The fascinating but little-known sites that show how the Romans lived in Wales
To paraphrase The Life of Brian by Monty Python, what did the Romans ever do for Wales?
Well, the answer to that question is more apparent in some parts of the country than in others.
For example, everyone knows of archaeological havens like Caerleon in Gwent with its predominance of ancient ruins like amphitheatres and fortresses.
Read more stories like this here.
But what about the lesser-known, but equally exciting, historical sites that sites like these might be right next to you without you ever realizing it?
Tomen y Mur
Site of a 1,000-man Roman cavalry fort near Blaenau Ffestiniog, it was built to maintain authority over the rebellious natives, namely the Ordovice tribe. Later, a detachment of 500 infantry was stationed there until the place was abandoned in 135 AD.
The Roman roads leading to the fort can be traced up the hillside and – an unusual feature for such a remote location – there is even a small amphitheater.
This was probably used for training and mock combat between legionnaires, as opposed to any real gladiatorial action.
A Roman villa on the playgrounds of Ely
While it no longer looks like a patch of grass, Trelai Park in Ely once housed a Roman villa.
Heavily excavated in 1922 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, then director of the National Museum of Wales, it was discovered that the initial construction had taken place in the first half of the second century.
As part of the excavation, iron works were found as well as a human skeleton in an east-west position, possibly a Christian burial.
Small finds also included coins, horseshoes, a lead colander, bronze and bone pins, large amounts of iron slag, bone counters, and pottery.
Its occupation ceased around AD 325.
Overlooking a view of Caernarfon and the Menai Strait, the Auxiliary Fort of Segontium was the longest occupied fort in Wales.
Soldiers from modern northwestern France were stationed there until AD 394, in part to control the profitable mines and fertile fields of Anglesey.
It later became a base from which to fight the Scotti (Irish) pirates.
As you walk around the site, you will see the granaries and barracks, as well as the commander’s house and a shrine that housed the standards of the legionaries.
There is also a “safe” which once held the soldiers’ pay.
Across the modern road that divides the site, you can see the bathhouse and the remains of a mansio (guesthouse) to visit the best brass.
The Roman Walls of Cardiff
The Romans arrived in what is now South East Wales shortly after their invasion in AD 43.
By AD 51, a troublesome local tribe called the Silures – whose Latin name meant “people of the rocks” – had been defeated and the Roman fort at Cardiff was strategically placed, providing access to the sea.
Over time, four forts were built on the site – one from the 4th century was surrounded by stones, parts of which you can still see among the walls of the town castle.
Behind a farm in Brecon hide the remains of a Roman fort.
It was inside the territory of a local tribe – again the Silures – who, before settling definitively in Caerwent, caused a lot of trouble for the Romans.
The original fort from 75-80 AD was made of wood and housed a detachment of Spanish cavalry.
The stone buildings you see today date from around AD 140 when soldiers from the Second Legion were stationed here.
Explore the gatehouses and follow the distinctive ‘playing card’ shape of the fort. The barracks, the bathhouse and the HQ are now buried under the grass.
Dolaucothi Gold Mines
The only gold mine in Britain that we know for sure was operated by the Romans, Dolaucothi in Carmarthenshire provides a fascinating insight into the difficult process of extracting gold from solid rock.
If you descend through the tunnels, away from the more modern mining operations of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, you will see evidence of Roman industry.
Specially constructed leats (water channels) diverted 14 million liters of water every day to the mines, and the remains of a Roman water wheel inside one of the caverns suggest that gold was extracted by hydraulics.
Guided tours are available.
A Roman base in Barry was discovered and excavated by the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust in the early 1980s when it was hailed as a find of international significance.
But since then, little has been heard of the Glan-y-Mor site at The Knap, which has revealed the remains of a 20-room building with a courtyard in the middle.
In 2016, locals complained about how the site had been neglected and destroyed by plant roots.
A spokesperson for the council had said earlier that they would work with Cadw to repair the damage and secure the future of the site.
Although only 10 miles down the road, Caerwent is much less trumpeted than its neighbor Caerleon.
And this quiet little village was once a bustling town, with the locals building up a thriving trading community under the watchful eye of the neighboring legion.
You can walk the circuit of the city walls, five meters high in places, and imagine yourself as a soldier on patrol. See the remains of the forum and the massive basilica (town hall), which demonstrated the wealth of the tribe, as well as villas, shops, and a temple dedicated to a Roman-Celtic deity.
Inside the church you will find a mosaic and inscriptions. Look for the one dedicated by Paulinus – he was Commander of the Second Augusta Legion and eventually became Governor of Britannia.
Many of Caerwent’s finds have been on display at the Newport Museum, such as the Four Seasons mosaic and the Chi-Ro jar, which, dating to AD 370, is currently the earliest evidence of Christianity in Wales.
Carmarthen was founded by the Romans and was chosen for its strategic position and location on the tidal headwaters of the Towy River.
Indeed, its Roman name Moridunum literally translates to “fort of the sea”.
In 2018, at the site of a former car dealership, what has been described as one of the most important archaeological digs in its history unearthed what was once the center of Roman Carmarthen – this is the Basilica of the forum.
Pottery, tiles, coins, glassware and nails used in the timber frames and foundations of buildings have been discovered, as well as a small bronze statue head, believed to be that of the Roman god Apollo .
Roman earthworks by Mynydd Carn Goch
Found at Kingsbridge, Swansea, were the remains of two Roman training camps.
Dating from AD 74-410, Cadw says the camps were built as part of a military training exercise by auxiliary soldiers, who paid special attention to the corners and entrances, which were the most difficult to build.
For the latest updates via email from WalesOnline, click here.