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. Take a day trip from London, or explore as part of a tour around East Anglia.
The Roman Town Of Camulodunum
The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 CE. It is not certain where they first landed but we know that the Romans built a legionary 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).
Camulodunum was the first capital of Roman Britain. However in 60 CE it 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, and the capital moved to London.
The town was subsequently rebuilt and reinforced, and prospered as a Roman settlement for the next 300 years. Archaeological excavations, including that of the only known Roman circus in Britain, show that it remained an important town.
St Helena And Colchester
Roman Colchester is also important for its connection with St Helena (sometimes known as St Helen). She was an early Christian who took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and supposedly discovered fragments of the True Cross, subsequently ordering the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site. More importantly, she was the mother of the Emperor Constantine who introduced Christianity to the Roman empire.
According to legend St Helena was born in Colchester. Some accounts have her as being of lowly birth; others say that she was the daughter of Coel, King of the Britons (better known as Old King Cole). In reality, although Constantine ruled from the British city of York, Helena’s association with Colchester is unproven and rather unlikely. However she remains the patron saint of Colchester.
Exploring Roman Colchester
There are several places where you can see evidence of Roman Colchester today.
Town Walls Of Camulodunum
For the visitor the most impressive Roman structure in Colchester is the defensive wall. 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.
Colchester Castle And The Temple Of Claudius
Although the main fabric of the building is medieval rather than Roman, you will want to visit Colchester Castle, which is built upon the ruins of the Temple of Claudius. Dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, who was deified after his death in 54 CE, this was one of several romano-british temples in Camulodunum, and the largest temple of its type in Roman Britain. If you take a guided tour of the castle you can actually walk through the foundations of the Roman temple and see how solid they were.
The Norman castle is now 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 Chariot Circus
Just outside the city wall are two sites of interest. The first is the Roman chariot circus, the only such site known in Britain. Built in the 2nd century, 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, dating from 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 example is St Helen’s Chapel, built on a corner of the Roman theatre. Although it is dedicated to St Helena, this chapel was also built in the 11th century, possibly on the site of a much earlier religious building.
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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