Despite what you might think, you don’t have to be in Italy to discover Italian history, culture and cuisine. Italian pasta is cooked and eaten around the world. Italian wine is easily available in supermarkets. Italian masterpieces fill our art galleries and museums. And if you, like me, live in or visit Europe, you’re probably not far from an ancient Roman site, even if you’re not within Italy. That’s because 2000 years ago the Romans were ambitious empire builders, conquering lands from Spain to Croatia, Britain to Egypt and Morocco to Armenia. So if you’re looking for a little bit of Italian history you might not have as far to travel as you expected. For our first trip beyond Italy’s borders, let’s take a look at Roman Chester, to discover what the centurions, gladiators and legions were doing in the north of England all those years ago.
When did the Romans arrive in Chester?
Roman troops first invaded England in 43 AD but they faced resistance from the English tribes so progress up through the land was slow. It would be further 30 years before the 20th Victorious Valeria Legion, or Legio vigesima Valeria victrix, finally arrived in the northwest in 79 AD. They set up camp on the river bank and they’d call that spot home for the next 200 or so years.
What did Romans do when they arrived in Chester?
The legion didn’t waste time settling in. They quickly set up a fort or castrum on the banks of the River Dee. But they needed a Roman name for it. So they took the last part of the local name for the river – Afon Dyindwy or Little Dee – and latinised it to Deva Victrix, pronounced Dee-wah.
Deva was strategically important from a military point of view, set between southern England, Wales and the north, including those pesky Scots! Its harbour enabled the trade and transport of lead and copper between nearby north Wales and the rest of the Roman Empire. And although it started out as one of three main legionary army camps in Britain, it gradually evolved into a major civic settlement with fortified walls, port, public baths, a gladiatorial arena, religious shrines and even central heating, a lot of which is still visible in the modern day city centre.
So where can we find the Romans in Chester today?
Walk along the longest city walls in Britain
Chester boasts the largest stretch of unbroken city walls in Britain with construction dating back to the Romans, although they can’t take all the credit! But whilst you see a large stone built wall today, originally it would have been little more than an earthen rampart with a wooden palisade or fence on top. The walls weren’t built in stone until around 100 AD when construction in sandstone started and it would take over a century for the Romans to finish the job – they were legionaries, not builders after all!
Fortunately for us, the walls have stood the test of time. And although they’ve been added to, improved and rebuilt a few times over the years, Roman building work is still visible at various spots along the route, including at Newgate where fortication foundations have been excavated.
The Roman walls went on to protect Chester during both the 11th century Norman conquest and the 17th century English Civil War, but since then have largely been decorative rather than defensive. And today they draw thousands of tourists who just like to walk some or all of the 2 mile circuit for pleasure. I wonder what the Roman soldiers would have made of that?!
Discover the largest known Roman amphitheatre in Britain
Together with the longest intact city walls, Chester is also home to the largest known Roman amphitheatre in Britain. Situated just outside Newgate, the arena is actually two semicircular theatres built facing eachother to make a circle and would have been used for gladiatorial games, public executions and general entertainment.
Only half of the arena is visible as the rest has yet to be excavated. But from what archeologists have found it was originally built in wood before being rebuilt in stone and would have accommodated up to 8000 spectators. Can you imagine all 8000 baying for the blood of a slave gladiator or petty criminal sentenced to death? It must have been quite spectacular!
Relax in the Roman gardens
Right next to the amphitheatre is a delightful garden filled with Roman ruins.
Chunky column bases from the public baths line the path into the quiet oasis. And as you walk into the peaceful park, away from the modern day inner ring road, you see more and more Roman relics. Grave tops are set into the ground, more columns rise up out of it and a reconstructed hypocaust or under floor heating system sits to one side.
All are fascinating, although sadly none was actually found here which is a shame as the original Roman baths that they all come from were not only one of the largest buildings in town but also the most technologically advanced. There were vaulted ceilings and under floor heating throughout to keep the baths nice and toasty through the chilly northern weather. And the baths were more like a luxurious spa, gentleman’s club, library and gym all rolled into one. It must have seemed quite exotic to the locals!
The gardens themselves were created at the end of the 19th century after the stones and columns were excavated from the northern end of the old Roman town, particularly under Northgate Street. And whilst they may not be entirely authentic, they do give a lovely, peaceful environment to admire some of Chester’s Roman ruins.
Discover Roman central heating under Spud-U-Like!
If you want to see a hypocaust, or Roman central heating system, in situ where it was originally built, you need to go on a little high street adventure.
Dig deep enough and you’ll find Roman ruins beneath most of the shops and offices in the city centre although not many are open to the public. Unlike the hypocaust in the cellars of a baked potato restaurant called Spud-U-Like at number 39, halfway down Bridge Street, or Via Praetoria to the Romans.
There is a sign inviting you to visit their hypocaust and if you pay a nominal 50p entry fee, you can descend down a dozen steep steps and go back 2000 years into an old, original Roman hypocaust.
Small pillars separating a raised floor from the ground create a cavity that would have been heated with hot air from a central fire or furnace. The fire would have heated the floors, and thereby the rooms, of villas and baths around town and were a wonderful Roman invention that wouldn’t be rediscovered for centuries, more’s the pity!
Visit the Dewa Roman Experience & museum
If you want to know more about how the Romans used to live in Chester, visit the Dewa Experience opposite Spud-U-Like.
It tells the story of how the legionaries arrived and takes the visitor through a series of scenes and vignettes depicting the transport gallion, baths, kitchen and even a legionary’s bed.
But its not all staged settings, there are real Roman ruins under the museum and you can look down onto the original floors and rooms from the museum.
And the final room allows a more hands on experience with costumes and games for children to fire up their imagination and bring the Romans to life.
For more information on the exhibition, prices and opening hours check out the website here.
Take the Roman Patrol Tour
The Dewa Experience also runs a Roman Patrol tour of Roman Chester, guided by a real life legionary soldier!
Starting off at the Experience , kids and adults alike are drilled in Roman marching and then marched, shields in hand to the Roman gardens where the soldier explains life in the Roman army. Expect lots of fabulous audience participation, learning how to fight in Roman formation and how to avoid getting your head cut off in battle!
You’ll then march over to the amphitheatre where a gladiatorial battle is recreated, with your help, again breathing life into the ruins and captivating the group.
If you’re looking for a serious, academic tour of Roman Chester, this is not the one for you. But if you like history to be interactive, fun and entertaining, the tour is a fabulous experience. And I’d heartily recommend it for your youngsters as long as they don’t mind stories of fighting, lost limbs and gory deaths – or maybe that’ll be the clincher to book the tour!! Tickets cost £3.50 and can be purchased from the Dewa Experience before you set off. The tour leaves at 1.30pm on Saturdays and Sundays and can also be arranged for school groups. More info here. Perfect!
Say a prayer at the shrine to Minerva
From the gladiatorial games and war of the Roman Patrol, let’s turn out of town, through the city gates and out into a nearby park to find peace and religion.
Set between the River Dee and medieval Handbridge road is a lovely little riverbank park called Edgar’s Field. It’s a hive of activity at the weekend as local families bring their little ones to the playground. But set about 100 meters away, on a grassy slope is a little rocky outcrop and 2nd century shrine to the Roman goddess Minerva.
Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, trade, music, medicine, magic, the arts and strategy, to name just a few of her attributes. She had a sacred owl that is often shown with her, reinforcing her wisdom and strategic abilities. And with all those talents, you can understand why the Romans might have prayed to her and asked for her help in times of conflict.
The shrine is apparently the only known Roman religious monument still in its original location in Europe and is therefore a Grade 1 listed building. And although she’s a bit hard to make out after 2000 years of weathering Minerva still holds a magical position in Roman Chester’s heart.
Can you spot the Roman harbour wall?
Deva was originally an important river port before the waterway silted up and became impassable by ship. So there was once a Roman harbor and the remnants of it can still be seen at the foot of the medieval city walls on Nun’s Road near the horse racing course. The best view is apparently from the racecourse, although I have to admit I didn’t find this final ruin in dear old Roman Chester!
2000 years of history in Chester
Ultimately Chester is well known for many things. Its racecourse, its cathedral, its zoo and its wonderful half-timbered, covered shopping walkways – The Rows – dating back to the 13th century. But delve just 3 meters underground and you’ll find that it’s all built on top of the original Roman fort founded 2000 years. In fact, the city has enjoyed permanent occupation ever since, even owing some of its road layout to those clever Romans. So next time you’re yearning to dive into a little Italian history, just remember, it doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to Italy as the Romans brought Italian history to our doorsteps! I hope you have a fabulous time exploring! And in the meantime, if you have a spot of Italian history or culture in your neighbourhood, why not leave me a comment telling me all about it. Maybe it will even inspire another trip! Happy travels!!