York is better known as a medieval city than for its Roman origins. Yet it was once a very important Roman town. I set out to discover what can still be seen of Roman York today, and to get some clues about how it may have looked in the past.
Why Was Roman York So Important?
The Roman 9th Legion arrived in what is now York in 71 AD. Attracted by the location between two rivers and surrounded by forest, they built a fortress to accommodate 5,000 soldiers, and called it Eboricum. The new settlement became Roman Britain’s second most important town (Londinium was the first).
But in the later years of the Roman Empire Eboricum became more important, its influence spreading beyond Britain. Two Roman emperors – Septimus Severus and Constantius I – ruled from York, and died in the city. And a third was proclaimed emperor by the Roman army in York. This was Constantine, famous for adopting Christianity as the formal religion of the empire.
What Is Left of Eboricum Today?
I followed the Roman York trail, produced by the local tourist office. This takes you to the fragments of Roman York that can still be seen today. There are fragments of the city wall built by the emperor Constantius I, and a Roman column that stands in the place where Constantine was made emperor in 306 AD.
One of the best parts of the trail is in the Museum Gardens, where you can see the Multangular Tower. This was once part of the Roman fortress: most of what you see now is medieval, but the stones at the base are Roman. On the other side of town is the bath house, discovered in the cellar of the Roman Bath pub in 1930. (Have a drink or a meal in the pub after you’ve explored the small museum in the basement, and enjoy the Roman-style décor.)
But much of it is about reconstructing the past. Stand outside Bootham Bar, built above one of the main Roman gates, and imagine you are looking along Dere Street. This road, which led eventually to Hadrian’s Wall, would have been lined with the tombs of rich and famous citizens. Or stand on Stonegate (whose name derives from its former Roman paving stones) and visualise the Roman army marching along the Via Praetoria from the river to the heart of the city.
A Roman Ghost Story
Just about everywhere in York seems to have a ghost or two, so it’s no surprise that there should be a Roman ghost (in fact, there is a whole army of them). In 1953 Harry Martindale, a young apprentice, was working in the cellar of the Treasurer’s House, close to York Minster. Suddenly he was startled by the sight of a whole troop of Roman soldiers, and their horses, emerging through the solid stone wall. Curiously, they were only visible from the knees upwards, a phenomenon attributed to the fact that the street level was considerably lower in Roman times.
Other people claimed to have seen the ghosts in the cellar, but there have been no recent sightings. However there may be an explanation for this: the soldiers have only ever been seen during the month of February, and the Treasurer’s House is now closed during the winter months… More intriguing is the fact that when Harry Martindale saw the Roman soldiers in 1953 no-one realised that the Treasurer’s House stood on the site of a Roman road. It wasn’t until the area beneath York Minster was excavated in the 1960s that the route of the Via Decumana was discovered, running right below Harry’s cellar!
You might be wondering by now where the York amphitheatre was located. The answer is that no-one knows for sure, but the best guess is that it is hidden beneath the foundations of the 11th century St Olave’s Church. There is clearly a lot more to discover about Eboricum.
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