The Roman Roads; Silchester

In 1837 a plan was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries, reduced from a survey made in 1835, by students of the senior department of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, of a portion of the Roman road from London to Bath. The survey commences close by Staines; at which place, near the pillar which marks the extent of the jurisdiction of the city of London, the line of road is held to have crossed the Thames. Below Staines, opposite to Laleham, there are the remains of encampments; and these again are in the immediate neighbourhood of the ford at which Cæsar crossed the Thames. All the country here about, then, is full of associations with the conquerors of the world; and thus, when the “contemplative man” is throwing his fly or watching his float in the gentle waters between Staines and Walton, he may here find a local theme upon which his reveries may fruitfully rest. The more active pedestrian may follow this Roman road, thus recently mapped out, through populous places and wild solitudes, into a country little traversed in modern times; but, like all unhackneyed ways, full of interest to the lover of nature. The course of the road leads over the east end of the beautiful table-land known as Englefield Green; then through the yard of the well-known Wheatsheaf Inn, at Virginia Water; and, crossing the artificial lake, ascends the hill, close by the tower called the Belvidere. In Windsor Park the line is for some time lost; but it is extremely well defined at a point near the Sunning Hill road, where vast quantities of Roman pottery and bricks have been discovered. It continues towards Bagshot, where, at a place called Duke’s Hill, its westerly direction suddenly terminates, and it proceeds considerably to the northward. Here, in 1783, many fragments of Roman pottery were discovered. The Roman road ascends the plain of Easthampstead, sending out a lateral branch which runs close to well-known places within the ancient limits of Windsor Forest, called Wickham Bushes and Cæsar’s Camp. We remember this vast sandy region before it was covered with fir plantations; and in these solitary hills, where the eye for miles could rest upon nothing but barren heath, we have listened with the wonder of boyhood to the vague traditions of past ages, in which the marvels of history are made more marvellous. Cæsar’s Camp is thus described by Mr. Handasyd, in a letter to the Society of Antiquaries, in 1783:—“At the extremity of a long range of hills is situated a large camp, known by the name of Cæsar’s Camp, which is but slightly noticed by Dr. Stukeley, nor is any particular mention made of it in any account I have hitherto seen. In it is a hollow, which has a thick layer of coarse gravel all round it, and seems to have been made to contain rain water. At not half a mile from the camp stand a vast number of thorn bushes, some of a very large size (known by the name of Wickham Bushes), bearing on their ragged branches and large contorted stems evident marks of extreme age, yet in all probability these are but the successors of a race long since extinct. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood have a tradition that here formerly stood a town, but that Julius Cæsar, whom they magnify to a giant (for stories lose nothing by telling), with his associates laying the country waste, the poor inhabitants were obliged to fly, and seek an asylum in the valley beneath.” As we proceed along the road approaching Finchhampstead, we find the object of our search, sometimes easily traced and sometimes continuously lost, bearing the name of the Devil’s Highway. At length the line crosses the Loddon, at the northern extremity of Strathfieldsaye (Strathfield being the field of the Strat, Street, or Road), the estate which a grateful nation bestowed upon the Duke of Wellington; through which park it passes, till it terminates at the parish church of Silchester. This is the line which the students of the Military College surveyed. * The survey has gone far to establish two disputed points,—the situation of the Roman Pontes, and whether Silchester should be identified with Vindonum or Calleva. A very able correspondent of the Society of Antiquaries, Mr. Kempe, thus observes upon the value of the labours of the students of the Military College:—“The survey has effected a material correction of Horsley, for it shows that the station Pontes, which he places at Old Windsor, and for which so many different places have been assigned by the learned in Roman topography, must have been where the Roman road from London crossed the Thames, at Staines......

* An account of this survey is very clearly given in the ‘United Service Journal’ for January, 1836. Knowing something of the country we have reversed the order of that description, leading our readers from Staines to Silchester, instead of from Silchester to Staines.

The line of road presents no place for the chief city of the Attrebates until it arrives at the walls of Silchester. Is this, then, really the Calleva Attrebatum? The distance between Pontes and Calleva, according to the Itinerary [of Antoninus], is twenty-two miles; by the Survey, the distance between Staines and Silchester is twenty-six; a conformity as near as can be required, for neither the length of the Roman mile nor the mode of measuring it agreed precisely with ours.” Having led our readers to the eastern entrance of this ancient city, we will endeavour to describe what he will find there to reward his pilgrimage. Let us tell him, however, that he may reach Silchester by an easier route than over the straight line of the Roman Highway. It is about seven miles from Basingstoke, and ten from Reading; to either of which places he may move rapidly from London, by the South-Western or the Great Western Railway.


Figure 125
125.—Silchester. Plan of City.

If we have walked dreamingly along the narrow lanes whose hedge-rows shut out any distant prospect, we may be under the eastern walls of Silchester before we are aware that any remarkable object is in our neighbourhood. We see at length a church, and we ascend a pretty steep bank to reach the churchyard. The churchyard wall is something very different from ordinary walls,—a thick mass of mortar and stone, through which a way seems to have been forced to give room for the little gates that admit us to the region of grassy graves. A quiet spot is this churchyard; and we wonder where the tenants of the sod have come from. There is one sole farm-house near the church; an ancient farm-house with gabled roofs that tell of old days of comfort and hospitality. The church, too, is a building of interest, because of some antiquity; and there are in the churchyard two very ancient Christian tombstones of chivalrous times, when the sword, strange contradiction, was an emblem of the cross. But these are modern things compared with the remains of which we are in search. We pass through the churchyard into an open space, where the farmer’s ricks tell of the abundance of recent cultivation. These may call to our mind the story which Camden has told:—“On the ground whereon this city was built (I speak in Nennius’s words) the emperor Constantius sowed three grains of corn, that no person inhabiting there might ever be poor.” We look around, and we ask the busy thatchers of the ricks where are the old walls; for we can see nothing but extensive corn-fields, bounded by a somewhat higher bank than ordinary,—that bank luxuriant with oak, and ash, and springing underwood. The farm labourers know what we are in search of, and they ask us if we want to buy any coins—for whenever the heavy rains fall they find coins—and they have coins, as they have been told, of Romulus and Remus, and this was a great place a long while ago. It is a tribute to the greatness of the place that to whomsoever we spoke of these walls, and the area within the walls, they called it the city. Here was a city, of one church and one farm-house. The people who went to that church lived a mile or two off in their scattered hamlets. Silence reigned in that city. The ploughs and spades of successive generations had gone over its ruins; but its memory still lived in tradition; it was an object to be venerated. There was something mysterious about this area of a hundred acres, that rendered it very different to the ploughman’s eye from a common hundred acres. Put the plough as deep as he would, manure the land with every care of the unfertile spots, the crop was not like other crops. He knew not that old Leland, three hundred years ago, had written, “There is one strange thing seen there, that in certain parts of the ground within the walls the corn is marvellous fair to the eye, and, ready to show perfecture, it decayeth.” He knew not that a hundred years afterwards another antiquary had written, “The inhabitants of the place told me it had been a constant observation amongst them, that though the soil here is fat and fertile, yet in a sort of baulks that cross one another the corn never grows so thick as in other parts of the field” (Camden). He knew from his own experience, and that was enough, that when the crop came up there were lines and cross lines from one side of the whole area within the walls to the other side, which seemed to tell that where the lines ran the corn would not freely grow. The lines were mapped out about the year 1745. The map is in the King’s Library in the British Museum. The plan which we have given (Fig. 125) does not much vary from the Museum map, which is founded on actual survey. There can be no doubt that the country-people of Camden’s time were right with regard to these “baulks that cross one another.” He says, “Along these they believe the streets of the old city to have run.” Camden tells us further of the country-people, “They very frequently dig up British [Roman] tiles, and great plenty of Roman coins, which they call Onion pennies, from one Onion, whom they foolishly fancy to have been a giant, and an inhabitant of this city.” Speaking of the area within the walls, he says, “By the rubbish and ruins the earth is grown so high, that I could scarcely thrust myself through a passage which they call Onion’s Hole, though I stooped very low.” The fancy of the foolish people about a giant has been borne out by matters of which Camden makes no mention. “Nennius ascribes the foundation of Silchester to Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great. Whatever improvements he might have made in its buildings or defences, I cannot but think it had a much earlier origin: as the chief fastness or forest stronghold of the Segontiaci, it probably existed at the time of Cæsar’s expedition into Britain. The anonymous geographer of Ravenna gives it a name which I have not yet noticed, Ard-oneon; this is a pure British compound, and may be read Ardal-Onion, the region of Einion, or Onion” (‘Archæologia,’ 1837). It is thus here, as in many other cases, that when learning, despising tradition and common opinion, runs its own little circle, it returns to the point from which it set out, and being inclined to break its bounds, finds the foolish fancies which it has despised not always unsafe, and certainly not uninteresting, guides through a more varied region.


Figure 124
124.—Silchester. The North Wall.
Figure 125
125.—Silchester. Plan of City.

By a broader way than Onion’s Hole we will get without the walls of Silchester. There is a pretty direct line of road through the farm, from east to west, which nearly follows the course of one of the old streets. Let us descend the broken bank at the point a (Fig. 125). We are now under the south-western wall. As we advance in a northerly direction, the walls become more distinctly associated with the whole character of the scene. Cultivation here has not changed the aspect which this solitary place has worn for centuries. We are in a broad glade, sloping down to a ditch or little rivulet, with a bold bank on the outer side. We are in the fosse of the city, with an interval of some fifty or sixty feet between the walls and the vallum. The grass of this glade is of the rankest luxuriance. The walls, sometimes entirely hidden by bramble and ivy,—sometimes bare, and exhibiting their peculiar construction,—sometimes fallen in great masses, forced down by the roots of mighty trees, which have shared the ruin that they precipitated,—sometimes with a gnarled oak actually growing out of their tops,—present such a combination of picturesqueness as no pencil can reach, because it can only deal with fragments of the great mass. The desolation of the place is the most impressive thing that ever smote our minds with a new emotion. We seem alone in the world; we are here amidst the wrecks of ages; tribes, whose names and localities are matters of controversy, have lived here before the Romans, for the Romans did not form their cities upon such a plan. The Romans have come here, and have mixed with the native people. Inscriptions have been found here: one dedicated to the Hercules of the Segontiaci, showing that this place was the Caer Segont of the Britons; another in honour of Julia Domna, the second wife of the Emperor Severus. Splendid baths have been dug up within the walls; there are the distinct remains of a forum and a temple. In one spot so much coin has been found, that the place goes by the name of Silver Hill. The city was the third of British towns in extent. There is an amphitheatre still existing on the north-eastern side of the wall, which tells us that here the amusements of ancient Rome were exhibited to the people. History records that here the Roman soldiers forced the imperial purple upon Constantine, the rival of Honorius. The monkish chroniclers report that in this city was King Arthur inaugurated. And here, in the nineteenth century, in a country thickly populated,—more abundant in riches, fuller of energy than at any other period,—intersected with roads in all directions,—lies this Silchester, which once had its direct communications with London, with Winchester, with Old Sarum, the capital doubtless of a great district,—here it lies, its houses and its temples probably destroyed by man, but its walls only slowly yielding to that power of vegetable nature which works as surely for destruction as the fire and sword, and topples down in the course of centuries what man has presumed to build for unlimited duration, neglected, unknown, almost a solitary place amidst thick woods and bare heaths. It is an ingenious theory which derives the supposed Roman name of this place from the great characteristic of it which still remains: “The term Galleva, or Calleva, of the Roman Itineraries, appears to have had the same source, and was but a softened form of the British Gual Vawr, or the Great Wall; both names had their root perhaps in the Greek χάλιξ (silex), whence also the French Caillon (a pebble). Sile-chester or Silchester is therefore but a Saxonizing, to use the term, of Silicis Castrum, the Fortress of the Flint or Wall, by the easy metonymy which I have shown.” (‘Archæologia,’ 1837.) The striking characteristic of Silchester is the ruined wall, with the flourishing trees upon it and around it, and the old trees that have grown up centuries ago, and are now perishing with it. This is the poetry of the place, and the old topographers felt it after their honest fashion. Leland says,“On that wall grow some oaks of ten cart-load the piece.” Camden says, “The walls remain in good measure entire, only with some few gaps in those places where the gates have been; and out of those walls there grow oaks of such a vast bigness incorporated as it were with the stones, and their roots and boughs are spread so far around, that they raise admiration in all who behold them.” (Fig. 124.)

Figure spread at pages 40 and 41:

Figure 142
142.—Ancient Arch on Road leading into Rome.

“High towns, fair temples, goodly theatres,

Strong walls, rich porches, princely palaces,

Large streets, brave houses, sacred sepulchres,

Sure gates, sweet gardens, stately galleries,

Wrought with fair pillars and fine imageries”—

ye are fallen. Fire has consumed you; earth is heaped upon you; the sapling oak has sprung out of the ashes of your breathing statues and your votive urns, and having flourished for five hundred years, other saplings have rooted themselves in your ruins for another five hundred years, and again other saplings are rising—so to flourish, and so to perish. Time, which has destroyed thee, Silchester, clothes thee with beauty. “Time loves thee:

“He, gentlest among the thralls

Of Destiny, upon these wounds hath laid

His lenient touches.”


Figure 126
126.—Amphitheatre at Dorchester.
Figure 127
Figure 128
128.—Amphitheatre at Pompeii.

Mr. John Rickman, speaking of Silchester, “the third of British towns in extent,” says, “that the Romanized inhabitants of the last-named town were distinguished by their cultivated taste, is testified by the amphitheatre outside the walls, one of the few undisputed relics of that kind in Britain.” (‘Archæologia,’ vol. xxviii.) Whether the presence of the inhabitants of Silchester at the brutal games of the Romans be any proof of their cultivated taste may be reasonably questioned; but the existence of the amphitheatre is an evidence that the Roman customs were here established, and that the people had become habituated to them. The amphitheatre at Silchester is situated without the walls, to the north-east. There can be no doubt about the form and construction of this relic of antiquity. We stand upon a steep circular bank covered with trees, and descend by its sloping sides into an area of moderate dimensions. Some describers of this place tell us that the seats were ranged in five rows, one above the other. Earlier, and perhaps more accurate observers, doubt whether seats were at all used in these turfy amphitheatres. “It is well known that the Romans originally stood at games, till luxury introduced sitting; and it is observable, that the Castrensian amphitheatres in general preserve no signs of subsellia, or seats; so that the people must have stood on the grassy declivity. I saw no signs of seats in that of Carleon, nor in the more perfect one near Dorchester, as Stukeley has also observed. Nor do I recollect that any such have been discovered in any other Castrensian amphitheatre, at least in our island, where they seem to have been rather numerous.” (Mr. Strange, in ’Archæologia,’ vol. v.) The very perfect amphitheatre at Dorchester is much larger than that of Silchester, Stukeley having computed that it was capable of containing twenty-three thousand people. The form, however, of both amphitheatres is precisely similar (Fig. 126). Their construction was different. The bank of the amphitheatre at Silchester is composed of clay and gravel; that at Dorchester of blocks of solid chalk. These were rude structures compared with the amphitheatres of those provinces of Rome which had become completely Romanized. Where the vast buildings of this description were finished with architectural magnificence, the most luxurious accommodation was provided for all ranks of the people. Greece and Britain exhibit no remains of these grander amphitheatres, such as are found at Nismes and at Verona. The amphitheatre of Pompeii, though of larger dimensions than the largest in England, Dorchester, appears to have been constructed upon nearly the same plan as that (Fig. 128). Some bas-reliefs found at Pompeii indicate the nature of the amusements that once made the woods of Silchester ring with the howlings of infuriated beasts and the shouts of barbarous men (Fig. 127).