You may or may not be aware of my obsession with all things Roman, and especially
The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles (and Sword at Sunset) anything to do with Rosemary Sutcliff, and you may or may not be aware that my dad loves the Chronicles as well! In The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles and Sword at Sunset, there are mentions of places like Isca Dumoniorum, Calleva, Aquae Sulis, Eboracum and Rutupiae. Well today we visited another Isca, the one near Newport in Wales. There’s a whole lot of Roman ruins in a small town called Caerleon, and me, Jada, my dad and my granny went there to have a look at them.
There were a lot of different ruins there. The main one was a huge fortress which had not been completely excavated, I believe. My first glimpse of Isca was a slightly bumpy field like this.
But what on earth was that massive dip in the ground with a sign in front of it? It was a good sign that we were heading for some ruins. When we took a closer look, it revealed itself to be the remains of an amphitheatre. Of course that was especially awesome for me, because you know, Tacita and everything. We went and explored the entire thing, and it was very well-preserved. There was a really obvious arena bit, and entrances for gladiators and spectators. The seating areas were covered with grass, but it was obvious where the seats were.
The big corridor-type thing in the middle is where the gladiators probably would have come in/gone out of (I am standing in front of another one on the opposite side), and the raised bits either side are the seats.
I didn’t get a picture of it, but this was just in front of what seemed to be a shrine or altar. It was a little alcove with a small stage/platform/altar thing beneath it, so we suspected that there might have been a statue of a god or goddess, and maybe sacrifices were performed there! The river at the top is a drain that went all the way around the outside of the arena, so we thought it was to drain away the blood!
The amphitheatre was actually very big, and we climbed all around it. I wondered whether in the Roman times, it was raised above the ground like the Colosseum, or if it was dug into the ground a bit like the amphitheatre in Pompeii. But that was what was so interesting about the site; you could interpret it in your own way and make theories about it! There weren’t many signs, just the one in the first picture, so it didn’t seem too much like a touristy site, which was good.
So next we followed the wall going all the way around the fortress (the amphitheatre was just outside it) and found remains of turrets and things. Again, I wondered whether the wall we saw would have been the top or the bottom. I think it was the bottom of the wall, because the ground was pretty hard underfoot, and it’s easier to assume that the wall had just been knocked over in the past. When the Romans left, the locals did take a lot of the stones to build their houses.
We came to the inside of the fortress and the Roman barracks. This was really well-preserved and completely amazing!
There were four big rectangles which all had a few small square rooms, and at one end a more complex set of rooms which formed the centurions’ quarters (I’m assuming lots of centurions slept there as it was quite big). The small rooms were for the legionaries, eight men to a room. So ten rooms housed a full century, which confusingly was 80 men, not 100. I don’t know why. Another strange thing we noticed was the absence of anything that looked like a doorway. We guessed that the doors were raised above the foundations so you had to step up to get through, and the doors just rotted over time.
The barracks were really interesting, and there weren’t just bedrooms. We passed the ovens, which were circular with a little hole at the front (all that remained of them were the foundations, most of them only just visible under the grass). We also passed the cookhouse, which annoyingly, a random woman was standing in when I took the picture.
The best part of the barracks, to my Horrible Histories-centred mind, were the latrines. The toilets. They were great. What was left of them were two squares with a drain around the edge, leading to a poo-chute, as we called it, where all the waste would flow out to gutters in front of the barracks. We had a long discussion about the smaller drain around the two squares. My dad thought it was the original place for the poo to go out from, and there were toilets built over them; I thought it was the little river of water to wash off your sponge sticks so they were nice and clean for when you wiped. That’s what I learned in a program about toilets! And by the way, here is another picture of the barracks.
After we had a look at the outside sites and had lunch in Newport, we went to the Roman Legionary Museum in Caerleon. The outside of the building was half a Roman-imitation temple/building thing, and the rest was a sort of dirty, industrial-looking, ugly building. But the inside was what mattered, and it was a really good museum!
Mostly there were finds from places around the world, lots of little Roman things, and there was also a reconstruction of the army barracks.There were a lot of things, like gravestones, jewellery, pottery, glassware (which was incredible, because it was almost 2000 years old and still mostly intact!), weapons, fittings for armour, harnesses and weapons, coins, and some funerary heads and figures. Everything seemed really great quality for its age! A really special thing was the collection of about 600 silver denarii found in a cooking-pot. They were so clean, and made of real silver, so they are worth a lot of money.
As we were looking at the jewellery, I started thinking of how the Romans pierced their ears. There were a few earrings, which looked not too unlike the fish-hook type earrings people wear now. Obviously they didn’t have all the sterile tools we use nowadays, and I wondered if they got infected all the time. We put such an emphasis on keeping your piercings clean when you first get them, so what did the Romans do? A passing man (who we assumed to be a scholar, or just a Roman fanatic) told us that they’d have used vinegar, a natural disinfectant. How painful would that have been? It’s an acid!!! Even the smell of it makes me go all ‘eww’. He then went on to say that the sponge sticks were coated in vinegar too, to keep your bum clean! Again, ow! Imagine putting vinegar in such a sensitive part… Gross.
We went on to the barracks reconstruction, and there was some armour to try on. We couldn’t help ourselves, so we all put on a legionary helmet! The reconstruction seemed accurate (but I don’t know any more that what I learned at the museum), and it was cool to see how they slept in there. There were four bunk beds pressed around the edge of the room, and they were really small in length. If you were tall, I guess your legs would have dangled over the edge. But Horrible Histories told me that you had to be between 1.6 and 1.8 metres to join the army. Thankfully I’m shorter than that!
Overall, Isca was a really, really, really fun place and I recommend it if you’re interested in the Romans, or archaeology, or army-related stuff! I seriously recommend it if you’ve read The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles, Sword at Sunset, or Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series. My dad and I were going around saying ‘hey, Macro and Cato would have done this!’ It was the fortress of the Legion II Augusta, which was Macro and Cato’s legion!!! It was almost like revisiting somewhere familiar, except obviously it wasn’t familiar. There were also some Roman baths, but we didn’t have enough time to go there.
Fun fact: the centurion helmets (at least, the ones here) did not have the crest that we all associate with the Romans. It didn’t look like this:
Yep, that’s the centuwion from Life of Brian.
It actually looked like this!
I don’t mean to infringe copyright, sorry, so all credit where credit is due!!!!!!!!
And yes, it does look a bit stupid, but it was a mark of rank, the transverse crest thing (that’s what it was called).
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to go to Isca in Caerleon, and if you’ve been there I want to hear about it. And if you do go, wear sensible shoes, because the outside sites were really muddy and slippery. Also wear some old clothes and warm stuff, because you will get cold and muddy. My trousers are spattered with mud and I didn’t even fall over once! I hope you enjoyed this post and made you want to visit. Thanks for reading!
Your happy Roman blogger, Jaz