Sunday, February 3, 2008

Roman York

"The history of York is the history of Britain," Macaulay famously remarked. Indeed, the story of British history can be well told through the microcosmic story of York. On Saturday we had a chance to consider one of the earliest chapters of this story: the presence of the Roman empire in Britain. After a first incursion in 43 AD under the emperor Claudius, the Romans later came to settle and expand more widely on the island. Quite early on, York became an important military outpost of the empire for quashing the rebellious Brits in the north (those darn fighting Scots again!). Thus a military garrison was erected at York (called Eboracum by the Romans), home to various legions over its history. From here Hadrian dispatched soldiers to build Hadrian's Wall to the north. And later, in the early 4th century, after the death of Constantine I, Constantine the Great was first proclaimed emperor in York.

The city is dotted with Roman ruins, particularly ruins of the walled defenses, with small bits dating from Hadrian's era, and larger sections from the late Roman period (300s). Here are a few glimpses:
This is a remnant of one of the corner towers of the Roman wall, now preserved just inside the walls that currently circle the city (which date from the 13th century, with Victorian embellishments). The Roman fort would have been square, with its central building ("basilica") standing where the Minster currently does.
We enjoyed the expertise of a guide (moonlighting from the National Trust) who gave us a two-hour tour of the Roman sites around the city. Here we are under Bootham Bar. (The quip you hear over and over again in York is that "Streets are gates, gates are bars, and bars are pubs." "Gate" comes from the Danish/Viking word for "street;" "bar" comes from the Norman/French word for a barrier or gate. So "Monkbar" is actually a gate; "Monkgate" is actually a street. And of course, what we know as "bars" at home are "public houses" or just "pubs.") Bootham bar, though dating from late medieval era, still stands where the Roman road and gate was.
This is known as the "Multangular Tower" and dates from a later Roman period, with medieval additions on top. Near here we also saw the ruins of a Roman oven, and inside you can see stone coffins dating from the Roman period (though moved here from a burial site discovered when the train station was built on the other side of the river).

1 comment:

Marty Michelson said...

Thanks for the historical tour!