Heritage & Culture

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Romans in the Nene Valley

Peterborough and the Fens is an area rich in history, and a new book, Romans in the Nene Valley, highlights one of the region’s most prosperous – and turbulent – chapters. The Moment talked to the author, archaeologist and Cambridge University lecturer Prof Stephen Upex, to find out more...

Prof Stephen UpexThe book is literally just out. What does it cover, and why now?
Well, it should have been out a couple of years ago, but with COVID there was really no point in bringing it out. Finally, though, we have had the book launch! I produced another book in 2008 which was on the Romans in the East of England, which was a heavier, academic book. This one is published on the back of a lottery grant through what’s called the Nenescape Landscape Project and it’s basically a summary of that bigger book, with lots of photographs and illustrations, some of which have never been published before. It’s meant for the lay person – very digestible, with lots of pictures, lots of interest. A condition of the grant was that we gave copies to local schools, local libraries and local colleges, so those have gone out for free, and then they’re being sold through the Nene Valley Archaeological Trust website where you can order it direct. It’s also been taken by booksellers locally.

It covers the area between Peterborough and Wansford, though it does refer to other sites outside of that area – essentially, the lower Nene Valley. There’s a section on the pre-Roman, Iron Age period and what life was like then, then it talks about the way the Roman occupation occurred and the Roman military advance. We look at the local forts and military installations, Longthorpe Fort in
particular, and a site at Water Newton quite close to the A1, where there was a smaller Roman fort. It talks about Ermine Street – and all illustrated by lots of aerial photographs, and lots of ground photographs of excavations, most of which haven’t been published before. It then looks at things like the development of the Roman town, Durobrivae, located where the village of Castor is today.

How important was Durobrivae?
It’s a relatively small town by Roman standards – 44 acres within the walled area, which is densely packed with houses, shops, public buildings, a town hall-like structure – but the significance of the town is that it’s got immense suburbs. Those suburbs are densely packed commercial and industrial premises where they’re making all manner of things, especially pottery and ironwork, but also baskets, woodwork, preparing food – everything. And if you add the 44 acres within the walls to the 450 acres of the suburbs, you actually get an area that is bigger than Roman London.

In terms of population, it’s quite small by modern standards – while you can’t calculate the population properly without documentation, we’re probably talking about 4,000-5,000 people. But this is a place that’s densely occupied for 350 years, and a key part of this is the immense structure underneath and around present-day Castor church. The early 19th century antiquarian, Edmund Artis, who excavated part of the site in the 1820s, called that structure the ‘Praetorium’. He called it that because he didn’t quite know what it was, but recognised that it wasn’t just a villa. It was something more than that. The word ‘Praetorium’ means ‘headquarters’ or ‘chief residence’; in a Roman fort, for example, it would be the chief building in the fort where the commandant lived. So, Artis thought that whoever was in charge of the Nene Valley area lived at the Praetorium that was underneath present-day Castor village.

Now we think it’s probably more to do with the organisation of the Fenland, which was commandeered after the Boudiccan Revolt of AD 60 as an imperial estate. All the money from that imperial estate, using conscripted Icenian labour in reprisal for Boudicca’s revolt, was duly sent back to Rome for bread and circuses and so on. But the Praetorium looks to be the accounting centre for organising that imperial estate, and it’s one of the biggest buildings in Roman Britain.

Then you’ve also got places like Ferry Meadows, which in the late Iron Age was the seat of somebody of considerable power. The great neck and loop of the meander of the Nene river is cut off by a multiple- ditched bank and rampart system. And in the meander would have been high-class status residences andretinue of a fairly important chief of a local tribe called the Catuvellauni. So, if you add those things together you can see this area is a place of great significance. And the research that we’ve done and are still doing, which this book tries to highlight, is the significance of the lower Nene Valley in Romano British terms. It used to be considered to be just a small town, but once we start looking at the suburbs, and the Praetorium and the Ferry Meadows oppida area, you get the impression that it is a really vital area in the Roman world.

What was the particular value of the Fens to the Romans?
Simply wealth creation. A standing army in any province had to be maintained by that province, so the army had to be paid and fed and maintained. So, all of the wealth that was created in the province was channelled into maintaining the army, and any surpluses were sent back to Rome. In terms of the Fenland, they were producing fish, fowl, reeds and turbary for burning. And, quite importantly, salt and grazing for cattle and stock. If you wanted to feed the army on the Hadrianic frontier, you didn’t march cattle up there, you bred them and salted them locally, then put them on a cart or a boat to ship up there.

What was so special about the Nene Valley that made the Romans choose it as a base of operations?
The Durobrivae area, geographically, is brilliantly positioned. It’s got very fertile soils for crop production. It’s the breadbasket (the East of England) for grain – and we’re exporting grain to the continent on various occasions, actually. It’s got woodland and grazing in the upland areas. So agriculturally, it’s brilliant. It’s also got access to mineral wealth; clay for pottery, iron from the Corby and Northants iron fields. So that’s important. And communicationally, it’s pretty amazing because it’s got the Nene giving good access out into the Wash and the North Sea, but it’s also got the main thoroughfare up the East of England, which is Ermine Street. And once the Boudiccan Revolt is out of the way, the Romans seem to reorganise the road system and run it straight from London through places like Godmanchester, up to Durobrivae, and then Lincoln and York, and, of course, the Hadrianic frontier. That road is the equivalent of the M1 motorway system – the vital link north.

This all sounds very familiar! When people are talking about the advantages of Peterborough now they seem to be saying much the same – access to the Fens, to the Midlands, and to London, handy for both the north and south, great road systems…
There are a lot of parallels, actually. And Ermine Street – essentially now the A1 – is key to that. It is that north-south run from London all the way up to Edinburgh, and is one of the main reasons why Peterborough is successful.

Clearly the Bronze Age people of Flag Fen felt this was a good location too. Is there any direct continuity between the settlement at Flag Fen and the Romans becoming established at Durobrivae?
Flag Fen might have been an element in the folk memory but there were no physical remains that we know of when the Romans occupied. But the Fen edge is just one of those areas that is immensely rich in agricultural terms. It is the best of both worlds, and there’s copious settlement in Bronze Age and Iron Age times because on one side you’ve got rich agricultural land, with fertile, well-drained gravel soils, and on the other, you’ve got all of the things I’ve already mentioned coming out of the Fens. We always think of the Fens being wet, but in the first and second centuries, it was much drier. You could have summer grazing, and you’ve got salt production, which was a valuable commodity in the Roman world. So it was a very alluring place to set up and live.

Part of the silver Water Newton Treasure from inside the Roman townHow have the archaeological finds in the Nene Valley changed our general understanding of the Romans in Britain?
There have been some staggering finds, mentioned in the book, which increase our understanding of the period. We’ve got our hands now on a building inside Durobrivae, which could be a church. There are also the finds that were taken out of Durobrivae by metal detectorists several years ago now, the Water Newton Christian treasure, which is now in the British Museum. In the late Roman period under Constantine the Great, Christianity becomes the state religion, and there’s enough evidence to suggest the local population were Christian. A lot of people then say that Christianity disappears with the departure of the Romans until Augustine comes and reintroduces it. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think the Praetorium at Castor is taken over by this little-known lady St Kyneburga, after whom the church is dedicated. And, as we’re told from various Anglo Saxon documents, she sets up a nunnery there. But why does Kyneburga come to Castor? Well, I think three reasons. First of all, the Praetorium is probably still standing in some form that she could use as the foundation of her nunnery. The second reason is that her father Penda, who is the king of Mercia, owns it anyway. And the third reason, I believe, is that there was a residual population of Christians still in the area. If you put all that together, it begins to make sense – and it’s quite exciting to unpack the Christian origins of the Peterborough area right from the Roman period. Don’t forget, of course, that underneath Peterborough Cathedral is also a large Roman structure. We don’t fully understand it, but it’s got fragments of inscription, it’s got fragments of sculpture, and that’s the foundation of Medeshamstede – the monastery that becomes the cathedral today.

Now, you have to ask yourself, with a wry smile on your face, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’. What is there of Roman origin left on the landscape of the Nene Valley? There’s not a Roman town there that became a modern town, it shifted to Peterborough. And that’s because the Abbey and the monastery from around AD650 onwards, on a secluded site, accrued the need for labour, and once the pilgrimage routes got up and running, it became a magnet. Once the bridge at Durobrivae falls down, of course, the town becomes even less significant, so you’ve got a population leaving Durobrivae in the late fourth and the fifth and sixth centuries and moving to Peterborough to work in and around the monastery on the monastic lands. With the loss of the bridge, Ermine Street also shifts and bends and instead crosses the Nene at Wansford. Then we’ve got the names of Castor, and Chesterton, which are Saxon names. Even Ermine Street is a Saxon name. So, apart from a few bits of wall sticking out the rectory garden at Castor, there is very little that has influenced the modern landscape from the Roman period. The villas were abandoned. The town is abandoned. It’s absolutely a Saxon landscape now.

But what about the less obvious legacy? We talk of the Romans ‘leaving’, but 350 years is a long time to be settled in a place. Surely they would have intermarried, had children… Are the Romans, in a sense, still here?
The old idea of Gildas and Bede, that in the so-called Anglo Saxon invasion period, all the Romans scarpered off to the west, is archaeologically dead in the ground. That’s why we call those left behind ‘Romano-Britons’. And, in terms of blood line and population, the vast majority of people living in the Nene Valley, when Kyneburga comes sometime in about 655, would have been residual Romano-Britons, mixed with the beginnings of migration coming in from the continent in dribs and drabs, who come because there’s now land to spare. These two populations are living together and merging in a way that we used to be totally confused by, but now we see it as multi-ethnic groups living side by side, in much the same way that Peterborough still has.

Looking across Normangate Field at Castor towards the river Nene (top) and the Nene valley railway

Presumably, even though we call them ‘Roman’, that occupying army has quite a mix of people as well, drawn from across a vast empire…
The Ninth Legion that comes up here is from Spain, so they’re Spaniards, by and large. And certainly by the third and fourth century, you would have auxiliary units coming from all over the empire, so it’s a multicultural society. How much of that filtered down into the local bloodline we just don’t understand. And we’ll probably never know. But there would have been military personnel that retired to the area, or were invalided out and settled in the area and married local women. There’s a wonderful tombstone, actually from Arbeia, a Roman fort at South Shields, to a woman called Regina. And she is described on her tombstone – which is put up by her husband, a man called Barates – as a freed slave. What is really fascinating, though, is that Barates comes from Palmyra, in Syria. So, he comes all the way to Britain from Syria, bumps into Regina, frees her and marries her. And she dies at Arbeia, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. And she is described as being of the Catuvellauni, so is a local woman, from this area. That’s amazing.

I suppose the big event that everyone knows something about from that period is Boudicca’s Revolt. What was happening in this area at that time?
This was in AD60 and the Romans had overrun Britain by that point. They had treated the Icenian tribe pretty badly, and the revolt really is the Iceni saying ‘Enough is enough’. Boudicca, who is leading the Iceni, joins forces with the Trinovantes of Essex, and the Catuvellauni which is our local tribe here. So you’ve got these three powerful tribes that have joined forces in a ‘confederacy’, which is how Tacitus describes it. They take on Chelmsford, which they raze to the ground; Colchester, which they burn; and then head to London. At that point, before they get to London, the commander of the Longthorpe Fort moves south and tries to head off Boudicca. Tacitus is telling us this, and while he clearly doesn’t know the name it really has to be Longthorpe. The Ninth is a half legionary force, so Longthorpe has got 2,500 men in it, and they head off to London to try and stop Boudicca attacking the town. And this Roman writer, Tacitus, tells us that the Boudiccan troops annihilate the Roman cavalry, and the army limps back to its base. Boudicca then carries on to savage London. And if you look at the Longthorpe fort, it’s built in two phases; a larger, outer set of defences, capable of holding those 2,500 men, and a smaller fort built on the inside. And the general archaeological thinking is that the smaller fort simply represents the post-Boudiccan mauling. They just didn’t have enough soldiers to man it, so they reduced the size of the fort.

By that time, the legions that are up in the north march down and draw Boudicca into a set-piece battle. If the Romans could get you in the field, they could organise their military superiority brilliantly, whereas what the British tribes were good at was guerrilla warfare, which the Romans couldn’t combat. But there’s a set-piece battle – we don’t actually know where it is – Boudicca’s army is annihilated, and we’re told that she takes poison. She disappears from history. And in the aftermath of that debacle, the retribution on the Iceni and possibly the northern Catuvellauni is the creation of a sort of semi-subservient state, certainly in the Fenland, where they commandeer land and turn it into the imperial estate as I’ve described before.

And so Durobrivae begins…
Durobrivae would have been an embryonic settlement without walls at that point. But the area becomes ever more prosperous, and by the time that Hadrian comes, in AD121-122, it would’ve been a boomtown. Certainly by AD200, it would have been the place to be in the East
England. Everything was going for it.


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