Calleva Atrebatum

Calleva Atrebatum ("Calleva of the Atrebates") was originally an Iron Age settlement, capital of the Atrebates tribe, and subsequently a town in the Roman province of Britannia.[1] Its ruins lie to the west of, and partly beneath, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Silchester, in the county of Hampshire. The church occupies a site just within the ancient walls of Calleva, although the village of Silchester itself now lies about a mile (1.6 km) to the west.

Calleva Atrebatum
Site plan of Calleva Atrebatum
Shown within Hampshire
Alternative nameSilchester Roman Town
LocationSilchester, Hampshire, England
Coordinates51°21′26″N 1°4′57″W
AreaApproximately 40 ha (99 acres)
BuilderAtrebates tribe
FoundedLate 1st century BC
Abandoned5th to 7th century AD
PeriodsIron Age to Roman Empire
Site notes
ManagementEnglish Heritage
WebsiteSilchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre
OS grid reference: SU639624


Unusually for a tribal capital in Britain, the Iron Age town was situated on the same site as the later Roman town, although the layout was revised.

Iron Age

The Late Iron Age settlement at Silchester has been revealed by archaeology and coins of the British Q series to link Silchester with the seat of power of the Atrebates. Coins found stamped with "COMMIOS" show that Commius, king of the Atrebates, established his territory and mint here after moving from Gaul.[2][3] The oppidum was situated on the edge of a gravel plateau, underlying the subsequent Roman town. The Inner Earthwork, constructed c. 1 AD, enclosed an area of 32 hectares, and a more extensive series of defensive earthworks was built in the wider area.

Small areas of Late Iron Age occupation have been uncovered on the south side of the Inner Earthwork [4] and around the South Gate.[5] More detailed evidence for Late Iron Age occupation was excavated below the Forum-Basilica. Several roundhouses, wells and pits occupy a north-east - south-west alignment, dated to c. 25 BC - 15 BC. Subsequent occupation, dated to c. 15 BC - AD 40/50, consisted of metalled streets, rubbish pits and palisaded enclosures. Imported Gallo-Belgic finewares, amphorae and iron and copper-alloy brooches show that the settlement was "high status". Also distinctive evidence for food was identified, including oyster shell, a large briquetage assemblage and sherds from amphorae which would have contained olive oil, fish sauce and wine.[6]

Further areas of Late Iron Age occupation have been uncovered by the Insula IX 'Town Life' Project which has revealed a substantial boundary ditch c. 40 - 20 BC, a large rectangular hall c. 25 BC - AD 10 and the laying out of lanes and new property divisions c. AD 10 - 40/50.[7] Archaeobotanical studies have demonstrated the import and consumption of celery, coriander and olive in Insula IX prior to the Claudian Conquest.[8]


After the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD the settlement developed into the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum.

It was slightly larger, covering about 40 hectares (99 acres), and was laid out along a distinctive street grid pattern. The town contained a number of public buildings and flourished until the early Anglo-Saxon period.

A large mansio was situated in Insula VIII, near the South Gate, consisting of three wings arranged around a courtyard.[9] A possible nymphaeum was located near to the amphitheatre to the north of the walled city.[10]

Calleva was a major crossroads. The Devil's Highway connected it with the provincial capital Londinium (London). From Calleva, this road divided into routes to various other points west, including the road to Aquae Sulis (Bath); Ermin Way to Glevum (Gloucester); and the Port Way to Sorviodunum (Old Sarum near modern Salisbury).

The earthworks and, for much of the circumference, the ruined walls are still visible. The remains of the amphitheatre, added about AD 70-80 and situated outside the city walls, can also be clearly seen. The area inside the walls is now largely farmland with no visible distinguishing features, other than the enclosing earthworks and walls, with a tiny mediaeval church in one corner.[11][12]

In the southeast of the city were the "thermal baths". They belong to the earliest stone buildings of the city, which were perhaps built around 50 AD. The thermal baths are not aligned with the later city grid and the entrance area was rebuilt at a certain time to fit into the new road network. Several construction phases could be distinguished. At first they consisted of a portico, a palaestra and the bath rooms behind. The portico was later removed and the bathrooms divided in half, presumably so that men and women could bathe separately.

There is a spring that emanates from inside the walls, in the vicinity of the original baths, and which flows south-eastwards where it joins Silchester Brook. The Roman Calleva flourished (to nearly 10,000 inhabitants in the third/fourth century) around these springs that served the Roman baths recently excavated in summer 2019.[13]

Sub-roman & Medieval

Silchester was finally abandoned in the 7th century, [14] which is unusually late compared to other deserted Roman settlements.[15] The historian David Nash Ford identifies the site with the Cair Celemion of Nennius's list of the 28 cities of Sub-Roman Britain.[16]

Most Roman towns in Britain continued to exist after the end of the Roman era, and consequently their remains underlay their more recent successors, which are often still major population centres. But Calleva is one of the six that did not survive the sub-roman era, and disappeared in the Middle Ages.

Indeed Calleva was hit by the Plague of Justinian, that killed as many as 100 million people across the world. As a result, Europe's population fell by around 50% between 540 and 640 AD and that entered the Mediterranean world in the 6th century and first arrived in the British Isles in 544 or 545 AD (just before the Battle of Dyrham in 577 AD, that was the beginning of the final conquest of Sub-Roman Britannia by the Anglosaxons: the important Romano-britons city of Calleva was started to be abandoned in those years, hard hit by this terrible plague). Indeed scholars (like Lester K. Little et al, in their "Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750"), as evidence that the plague damage done on the Sub-Roman Britons was greater than the one suffered by the Anglo-Saxons, believe that the sudden disappearance - around 550 AD - of the important Roman town of Calleva was probably due to the Plague of Justinian, which later created a kind of curse on the city "damned" by the Anglo–Saxons.

Furthermore, there is a suggestion[17] that the Saxons deliberately avoided Calleva after it was abandoned, preferring to maintain their existing centres at Winchester and Dorchester. There was a gap of perhaps a century before the twin Saxon towns of Basing and Reading were founded on rivers either side of Calleva. As a consequence, Calleva has been subject to relatively benign neglect for most of the last two millennia.[18]


Calleva Atrebatum was first excavated by the Rev. James Joyce who, in 1866, discovered the bronze eagle known as 'The Silchester Eagle' now in the Museum of Reading. It may originally have formed part of a Jupiter statue in the forum.

Calleva was partially excavated by the Society of Antiquaries of London between 1890 and 1909, and this excavation provided valuable information about civic life and daily life in the first centuries AD, as well as a map of the town. Whilst the excavation techniques of the time could deal with buildings with stone foundations, they were not capable of recovering timber construction that predominated in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and which may have been destroyed.[19] The excavations included pioneering studies of plant remains including imported plant foods[20] and insects.[21]

Molly Cotton carried out excavations on the defences from 1938-39.[22] Since the 1970s Michael Fulford and the University of Reading have undertaken several excavations on the town walls (1974–80),[23] amphitheatre (1979–85) [24] and the forum basilica (1977, 1980–86),[25] which has revealed remarkably good preservation of items from both the Iron Age and early Roman occupations.

From 1997 to 2014 [26][27] Reading University has made sustained and concentrated excavations in Insula IX. Results of the Late Roman [28] and Mid Roman phases have been published.[29] In 2013, excavations began in Insula III, investigating a structure identified by the Victorian excavations as a bathhouse.[30] From 2018, the University of Reading has re-explored the previously excavated ruins of the public bathhouse looking at what earlier excavators may have missed [31].

Silchester Amphitheatre Panorama 360 degrees.


Now primarily owned by Hampshire County Council and managed by English Heritage, the site of Calleva is open to the public during daylight hours, seven days a week and without charge.[32] The full circumference of the walls is accessible, as is the amphitheatre. The interior is farmed and, with the exception of the church and a single track that bisects the interior, inaccessible.[33]

The Museum of Reading in Reading Town Hall has a gallery devoted to Calleva, displaying many archaeological finds from the various excavations.[34]


  1. Silchester:
  2. G, Boon (1957). Roman Silchester. London: Max Parrish and Co.
  3. Creighton, John (2006). Britannia: the Creation of a Roman Province. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 21–22.
  4. Boon, G. 1969. Belgic and Roman Silchester: excavations of 1954-8 with an excursus on the early history of Calleva. Archaeologia 102: 1-81.
  5. Fulford, M. 1984. Silchester: Excavations on the Defences 1974-80. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 5
  6. Fulford, M. and Timby, J. 2000. Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: Excavations on the Site of the Forum Basilica, 1977, 1980-86. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia monograph Series No. 15
  7. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Pankhurst, N; Lucas, S (2013). Silchester Insula IX: the 'Town Life' Project 2012. Reading: Department of Archaeology, University of Reading.
  8. Lodwick, Lisa (1 September 2014). "Condiments before Claudius: new plant foods at the Late Iron Age oppidum at Silchester, UK". Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 23 (5): 543–549. doi:10.1007/s00334-013-0407-1. ISSN 0939-6314.
  9. Boon, George (1957). Roman Silchester: The Archaeology of a Romano-British Town. London: Max Parrish.
  10. Fulford, Michael (June 2018). "The Silchester 'Nymphaeum'". Britannia. 49: 7–11. doi:10.1017/S0068113X18000235. ISSN 0068-113X.
  11. "Calleva Atrebatum - Roman Silchester". Discover Hampshire. Hampshire County Council. 3 April 2006. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2009.
  12. "Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 22 September 2005.
  13. Calleva-Silchester bathouse
  14. Roman colonies in Subroman Britain
  15. "History and Research: Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  16. Ford, David Nash. "[ The 28 Cities of Britain]" at Britannia. 2000.
  17. Kennedy, Maev (9 April 1999). "Burials 'show Roman city was cursed'". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 December 2008.
  18. "A Guide to Silchester". Silchester Insula IX. University of Reading. June 2009. Retrieved 22 September 2005.
  19. "History of the Excavations". Silchester Roman Town - A Guide to Silchester. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 22 September 2005.
  20. Lodwick, Lisa A. (7 January 2016). "'The debatable territory where geology and archaeology meet': reassessing the early archaeobotanical work of Clement Reid and Arthur Lyell at Roman Silchester" (PDF). Environmental Archaeology. 22 (1): 56–78. doi:10.1080/14614103.2015.1116218. ISSN 1461-4103.
  21. Amsden, A.F.; Boon, George C. (1975). "C. O. Waterhouse's list of insects from Silchester". Journal of Archaeological Science. 2 (2): 129–136. doi:10.1016/0305-4403(75)90031-x. ISSN 0305-4403.
  22. Cotton, M. A. 1947. Excavations at Silchester 1938-9. Archaeologia 92: 121-167.
  23. Fulford, M (1984). Silchester: Excavations on the Defences 1974-80. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 5.
  24. Fulford, M (1989). The Silchester Amphitheatre: Excavations of 1979-85. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
  25. Fulford, M; Timby, J (2000). Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: Excavations on the Site of the Forum Basilica, 1977, 1980-86. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia monograph Series No. 15.
  26. "The Insula IX Excavation". Silchester Roman Town - The 'Town Life' Project 1997-2002. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 7 December 2008.
  27. Fulford, Michael (27 March 2015). "Silchester: The Town Life Project 1997–2014: Reflections on a Long Term Research Excavation". Brindle, T., Allen, M., Durham, E., and Smith, A. (eds) 2015. TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Reading 2014. Oxford: Oxbow Books (2014): 114–121. doi:10.16995/trac2014_114_121. ISSN 2515-2289.
  28. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Eckardt, H (2006). Life and Labour in Late Roman Silchester: Excavations in Insula IX since 1997. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia Monograph Series No. 22.
  29. Fulford, M; Clarke, A (2011). Silchester: City in Transition: the Mid-Roman Occupation of Insula IX c. A.D. 125-250/300: a Report on Excavations Undertaken Since 1997. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia Monograph Series no. 25.
  30. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Pankhurst, N; Lambert-Gates, S (2015). Silchester: The 'Town' Life Project 2014 (PDF). Reading: Department of Archaeology, University of Reading.
  33. "Calleva Atrebatum - Roman Silchester". Discover Hampshire. Hampshire County Council. 3 April 2006. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2009.
  34. "Silchester Gallery". Reading Museum. 3 April 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2018.

Further reading

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