Eboracum in AD 400

AD 400. The Legio Praesidiensis was in Eboracum [York], but the legionary fortress was straining to hold so many infantry and cavalry units at one time. The Duke of the Britains, who had his headquarters within the fortress, decided to billet the men of the Praesidiensis out amongst the population of the town, a common practice amongst the elite comitatenses field armies. Talk was rife that the build-up at Eboracum heralded the formation of a new and improved British field army to replace the one shipped across to Gaul in AD 398. That meant greater prestige, better pay, more chance of promotion and, most importantly of all, more reliable supplies.

York, with its crucial river-crossing in the heart of enemy territory, had been founded by the Roman military eager to subdue the local tribes. The legionary fortress was established in AD 71 on the northern bank of the River Ouse. It was soon accompanied by a civilian settlement to the south-west, immediately between the fortress and the river. The town also spread across the River Ouse and this southern section was linked to the fort by the all-important bridge. By the early third century, the settlement had been granted the status of colonia by the Emperor. This was an important legal distinction that enabled the city to govern itself through a senate (curia) of local aristocrats (decurions) elected to office. A century later York was a thriving and cosmopolitan city of perhaps 3,000 inhabitants (contrast that to Roman London’s 10,000) with its own city walls (probably built-in stone), its own forum, temples, wharves and warehouses, smart town-houses with mosaic floors and under-floor heating, shops, public baths, and street fountains – all laid out to a neat, rectangular plan. York had become the impressive second city of the British provinces, and one of the four provincial capitals.

In AD 400 the fortress was still occupied and maintained, although there was now some industrial activity occurring within the walls. The local garrison, the Sixth Legion, was significantly reduced in numbers but the fort continued to operate in a military capacity (plate 43). The civilian settlements north of the river around the fortress seem to have been abandoned by the late fourth century, yet the colonia south of the River Ouse continued in existence through to the end of Roman rule in the early fifth century. Perhaps the locals immediately outside the fortress sought shelter within the walls during the barbarian crises of the 360s and then remained there. The colonia had its own stone wall defences.

Other changes had occurred. The main road leading from the south, across the bridge and into the fortress had been narrowed during the fourth century. Timber booths or stalls had been erected on either side, perhaps to catch passing trade with food or other saleable items. Large and impressive houses had been built in various locations throughout the city during the early part of the century, and these houses, with mosaic floors, hypocausts and courtyards were probably the smart residences of administrators, wealthy merchants and retired military officers.

Archaeologists have identified several building remains that have been overlain with deposits that have become known as ‘dark earth’. A stone building on Wellington Row as well as a house excavated at Bishophill Senior and at 5 Rougier Street were overlain with this dark, silty deposit made up of decayed plant material mixed with domestic refuse, often finely broken up. Layers of this ‘dark earth’ have been discovered at other Roman town sites in Britain, and they seem to have become more common after the departure of the Romans in AD 410. There is no consensus of opinion as to what ‘dark earth’ actually represents. To some, the deposits are evidence of decay and abandonment, of roofless buildings overgrowing with vegetation and used as refuse pits by locals who can no longer rely on the struggling urban authorities to remove their waste. To others, the dark earth represents a new phase of timber dwellings with thatched roofs that spring up within the cities – signs not of decay but of a post-Roman survival.86 For others still, the earth is brought in from the fields to either support urban agriculture or to beautify the fortified area of the city with prestigious gardens.

The trend in Romano-British towns is for falling population levels and declining local economies. Some of the urban buildings uncovered by archaeologists in towns like Verulamium (modern St Albans) were obviously neglected and ruinous, some public areas were clogged with rubble or refuse. Buildings destroyed by fire during the late fourth century seem never to have been rebuilt, wooden lean-tos and huts were constructed either within or against empty town houses, and mosaics that formed the centre-piece of a Roman dining room have been covered over with gravel floors or scorched by the cooking fires of later tenants. Domestic rubbish has been found piled up in adjacent rooms.

The city was an invention imposed upon the British people by the Roman state shortly after the invasion of AD 43. More used to living in scattered farmsteads and upon fortified hill-forts, the British were induced to live within the newly established urban areas. For Rome the cities acted as administrative centres for the gathering of taxes and as economic powerhouses for the maintenance and feeding of the legions. In the time-honoured tradition, local aristocrats were encouraged to sponsor the construction and maintenance of public buildings. Rome did not fund the growth of cities directly; this was a local provincial concern. There was certainly no free-market economy fuelling construction by demand. In the third and fourth centuries the financial pressures on the landed gentry became intolerable, and many fled the cities for their villas in the country. Here they could lavish their fortunes on extensions and wall paintings, hypocausts and mosaic floors. The cities began their inevitable decline once the aristocracy had turned their energies, and their wealth, toward the country estates.

Eboracum had changed since Gaius had been there last. He had been forced to close his cowhide import business in AD 394 which had necessitated a trip to the city in that year. Many buildings had been boarded up, although many thought it a temporary measure. Some of the houses that had been neglected a long while had been torn down. Gaius remembered seeing a gang of workmen pulling down a wall with chains and iron hooks. A bystander told him the gang were artisans that had once toured the province installing mosaics in all the great villas. That was 394, when the sewers had still worked and the streets had still been clean. Now no-one paid for the necessities. In AD 400, less than six years later, Gaius was shocked at the difference. The streets had taken over from the choked sewers, filth ran freely down toward the river. There were large piles of animal dung at every crossroads. Many of the wooden boards had come off the abandoned town houses. Where the roof had collapsed the rooms had become rubble-strewn and weed-infested refuse piles. Plenty of high-class buildings were now home to the less well-off inhabitants of Eboracum: petty traders, criminals, labourers, prostitutes, refugees from the countryside, and out-of-work artisans. All were eager to live rent-free and close to the main thoroughfares.

Threading his way down a street choked with wooden houses and lean-tos, Gaius gazed on poor craftsmen and petty artisans desperate for work and unable to afford the customary rents. He suddenly spotted Claudius, the owner of the grand villa at Red Stone that he and his men had turfed out and bought off. The rich man and his family were now lowly refugees, buying food at high prices, without land, wealth or skills to sustain them. The timbers used to build this street of shanty-houses came from the roofs of the buildings on either side. The Sixth Legion had been through here last year and stripped off all the roof tiles as soon as regular deliveries of fresh tiles stopped arriving. Now flooded and useless for habitation, the town houses at least afforded good timber for the shanty huts

To ease the cramped conditions within the fortress, the Dux Britanniarum had ordered that the troops from Praesidium be billeted with local families. Gaius and Modesta followed the legionary clerk to their new billet; it was the river-side house of a wagon-driver and his family. Looking over the cramped conditions, Gaius turned back to the street. Within the hour, he and Modesta, Flavius and their two slaves were making the best of things in a townhouse. Recently abandoned and boarded up, Gaius had kicked in some of the hoardings and lit a cooking fire on the floor. The family members now had four rooms between them!

From summer AD 400 through to autumn AD 401, Gaius and his family lived reasonably comfortably within the town house. Flavius was now nine years old and helped his father re-establish his butchery business in Eboracum. The family still received army pay (although a great deal was still owed to them) and some of this helped to pay rent on a shop front along the main street. The business helped them survive their year in Eboracum, a strange year where Gaius spent more time at the butcher’s chopping block than the fortress fencing post. Customers always asked Gaius’ how he had lost his two missing fingers, but he never told the same story twice!

When his presence at the fortress headquarters was suddenly ordered, Gaius feared that he had unwittingly broken some military law. In his smartest tunic and cloak he stood waiting in the echoing hall, over 20m across and almost 70m long. Eight huge columns stood on either side of the hall, and light filtered in from glass windows high above. This was the largest building Gaius would ever stand in. While he leaned easily on a fat column base, legionary officials and soldiers on business hurried about looking anxious and over-worked. To his horror, Gaius was then led into the private chamber of the Dux Britanniarum, Caelius, Old Coel Hen, the Duke of the Britains who commanded the military forces of northern Britain. The duke was a bald-headed man, dressed in sumptuous white linen, embroidered with gold and silver. He wore a purple Pannonian hat and sat with his advisors at a desk covered with scrolls and wax tablets. The wall behind the duke was beautifully painted; one colourful panel depicted a columned shrine topped by a grimacing actor’s mask.

The meeting was short and direct. It had come to the duke’s notice that a centenarius once attached to his staff was now serving as a common foot-soldier in Gaius’ contubernium. This Justinus, a loyal man, no matter what the previous emperor had to say, was to be re-instated as a centenarius and given command of a cohort within the Legio Praesidiensis. Gaius was given credit by the duke for treating the disgraced officer fairly and without bitterness.

Despite the number of advisors in the room, and the maps and plans that littered the desks, there was no hint of the immense changes about to take place. A re-deployment was about to change the lives of every soldier in Eboracum, yet the Dux Britanniarum himself had no knowledge of it. Momentous events were taking place over in the Alps…

1 thought on “Eboracum in AD 400

  1. Pingback: Eboracum in AD 400 – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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