On the trail of the Romans in Britain - from forts to museums

By Dawn Marshallsay | 25 July 2008
photograph showing a Roman statue head of a man

Tullie House Museum was the first venue to receive the British Museum’s bronze bust of Roman Emperor Hadrian. It toured the country prior to the opening of The British Museum's blockbuster Hadrian Exhibition in 2008. Courtesy British Museum

The British Museum's Hadrian: Empire and Conflict 2008 exhibition may have drawn the crowds, but nothing compares to seeing ruins of Roman Britain where they have stood for centuries.

The cultured emperor's fascination with architecture led him to erect magnificent buildings, but we bizarrely remember him most for his wall.

Perhaps finding that conquering new lands cut into his social life, Hadrian reversed Rome’s expansionist policies by building defence fortifications instead. For us the most famous of course is Hadrian’s Wall along the border of England and Scotland.

Latrines at Housesteads Roman Fort. © Housesteads Roman Fort

Hadrian’s Wall Collections

Hadrian’s Wall was built in AD122-30, stretching coast to coast from Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east of England to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.

Anyone feeling energetic can tackle the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trust Trail. If the name sounds long, the trail is an unbroken 84-mile trek, but we’re not expecting you to complete all of it!

Try stopping off at these Hadrian’s Wall museums and forts along the way:

Shows a photograph of a museum gallery. The walls of the room are lined with cupboards, which are lit and full of artefacts. In the centre of the spot-lit room there are a number of stone artefacts guarded by a rope.

Museum of Antiquities, soon to be re-housed. © Newcastle University

The in Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the main museum for Hadrian’s Wall, housing Roman art, glass and surgical instruments.

Tullie House Museum in Carlisle has a similar role to the Museum of Antiquities, except that it collates Hadrian’s Wall finds from the west end of the wall instead of the east. Tullie House displays everything from jewellery to altars from when the Romans arrived in Carlisle in the winter of AD72-3 to when they left.

Chester's Roman Fort is the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain. © English Heritage

Built just after the wall was completed in AD123, Chester's Roman Fort in Northumberland is the best preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain. It also contains the remains of a Roman bath house, and its museum houses Roman sculpture and inscriptions.

Dramatically sited on the cliffs overlooking the Solway Firth, the award-winning Senhouse Museum at Maryport derived most of its collection from the Maryport fort. It also holds the largest collection of Roman military altar stones and inscriptions from any one site in Britain.

shows the stone walls of the Roman fortress at Arbeia

The stone walls of the recreated fortress at Arbeia. Courtesy Tyne and Wear Museums

Other museums along the wall can be found at Housesteads, Corbridge, Seqedenum, Arbeia, while Birdoswold Roman Fort and the Roman Vindolanda and Roman Army Museum capture the spirit of Roman battle.

Photo of a dip between two hills where the Antonine Wall once stood

A still visible section of the Antonine Wall at Falkirk. Courtesy Falkirk Council

The Rest of Roman Britain

It seems Hadrian’s successor was inspired by his construction work. Antonius Pius, who ruled as Emperor from AD138-161, began building the Antonine Wall in AD142. This ‘wall’ was a turf rampart set on a stone foundation stretching 37 miles across Scotland.

Though only sections of the wall now remain, it achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status on July 7 2008, and following the Antonine Way will take you along its remains.

Prepare for battle as you enter the Lunt Roman Fort in Baginton near Coventry. This is a partial reconstruction of the timber fort that stood here in AD60, and the most unique feature is its circular ‘gyrus’ - a cavalry training ring.

Shows a photograph of a forensic reconstruction of a Saxon princess.

Forensic reconstruction of a Saxon princess at the Corinium Museum. She was nicknamed Mrs Getty because she was buried with over 500 grave goods. Courtesy Corinium Museum

No worm-hole is needed to send you back in time to Corinium, the second largest city in Roman Britain after London. The Cotswolds’ Corinium Museum in Cirencester invites you to experience life as a Roman (even dress up like one) and marvel at Roman mosaics, engineering and artistry.

When you depart from Corinium into the rest of the Cotswolds, there are many more remains to be found. Laurence Vulliamy, director of Channel 4’s 2005 Time Team dig in Gloustershire, thought the Cotswolds probably contained the highest concentration of Roman villas in Britain.

Shows a photograph of the ruins of a Roman theatre. Two circular walls surrounding an inner wall leading to a pillar in the distance.

Now in ruins, Verulamium was once one of the most significant towns in Roman Britain. © English Heritage

Another Cotswolds attraction is the Verulamium Museum of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, which sits on the site of one of the major cities of Roman Britain. The museum contains reconstructed Roman rooms and an assortment of hands-on displays. Roman soldiers also show off their military tactics at the museum during every second weekend of the month.

If you fancy getting your feet wet, Bath’s Roman Baths are fed by natural springs of hot water, just as they were 2,000 years ago. Its four main features are the Sacred Spring, Roman Temple, Roman bath house and finds from the Roman city of Bath.

A mosaic depicting a man and a horse

Fishbourne Roman Palace often exhibits Roman mosaics produced in its twin city, Ravenna, Italy (known as the capital of mosaic). © Fishbourne Roman Palace

Journeying to Wales, as the Romans did in AD48, you will discover a fort that held a regiment of up to 1,000 Roman soldiers. Segontium Roman Fort in Caernarfon protected the Welsh coast from Irish invaders, and the museum tells the story of the occupation of Wales.