A Look at Roman Chester

Plan of fort and location of ampitheatre

Last June we had a few days in Chester, mostly to visit my aunt and uncle in North Wales but also to visit some of the castles along the North Wales coast. We managed to do all that, and I posted three ‘castle posts’ once we got home, as well as one about Bodnant Gardens. We were staying at a hotel in Chester, so we also spent one of our days in the city – but I never did get around to posting about it. So today I’ve duly written it up.

Chester is located in the county of Cheshire in the north-west of England, south of the River Mersey and the much larger city of Liverpool. The River Dee flows through it in its way to the Irish Sea:

Map of Cheshire showing location of Chester. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, Creative Commons
Map of Cheshire showing location of Chester. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, Creative Commons

Chester’s a lovely old city, with evidence of settlement throughout various periods since Roman times. The town centre is known for its many ‘black and white’ buildings and galleried shops, or the ‘Chester Rows’.

Bridge Street, Chester (2)
Bridge Street, Chester.  Author: Crashlanded. Creative Commons

There is a lot about this city I could talk about – including the Anglo-Saxon period and the medieval castle and city walls . . .

Chester's City Walls -Bridgegate to Eastgate (2)
Chester’s City Walls – Bridgegate to Eastgate, Source: geog.org.uk. Author: John S. Turner. Creative Commons

In the ‘Dewa’ Roman museum, there are cellar remains showing settlement at various levels/strata – through Roman, Saxon and later medieval periods. Buildings around the city also provide evidence for these periods, as well as later times.

Cellar remains showing levels of settlement at Dewa Museum
Cellar remains showing levels of settlement at Dewa Museum

But today I want to focus on the Roman settlement at Chester (Deva or Dewa).

Dewa/Deva stood on a ridge of red sandstone in a loop of the River Dee. This photo shows a ‘cut’ through the ridge for the Chester – or Shropshire Union – Canal:

Triassic Sandstone along canal

The settlement began life as a mostly wooden fortress built by the Second Legion, Adiutrix, in AD 70, and was named after the local name for the goddess of the river, Dewa. The site was perfect for several reasons. It controlled the newly occupied and hostile areas of the Welsh as well as those of Northern Britain, and the River Dee was navigable up to the sandstone ridge, providing good harbour facilities and good protection on the southern and westerly sides. It is also possible that the fortress was intended as a supply base and embarkation point for the intended conquest of Ireland.

At the end of the 80s, the 2nd Legion was sent to Germany and the Twentieth Legion, Valeria Victrix, moved into the fortress:

Moulded antefix roof tile showing badge and standard of the Lefion XX - from Holt, Clwed, Wales. Author: AgTigress. Creative Commons
Moulded antefix roof tile showing badge and standard of the Legion XX – from Holt, Clwyd, Wales. Author: AgTigress. Creative Commons

The Twentieth replaced the wooden buildings with stone and stayed in the fortress until the 5th century.

Remains of a wooden jetty have also been found. Exports would have included tin, silver, hides, oysters, wooden products, basketry, slaves and hunting dogs. Despite Britain’s mineral wealth, Rome gained little from the country and needed to import far more goods in order to meet the demands of the Roman soldiers stationed here. According to the Roman writer, Strabo, imports included ivory, amber, gems, glass vessels, wine, olives and olive oil, figs, pottery, papyrus and spices.

Here are some photos of some of the artefacts, plus a few replicas, of Roman items we saw on display at the Dewa Roman Museum:

Deva had the typical ‘playing card’ design of all Roman forts. The outer edge was a tall, thick stone wall, five courses high, and with four gatehouses to enter:

Plan of fort and location of ampitheatre

Outside the fortress wall, as well as the civilian settlement (canabae/vicus) were a bath house and an amphitheatre. Evidence of the amphitheatre was first discovered in 1929 but it wasn’t until 1993 that excavation work started on it. To date only half of it has been excavated. It is thought to have been the biggest amphitheatre in Britain and seated 7,000 spectators. There were four entrances, the main one being on the northern side.

Model of ampitheatre

A small room at the east entrance may have held the beasts – which would most likely have included stags, bulls and bears, not the lions and elephants etc seen in Rome.

The entrance to the passageway shown is thought to have led to area where the beasts were held
The entrance to the passageway shown is thought to have led to the area where the beasts were held

A shrine to the goddess, Nemesis, was discovered beside the north entrance and an altar dedicated to the centurion, Sextius Marciano. The walls of the arena were painted a reddish brown to give a marbled effect and the arena floor was covered in yellow sand to stop combatants from slipping. It could also be easily cleaned.

Gladiator fights were popular and aroused great passions. Gladiators were often prisoners of war or condemned slaves reprieved from execution and specially trained. Combat gave them a chance to win a ‘new life’ by showing skill and courage. The killing of beasts would have reinforced the belief in man’s dominion over nature – important in a world in which wild animals still posed a real threat.

Gladiator info.

Gladiator fights

All in all, Chester is well worth a visit. Many tourists also come to see Chester Cathedral, too, which belongs to the later medieval period. Built of the local red Triassic sandstone it was opened in 1541.

Here are some photos of the cathedral to finish with:

Classic Córdoba

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Córdoba is a beautiful city, marked by different cultures over the years and situated on the River Guadalquivir at a point where it is no longer navigable. It has the reputation for having the highest summer temperatures in Spain and is famous for its great monuments lincluding the Mesquita/Mosque, and a lovely old Jewish centre. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city began as a small village in the Copper Age (3500-2300 BC). In 161 BC the Romans established a permanent camp on the banks of the river and two centuries later it competed in magnificence and importance with Rome itself. There was a large Forum, the usual walls and gateways, and a bridge, the Puente Romano across the river. It was during this time that the famous Córdoba Treasure was buried, and is now housed in the British Museum.

The following two pictures are from the wall in a Visitor Centre on the far side of the river. The first is a plan of the Roman town, the second shows the Forum.

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Cordoba had at least 5 squares. The oldest, the Forum, existed around the mid 2nd century.
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The Forum was the centre of administrative and civic activity.

The present main gateway – an 18th century replacement. Alongside it are remnants of the original, Roman wall:

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Here are a couple of photos of the bridge and river today:

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After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Moors arrived in Spain in 711 and Córdoba became their headquarters. By the 10th century it had become the richest and most sumptuous city in the known world, with many libraries, medical schools and universities.

The previous picture also shows the islands downstream of the Roman Bridge. Today these are inhabited only by birds, but the remnants of flour mills can be seen on some of them. One larger mill, still with its wheel, is located close the the bank and is known as the Albolafia Water Wheel.

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Built by Abd al-Rahman II ( (731–788) to pump water up to the Emir’s Alcazar/Palace, it lasted until the 15th century when it was dismantled on the orders of Queen Isabella (Isabel La Católica, wife of King Ferdinand). She claimed she didn’t like the sound of the noisy chains so close to the Palace.

One of the main, Moorish attractions in the town is the great Mezquita-Cathedral, or simply La Mesquita. This is a view of it taken from the Roman bridge.

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The site on which the Mezquita stands has long been a sacred place. First a Roman temple then a Visigoth Christian church occupied the site, and after the Moorish occupation, the building was initially used by both Muslims and Christians. This arrangement stopped when Caliph Abd al-Rahman I purchased the Christian half. He had the entire building demolished in order to build the Great Mosque. Its construction lasted for over two centuries.

These photos inside the Mezquita show the wonderful Moorish design. The first two show the hypostyle hall (hypostyle meaning filled with columns).

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022It was difficult to get close enough for a good photo at the next site, but besides the sparkling gold work are dark blues, reddish browns and yellows:

The Mihrab, the famous horseshoe-arched prayer niche. Mihrabs are used in a mosque to denote the wall that faces Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The Mihrab, the famous horseshoe-arched prayer niche. Mihrabs are used in a mosque to denote the wall that faces Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In 1236, Cordoba was taken by the Christians and, for a while, the building again served both Christains and Muslims. In the 16th century it officially became the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption. It is right in the centre of the mosque, and it seem odd going through one to the other. However, it’s undoubtedly a magnificent and ornate affair.

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Today, Córdoba is a thriving modern city, the seat of one of the most powerful universities in Andalucía and the centre of communication between the higher and lower parts of the region. Unfortunately, this was not even an overnight stop for us, and we had only four hours here to see as much as possible and grab some lunch. We spent a while wandering around the tiny, narrow streets in the Jewish quarter, where most of the ‘eateries’ are but didn’t have time to visit the Alcazar (palace). I suppose there’s always a next time…

Malta: A Slice Through History

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The Maltese Falcon set against the Maltese Cross

The Maltese archipelago – a group of several islands, the largest of which are Malta, Gozo and Comino – lies in the Mediterranean Sea, as far south as to be on the same latitudes as Tunisia in North Africa.  It enjoys an enviable climate of hot, dry summers and mild, wetter winters. To anyone from more northerly latitudes, like my fellow Brits, the French and the Germans, the island has a magnetic attraction, summer and winter alike. It also attracts visitors from across the globe, many of whom come to visit the wonderful historic sites.

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The three main islands of the Maltese archipelago

The history of Malta dates back to the very dawn of civilisation, covering some 7000 years and so many different cultural periods – from the earliest appearance of Neolithic man, through the Bronze Age and the Phoenician and the Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman periods. All made their mark on Malta.

From the Roman occupation to the present time, the island underwent such changes as nation after nation fought for supremacy of its soils. As the very earliest settlers and invaders, these newer peoples came from the sea. The strategic position of the Maltese islands – at the crossroads of shipping routes across the Mediterranean Sea – made the islands highly desirable to warmongering nations wanting control of the seas.

The earliest known inhabitants on Malta (Neolithic times) arrived around 5,200 BC, likely after a perilous journey from Sicily on their primitive sea craft. They were a farming community, who brought bags of seed and flint and their tools with them.

Ruins and relics of the Temple Period on Malta, give insight into the associated rites and rituals (animal, but not human sacrifice), skills and crafts of the stoneworkers and so on of the culture. Those at Tarxien and Hagar Qim, date from 4,100-3000 are particularly well known. Here are some of the incredible designs on display at the Tarxien Temples site and the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The spiral patterns are a particular feature of all the temples, as are the female figurines.

In  AD 60, St. Paul the apostle was shipwrecked on the north-east coast of the island (in a bay now aptly called St. Paul’s Bay, where Bugibba stands on the map above). Here there are catacombs to visit, in which the early Christians held their services. Paul’s time on the island had long-lasting effects on the religion of the Maltese people, and there is much to be learned about his stay around Malta.

The Roman occupation of the island is interesting, although the museums tend to dwell a lot on their extreme cruelty to the native people.

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Torture and pain administered by the Romans consisted mostly of flogging, hanging, beheading or crucifying. St, Agatha, who is reputed to have lived in the catacombs, was punished by having her breasts cut off.

Unfortunately, on Malta there is little left to show of Roman times, other than at one particular site and museum in Rabat. Again, here are a few photos we took of the remains of a villa and ruins of smaller dwellings and other buildings around it.

There is much in evidence of the Middle Ages on Malta in the architecture (although a great deal of all periods was destroyed in World War 11, and what we see is rebuilt / repaired structures). The Medieval Times museum in Mdina givess us with an excellent glimpse at the period.

Perhaps the best known period on Malta is that of the Knights of St. John. In both Valletta, Malta’s  capital city, and in Mdina, the older capital set inland, there are museums devoted to this vivid Maltese period. Here are a few photos of Mdina:

The coming of the Knights of St. John to Malta after they had been driven out of Sicily by Suleiman is ingrained into the Maltese culture. The name of Valletta itself is derived from the name of the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Valette. The fortress grew up on the rock of the Mount Sceberras peninsula, which rises steeply from between two deep harbours.

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Statue of Jean Parisot de la Valette in Valletta

Some of the presentations of events at this period are extremely impressive, with moving seats, water sprays and so on. The Great Siege of 1565 by the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent really comes alive in these presentations and displays. One of the best collections of artefacts can be seen in the former Palace of the Grand Masters in Valletta. Here are a few of the exhibits:

St. John’s Co.Cathedral, also in Valletta, another place full of information about the Grand Masters. It is a particularly beautiful, awe-inspiring building. Here are just two of the many photos we took at these two sites:

The walls and ceilings of the cathedral are covered in paintings by two particularly well-known artists. One is  Mattia Preti, who spent much of his adult like devoted to ornamenting the cathedral. Preti began his career as an apprentice under Michelangelo Mensi da la Caravaggio, whose most admired work in the cathedral is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. See here for a link the painting. Caravaggio  led a tumultuous life and is known widely for his brawling, and the killing of a young man in 1606, sudden death at the age of 35.

 In 1798 the island was seized from the rule of the Knights of St. John by the Napoleon,  who was ousted by the British in 1800. British rule continued until Maltese independence on September 21 1964.

The people of Malta’s heroic efforts during World War 11 earned them the George Cross in 1942 – the greatest award for gallantry that can be awarded to civilians. Today a monument stands in Valletta to commemorate this:

Who  can fail to admire the Maltese spirit and enterprise? There is still much building work going on everywhere as the people strive to make their island an even more desirable place to live – and to visit. Their long and colourful history is amazing.

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Old bus in Sliema showing the old name of Malta from Roman times
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Me – enjoying the gardens in the Maltese sunshine

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