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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Roads in Britain

by Thomas Codrington

published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
London, 1903

Text and maps are in the public domain.

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 p376  Chapter XI: Conclusion

In the foregoing pages the Roman roads have been grouped, for convenience of description, under the names by which they are now generally known, which have little relation to the original planning of them. It is interesting to try and follow the hints afforded by the roads themselves of the sequence in which they were laid out, and to see how far they agree with what is known of the Roman conquest and occupation of the country.

It may be taken for granted that the first road was from the landing-places at Dover and Richborough to Stangate, where the Thames was crossed to Westminster, and it is natural to suppose that after gaining the higher ground on the north side of the river, roads were laid out to Camoludunum, to Calleva Atrebatum, and to Verolamium. We know that Camoludunum was taken about A.D. 44, and there is reason to suppose that soon after that time the whole of the country as far west as Gloucester and beyond Salisbury was in Roman occupation. The planning of the roads radiating from Calleva to Winchester, Old Sarum, and Cirencester probably soon followed; and from Winchester it is likely that a road was  p377 soon continued on to a port, at Bitterne or Porchester.1

The road from Silchester to Old Sarum was evidently laid out with the object of reaching that British stronghold. It was continued to the equally strong fortress at Badbury, and thence it would seem in the first place to Poole Harbour. When the road was continued from Badbury westward, the object seems to have been to reach Maiden Castle, the immense earthwork near Dorchester. From the latter access to the sea was again secured by a road to Weymouth.

Judging from its direction, the road from Silchester to Corinium, the capital of the Dobuni, was the original stem from which the road to Bath branched off at Speen. It was soon continued on to Gloucester, where the Roman Clevum or Glevum was planted about A.D. 50, if not earlier. The construction of the road to Bath, and on to the mouth of the Avon, must have followed not long after. The Silures, on the west of the Severn, were attacked by Ostorius A.D. 51 or 52, and the Roman camp at Sudbrook, on the west bank of the Severn, and the two walled stations Venta Silurum and Isca leg. II Augusta, each as large as Glevum, and of similar proportions, perhaps originated with that campaign. They lie to the south of the high tract of country between the Wye and the Usk, Venta in communication with the passage across the Severn from the mouth of the Avon, and Isca, only eight miles further west, accessible by the navigable  p378 river Usk. The road from Clevum to Venta, and that from Isca by Gobannium to Magnae, completed the hold on that part of the country, which probably was not secured until after the conquest of the Silures by Julius Frontinus, A.D. 76.2

Parallel with the last-named road from Caerleon to Kenchester and Wroxeter, and apparently marking the successive steps in the subjugation of Wales, are the other roads with a general direction from south to north, already mentioned. Sarn Helen, from Neath to Aberyscir, Castel Llechryd, and Caersws, and continued by Sarn Swsog, is communicated with at Aberyscir by roads from Abergavenny, and from Kenchester, and was doubtless also joined at Caersws by a road from Wroxeter. Again, after the dividing ridge between the Usk and the Towy had been passed over by the Roman road from Aberyscir westward, the latter road is crossed by a road communicating with the sea at Carmarthen, and with Sarn Helen at Castell Llechryd. The more direct road onwards crosses the hills from Llandovery to the valley of the Teifi, and then communicates with another Sarn Helen from Carmarthen, which passes through Cardiganshire and North Wales, and joins the Roman road from Chester to Carnarvon at Caerhûn on the river Conwy.

 p379  It is to be observed that all four roads are in connexion with the sea at their southern ends, and it may be that it was by way of the sea that the country to the west of Carmarthen was occupied at the early date which seems indicated by the coins found near Llanboidy, none of which were later than A.D. 91.

The cross-roads from Winchester to Old Sarum, and that from Winchester by Cunetio to join the road from Speen to Cirencester, are probably later than the roads radiating from Silchester. The pig of lead found at Bossington on the former road, dated A.D. 60, proves however that at that date the road existed.

The course of the Foss Way lies across the general direction of the Roman advance. It is possible that it was laid out parallel to the frontier when the Roman province was bounded by the Severn and the Trent, as it apparently was for some years before Paulinus' expedition to Mona, A.D. 59.​3 There is, however, little to suggest a defensive purpose in this Foss Way. One camp only, or name suggestive of a camp, is to be found on it in the 74 miles between Leicester and Cirencester.

The way in which the Foss road enters and leaves Cirencester and Bath shows that it is of later date than the roads leading from Silchester to those places, and it appears to be later than Akeman Street, which it joins before entering Corinium. The Foss joins Ermingº Street on the south of Lincoln as if it were laid out after the latter road, but the milliary found  p380 on the road to the north of Leicester proves that the Foss road there was in existence A.D. 120.

The twist in Watling Street on the high ground between Brockley Hill and Elstree suggests that the road may have been laid out from Verolamium, already at the time of the Claudian conquest, A.D. 43, an important place, as well as from the south. Onwards to Wroxeter, Watling Street appears to be a work in itself, carefully laid out to keep on the high ground of the water-parting, between rivers flowing to the north and to the south, and making for its objective point without passing through any place of importance. Viroconium is supposed to date from about A.D. 50. The continuation southwards along the Welsh border to Kenchester and Abergavenny could hardly have been laid out before the defeat of the Silures, A.D. 50 or 51, and it probably was not constructed until after the conquest of that people by Frontinus 20 years later, by which time it would have been joined by a road northwards from Caerleon.

The branching off of the road to Chester at an obtuse angle from Watling Street, seems to indicate a later laying out of a communication with the port at the mouth of the Dee, which was to form a base for the expedition of Suetonius Paulinus again Mona, A.D. 58‑60. The road to Carnarvon, branching from this road almost at right angles several miles to the south of Chester, must have been made before A.D. 78, as we may judge from the rapidity of Agricola's advance to Mona in the autumn of that year.

 p381  The advance into Lancashire is perhaps marked by the road which must have branched from the road from Watling Street to Chester, and which can now be traced from Nantwich, by Kind Street, crossing the river Mersey near Warrington, and the Ribble at Walton above Preston, and continuing on to Lancaster; keeping in communication with the sea, and avoiding the neighbourhood of the high land between Lancashire and Yorkshire, then occupied by the unsubdued Brigantes.

This line of advance isolated the Brigantes of the high ground on that side, but access further to the north was barred by Morecambe Bay and the estuaries connected with it, and by the mountains and fells of Cumberland and Westmoreland. Agricola's advance to the north, as described by Tacitus, must have been along the east flank of the high land, and Riknild Street branching from Watling Street at Wall, and leading to Isurium, the capital of the Brigantes, probably represents the line of it. Part of that road may have been laid out as early as the campaign of Cerealis again the Brigantes (A.D. 70), but the continuation northwards is probably connected with Agricola's advance (A.D. 80‑84). The branching of the road to Carlisle at an obtuse angle with the road onwards to the north suggests a later date for the former road. The inscription to Hadrian, found at Bowes, and dated by Horsley A.D. 119,​4 seems to prove that it existed at that date. The numerous camps along it suggest that the primary  p382 purpose may have been to intersect the high moors of the country of the Brigantes. The roads across the range between Lancashire and Yorkshire also appear to be connected with the subjugation of that people, which was not completed up to the time of Hadrian. The road passing through Manchester in a north-easterly direction was evidently laid out with the high moor beyond Oldham for its objective point, and there can be little doubt that it continued on to join Riknild Street. From Mancunium, a station of no great size on that road, another road in a more northerly direction was laid out across Blackstone Edge and Rumbles Moor to Isurium, being joined at Ilkley by a road from Ribchester which continued on to York.

The road from Manchester to Ribchester branches off from the Blackstone Edge road, and is apparently of later date. It constituted perhaps part of a line of communication by way of Kirkby Thore with Carlisle, and by the Maiden Way to the stations along the Wall.

It is uncertain when London rose to such importance that a bridge over the Thames, and roads communicating with it on the south side of the river, became necessary. The Sussex Stane Street points straight to the bridge as if it were the objective point, and the branch road from Watling Street along Old Kent Road and Kent Street (now Tabard Street) joined it at an obtuse angle nearly half-a‑mile from the bridge, and thus would seem to be no older than Stane Street. The roads must have crossed the embanked marsh on raised causeways, and the  p383 Roman remains hitherto found on the south of the river generally lie along the course of them, or along the river embankment.

The road southwards by Caterham through Sussex to Clayton (p62) appears to branch from Stane Street near Streatham. It may have led to the mouth of the river Adur, where Camden and others have placed the Portus Adurni of the Notitia. It may possibly also have communicated with Anderida by a road along the downs, through Lewes, and following a very old road through Glynde and Alciston. The Roman walls of Anderida at Pevensey, enclosing an area of 220 yards by 115 yards, remain, but there are no traces of a Roman road to it. It is almost surrounded by land but little, if at all, above the sea level, and the natural access is from the west, and it was from near Eastbourne, in that direction, that the squared blocks of calcareous sandstone came with which the Roman walls are faced.

On the north of the river Thames, Ermingº Street is in line with the Roman bridge, but there is no reason to connect it with the road that bears the same name in Surrey, and is called Stane Street in Sussex. It is rather to be supposed that Ermingº Street was directed northward from outside the east gate of the earlier Londinium, before the extension of the city included the bridge, and presumably before the bridge was built.

After going northward in a direct line for 19 miles, Ermingº Street turns off to Braughing, suggesting  p384 that the purpose of the road in the first place was as much to give access to East Anglia by the road on to Newmarket, as to lead to Lincoln and the north. After skirting round the Fen country it makes straight for the Humber, and the roads on the north of that river continue the same general direction; one line along the edge of the Wolds, and on by Wade's Causeway to the sea, probably at Whitby, and another by Stamford Bridge and Northallerton to join the road to the north by way of Riknild Street. York does not seem to have been much considered in laying out these roads.

The road to York by Doncaster, Castleford, and Tadcaster, which branches from the road to the Humber a few miles north of Lincoln, may be supposed to date from the early part of the second century, when Eburacum was rising into importance, and when a road to the new capital without crossing the wide Humber was required. The way in which the newer road is laid out to avoid the lower courses of the rivers draining into the Humber, brings it within a few miles of the older Riknild Street between Castleford and Aberford, where both roads are still plainly traceable. It is very likely that in Roman times the traffic to the north was diverted from Riknild Street to the newer. York evidently became a centre from which newer roads radiated while the older ones remained, and consequently the traces that are now left present a somewhat perplexing network of roads.

 p385  The Northumberland Watling Street from Catterick Bridge northwards to the river Deerness points in the direction of the river Tyne at Newcastle by way of Chester-le‑Street, and the turn almost at right angles to Lanchester and Corbridge suggests a later laying out of the road in that direction. A course which avoided the high moors, and gave access to a seaport, seems to be one likely to be chosen for the first advance.

The manner in which Watling Street passes the Wall of Hadrian seems to show that the road is older than the Wall; and the reasons for thinking that other Roman roads which pass through the Wall were made before the date of the Wall (A.D. 120‑129), have been given. It seems unlikely that the forts established by Agricola (A.D. 81) between the Forth and Clyde were left without roads to give access to them, and it may be supposed that all the roads as far as the Wall of Antonine were made before Hadrian's Wall.

It has been thought that the Roman road to the north of the Forth, to Stirling and Perth, dates from the expedition of Severus to beyond the Dee, A.D. 209. It may, however, be doubted if there was time in that campaign for such a work, and the road may well belong to a period before the construction of the Wall of Antonine, A.D. 140.

It is probable that systematic excavation in the ridges or mounds of Roman roads would afford evidence of their date by which speculation would be  p386 superseded. Although most of the Roman work has been covered up or destroyed in the making of modern roads, there are many ridges remaining where exploration might be carried on without inconvenience with that thoroughness without which little result is to be expected.

The Author's Notes:

1 According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Porchester was one of the landing-places in the invasion of Claudius, A.D. 43.

2 Frontinus, after he was succeeded by Agricola, became Curator Aquarum at Rome, and he has left us interesting information concerning the water-supply of the city in his work, De Aquis Urbis Romae. A treatise of his on Stratagems, unfortunately is without any reference to his campaign in Britain.

3 Rhys' Celtic Britain, p80.

4 Britannia, p311.

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