The Roman occupation of Britain often feels like a distant part of the country’s history, having begun nearly 2,000 years ago in 43 AD – well before the medieval, Tudor, and Victorian realms most would associate with England.
However, over nearly four centuries of Roman occupation England saw thriving Roman cities, towns, and forts appear throughout, with large communities of Romano-Britons growing up out of them. As such, though the Romans left in the 5th century, the remnants of their often vast, elaborate, and highly advanced settlements were left behind, and today provide a rare glimpse into some of England’s oldest recorded history.
For this fascinating period we have a compiled a list of the country’s best Roman sites, ranging from England’s largest Roman amphitheatre in Chester to the imposing Hadrian’s Wall forts of Housesteads and Vindolanda.
Discover Roman England in all its glory as you walk in the footsteps of some of its most revered names.
Hadrian’s Wall is a magnificent remnant of Roman Britain and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Built under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 130 AD, it took six legions to complete this once 73 mile wall – 80 miles by Roman measurements. At the time of its completion, Hadrian’s Wall would have been between 13 and 15 feet high, made of stone and turf and would have stretched east to west from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth.
The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was once thought to have been as a fortification to keep out the Scots, but today historians believe it was a way of monitoring movement between the north and south in an attempt to consolidate the Empire.
The world famous Roman Baths complex in Bath, UK, contains an incredible set of thermal spas and an impressive ancient Roman bathing house. First discovered in the 19th century, the Roman Baths are one of the best preserved ancient Roman sites in the UK and continue to be a major tourist attraction.
The Romans Baths were initially built as part of the town of Aqua Sulis, which was founded in 44 AD. Vast and lavish, the baths were able to accommodate far more people than just the residents of this town and were intended as visiting spot for Romans across the Empire. As with other contemporary bath complexes, in Bath the baths were a focal point for the town: a place for socialising and spirituality.
Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire was a luxurious and vast Roman residence built in the 2nd century, and expanded in later years. It is a unique site due to evidence found of Roman occupation following the withdrawal of the Roman army in the 5th century, and today provides visitors with a fascinating glimpse into what was once an opulent ancient home.
Believed to have been built in around 120 AD, Chedworth Roman Villa would have been a typical upper-class home in the Roman period. In its initial build phase, the villa consisted of three buildings comprising 3 sides of a rectangle, with a bath house to the north. Following a fire in the early 3rd century, the west and south wings were rebuilt and the bath suite enlarged, before in the 4th century it was further transformed into an elite residence.
In Roman times, Cirencester, known as ‘Corinium Dobunnorum’, was the second-largest settlement in Britain after London. During the 6th century fortunes changed, the Saxons destroyed the town and it was renamed ‘Coryn Ceasre.’ It later became a prosperous wool town in the Medieval period.
When the land of the Dobunni tribe was occupied by the Romans, in around 43 or 44 AD, a fort was built a few miles away from Bagendon to guard an important road junction and the crossing of the River Churn. The site of this fort later became the Roman town of Corinium.
The military occupation of the town was only temporary, troops were withdrawn around 70 AD and a new Roman town was planned and built. The new centre, now known as Cirencester, was formally called Corinium Dobunnorum in Roman references.
Chester Roman Amphitheatre is Britain’s largest known Roman amphitheatre, whose remains give an idea of what was once a thriving centre of Roman life.
Originally part of the Roman settlement of ‘Deva’, founded in around 79 AD in what is now Chester, Chester Roman Amphitheatre would have been able to seat between 8,000 and 12,000 spectators.
Two amphitheatres were actually built on the site of Chester Roman Amphitheatre, both stone-built with wooden seating but each quite different in other respects. The first had access to the upper tiers of seating using stairs on its rear wall, and had a shrine at its north entrance, while the second featured vaulted stairways as access to its seating.
Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex hosts the remains of a huge Roman palace complex constructed in the 1st century. As the largest Roman residential site in Britain, it provides a fascinating insight into Roman Britain and contains a large collection of stunning mosaic work.
Built in 75 AD on the site of a Roman supply compound, Fishbourne Roman Palace was a vast and impressive development that appeared just 30 years after the Roman conquest of Britain. It would have been built for the very highest echelons of Romano-British society, and is the largest Roman residential complex to be discovered in Britain – it is even bigger than Buckingham Palace!
Bignor Roman Villa is a large Roman villa site on the Bignor estate. Situated in West Sussex, the Villa complex hosts the remains of a 3rd century ancient Roman home, and some of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in the country.
Finds from the site of Bignor Roman Villa hint to an initial homestead dating from the end of the 1st century, while structural evidence points with more certainty to the existence of a timber farm around 190 AD.
A later stone structure was built during the 3rd century, with the extension of new rooms, a hypocaust, and a portico soon following. Its final additions took place in the 4th century, when work was undertaken on the north wing that included the stunning mosaics later discovered at the site
Vindolanda was one of the main Ancient Roman wall forts of Hadrian’s Wall, the 73-mile barrier built by the Emperor Hadrian from 122 AD.
However, Vindolanda is thought to have been inhabited by the Romans from 85 AD, following the victory of the Roman Governor Agricola at the Battle of Mons Graupius, well before this iconic wall was built. Prior to functioning as a wall fort, the initial role played by Vindolanda was to guard the supply route known as Stanegate, which ran from east to west.
Like most Roman forts, Vindolanda followed several phases of construction. It began as a turf rampart and by the late 80s AD it was a permanent turf and timber fort in the classic Roman playing-card shape.
Housesteads Roman Fort, originally known as ‘Vercovicium’, is one of the best preserved and most important of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Built in around 124 AD, Housesteads Roman Fort housed around 1,000 troops and remained in use until the 4th century.
Lying midway along Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, England, Housesteads Roman Fort is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain, and one of the best-known from the entire Roman Empire.
The fort was built in stone in around 124 AD, around two years after the construction of the wall. It was built and rebuilt many times, with the northern defences appearing to have been particularly prone to collapse.
The Museum of London explores the history of the UK’s capital city through a series of exhibitions.
The contents of some galleries at the Museum of London are constantly changing, although there are nine permanent collections. Arranged chronologically, one focuses on Roman London with over 47,000 archaeological finds on display, including Roman ceramics, metalwork, a coin collection, and several wooden writing tablets.
Reconstructed furnished rooms from Roman Londinium, as well as marble sculptures from the Temple of Mithras also feature, and offer an interesting and comprehensive insight into the city’s ancient past.