Baths, Basilicas and Temples: Civic Life in Roman Leicester

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St Nicholas's Church and the Jewry Wall.

The Roman City of Leicester offered its citizens a full range of civic facilities including a forum, shopping Centre, temples and public baths.

Roman Leicester’s civic centre was established quickly after the Roman town was built. The first buildings were constructed close to the River Soar in the south west of the town. Initial timber structures were quickly replaced in the late first/ early second century AD with large monumental buildings. Archaeologists believe that one of the first, a large rectangular structure with a hypocaust and side apse was the town’s earliest bath house.

Gradually, the centre grew. By the second century AD, Leicester was equipped with a forum, a basilica, a macullum- the Roman equivalent of a shopping centre and a public bath house. Temples were also established and it is likely that there was an amphitheater provide for the entertainment of the local garrison and population in general.

The Forum

The forum was the hub of life in any Roman town. The administrative and economic centre, it was the centre of governance and the place where business was conducted.

The original forum in Leicester was built during the reign of Hadrian between 125-130AD. It was situated at Jewry Wall, the site of the later public baths. It consisted of a large open space surrounded by colonnades and small shops or offices. On the north eastern side, under what is now St Nicholas’s Church was the town’s first basilica-the Roman equivalent of a town hall.

In the second century AD, the forum was relocated. The original site was abandoned and a whole new administrative district was constructed east of the original basilica. The new location placed the forum closer to the centre of Roman Leicester, instead of on the edge of the town near the river. The new forum was a much busier place, surrounded by temples, the homes of important individuals and shops, one of which was the macullum or market hall.

Shopping Roman Style

The macullum was the equivalent of a modern shopping mall. Although many smaller shops surrounded it, it was here that imported goods such as wine, fine pottery and glassware and possible slaves from across Britain and the rest of the empire would have been sold.

The macullum at Leicester must have been a substantial building. Situated to the west of the second century forum, one of its collapsed walls was discovered by archaeologists. The wall was at least 8 meters high and would have been of very similar construction to that of the Jewry Wall in the picture. The remains show it was constructed from granite rubble bonded by courses of tiles and may have had arched windows. The building seems to have been enlarged in the third or fourth century AD, indicating that trade remained prosperous in Leicester, despite the decline of the empire.

Temples

Temples would have undoubtedly also been part of Leicester’s civic centre. Some would have been dedicated to the major civic deities of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Others would have been dedicated to native gods and their Roman equivalents.

There are remains close to the macullum which could have belonged to an important Roman temple. Remains of Corinthian columns have been found that may have formed part of a temple portico. They have been found near an open cobbled area that was possibly part of a temple precinct. The evidence, however, is not conclusive.

Public Baths at Jewry Wall

Public baths were an important part of any roman town. They were not simply a place to clean up. They were a place for rich and poor alike, of whatever age and sex to socialize, play games, exercise or conduct business for a small nominal entrance fee.

The later baths in Leicester are the city’s most famous and visible Roman remains. They were built over the site of the initial forum in the second century AD, at what is known as the Jewry Wall site. The name ‘jewry’ has nothing to do with the romans or any Jewish community in Leicester. It is a possible corruption of jurats after the senior members of the corporation of Leicester who met in the churchyard of St Nicholas’s church between the 13th and 15th centuries.

The baths remained in use up until the end of the roman period, as repairs to the structure show. The entrance to the former basilica was never blocked up, suggesting it became part of the bath complex, possibly functioning as an exercise hall. The rest of the complex contained all the standard public bath house features: hot, cold and warm rooms with plunge baths and a hypocaust heating system.

Entertainment

No amphitheater has been found in Leicester. But tantalizing clues suggest that gladiatorial combat was held somewhere in the city. Besides a gladiator’s ceremonial helmet, a fragment of saminan pottery has been found with the words ‘Verecunda wife of a gladiator and Lucius gladiator. This suggests the presence of gladiators in Roman Leicester. It would have been surprising if such a substantial Roman town, especially one with a fort had not had somewhere for the games to take place.

Sources:

  1. Blank, E. (1970) ‘A Guide to Leicestershire Archaeology’. Leicester Museums
  2. Kenyon, K, M. (1948) ‘Excavations at the Jewry Wall site, Leicester’ Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquities of London no XV.
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