Exploring Roman York: What To See And Where To Go

Multangular tower, York
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Today York is better known for its history in the Middle Ages than for its Roman origins. Yet it was once a very important Roman city. I set out to discover what can still be seen of Roman York today, and to get some clues about how this former provincial capital may have looked in the past.

Why Was Roman York So Important?

The Roman Ninth Legion arrived in what is now York in 71 CE. 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 the most important town in northern England, and the second most important in the whole of Roman Britain (Londinium was the first).

Roman column, York
A Roman column marks the spot where Constantine was proclaimed emperor

But in the later years of the Roman Empire Eboricum increased in significance, 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 remains of Roman York that can still be seen today. There are fragments of the city walls built by the emperor Constantius I, and a Roman column that stands in the place where Constantine was made emperor in 306 CE.

Exploring Roman York
Pinnable image of Roman York

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. Before you leave the gardens stop to have a look at the Roman exhibits in the Yorkshire Museum. Here you will find a whole wealth of artefacts collected in York and the surrounding area, and learn about daily life in Roman Britain.

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.)

Roman Bath, York
The classical style decor of the Roman Bath pub (the remains of the Roman baths are in a museum below)

Imagining Roman York

But much of it is about reconstructing the past, conjuring up York in Roman times. 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.

Other streets have been here since ancient times. Petergate was once the Via Principalis (main road) of the legionary fortress, and Stonegate was the Via Praetoria (its current name deriving from its former Roman paving stones). Today Stonegate is full of shoppers and tourists, but a little imagination allows you to visualise the Roman Army marching over the cobbles from the river to the heart of York.

Stonegate, York
Try to imagine Stonegate full of Roman soldiers rathen than 21st century shoppers!

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.

Treasurers House, York
You can enter the cellar of the Treasurer’s House and hear about the ghosts of the Roman soldiers…

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.

Looking for accommodation in York? Check out the recommendations from booking.com.

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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7 thoughts on “Exploring Roman York: What To See And Where To Go”

  1. Wow, I wonder why Constantine the Great was crowned in Eboricum in York? Why not in Londinium or in Rome? I visited Hadrian Wall in northern England and have also been fascinated by the Roman historical past of the UK.

    1. I think it was because Constantine’s father died in York, so that is where his army was at the time. It was the army who declared him emperor – it may have been that they wanted to take a pre-emptive action!

  2. I’ve visited York several times, but only for very short stays. I’d love to spend a little more time there wandering. And I would definitely duck into that pub with a bath museum in its basement!

  3. I really need to visit York after reading your posts. It looks great and the Roman bar sounds hot 🙂 . Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the past.

  4. Marilyn Jones

    I enjoy reading about Roman history and especially York. I haven’t been there (except going through on a train) for 20 years. I would love to go back! Great post!

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