The area that was to become the site of Roman Leicester lies on a 4m-thick layer of sand and gravel on the eastern bank of the River Soar. Until the river was partly canalised in the 19th century, the Soar consisted of a braided series of channels. The city’s 19th-century neo-Tudor West Bridge probably marks a crossing point established in prehistory, and one that influenced the siting of an Iron Age settlement that preceded the Roman town.
This pre-Roman settlement is thought to have marked the southernmost centre of the people named in Roman literature as the Corieltavi, a confederation of self-sufficient communities occupying the landscape of modern Leicestershire, Rutland, and Lincolnshire, as well as parts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Northamptonshire. We should imagine a landscape of roundhouses set within enclosures, with cereal fields located adjacent to the farmsteads, and shared open pasture and woodland beyond.
The existence of several such farmsteads along the Soar valley shows that this landscape was already well populated by the 5th century BC, but finds from Leicester itself show that the settlement there was a very late 1st-century BC foundation, with a different character from earlier sites. Elsewhere, finds of pottery, coins, and metalwork are rare, but in Leicester there have been numerous finds of fine tableware and amphorae imported from Gaul, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula, along with brooches, coins, and moulds associated with the production of coin blanks. These indicate that Leicester belonged to the same class of high-status late Iron Age sites as Colchester, St Albans, Silchester, and Bagendon.
Conquering the Corieltavi
The Roman conquest of this part of Britain between AD 43 and 47 seems to have met with little resistance. Finds of strap-ends, a decorated helmet cheek-piece, and an armilla (a bracelet awarded for military service) imply the presence of soldiers or veterans, perhaps people of local origin who served in the army. It has also been suggested that the very fine cavalry helmet and the Roman silver coins found at the late Iron Age shrine at Hallaton, 12 miles south-east of Leicester, were gifts to a local leader who had facilitated the Roman occupation (see CA 236 and 264).
No definitive evidence has been found for a fort or for a prolonged military presence at Leicester. Rather, it was the construction of the Fosse Way, linking Exeter and Cirencester to Lincoln via Leicester and the crossing over the River Soar, that was the major influence on the development of the Romano-British town. Like the other 62 urban defended settlements that were to be established in Roman Britain, this had all the standard features of a planned conurbation: defensive ramparts, a rectilinear street grid dividing the settlement into blocks (insulae), a public bath complex, a forum and basilica, a market hall (macellum), a theatre, a Mithraic temple, and a mix of housing types, from simple shop-houses to luxurious courtyard dwellings with mosaic floors and painted plaster walls.
The Iron Age settlements around Leicester do not appear to have been occupied beyond the conquest period, so it seems that people from the immediate hinterland chose to move to the town or were coerced into relocating, abandoning their ancestral homes and investing instead in the commercial, social, and political opportunities offered by this new urban centre. Early in the 2nd century, at the end of Hadrian’s reign, Roman Leicester (Ratae Corieltauvorum, or ‘ramparts of the Corieltavi’) was formally designated as one of Roman Britain’s 16 (eventually 24) self-governing civitas capitals. This resulted in the creation of an upper social class of administrators and magistrates, perhaps numbering 30 families, drawn from the wealthiest and most influential members of the population, and no doubt providing further opportunities to acquire wealth.
It is estimated that Ratae reached a population peak of around 6,000 in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries. Based on skeletal evidence, the ratio of male-to-female inhabitants was roughly equal, the average height of females was 5ft 1in (today it is 5ft 4in) and males 5ft 6in (today it is 5ft 9in). Half the population died between the ages of 21 and 35, with a greater proportion of women dying during their child-bearing years. At the bottom of the social scale, some 10 per cent of the population suffered from conditions associated with malnutrition, and a diet deficient in minerals and vitamins.
Even the wealthy could not escape poor dental health: the majority of the population had tooth damage consistent with a coarse grit-contaminated diet, and some had damage that suggested that they were using their teeth as tools. Another common problem was parasitic infection. There does not seem to have been a communal sewage system in this part of Ratae: instead there were numerous individual latrine pits, the contents of which suggest a large number of the city’s inhabitants suffered from roundworm and whipworm.
The clothing worn by the people of Ratae was not greatly different from that of the rural population. Mass-produced bow or penannular brooches made of bronze were used as pins to fasten cloaks at the right-hand shoulder, worn by men over tunic and trousers and by women over a tube dress. The decline in brooch-wearing in the later Roman period marks a change in clothing style, to a fully sewn outer tunic for both men and women, sometimes with a hood, which was worn over an under-tunic.
After brooches, hairpins were the second most-common dress accessory. Made of bone, they were used to secure bands of hair, plaits, buns, and curls in styles that changed according to the fashions at the imperial court, as depicted in coin portraits. Finger-rings were a Roman innovation, made of base and precious metal, and worn by both men and women in all sectors of society, while bracelets and bead necklaces appear throughout the Roman occupation – those of polished jet or shale were especially popular in the later Roman period.
As in other Roman towns, the urban scene was far from homogenous. Some insulae were never developed and remained as open ground. Other blocks exhibited long sequences of building and rebuilding. Most of the people who lived in Romano-British Ratae were engaged in crafts or trade: they dealt in raw materials and finished goods or made goods for sale. Processing and selling products based on the animals and plants that entered the town from the surrounding countryside provided the most significant means of earning a living for the majority of the inhabitants. This meant that high-status townhouses and courtyard dwellings with mosaics and painted plaster are found adjacent to industrial sites, and parts of the town must have been more like a noisy and polluted industrial estate than our modern image of a town as a quiet place of shops, banks, and cafes.
Animals arrived live and were sold at market, slaughtered, butchered, and cooked at sites within the town or just outside. Places have been identified within the street grid where milling, baking, and brewing took place, but also fleece-, antler-, bone-, and horn-working, as well as tanning. Pottery and glass were made, and copper and iron worked, within the walls too, and we can imagine the streets alive with timber-working, stone-masonry, thatching, brick- and tile-manufacturing, and shops selling imported pottery, food, and manufactured goods.
By the 4th century, this bustling metropolis was a spent force, and – in common with every other town in Roman Britain – Ratae developed a different character. Areas of the settlement were abandoned or turned over to cultivation and livestock-grazing. New construction ceased and public buildings collapsed or were used for new purposes – the market became the site of a metalworking furnace, for example. The elite probably moved out to rural estates and the town no longer functioned as the focus of government and administration. It was now much more like a rural settlement, where people had to be self-sufficient and could not count on buying goods and services from other people.
The evidence for human presence continuing in the 5th century consists of six sunken-featured buildings found in the north-east quarter of the city. That might not sound many, but it means that Leicester joins Canterbury and Colchester in a small group of former Roman towns that have yielded sunken-featured buildings as evidence of continuity, as well as personal finds of bone combs, copper-alloy brooches, and glass beads, plus a handful of 5th-century burials found in extramural Roman cemeteries.
Perhaps, too, there was some sort of collective memory of Ratae as a central place and an appropriate seat of administration, for it became the seat of Bishop Cuthwine in AD 679, which in turn implies a community of some sort needing spiritual sustenance. A strong contender for his cathedral is the site of the present St Nicholas Church, adjacent to the ruined Roman baths. Derelict Roman structures like the baths, the defences, and the gates continued to define the town and influence the slow return to urban living and the development of the post-Roman street pattern, focused on what was to become the medieval High Street. By degrees, the spent force that had been Roman Ratae was transformed into the thriving medieval borough of the 9th and 10th centuries, whose economic worth is set out in the Domesday Survey of 1086. By then, Leicester had a population of around 2,000, with six churches and 322 recorded houses – making it smaller than Coventry, Lincoln, and Stamford in this same period, but larger than Nottingham and Derby.
Superficially, the urban place that emerges at the beginning of the new millennium has strong similarities to its Roman predecessor, not least because of its central location in the national road network and its two bridges across the River Soar. However, there are subtle differences in the settlement’s social make-up. Medieval Leicester was more about commerce than administration, largely populated by artisans and traders.
The town hosted separate weekly markets for cattle, sheep, and swine, and a Saturday market for grains, hay, beans, meat, fish, wool, clothing, and drapery. There were permanent shops as well, selling bread, cooked foods, fruit and vegetables, and beer. Borough records show an economy based on high-quality cloth production, sold at Boston and King’s Lynn in the 12th and 13th centuries, but later there were closer trade links with Coventry, which emerged as the trading capital of the region and one of Europe’s foremost cloth-manufacturing towns. Traders from Leicester sought membership of the Trinity Guild in Coventry as their form of accreditation, and they chose to be commemorated in the form of memorial brasses made in Coventry.
This very brief account of the Roman and medieval settlements is a distillation of 600-plus pages of evidence encompassing the multiple phases of the long urban sequence in a wide-ranging new monograph (see ‘Further reading’ on p.34). It shows just how long it took for the idea of town-dwelling to become established in Britain. The experiment started under Roman influence but without direct Roman control, preceding even the conquest, when the late 1st-century BC settlement on the eastern bank of the River Soar seems to have performed a market function, serving as a centre for the exchange of goods and food from the hinterland, and as a focus for the trading of a narrow range of exotic imports from much further afield. The establishment of a Roman settlement in the first half of the 1st century AD saw an upturn in this role, as trade with the Continent diversified and expanded. But town life seems to have lost its appeal in the 4th century: urbanisation and mass production were no longer such powerful forces in people’s lives – perhaps because the army, a major consumer of surplus production, was no longer such a dominant force in the economy.
Decline and fall?
This period in the history of Roman towns has generally been characterised as one of failure and the loss of technical skills. Pottery is often seen as a proxy for this decline. Indigenous Iron Age pottery from the East Midlands consisted of coil-built bonfire-fired jars, with a coarse open fabric, probably used for the cooking and storage of dry goods. Even before the Roman conquest, Gallo-Belgic slip-coated platters and beakers were being imported into Britain, and these gave the elite of Iron Age Leicester their first taste of fine tableware. The makers’ names stamped on the platters indicate an origin in the Vesle Valley, near Reims, and the Moselle Valley.
Such vessels were prestige items, imported in small quantities, but they influenced the shape and character of the vessels that were produced locally once wheel-throwing and kiln technology crossed the Channel in the decades just before the Roman conquest. Kiln sites rapidly increased in number thereafter, as pottery-making developed from a household activity to a workshop-based industry. The decades after the conquest also saw the development of pottery specialisation, as some workshops focused on producing particular vessel types that were traded over long distances, including grit-encrusted mortars, beakers, flagons, and vessels imitating central Gaulish Samian ware.
It is the cessation of such imports, and the reversion in the early medieval period of pottery production to the small-scale, hand-made pottery traditions of the Iron Age, that has led some commentators to describe the later Roman period in Britain in negative terms. On the other hand, it has been plausibly argued that the ubiquity of mass-produced pottery on Roman-British sites was a short-lived phenomenon that has misled us into believing that Britain had become more Romanised than it was in reality and that something fundamental had changed in British society. In reality, life for most had changed little: people just got on with producing food and securing the necessities of life and they acquired Roman-style pottery because it was cheap and available, not because they preferred it.
As an example, the authors of the monograph point to the continuity of the Leicester area as a centre of ceramic production, using the same clays, tempers, coil techniques, and bonfire clamps as their Iron Age predecessors. The region’s Charnwood ware is found as far afield as York, London, and Lincoln during the 5th and 6th centuries, and it only ceased production in the face of competition from Ipswich and Maxey wares in the later 7th century.
Pottery production thus reverted to something older, and on a much smaller scale. This is best explained if the transition from Roman to early medieval lifestyles saw not a rediscovery of the old ways but rather the continuity of lifestyles that had never changed and that remain elusive because they leave very little trace in the archaeological record (which lacks all the biodegradable organic artefacts that must always have been at least as important in everyday life as long-lasting pottery). As the recent Young Poland exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow demonstrated, an aceramic society is not a deprived and colourless one: the objects displayed there from the people of the Tatra Mountains showed that every object, every available surface, and every item of clothing was covered in decoration, carved in wood and leather, and embroidered in textile.
An urban experiment
In an age when some 68 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, it is easy to think of ‘aggregated’ settlements as the norm, but in Britain under Roman administration living in such large numbers in such close proximity was an experiment – a lifestyle without antecedents. The proportion of the Romano-British population involved in a town-based life of manufacturing and commerce was never very great, and at some stage people perhaps began to ask what purpose towns served that could not be performed just as well from a rural base. We have seen something similar in our own time with the flight from office life in favour of working from home, and the consequent impact on town and city economies and infrastructures.
As David Mattingly writes in his foreword to the volume, the excavations of the last 50 years demonstrate that the urban story of Leicester is a ‘complex tale of false starts and cycles of development and decline’, with ‘shifting hotspots of activity’, to which one would add: ‘and a complex relationship between rural and urban elements, with town life and urbanisation having been disproportionately privileged as a sign of social and economic success’.
The truth is that Leicester’s development was a long, complex, and piecemeal process, and one that has not ended. Rome imported the urban ideal to Britain, but it only caught on very slowly, and is surely about to change again. Today’s town centres are dominated by commercial premises in which nobody lives. As we embrace the new digital era and the growing popularity of online shopping, towns look likely either to undergo another period of decline, or emerge renewed and full of life to fulfil the Roman ideal.
Richard Buckley, Nicholas J Cooper, and Mathew Morris (2021) Life in Roman and Medieval Leicester: excavations in the town’s north-east quarter 1958–2006, Leicester Archaeology Monograph 26, £49.95, ISBN 978-0957479205, https://shop.le.ac.uk.
ALL IMAGES: copyright University of Leicester Archaeological Services; artistic reconstructions are by Mike Codd.