Alchester: New Light on the Roman Invasion of Britain
Archaeological fieldwork at Alchester, a project directed by staff in the School, has shed new light on Rome’s conquest of Britain.
Archaeological fieldwork at Alchester (1996-2004), a fortress probably occupied by the Second Augustan Legion and dated by timber gate posts of AD 44/45 to the immediate aftermath of the invasion of AD 43, has shed new light on Rome’s conquest of Britain.
The project, directed by Eberhard Sauer, has not just furnished firm evidence for the manner and speed at which the south-east of Britain was brought under Roman control, one of the most decisive turning points in British history, but also on the origins and evolution of Oxfordshire’s largest Roman town.Our findings suggest that pacification of southern Britain required greater military efforts than previously recognised. The combined size of the main fortress, probably covering much of the area of the later town, and a large annexe amounts to 14-15ha, and there is evidence for dense multi-phase military occupation in the mid-first century from both. Anti-personnel devices, in the form of sharpened stakes at the approaches to a timber gate, suggest that the invasion force was prepared for potential rebellion.
A complex relationship
Yet the interrelation between conquerors and the native population was complex and often, it seems, peaceful. Domestic animals of typically indigenous breeds were consumed within Roman military premises. We cannot know whether these had been bought or requisitioned, but the circulation of Iron Age coinage in the base suggests that the army and Britain’s native population engaged in commerce.
The arrival of military personnel from the Continent also brought about innovation and changes to local lifestyle. Alchester was supplied by flowing water as early as the AD 40s, new foods were introduced (such as coriander and millet, for which Alchester has yielded the earliest evidence in Britain) as was a modicum of literacy.
A tombstone found in 2003, for a veteran of Legio II Augusta of northern Italian origin, provides the first known pre-medieval biography of a person living and dying in the area of Oxfordshire. As most veterans tended to retire at their legion’s base, if not at a colony or their hometown, the inscription provides a likely clue as to the local garrison. Prior to our project, no invasion-period base had been known at all in central southern Britain, whilst Alchester is now considered a legionary fortress. The Second Legion’s commander at the time, Vespasian, was to become emperor a quarter of a century later (AD 69-79).
I am grateful to the landowners, notably the Miller family, who very kindly granted permission to excavate and followed the project with great interest and support, and to our generous sponsors:
- British Academy
- European Commission (Culture 2000 Framework Programme)
- Roman Research Trust
- Royal Archaeological Institute
- Administrators of the Haverfield Bequest
- Society of Antiquaries
- Marc Fitch Fund
- Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
- T.W. Greene Fund of the Craven Committee
- Association for Roman Archaeology