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Discovery of Roman fort changes history of occupation of Exeter

By This is Devon  |  Posted: July 17, 2010

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THE discovery of the Roman fort at the St Loye's site changes much of what was previously known about the Roman occupation of Exeter and how the native population of the time was subdued.

The Roman army reached Exeter around AD 50-55 during the conquest of south-west Britain on the orders of Emperor Claudius, commanded by a future Emperor, Vespasian.

It is likely that the newly discovered fort, rectangular and of wooden construction, was used as a base to quell uprisings by local chieftains as the army sought to establish a new base on the River Exe that would be more easily defensible.

This was ultimately created on a spur overlooking the Exe — a 42-acre "playing card-shaped" legionary fortress was built. This became the base for the 5,000-strong Second Augustan Legion and home to their families as settlements grew up outside the fortress gates, especially to the north-east.

This fortress could be defended on two sides by steep valleys. The defences and buildings of the fortress were constructed almost entirely from timber and clay. The one exception was the bath house, which had walls of volcanic stone quarried from Rougemont Hill.

It was excavated in 1971-73 beneath the Cathedral Close; the remains, now covered over, have been preserved in sand.

In about AD 75, the legion was transferred to Caerleon in South Wales and the fortress was abandoned.

A few years later work began to convert the site into a civilian town, known as Isca Dumnoniorum. Its public buildings included a forum and basilica, a market place and public baths. It was the capital of the Dumnonii tribe, a British Celtic tribe who inhabited the South West alongside the Romans.

Nothing was known of the bath house until it was excavated by the Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit in the 1970s. It lay at a depth of up to 3m below the present surface of the Cathedral Close and was covered by Saxon and medieval cemeteries.

Following excavation, the bath house was covered with sand so that it will be possible to reopen the site at some future date and place it on permanent display. The remains are among the most impressive of any Roman bath house in Britain.

Of the invasion and creation of the fortress, Professor Timothy Wiseman, part of the department of classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter, told the Echo: "During the invasion of Britain Emperor Claudius's commander in chief, Aulus Plautius, had an army of four legions, three taken from the Rhine frontier, one from the Danube.

"One of the Rhine legions was II Augusta, commanded by Titus Flavius Vespasianus. We call him Vespasian. II Augusta was given the job of pushing westwards, and we know from Suetonius' biography of Vespasian in The Twelve Caesars, written about AD 120, that 'he fought thirty battles with the enemy, and brought under control two of the strongest tribes, more than twenty strongholds, and the island Vectis, which is close to Britain'.

"Vectis is the Isle of Wight, and the two tribes were probably the Durotriges in Dorset and the Dumnonii in Devon and Cornwall.

"Vespasian's command lasted from 43 to 47, when he returned to resume his career in Rome. It's disputed just how far west he got before he was superseded, and some people think he didn't get beyond the Axe Valley. But in that case, which was Suetonius' second strongest tribe? I think it's likely he got as far as Exeter.

"The Romans consolidated their position and built a permanent legionary fortress for Legio II Augusta some time in the late 50s, by which time Nero was Emperor. That was excavated in front of the west door of Exeter Cathedral in the 1960s.

"The fortress was abandoned in the mid 70s AD, when II Augusta was transferred to Caerleon in South Wales and the Roman city of Isca Dumnoniorum was in due course built on the same site.

"In 1980 the city celebrated its 1900th anniversary on a guesstimate of when that was."

In about 180-200 the city wall was built, enclosing 93 acres, a much larger area than that of the fortress and early town. About two-thirds of the city wall remains; it has been patched and repaired over the centuries, but some original Roman masonry can still be seen.

The sites of the gates were retained in the following centuries; but little remains of the Roman grid street pattern: only the northern part of High Street follows the Roman lines.

Displays of previous Roman finds from the city and fine models of the military bath house and barracks are in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street, which is closed for development.

Roman occupation ended in the fifth century and little is known of what happened to the city until its Saxon occupation in 658, who shared ownership with the Britons.

It was following this that its development into the city we know today began.

Read more from Exeter Express and Echo

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    James, Countess Wear  |  July 19 2010, 3:46PM

    Gribble makes a good point. Exeter always appears to be, I suspect, what it has probably always been a backwater of history. Why preserve the memory of a leader best known to the Romans for subduing the Devonians and for his having taxed the use of toilets? Come to think of it was it not the preservation of redundant toilets, the main issue last year in the City Council's debates? While Tourism needs stimulating it should be left to folk like him to organize in line with the latest Governments pronouncements on leaving it all to local enterprise. I suspect it will mean that nothing will get done if such inspirational if negative utterances prevail..

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    GRIBBLE, COWICK ST  |  July 19 2010, 11:32AM

    Looks like a hole in the ground To me,# Roman Site You must be kidding Where is the Proof? Is it April the 1st ?

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    GRIBBLE, COWICK ST  |  July 19 2010, 11:31AM

    Looks like a hole in the ground To me,# Roman Site You must be kidding Where is the Proof? Is it April the 1st ?

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    GEMMA WEEKS, ST THOMAS  |  July 19 2010, 9:34AM

    yet another idiotic remark from the man with the brain the size of a seagull. the council has done more damage to Exeter's history than the luftwaffe ever did. Exeter does not promote itself very well compared to cities such as York. It's such a shame as we have such a rich history. but i guess like the baths under the cathedral it will be filled and not used as a tourist site.

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    GRIBBLE, COWICK ST EXETER  |  July 19 2010, 8:25AM

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ the past is gone let's not live in. i am looking forward to the new Projects Exeter City Council are planning. take some photo's then fill it in, and on with the future.

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    James, Countess Wear  |  July 18 2010, 10:21PM

    These are all nice comments very useful for Exeter.. This is really interesting news even though it is 1955 years old. When the event took place 5000 soldiers of the Second Legion needed accommodation plus their supporting people in or around Exeter. Vespasian was a busy man obviously but he did as you say have time to get things done when he returned to Rome. In particular he is known for taxing the use of latrines which was reckoned to be a disgusting way of exploiting people in their natural needs. He had a delegation petition him over this unpopular tax and he replied that it was a useful way or replenishing the imperial exchequer; besides he said "pecunia non olet" (money does not smell). For this reason throughout Southern Europe latrines are still known as "vespasians". Nice to know Exeter was probably founded by him!

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    Lisa, South West Region  |  July 18 2010, 9:58PM

    I totally agree with Jeff: things may be tough financially however preserving our nation's heritage is incredibly important. Perhaps if short sighted politicians hadn't spent so much money on white elephants there would be cash to restore this historic find. It really could give the city a new lease of life culturally and is certainly worth preserving for future generations.

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    jess, exeter  |  July 18 2010, 6:52PM

    lottery fund please help us keep our heritage alive.

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    Ros, Exeter  |  July 18 2010, 12:30PM

    A museum would go down well in the city. Exeter is rubbish for anything cultural and has absolutely nothing to offer any visitor who isn't a student.

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    lisa, torquay  |  July 18 2010, 10:59AM

    i agree jeff it would be good for the city and as school children learn about the romans what better way of seeing them than going 2 the baths and stuff like that