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The Romans in the West End

The Romans in the West End
Most people probably know that Leicester was quite an important place in Roman times. They are probably also under the impression that Roman Leicester, or Ratae as it was known, stood on the east bank of the River Soar. This is only partly true: The walled town of Ratae, with its forum, baths and all the other public buildings did lie on the east bank of the river. The walled town extended east from the river to just short of the clock tower at East Gates. Roman activity, however, extended well beyond the city gates into the surrounding countryside, including into what is now the West End.

Two Roman roads crossed the West End. Both of these roads crossed the Soar at a place close to where the West Bridge stands today. One of these roads headed in a south-westerly direction. This was the Fosse Way. The Fosse Way ran from the vicinity of Exeter to Lincolnshire, passing through Leicester. This was built quite soon after the Roman Conquest, in the middle of the first century AD, and is believed to have marked the limits of the first phase of the Roman conquest. A second road ran directly westwards to join Watling Street, another important Roman Road, at Mancetter in Warwickshire.

A traveller setting off westwards from Ratae would have crossed the Soar, probably by bridge, and passed through some suburbs. These suburbs would have extended along the main roads and would have been like small shanty-towns; made up of huts of various kinds and occupied by poor people who were struggling to make a living with various industrial activities. Just beyond the suburbs there would have been a number of cemeteries. Roman law banned burials of any kind within the city walls. So a number of cemeteries would have been located along the main roads leading from the town. One such cemetery lay on the Fosse Way in the area of Roman Street and Saxon Street. Here human remains were discovered in the 19th century along with various Roman artefacts, such as jewellery, coins and pottery.

Beyond the suburbs and cemeteries there would have an area of intensively farmed countryside. One of the characteristics that distinguished the Roman period from what went before (and quite a few centuries after) was that there was a monetary economy in which farmers were encouraged to sell surplus produce in exchange for coin. The coins could then be used to purchase luxuries such as pottery. The towns of Roman Britain provided both a ready market for surplus crops and a place to purchase luxuries. So the areas surrounding these towns was farmed far more intensively that the areas further away from the towns. At first the people drawn to farm the areas in the vicinity of Roman towns would have lived in a manner similar to the lives of their ancestors, in native style huts. Over the years some of those who farmed the areas close to Roman towns became very wealthy. They often adopted a Roman lifestyle and transformed their round huts into luxurious rectangular villas.

This is what happened at a site on what is now Norfolk Street. In the 1970s the remains of a Roman villa were discovered close to the course of the Mancetter road. Excavation revealed that by AD 150, this farm has been transformed into a complex of buildings including a prosperous residence, a barn and various other structures. The dwelling included many features that were characteristic of life throughout the Roman Empire; including under-floor heating and painted wall-plaster. The remains of the decorations can still be seen at the Jewry Wall Museum.

The illustration at the top of this page shows the remains of a wall painting from the Norfolk Street villa. Click on the link below to view an reconstruction drawing of the villa.

Reference: Leicester - A Pictorial History: Malcolm Elliott (Phillimore, 1999).