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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.