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Gelligaer Fort excavation (early 20th century)

The Coming of Rome

In A.D. 43, the Roman Imperial Army swept into 'Britannia'. Four years later it had conquered all of the land east of the River Severn. There it stopped and formed its western frontier. From across the Severn, the Silures launched regular raids against this new Roman Province. Incensed by this the Roman Army advanced into Silurian territory only to suffer several humiliating defeats. The Silures soon gained the reputation of being Rome's most formidable opponents in 'Britannia'.

In A.D. 57 Roman policy appears to have changed. Rome was no longer content with holding only lowland Britain and so its army marched into Wales. It now intended to conquer this land and made good progress until its attention was diverted by Boudicca's revolt and the unrest in Rome. It was not until A.D.70, that it again focused on Wales. This time the conquest was absolute.

To consolidate their rule, the Romans built a network of forts and roads across Wales. In Caerphilly county borough, auxiliary forts were built at Caerphilly and Gelligaer in around A.D. 75. These forts would have been constructed of earth and timber. At Gelligaer, the fort may have garrisoned up to one thousand auxiliary infantry. These 'auxilia' built practice works on Gelligaer Common. Traces of all these earthworks can still be seen today. The forts at Caerphilly and Gelligaer lay on the road from Cardiff to Y Gaer near Brecon, this was just one of several Roman roads in the county borough. Traces of its earthworks are still clearly visible across Cefn Gelligaer. Another small fort possibly existed at Pontllanfraith, although little is known about its history. Was this built during early incursions into Silurian territory or was it another practice works? The whole of the county borough probably fell under the command of legio II Augusta. This Legion was garrisoned at the Legionary 'Fortress of Isca' at Caerleon, five miles to the east of the county borough. At Risca, a massive Roman water 'catchment tank' was discovered in the nineteenth century. This may well have supplied piped water to the fort at Isca.

With the Romans now in control, the process of 'Romanising' the Silures began. Local people were actively encouraged to participate in the Roman way of life. By the end of the first century 'Venta Silurum' was well established at Caerwent, eleven miles east of the county borough. This was a new Roman town, built to Roman design, but primarily occupied and governed by the Silures under the watchful eye of the Romans. Further settlements grew up around the various forts, where their inhabitants served the many needs of the garrison. No evidence of any settlement has been discovered around the forts at Caerphilly or Gelligaer; however, it is quite possible that one existed. Beyond the towns the Romans established industrial sites and farms. At Draethen the Romans mined lead and this was worked at neighbouring Lower Machen.

As the Silures became more integrated into the Roman way of life, the need for the auxiliary forts probably declined. Caerphilly was abandoned in around A.D.150. At Gelligaer, the garrison was reduced when a new smaller stone fort was built sometime between A.D. 103 and A.D.111. It is not clear when this was abandoned, but it still appears to have been in use up until at least the late second century.

In the mid-fourth century the Roman world became increasing turbulent. Internal power struggles weakened the Empire at a time of increasing 'Barbarian' attacks. In Britannia, coastal defences were strengthened to resist these attacks. The Empire was now on the downward spiral to collapse. By the end of the fourth century, Rome's hold over Wales was slipping. Continuing unrest across the Empire had resulted in the gradual withdrawal of troops from Britannia and its neglect. By the early fifth century, Roman rule in Wales had all but petered out. The speed with which the Roman way of life collapsed is unclear. However, with the Empire now gone forever a new era had begun.

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