Colchester, in Essex, claims to be the oldest recorded town in England. It was certainly the first Roman colonia, built on the site of an earlier fortress. And you can still see quite a bit of Roman Colchester, or Camulodunum, as it was once known.
History of Roman Colchester
The Romans landed in Britain in 43 CE. They built a fortress in what is now Colchester and six years later they created a colonia (permanent settlement of army veterans) here. They called the new town Camulodunum, meaning “fort of Camulos” (the Celtic god of war).
In 60 CE the town was attacked by the Iceni, a local tribe led by the Celtic queen Boudica. Although the rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, large parts of Camulodunum were destroyed. The town was rebuilt and reinforced, and prospered as a Roman settlement for the next 300 years. Archaeological discoveries, including the only known Roman circus in Britain, suggest that it became an important town.
The Walls of Camulodunum
For the visitor the most impressive Roman structure in Colchester is the city walls. Built after the Boudican attack, the wall was almost 3 km long and 6 m high. It continued to protect the city for many centuries after the Romans departed. Bastions were added in the 15th century, and houses were later built into the fabric of the wall.
Today several long stretches of the wall remain, particularly along Balkerne Hill and behind the Castle Park. You can see fragments of two of the original five gateways: the Balkerne Gate and Duncan’s Gate. The Balkerne Gate was built as a monumental arch: it is now both the largest and the oldest surviving Roman gateway in Britain.
Other Roman Sites in Colchester
Although it is medieval rather than Roman, you might want to start your exploration at Colchester Castle. The castle was built on the ruins of the Temple of Claudius and if you take a guided tour you can actually walk through the foundations of the Roman temple and see how solid they were. Today the castle is a museum and the Roman Room displays artefacts from other sites in the city, including some particularly fine glassware. There are also mosaic floors and the Colchester Sphinx, a stone sculpture that once marked a grave.
In the gardens behind the castle you can see the outline of a Roman town house. And nearby, on Maidenburgh Street, is the site of a Roman theatre (it wasn’t open when I visited but I could peer through the window, and outside on the pavement the extent of the theatre has been marked out in darker brick).
The Roman Circus
Just outside the city wall are two sites of interest. The first is the Roman Circus, the only such site known in Britain. It was a vast 450m circuit for chariot-racing, with seating for 8,000 spectators. Not much of it is visible today, but there is a visitor centre and you can see the starting blocks. Not far from the Circus are the remains of a Roman church and cemeteries, built in the 4th century. This is one of the few known churches from Roman Britain.
One mystery remains: where was the amphitheatre? It is very unlikely that a town of the size and importance of Camulodunum would not have had an amphitheatre, but its location has never been discovered.
A Walk Round Roman Colchester
You can find a walking trail of the Roman walls here. All the sites are well marked with information boards.
As you walk look out for later buildings constructed from brick plundered from derelict Roman structures. A particularly good example is the 11th century St Botolph’s Priory. Another is St Helen’s Chapel, built on a corner of the Roman theatre, possibly on the site of a much earlier religious building. St Helen was the mother of the Emperor Constantine who introduced Christianity to the Roman empire. According to legend she was born in Colchester and she remains the patron saint of the city.
Explore Roman Colchester by Video
If you’d like to explore Roman Colchester from home, have a look at my video tour on YouTube.
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