The Romans ruled over Britain for the best part of 400 years, from Claudius’ invasion in 43 AD until the country’s return to self-governance in the 5th century.
Over the course of their long occupation, the Romans did much to forge a sophisticated kingdom that bore little resemblance to the tribal land that predated their arrival. They built towns, cities, forts and, of course, their famously straight roads, many of which are still followed today.
Thousands of years later, Britain is dotted with the remains of an empire that was in many ways ahead of its time. The remarkable sophistication of the architecture, artistry and innovation on show at many of these sites belies their age. Here are 10 of the best to visit.
1. Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall is surely the most spectacular remnant of the Roman Empire in Britain. Stretching 73 miles from coast to coast, the wall traverses a northern frontier – from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east, to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.
The wall accents the landscape’s rugged beauty with an assortment of milecastles, barracks, ramparts and forts. It was built by a force of 15,000 men over the course of six years and still impresses as an extraordinary feat of engineering and labour, nearly 2,000 years after its completion.
2. Chedworth Roman Villa
Set amid tranquil Cotswold woodland, this villa is one of the UK’s most extensive Roman ruins, offering more than a mile of walls to explore. You’ll discover some stunning mosaics in remarkably fine condition, a hypocaust and two bath houses, while a Roman temple is a pleasant stroll away.
3. Roman Baths (Bath)
Built around natural hot springs in the 1st century, the Roman Baths remain a remarkably well-preserved remnant of Roman Britain. Sadly, you’re not permitted to take a dip in the invitingly warm (though offputtingly green) waters today but the still steaming pool conjures a rare sense of connection with the Romans who bathed here thousands of years ago.
4. Antonine Wall
The Romans experienced Scotland as an unruly frontier land where the empire encountered persistent resistance from the Caledonians. The Antonine Wall, a three to four-metre high fortification that stretches 60 kilometres across the centre of Scotland, was constructed as an attempt to assert some control over the region.
Much of the wall survives to this day, providing a great excuse to walk this ruggedly beautiful stretch of Scottish countryside.
Known as Corinium Dobunnorum at the time of the Roman Empire, the Cotswold town of Cirencester was once the second largest Roman settlement in Britain. The town is home to a variety of Roman attractions, including the extensive earthwork remains of a large Roman amphitheatre and the Corinium Museum, which presents an extensive collection of Roman artefacts.
6. Chester Roman Amphitheatre
The scene of Britain’s largest archaeological excavation, this site also happens to be the country’s largest stone-built amphitheatre. Currently only half of the theatre has been uncovered but it’s nonetheless an impressive and evocative window into the gladiatorial theatre of ancient Rome. The site underlines Chester’s importance as a Roman settlement. Don’t miss the Roman gardens next door.
7. Housesteads Roman Fort
Housesteads could be considered part of Hadrian’s Wall but, given the wall’s sprawling geographical length and Housesteads’ singular value as the country’s best preserved Roman fort, we’ve decided to give it a separate entry.
The extensive fort enjoys an elevated position on the Whin Sill escarpment, granting far-reaching views to both the north and the south. It was designed to house a large garrison of troops and presents a fascinating insight into Roman military life.
8. Fishbourne Roman Palace
Fishbourne is home to the largest collection of early Roman mosaic floors in Britain and ranks as one of the country’s finest archaeological sites. Alongside the stunning mosaics, visitors can view the under-floor heating system, corridors from the elevated walkways and a formal Roman garden carefully replanted to its original plan.
9. Bignor Roman Villa
One of the largest Roman villas that’s open to the public in Britain, Bignor was clearly a villa of some wealth and boasts a number of stunning mosaics that are at least the match of anything else you’ll find in Britain. The famous Ganymede and Head of Medusa mosaics showcase particularly fine craftsmanship.
This Roman fort was built before Hadrian’s Wall but came to serve as an important garrison base for the iconic barrier. The fort was completely demolished and rebuilt a whopping nine times in its lifetime – a fact that makes for a particularly exciting archaeological site today.
The remains of everything from bath houses and village homes to temples and a church can be found at the Northumberland site, along with archaeological finds that include the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain. Known as the Vindolanda Writing Tablets, these documents consist of wafer-thin pieces of wood covered with ink writing.
11. Museum of London
There’s nowhere better than the Museum of London to discover London’s Roman history. Between around 50 AD to 410, Londinium (as it was then known) was the largest city in Britannia and an important Roman port. With more than 47,000 objects on show, many of which were discovered in the process of developing the City, the museum’s Roman collection provides a fascinating insight into the capital’s Roman past.