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Excavations in the 1970s and 1980s established the presence of a Roman military fortress at Exeter (constructed around AD55) almost certainly for the Second Augustan Legion. The town grew up around this fort and became prosperous, but started to decline even before the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century.
The city walls of Exeter, of which some 70% survive, still mark the perimeter of the town of Isca Dumnoniorum.
The favourable location on a dry ridge of land ending in a spur that overlooks a navigable river that was teeming with fish, and with fertile land nearby, suggests that it would have been a site that was occupied early. The discovery of coins dating from the Hellenistic period in the city indicates the existence of an Iron Age settlement that was trading with the Mediterranean region as early as 250 BC.
The Latin name for Exeter, Isca Dumnoniorum ("Water of the Dumnonii"), suggests that the city was of Celtic origin. Isca is derived from a Brythonic Celtic word for flowing water, which was given to the Exe as well as to the River Usk (Welsh: Afon Wysg) in South Wales, on which Caerleon (known to the Romans as Isca Augusta) stands.
The Romans established a 42-acre (170,000 m2) 'playing-card' shaped fort on a spur of land overlooking the banks of the River Exe around AD 55. It was the base of the 5,000 strong Legio II Augusta for the next 20 years before they moved to Isca Augusta (Caerleon). It also became home to their families as settlements are thought to have grown up outside the fortress gates, especially to the north-east.
Buildings within the fortress, such as barrack blocks, granaries and a fabrica (workshop), were timber structures, the post-trenches of which were excavated in the 1970s in advance of the Guildhall shopping centre development. The only known building in the fortress not of timber was a stone-built military bath house. The water for the bathhouse was supplied by a natural spring via an aqueduct which entered the fortress through the rear gate (porta decumana). Excavations in the 1970s revealed the hot room (caldarium) and part of the warm room (tepidarium); the bathhouse was supplied with an external exercise yard (palaestra) in one corner of which was a cockfighting pit.
The presence of Legio II Augusta at Exeter is supported by the discovery of a dolphin antefix (roof fitting) from levels within the military bathhouse dated to about AD60. The antefix appears to have been created from the same mould as an example from the legionary fortress at Caerleon - where the legion is known to have been stationed from around AD75. The Legio II Augusta was part of the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43, and future Emperor Vespasian was commander at the time. Vespasian led campaigns against both the Durotriges and Dumnonii. The Legio II Augusta was recorded as having suffered defeat by the Silures in 52. After Suetonius Paulinus's victory crushing the Boudiccan rebellion, the legion moved around military sites in Britannia.
In 2010 part of a Roman military works depot and supply base was excavated at the St Loyes site on Topsham Road; it lay on the line of the Roman road between the fortress at Exeter and a small fort at Topsham. Initial dating suggests that it was occupied at the same time as the Exeter fortress (c. AD55-75).
Isca Dumnoniorum originated with the settlement (a canabae) that developed around the Roman fortress. It is one of the four poleis (cities) attributed to the Dumnonii by Ptolemy in his Geography of the 2nd century, and is also named in the late-second century Antonine Itinerary where it appears as the southern terminus of Iter XV, on the Fosse Way. It also appears in the Ravenna Cosmography of the 7th century as the confused scribal entry of Scadu Namorum.
The fortress was given up around AD 75 and shortly afterwards work started to convert it to the civilian settlement which became the civitas capital of the Dumnonii tribe, known to the British as Caer Uisc. The military baths were too large for the local population and were largely demolished, though partially incorporated into, the administrative forum and basilica built on the site. New town baths were built to the south-east.
In the late 2nd century, the ditch and rampart defences around the fortress were replaced by a bank and wall enclosing a much larger area, some 92 acres (37 ha). There was much domestic occupation within the walls, but there is also evidence of copper and bronze working. A possible stock-yard has also been identified and Isca was clearly a key market centre for livestock and agricultural produce, as well as pottery, produced in the surrounding countryside.
The importance of Isca as a trading centre is demonstrated by the more than a thousand Roman coins that have been found in the city. However, the dates of these coins suggest that the city was at its most prosperous in the first half of the fourth century and virtually no coins dated after AD 380 have been found, suggesting a rapid decline.
After the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century there is very little evidence of habitation in Exeter for almost 300 years, except for the remains of a building (possibly a church) in the area of the demolished forum and a few associated graves which have been dated to the 5th to 7th centuries. After this period the historical record picks up again around 680 with a document that reports that St Boniface was educated at the Abbey in Exeter.
Much of the Roman town wall survives as the lower courses or inner core of the medieval city walls, 70% of which still exist, largely built on the orders of Alfred the Great to protect the far west of his kingdom following the Viking occupation of 876.
Finds from the Roman town, particularly the Roman Fortress Baths excavations, are displayed in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.
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- Hoskins 2004, pp.4–5
- Hoskins 2004, p.1
- Bidwell, P.T., 1979, The Legionary Bathhouse and Basilica and Forum at Exeter, pp.42-43
- Bidwell, P.T. and Boon, G.C., Britannia 7, 1976, 278-80
- "The Celtic Tribes of Britain: The Dumnonii". Roman Britain Organisation. Retrieved 2012-07-05.
- "ISCA DVMNONIORVM". Roman Britain Organisation. Retrieved 2012-07-05.
- Bidwell (1980). p. 56
- Bidwell (1980). p. 59
- Bidwell (1980). pp. 69–76, 80
- Hoskins 2004, p.14
- Harvey, Hazel (2011). The Story of Exeter. Andover: Phillimore. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-86077-678-6.
- Hoskins 2004, p.15
- "Great Sites: Exeter Roman Baths". British Archaeology magazine. June 2002. Retrieved 2008-07-12.
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- Bidwell, Paul T. (1980). Roman Exeter: Fortress and Town. Exeter City Council. ISBN 0-86114-270-5.
- Higham, Robert (2008). Making Anglo-Saxon Devon. Exeter: The Mint Press. ISBN 978-1-903356-57-9.
- Hoskins, W. G. (2004). Two Thousand Years in Exeter (Revised and updated ed.). Chichester: Phillimore. ISBN 1-86077-303-6.
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