable and relatively painless way of soaking up the history provided you can draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. Amanda mixes historic and fictional characters seamlessly to form a gripping narrative but, of course, you need to keep a clear head and not start thinking everything is factual.

If you are interested in the Roman period and appreciate a cracking good novel, I can confidently recommend Dr Mackenzie’s first novels in her Zodiac series. In order, they are Scorpio, Taurus and Gemini.

But back to Silchester. Amanda mentions it in her latest book which I am currently proofreading. I can’t give away any secrets, but this casual reference prompted me to get in the car and visit the site of ancient Calleva Atrebatum. Despite the relative dearth of physical artefacts on-site, I found the scale of the city, the vast expanse of meadow and the vestigial ramparts in some ways more evocative than viewing more intact Roman remains hidden within modern cities.

Ancient stone wall, with the city having gone back to nature over the centuries

Here is a Roman city in its entirety, wall to wall. As you stand in front of the vast landscape, you can readily imagine the hustle of life in such an important metropolis two millennia ago. There is nothing modern to spoil your imagination.

Here’s a more atmospheric view of the gate by Macfilos reader Terry Cymbalisty who lives but a stone’s throw from the city walls. It’s one of his favourite subjects for photography
And here is a 360deg panoramic view of the amphitheatre which accommodated up to 6,000 spectators and would have hosted gladiatorial contests, games and even executions (Image Terry Cymbalisty)

If you live in southern England and haven’t been to this fascinating site, please do so. It’s not closing anytime soon. Navigate to the (free) car park. From there you walk for about half a mile along a fenced path until you come to the perimeter walls.

The photographs of Silchester in this article were taken with the Leica SL2 and Panasonic Lumix 24-105mm zoom.

36 COMMENTS

  1. It’s great when you can get pleasure three times, once from proofing, once from your armchair relaxation, and then visiting the scene of the crime. I will have to put her on my to do list, my problem is I get hung up on the Greeks, and our Civil War. I did read somewhere, that the archeologists or whatever they are called, have to rethink their theories on Roman England, in that the evidence now suggests they were the main wine supplier to Italy, of all their conquests. Just have to ask Mike are you wearing sandals and toga when doing any of the above,I figure you would want to get in character, HA

    • No, I don’t know. It must have been because it lost its importance as a centre for trade. Perhaps the location made sense 2000 years ago but with the fall of Roman Britain, interest moved elsewhere.

  2. Thanks, Mike, for taking us on that engaging outing, and for your very atmospheric photos. I like historical novels and it will be good to make the acquaintance of a new author and period (to me).

  3. Wonderful story Mike. I like to visit historical spots when I travel, and try to imagine the historic events that transpired there. Especially in Europe, where there are many Roman sites. There are many also in Germany, especially in the Cologne area. In the area my family is from, near Bonn, one of my father’s friends had quite a collection of Roman artifacts unearthed on his many building projects. Knowing my interest in history, he insisted on showing me his collection in the basement of his rather large home. It was like being in a museum! Hundreds of amphorae, etc. I’m sure it was illegal to have all of these things personally, but I was a teenager and a guest. I think I still have a small amphorae somewhere that he gave me as a souvenir.
    Then there are places I visited like Dachau. Standing in those places like the gas chamber were chilling. One can’t imagine the evil done there!

    • I agree on the awful impressions created by the KZs. Over the years I’ve been to Dachau, Oranienburg and Theresienstadt and they provide a lesson that everyone should learn. Lest we forget man’s inhumanity to man.

  4. I appreciate the article Mike. I live in Tadley which is literally next door. I have visited the site on numerous occasions. Reading University have done many digs which where open to the public and information is available from this source.
    There’s an amphitheatre just outside the town walls. Imagine, Tadley’s very own Collisseum!
    The church is with a visit too

    Regards,
    Terry

  5. And here I was doing the maths, fifty miles from London. So within range of a round trip in the electric car, even with the air con on, and a little music to pass the journey. To visit something you had read about on the internet or in a pamphlet somewhere on your travels. While the rest of us toil. 🤣

    So it turns out you proof read novels for an author. And got the idea from her book. That sounds like an interesting bit of work, and one I reckon would be fascinating. But like you say, you cannot get too absorbed in the story.

    This year is turning out to be full of wonder, as we gallop head long towards our first circuit breaker.

    Keep safe folks. Remember hands, face, space.

  6. Thanks Mike for a wonderful article. As an aside I really enjoy the way ruins are kept in Britain, particularly the sites managed by Historic England, Scotland and Wales. They do a wonderful work of maintening their properties and the insight they offer with illustrations of what they looked in their heyday.

    • I agree. And we should also pay a compliment to the National Trust and English Heritage for their squiring of sites from Stonehenge to Chatsworth.

  7. Wonderful stuff Mike. Apart from that what have the Romans etc? They did a lot, but they never crossed the Irish Sea, so we only have Viking, Pagan and later Christian ruins. I visited Hadrian’s Wall about 25 years ago when my eldest daughter was in college in Hull and I was very impressed with the wall, the milecastles, the forts etc. It must have been a wonderful sight, particularly when the lamps were lit at night. What is most impressive is the sheer amount of thought and end to end organisation which the Romans were able to put into building things which were ‘in the middle of nowhere’ to make them ‘somewhere’.

    I have been to Bath many times and, to my ears, Aquae Sulis sounds as much Celtic as it does Roman. Solas (pronounced sulis) is our word for ‘light’, but the Welsh equivalent is quite different . Sulis or Sulis Minerva was a deity who was worshipped at the Roman baths in what is modern day Bath. Suli is a common root in proto-Celtic words for the sun and even appears in Greek and Sanskrit. Sulis was worshipped by what are now called the Romano-British, so it seems that the Romans did a lot more than road and wall building.

    William

    • I am not sure I fully understand. However, I should make the situation clear. Any comment which contains a link to another site must be approved. Our spam protection automatically deletes up to 1,000 spam messages a month, all of them containing spurious links. But those from genuine commenters, such as yourself, go into the moderation box. I then approve them but I cannot guarantee to do this immediately. There is sometimes a delay and I can only ask you to be patient.

    • I thought all the tongue twisters were in your articles! .But yes, the old Celtic names are a challenge. Roman names tend to look easier and a bit more melodious, I think.

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