Romano-British remains: Introduction

Pages 267-271

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1939.

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A. Introduction (fn. 1)

To describe Roman Oxfordshire is like trying to describe only two or three rooms of a house, for the county division is quite arbitrary and has no unity or meaning of any kind in the history of Roman Britain. The area covered by it lies in the southern midlands, the lowland region, and was far behind the final frontier, so that neither forts nor fortresses will be found within its boundaries; it is unlikely that even in the years immediately succeeding the conquest of the lowlands it contained any military post. The Fosse Way, now usually interpreted as a military frontier road held for a short time in the early period, runs for a few miles outside the NW. boundary of the county but never actually enters it. Of the two main roads which crossed the county, that from south to north, connecting the Thames and the country to south of it with Watling Street, may be early, but neither it nor the east-towest road, 'Akeman Street', can have had any permanent military significance. Akeman Street was possibly laid by the Romans on the line of an earlier route and either it or its predecessor was almost certainly used in the conquest of the midland area and advance westward; two hoards of coins of Claudius found at Minster Lovell and Wilcote may have been buried about a.d. 43–7 by some one engaged in the movement. If armies marched through what is now Oxfordshire, they did not stay, and its inhabitants quickly settled down and accepted the occupation and the peace and prosperity brought with it.

Oxfordshire in the Roman period, like the area covered by the neighbouring counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Northamptonshire, is a land of country-houses and farms, villages and small towns, and for its history we must look to the natural resources rather than to political or military events. Local administrative divisions in the lowland area were mainly based on the territories occupied by the different tribes, yet, though the various tribal areas are clear enough, the actual boundaries are seldom known. No doubt they followed natural frontiers, and it has been suggested (fn. 2) that the River Cherwell divided the land of the Dobuni, with its centre at Corinium (Cirencester), on the west, from that of the Belgic Catuvellauni on the east, while the Berkshire Downs and the Thames valley probably formed the boundary of the Belgic Atrebates with their central town at Calleva (Silchester). Thus it is possible that the Thames valley and the land between the Cherwell and the Chilterns, the Chilterns themselves, and the forest region to the north may have been no-man's-land between the three tribes.

The geological features of the county described above (pp. 223, 236) have at many periods produced a clear-cut division in the character of the population and its culture and at no time is this more marked than during the RomanoBritish period. The Thames valley and the valleys of its tributaries between its emergence from the Cotswolds and the point where it broadens out in the region of Dorchester have offered in successive ages an opportunity of settlement and cultivation on the gravel and alluvial soil, particularly by the river, which also provided a waterway. It is still for the most part a wide corngrowing district with some pastures; in earlier days, when the water-table may have been higher and the land less well drained, dry summers would not affect it so much as nowadays, though, on the other hand, floods would restrict areas of cultivation and grazing ground. We have seen that in the Early Iron Age, perhaps even in the Bronze Age, this area was studded with small settlements whose inhabitants supported themselves on the crops they were able to grow successfully by tilling the ground with a light plough. Some of these continued during the Roman period, though not always on the same sites; some Early Iron Age villages ceased to exist, while others began their existence in the Roman period. But the shifting of population was not great. Within this area few stonebuilt houses are to be found. One small one existed at Burcot, another at Frilford in Berkshire, 8 miles west, while others are to be found on the high ground fringing this region on the north. The older Iron Age centre at the junction of Thame and Thames, beneath the shadow of the hill-fort on Wittenham Clumps (see, pp. 252, 259), was superseded in the Roman period by a tiny town, if town it can be called, built a short distance up the River Thame, at Dorchester, close by the point where the north-south road was carried across the Thames on its way south towards Silchester. An inscription recording a beneficiarius found here suggests that it may have been a police post and tax-collecting centre. (fn. 3) It never developed into a large town, and this fact, combined with the absence of large country-houses, justifies the assumption that the population in this region continued much as before the Roman occupation and that it was not interfered with except for the maintenance of order. It is even doubtful whether there was much increase in the population. Local industries grew up near the road on the northern side of this region, where clay as well as gravel occurred. Potting, and perhaps tile-making, were carried on at various points between Dorchester and Headington, (fn. 4) particularly in the later period when the import of Gaulish pottery ceased and the demand for local wares became greater. Finally, on the most northern limit, where there is an outcrop of limestone at Headington, quarries were probably worked.

Quite another picture is to be seen in the centre of the county, in the oolite region, particularly west of the River Cherwell. Here, instead of small village settlements, we find a few large country-houses and numerous small ones, many of them near the points where Akeman Street crosses the river valleys. On the other hand, the absence of villages is remarkable, the reason perhaps being that the heavier soil required a heavier plough and therefore some capital, which implies a higher standard of living. This is still a region of large farms ranging from 100 to 450 acres. The land must have been broken up for the first time in this period and cultivated, whether for barley, so successfully grown now, or for crops connected with sheep-farming, it is impossible to say. No traces of local industries have been noted here, but it is difficult to believe that the Stonesfield slate-quarries were not worked; the two or three largest houses are within a mile of the quarries; yet some at least of the slates found in the houses in the neighbourhood and farther afield, particularly in the later period, are not Stonesfield slates. Of the economic history or social status of the occupants of these houses, or of the means whereby these Romano-Britons obtained their capital, nothing can be said.

The red lands of the ironstone region in the north of the county, and therefore west of the Cherwell, where the soil is 'neither too light, nor yet too strong', (fn. 5) supported both villages and villas. Here the Early Iron Age sites in and around the great camps of Madmarston and Tadmarton were succeeded by houses or villages on the slopes of the valleys below and villages in the Bloxham-Banbury region. No large house has come to light except perhaps at Wigginton, though it is true that excavation has been slight; yet we would expect here in this richer soil a natural development from the Early Iron Age onwards.

The picture is completed by the region east of the Cherwell where the Oxford Clay produces a soil too damp and heavy to attract an early population. In medieval days it was mainly forest region—Bern Wood and Shotover Forest. The settlements which have been found are mostly on the roadsides, and that the only Roman town of any size within the county occurs in this district, at Alchester near Bicester, can be explained by its position at the crossing of the two main roads; it must have been built primarily to serve the needs of the considerable traffic on these roads. It would seem that the two towns at Alchester and Dorchester, the Roman name of neither of which is known, and the north–south road connecting them, were all laid out simultaneously in the middle of the first century, not so very long after the Conquest. (fn. 6) If Akeman Street was originally a track used by the Belgic Catuvellauni of Verulamium as they spread westwards, and metalled by the Romans advancing into the country of the Dobuni, (fn. 7) it would explain why the town at Alchester is not actually on it. Indeed, some traces of pre-Roman occupation have been found recently a little to the north of Alchester on the line of Akeman Street. The new town by the road-crossing, besides being a stopping-place for travellers between the important towns of Verulamium and Corinium (Cirencester), must also have served as a market and an administrative centre, as also did Dorchester at the extreme southern point of the road where it reached the Thames, though, as we have said already, Dorchester may well have served also as a police-post. It is possible, indeed, but by no means certain, that the whole area east of the Cherwell, extending southwards to the Thames and even beyond, and perhaps including some part of the sparsely inhabited Chilterns, was a large administrative area controlled from Alchester and policed at Dorchester, this necessity arising from the fact, if it be so, that it had been a tribal no-man's-land where control had hitherto been weak. This hypothesis would account for two other unexplained facts: the absence of houses on the oolite east of the Cherwell when they are numerous to west of it; secondly, the existence of the somewhat mysterious earthwork called Aves Ditch, lately proved to be Roman (p. 276), which runs from a point on the east bank of the Cherwell, close to its crossing by Akeman Street, for about 5 miles north-eastwards, ending abruptly near Fritwell in the forest region. It may have been the new boundary of this district, from the River Cherwell to the uninhabited forests of the north and east. In the south of this large area, in the Thames valley, probably to the south as well as to the north of the river, we have seen that there was a village economy much like that on Salisbury Plain, which was probably engaged in producing corn, the police-post at Dorchester maintaining order and perhaps arranging for transport northwards along the road or eastwards down the river. It is noticeable too that the only other record of a beneficiarius found in southern Britain is at Winchester, a larger town than Dorchester, where in the fourth century there was a procurator of the Imperial Weaving Works.

Alchester, like Dorchester, appears to have been rebuilt in stone, both its defences and its houses, early in the 2nd century, and although in some part of it at least there was further rebuilding down to the 4th century, it never expanded beyond its walls, as we might have expected if the region had had any agricultural or industrial importance.

The religious centre of the area just discussed was possibly at Wood Eaton, where, on a low hill in a wood clearing near the Cherwell, at the northern end of the high land looking northwards over Otmoor and the Cherwell valley and west of the north-south road, numerous metal objects and some hundreds of coins have been found. They range from pre-Roman times throughout the Roman period to its end, and from the abundance of coins, which include some probably minted on the spot, it has been surmised that fairs were held here, possibly in connexion with a festival. The cult is unknown, but it was undoubtedly of British origin, even if in accordance with practice elsewhere it was assimilated to a Roman divinity. This and a fragment of sculpture found below the earthwork at Ilbury represent the sole trace of Romano-British religion in Oxfordshire. (fn. 8)

Finally, the chalk uplands of the Chilterns were still very thinly inhabited, except for a few minor districts near the line of the Icknield way and the ridgeway; only on the southern slopes towards the River Thames near Mapledurham and Caversham, and at Harpsden near Henley, have traces of houses or even villages appeared, and they should be connected with the remains found on the southern bank in Berkshire.

As to the date of occupation, it has been shown that in the extreme north of the county, in the land east of the Cherwell and in the Thames valley in the south, there is some indication of continuity from the Early Iron Age into the Roman period. On the other hand, the oolite region of the central area, though the evidence is very weak, seems to have been first developed and occupied to any extent in the Roman period in the late 1st century and early 2nd century. The coins found in the county suggest that everywhere the peak of prosperity was the mid-4th century, but that there was a disturbance, probably the raid of 367, which led to the hoarding of 4th-century coins. The coins, however, and to some extent the pottery, do also show that in all parts of the county the population continued to the end of the Roman period, if not after it. In the Thames valley, where the peasant predominated, the contiguity of Saxon and late Roman graves at Frilford implies little break between the two periods. Moreover Christianity appears early in the post-Roman period at Dorchester and Benson. (fn. 9) On the other hand, in the villa region of the centre, though life went on to the end of the Roman period and probably for some time afterwards, the houses appear to have finally fallen into decay, being deserted rather than destroyed, becoming ruins. The Saxon lords, when they settled down, chose new sites away from the houses, whose economic system, one might believe, was foreign to them, or required more capital than was available.


  • 1. Though this is the first definite account of Romano-British Oxfordshire to be published, the research work, much of it unpublished, already carried out by others, has made the present undertaking not only much easier but also more complete. The authors would particularly like to acknowledge the very complete details compiled by the late Mr. Percy Manning (Manning MSS.), a précis of which by Mr. E. T. Leeds was published in Archaeologia, lxxi, 227 ff., though some notes were also published by the author himself in B.B.O.J., vol. iv; the numerous references and notes (Haverfield MSS.) collected by the late Professor Haverfield for this and other V.C.H. articles and now in the Ashmolean Museum; the collection of MS. material, including notes by Alfred Beesley, relating to the Banbury area, put at our disposal by Mr. William Potts (Potts MSS.); and finally Major G. W. G. Allen's numerous air-photographs which have added materially to our knowledge.
  • 2. See above, p. 261.
  • 3. See below, p. 294 f.
  • 4. See below, pp. 303 ff.
  • 5. V.C.H. Oxford, ii, 279.
  • 6. See p. 288.
  • 7. For evidence see pp. 271 and 274.
  • 8. For a recent discovery of a Roman temple and pre-Roman cult-site at Frilford, Berks., 8 miles south of Oxford, see Oxoniensia, iv.
  • 9. See below, pp. 350, 352.