In the second century BC, in a Britain still filled with wild boar, beaver, lynx, bears and wolves, a group of people settled near to the River Soar. The descendants of Bronze Age peoples and Neolithic farmers, they built a series of huts on the east bank of the river, their settlement extending across some twenty acres. They called themselves the Corieltauvi; the closest translation of their name would be the ‘army of the land of many rivers.’ The exact name of their settlement is unknown but it contains a Celtic root word similar to ‘rath’, meaning (approximately) ‘ramparts’, which can be found in many Irish place names today. This humble Iron Age settlement is the origin of modern day Leicester.
Roman interest in this area of Britain began when they realised it was a place of strategic value; and so it became an intersection of the Fosse Way and Gartree Street. There might have been some opposition from the local Corieltauvi, but the tribesmen proved no match for the might of Rome; a fort or base was soon established on the banks of the Soar for the Legion XIV. Quite simple in plan and housing approx 500 men, the fort was surrounded by a ditch and rampart; it retained the name of the ancient British settlement but in a new, Larinised form–Ratae.
The new fort brought much trade to the area and a small civilian settlement quickly sprang up. A few years later a second fort was constructed nearby—it is thought this defensive structure may have been built in response to Boudicca’s revolt. However, the brave British Queen’s chariots never rolled up to Ratae’s earthen ramparts.
About 30 years later, most of the Legions were recalled from Britain and the forts on the Soar handed over to civilians, although they were remained part of the Roman Empire. Ratae became an important tribal administrative capital.
Emperor Hadrian’s visit to the town in 122 AD seems to have sparked a new rebuilding phase. Outmoded wooden structures were dismantled and local granite and millstone grit from Derbyshire brought to build a forum, basilica and colonnades. A few decades later, a public bath house was constructed—today its remains are known as the Jewry Wall, Britain’s largest free-standing piece of Roman architecture. Water for the baths came to the site from Knighton Brook via an aqueduct. Some of the earthworks surrounding the water channel still survive and are known as Raw Dykes (the word ‘Raw’ has the same origin as Rath/Ratae.)
At this time in Ratae’s history, the local population grew quite wealthy. Townhouses appeared with opulent mosaics, painted walls, heating and bathing facilities. A stone wall was built around the perimeter of the settlement, for added security for the residents of the town.
Temples to the varying gods were built too, one being found near St Nicholas’ Church, which today retains much brickwork pilfered from the ancient Roman building. This temple was dedicated to Mithras, the bull-slaying god who was born on December 25 and whose cult was seen as a rival to Christianity. He was a Persian ‘import’ and his all-male accolytes often held their rites in a secret underground chamber known as a Mithraeum. Other evidence has been found of British bull-gods, spear carrying sons of Zeus, and sea-gods. Of great interest is the curse tablet discovered, in which a native British God, Maglus (‘Prince/princely’) is invoked for help in bringing about the destruction of a thief : “To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus …”
By the 5th century, however, Ratae was in serious decline as the legions pulled out from Britain and Angles and Saxons began to migrate from their homelands to settle in what is now England . Soon, the town was in ruins, abandoned and decaying . The famous Anglo Saxon poem THE RUIN speaks of the abandoned Roman towns: This masonry is wondrous; Fate broke it.
Courtyard pavements lie smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate is ravaged,
chipped roofs torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen…
The Roman Era of Ratae was over with Rome’s withdrawal from Brittania; the early Middle Ages had begun. After the Romans departed the native Britons called the place, in their own tongue, Caer Lerion or Caerlyr; the Saxons called it Ligora-ceastre, which by Domesday became Ledecestre, and then Leicester. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed the town’s founder was King Leir (Leir-caister), and the prefix of this name may take its origins from a Celtic water deity known as Llyr.
Today, the remains of Roman buildings and artefacts still frequently are excavated in Leicester. Some recent finds near High Cross have been of considerable importance.
The prevalence of these remains in the city is shown by the fact that when Richard III’s remains were recovered from the ruins of Greyfriars, it was initially thought he had an arrowhead embedded in his spine. As it turned out, the ‘arrowhead’ was a stray Roman nail that happened to have ended up under his body when the monks dug a hasty grave to hold him.
It is also interesting to realise that the last Plantagenet King now rests in a brick lined vault above the remains of one of Leicester’s Roman temples, its scant foundations discovered when restoration was made on St Martin’s church in the late 1800’s.