Mythstories Mythstories



The Disappearing City


photo by Gordon Dickins

Viroconium

Wroxeter is the site of what used to be the fourth largest Roman town in Britain, Viroconium. The town was founded between 58AD and 75AD on the site of a legionary fortress, whose garrison eventually marched north to Chester. The town quite quickly grew into a large and bustling city.

The Old Work

The largest standing wall left remaining is called the "Old Work". The Old Work was part of a covered exercise hall for bathers. The masonry has survived centuries of weathering and medieval pillaging. At ground level the remains of most of the bath complex can still be seen nearby.

Decline and Fall

From the 2nd century AD there was a gradual decline. The main baths ceased to be used around AD300, when smaller subsidiary ones would have been used instead. Gradually the city fell apart until, around AD400, there is some evidence of rebuilding works taking place. In the 5th century AD the Roman administration withdrew from Britain. British peoples probably stayed on in the city for some time. It is not known when the city was finally deserted, there is no evidence of a fire or other disaster. Sandstone blocks from the Roman foundations have been found in the earliest parts of nearby Wroxeter, Atcham and Upton Magna churches, so around the late 9th century the city seems to be just a resource for building materials. The Old work was probably incorporated into a field barn and so survived.

What remains today is only a very small area of the city complex. In its heyday the walls enclosing the city would have been 2 miles (3.7km) long.

The Disappearing City More Sparrows

There is another story about the Sparrows at Wroxeter which is also told of other Roman cities.

Barbarians tried, unsuccessfully, to beseige the city until they had a bright idea. They set nets and caught all the local sparrows. They tied lighted spills to the poor birds' tails and set them loose. The sparrows landed on the city, setting the buildings alight. While the defenders tried to put out the fires, the invaders took the city over.

On The Tiles

The tiles the sparrows are so adeptly carrying away are based on those the Romans would have used. They are thick and made of heavy red clay, all the more miraculous that sparrows can steal them!

They Couldn't Do Without It

The Romans are famous for introducing the dormouse to Britain, which they brought over to eat. Dormice were a great delicacy. They were fattened up on grain, then killed and cooked soaked in honey.

The Romans introduced a great many other things too. There was the grape, of course. The Romans couldn't do without their wine, even though they used to import it too. Other plants they brought to supplement the meagre British diet were cherry, walnut, mulberry and medlar trees. (medlars have small crab-apple like fruits, which surprisingly cannot be eaten until they have begun to decay). Ground Elder was brought as a pot herb, but someone must have broken the pot that kept it contained! Nowadays it is the bane of many a gardener's life as it infests lawns and is very difficult to get rid of.

Vegetables that the Romans could not do without were Peas, Broad Beans, Radishes and Celery. They also introduced the Opium Poppy and Deadly Nightshade (Belladona) for medicinal uses. I wouldn't try either if I were you though, Deadly Nightshade is more likely to kill than to cure.

Other plants came with the Romans too, but not necessarily because they wanted them. The seeds might well have come on soldiers' clothing or in their packs. They could also have come as seedlings together with the plants introduced on purpose. These introductions included Great burdock, Corn Marigold, Tufted Vetch and Common mallow, all of which we take for granted as part of the British countryside.

If you were off to a foreign land, what would you like to take with you - customs officers permitting?

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