I’ve been over in Devon staying with my writing friend Helen Hollick for a week and yesterday we visited Exeter, including the museum. Of course, I went for the Roman stuff!
The Romans established a large castrum (fortified camp) named Isca around AD 55 at the southwest end of the Fosse Way as the base for the 5 000-man Legio II Augusta (Second Augustan Legion) originally led by Vespasian (later Roman emperor) for the next twenty years before they moved to Caerleon in Wales, which was also known as Isca. To distinguish the two, the Romans also referred to Exeter as Isca Dumnoniorum after the name of the local tribe and Caerleon as Isca Augusta.
A civilian community (vicus or canabae) inhabited by local tribespeople and the soldiers’ families, grew round the camp, mostly to the northeast. When Legio II Augusta left the camp around AD 75 to go north to fight tribes in Wales. its grounds were converted to civilian purposes; its very large legionary bathhouse was demolished to make way for a forum, basilica and a smaller-scale bathhouse.
The settlement served as the tribal capital (civitas) of the Dumont and Isca Dumnoniorum seems to have been most prosperous in the first half of the 4th century: more than a thousand Roman coins have been found around the city and there is evidence for copper and bronze working, a stock-yard, and markets for the livestock, crops, and pottery produced in the surrounding area.
Trade with the Mediterranean continued bringing luxuries like wine and fine pottery. In the 3rd century AD new stone wall and gatehouses were built. Rich people lived in townhouses with costly mosaic floors; other areas of housing fell into disuse or were converted into farmyards.
In 410 AD the last Roman soldiers left Britain to defend Rome against attacks by hostile tribes. By then Isca’s suburbs were being abandoned; there are few remains from this time. Dates of coins discovered so far suggest a rapid decline: virtually none have been discovered with dates after AD 380. By around 500, the basilica had fallen down and Isca’s busy urban life was over.
Addendum: And here’s a fellow Roman scribe who lives in the area – Ruth Downie. Not only is she the author of the Ruso Medicus series, she also gave me a terrific front cover endorsement for AURELIA when in was launched in 2015. We had a great lunch and natter about all things Roman and writing.
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