, We are all aware of the famous coliseum in Rome well now it’s time to discover some important and beautiful roman ruins and amphitheatre in a town called Caerleon, near Newport in South Wales. The baths and amphitheatre may well be on a smaller scale but are no less interesting and are conveniently set in a picturesque town by the river Usk. The town itself is your typical Georgian, medieval town with charming pubs and houses but its claim to fame is the importance of being one of the most important military sites in Britain under the Roman Empire. It was fascinating to discover that the Caerleon Roman Fortress was one of only three permanent legionary centres in Britain, with up to 30,000 Roman soldiers stationed there in the 1st century BC. Caerleon was a roman legionary fortress, although the romans often referred to it as Isca after the nearby river Usk.
Our first stop of this video and the first stop of many of the visitors to Caerleon is the roman baths. They are housed inside a building that would remind you of a library or … that opens up inside to reveal the incredible remains of the roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house. We think CADW have done a great job in bringing the enormous swimming pool and the remains of the cold baths to life, although you do of course need to use some imagination when discovering and walking around but they have installed lighting to imitate the water flowing both hot and cold and also showing you people swimming here.
The whole of the complex would have been like a modern day leisure centre, with its Tepidarium and Caldarium, these are known as the warm and hot rooms, this would have been where the soldiers stationed at the fortress and they would have been able to relax with their friends, get a massage and even buy a fast food snack. Women and children could also use the baths but this would be in the morning whilst the soldiers would use it in the afternoon – this was done because mixed bathing was frowned upon since bathing was done naked. The baths were in use from around 74 AD to 287 AD, a huge complex with a length of 110 metres and it included a large open courtyard and an exercise hall.
Walking around and looking at the different interpretation boards it becomes very apparent how serious the romans were about their cleanliness. Amongst the way you can also see replicas of everyday roman objects including leather sandals, coins, games or the metal grooming sets with items like tweezers, tooth picks and nail files.
The bathing routine was to rub yourself all over with perfumed oil, sweat it out in the hot caldarium, and scrape off all the dirt and oil from your body then finish up with the warm room and cold bath or a swim. This must have been such a treat for the average roman solider that was posted in typically chilly wales.
As you move around the remains of the baths main building you are able to look around and see the stacked pillars under the floor, this allowed the heat to circulate and the foundations also reveal the drains where a massive hoard of 88 engraved gem stones were found, dropped or indeed lost by their original owners and now are on display in the roman museum here at Caerleon. Some stone carvings on display show how the baths would have been decorated with pillars surrounded by ornate mosaic tiled floors, truly quite fascinating to walk around and see.
A short walk from the barracks and just outside the town walls, stand the remains of the Caerleon Amphitheatre, where soldiers and citizens of Isca came to relax and enjoy entertainment like animal hunts and gladiators in combat. As we walk in we go to the Porta Pompa – this was the ceremonial entrance to the amphitheatre and for some gladiators their very last footsteps were taken across this walkway in front of you.
The amphitheatre was built around AD 90 and could seat up to 6000 spectators, making it the equivalent of a multiplex cinema or sports stadium, to keep the soldiers happy in their time off. The amphitheatre is huge, with sloped banks, the building of the amphitheatre outside the fort walls shows that this area of South Wales must have been fully under roman control; this was 16 years after the fort was built. It was not used solely for blood sports; it was also used by the military as a parade ground. The shape is oval, broken up into 8 different sections by passageways between the high banks of seating, its 184 feet long and 135 feet wide and halfway along the oval on each of the sides were seats of honour for VIPs this was the equivalent to modern day box seats.
Below these were small chambers where the humans, or animals waited to enter the arena, one of these lower chambers has a small niche set into the wall, this was presumably for a shrine dedicated to the goddess, Nemesis. She had divine authority over luck, and provided bad luck to anyone with too much good luck and vice versa, it’s said that people would pray or give thanks to the gods before they went out into battle, so that they thought that the good luck would be on their side.
It’s such an impressive place, the scale of the seating area if you can imagine seating here would prove just how popular the entertainments where back in the day. The total number of seats was more than the number of men serving in the 2nd Legion. You can walk out into the centre of the arena floor and look up at the sloping stands, and imagine yourself just what it would feel like to be a gladiator, with 6000 people watching you, jeering and jesting. It is quite a cool and terrifying thought.
Also nearby are the remains at foundation level of the Roman barracks with a block of rooms that housed soldiers. These cramped rooms were where the men slept and stored their weapons and a latrine block was located on the north of the barracks and features of a number of stoves and kitchens were also located on the western side of the barracks, interestingly it’s the only roman legionary barracks still open to the public in Europe.