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"It [Caerleon] was constructed with great care by the Romans, the walls being built of brick. You can still see many vestiges of its one-time splendour....There is a lofty tower, and beside it remarkable hot baths, the remains of temples and an amphitheatre. All this is enclosed within impressive walls, parts of which still remain standing."
Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales
Gildas writes that Britain was "ornamented with twenty eight cities and a number of castellated towers, gates and houses, whose sturdily built roofs reared menacingly skyward." They first are listed by Nennius, many of which had been Roman forts and towns (Caernarfon, Wroxeter, Caerleon, Caerwent, York, Chester, London, Winchester). Others cannot be identified.
Established in AD 74 or 75, Caerleon ("City of the Legion" or, to the Romans, Isca after their name for the River Usk) was one of three permanent legionary bases in Roman Britain, this one garrisoned by Legio II Augusta for the conquest of south Wales. On the departure of the legion about AD 290, the fortress fell into ruin, its buildings systematically demolished and later robbed of their stone. Left behind, however, were the remains that Gerald describes, the oval depression of the amphitheater later thought to be the Round Table.
In about 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth described Caerleon, "still shown by its ancient walls and buildings," as the court of King Arthur and the place where he was crowned, possibly because it is near his native Monmouth and he had seen the ruins. Situated "in a most pleasant position, and being richer in material wealth than other townships, this city was eminently suitable for such a ceremony," its royal palaces and the gold-painted gables of its roofs making it a match for Rome, itself. Indeed, Geoffrey is so lavish in his praise that Caerleon anticipates the later notion of Camelot as Arthur's capital, which was introduced by Chrétien de Troyes (c.1130-c.1190).
Fifty years later, Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) visited Caerleon as part of a recruitment tour for the Third Crusade. There lived the seer Meilyr, who, "if he looked at a book which was incorrect, which contained some false statement, or which aimed at deceiving the reader, he immediately put his finger on the offending passage." Tormented by demons, the Gospel of John was placed on his chest and offered relief. But, says Gerald, when Geoffrey's Historia was put there in its place, "the demons would alight all over his body, and on the book, too, staying there longer than usual and being even more demanding."
Although Gerald accepts that Arthur had been a great king, he relates that Gildas was said to have thrown all his writings about him into the sea. "As a result you will find no book which gives an authentic account of that great prince." Nor did Gerald share the Welsh belief that Arthur would return, and records that the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere had been discovered at Glastonbury Abbey.
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