If you lived in Viroconium, once the fourth largest city in Roman Britain, around 121 AD, you would have been the beneficiary of a demonstration of patronage and pork barrel politics, Roman style.
That year the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in an attempt to persuade the locals of the advantages of being more, well, Roman. To sweeten the deal, the inhabitants of Viroconium, now called Wroxeter, were given a new civic center and baths complex - the equivalent of building a new public sports center in the town that voted for the right guy.
The ruins of that civic center, including the largest intact fragment of a Roman wall left standing in the UK, and the footprint of its massive basilica, are the center of Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. English Heritage, who manage the site, have done an outstanding job of bringing its story to life with a small museum of artefacts found at the site and information plaques effectively located around key elements. Together, they give fascinating insights to what life was like in Roman Britain at the northern edge of the Roman Empire.
A Peaceful Settlement
At its height, Wroxeter (Viroconium, remember) was a city with a population variously estimated at between 5,000 and 15,000 people, spread across a grid of streets covering 180 acres. The site has been only partially excavated. Today, the small village of Wroxeter sits on a corner of the buried city with several of its buildings clearly made of stones salvaged from the remains of the Roman city. If you visit the village, see if you can find the large Roman stone blocks in the north wall of the St. Andrew's, the parish church. The entrance to the churchyard is framed in a pair of Roman columns and the church's font is the hollowed capital of another Roman column.
Originally Viroconium was the capital of a tribe of Welsh Britons known as the Cornovii. Later it was an outpost of Roman Legionnaires, a military base from which the Romans hoped to subdue the Welsh. Watling Street, the famous Roman road between Dover and Wroxeter, passes through the site and is still open to traffic as the B4394.
But, back to Hadrian's visit. By the time he dropped by, Roman Britain was a mature part of the Roman Empire with Roman culture and customs widely adopted by the local middle classes of merchants and craftsmen. No longer a military encampment, Wroxter was a thriving town, its people engaged in manufacturing trades or as shopkeepers and retired soldiers.
Wroxeter Roman City Visitor Essentials
- Where: 5 miles east of Shrewsbury.
- Hours: Open 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday, April 1 to November 4, and to 4pm Saturday and Sunday; From November 5 to March 28, 10am to 4pm. Closed Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day
- Admission: In 2012, adults - £5, children - £3 and family tickets - £13.00. Concession tickets are also available.
- Visit their website
- Getting there:
- by car: on the B4380 at the intersection of the B4394, signed for Cressage. The parking lot, opposite red brick farm buildings, is "pay and display" but the £2 charge is refunded when you pay for your ticket to the site.
- by train: Shrewsbury station is 5.5 miles and Wellington Telford West is 6 miles. Check National Rail Enquiries for schedules and prices.
- by bus: The Arriva Telford-to-Shrewsbury service, bus no. 96, passes the site.