Wroxeter: 'This is how it ends: not with a hang hut a whimper'

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Archaeologists have been able to corroborate Gildas' picture. Although the Roman cities were not deserted everywhere, some were abandoned at this time, or their populations shrank dramatically. In Cirencester, for example, the second city of Roman Britain, archaeologists have established that civic life continued into the 440s; the defences were repaired, flood prevention work carried out at one of the gates, and the piazza of the forum kept clean. But soon after that time, whether caused by the great plague or by the Saxon revolt, unburied bodies were found in the streets and the town seems to have contracted to a few wooden huts inside the amphitheatre.

The most vivid picture we yet possess of declining late Roman city life comes from Wroxeter near Shrewsbury. Unlike most Roman towns, Wroxeter did not become a modern city; it still lies under farmland, and is now being painstakingly uncovered. The present excavation is around the basilica of the baths complex, formerly a great brick hall the size of a cathedral nave. This centrepiece of Roman civic pride fell into disuse around 350, and was demolished to be succeeded by shanties.

To the great surprise of the excavators, however, a later phase has been discovered which shows that the area was rebuilt. The basilica area was levelled, covered with thousands of tons of carefully laid rubble, and on this base a large number of timber buildings were erected including a massive wooden hall laid on beams, 125 feet long and 52 feet wide with a narrow extension 80 feet long. This hall, with its porticoed facade, wings and steps, was the central structure of a complex of related timber buildings. South of it were rows of timber booths separated by a finely sifted gravel street roofed like a pedestrian precinct. At the upper end of the street was a series of large wooden buildings with classical facades, 'perhaps the last classically inspired buildings in Britain until Wren and the eighteenth-century revival', as the excavator has called them.

Who can have been the initiator of this drastic reorganisation of a whole city centre? It needed wealth, a high degree of organisation, and strong motivation. It was certainly not the work of demoralised peasant villagers, nor was it effected by Irish or Anglo-Saxon invaders. It has the hallmarks of Roman public works, only constructed with timber: we must surely be looking here at a complex of religious or public buildings or the private domain of some great man.

The end of this phase, the last occupation of the main area of the city, is equally intriguing. These halls were not sacked or hurriedly abandoned. They were deliberately dismantled and all useful materials taken away. When? The excavators are not sure, though a date towards the end of the fifth century is the present thinking. Why? This may be easier. Wroxeter is a large town, 200 acres with two miles of walls, and thus difficult to defend without a large fighting force. The likelihood is that the city was abandoned for a more defensible site. And if the princes of Powys had Wroxeter as their main centre up till around 500, could the city have been the base of Vortigern, who appears in the genealogies of Powys? Or could it possibly have been Arthur's base? We shall probably never know, but this massive injection of energy, capital and manpower into what was evidently a declining town suggests the influence of one of the powerful leaders struggling for control in sub-Roman Britain, a man who wished to restore something of the grandeur of Rome, albeit in timber.

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