Ratae is the Brythonic word for 'ramparts' (see Irish Rath), suggesting the site was a defended Iron Age oppidum. Round houses from this era have been excavated in the city. The suffix, Corieltauvorum, refers to the Corieltauvi, the Celtic tribe who had their civitas capital there. Until 1983, the name of the town was thought to have been Ratae Coritanorum. However, newly discovered evidence in the form of an inscription shows the recorded forms as corrupt and the name of the tribe has since been revised.
Iron Age settlement
The origins of the Roman city lay in a settlement that developed on the east bank of the River Soar, a tributary of the River Trent, in the late Iron Age (i.e. 2nd or 1st centuries BC). Little is known about either this settlement or the character of the Soar at this time. What evidence there is indicates the Soar in this vicinity split into two channels: a main stream running to the east and a narrower channel to the west. Between the two channels there was probably a marshy island. It seems that both the streams could be forded. The settlement appears to have consisted of a cluster of native round houses located close to the ford across the main channel, which probably extended over roughly 8ha. on the bank of the main stream.
After the Romans invaded Britain in the 1st century AD they quickly established control over the southeast corner of the island, but for at least a couple of decades they did not advance north and west in an attempt to subdue the rest of the island. Two legionary fortresses were established; one in Exeter in the southwest corner of the territory, one at Lincoln in the northeast, and a road, now known as the Fosse Way, established between the two to help control the border. The Fosse Way crossed the Soar close to the site of the Iron Age settlement.
Possible Roman fort
One of the enigmas of Ratae's early development was whether or not there was ever a garrison stationed in the vicinity of the river. The location on a river crossing on a strategic road and near a settlement, would have been an ideal place for a fort. As yet, however, the evidence for the presence of a fort is unclear. The only evidence we have is based on the discovery of a single 'V-shaped' ditch, with a drainage slot at the bottom, which was found on the island between the two river channels. This ditch is similar in form to a type of military ditch known as a punic ditch, with one side steeper than the other and a drainage slot at the bottom, but to date there is no evidence that this supposed 'fort' ever had an interior.
Although the suggestion, made by Wacher amongst others, that a Roman fort was established between two arms of the Soar around AD 50 cannot be ruled out., the identification of the ditch with a fort has never been substantiated. If there ever was a Roman military establishment at Leicester in the First century AD it may perhaps have been located elsewhere, maybe on the Eastern bank of the Soar where the Roman city later developed.
Ratae seems to have remained a rather poor settlement at first. Although there was a rapid rebuilding programme to develop larger shops and houses, there were few amenities and none of the usual public buildings. Instead of a forum, there was a simple open market place at the centre. However, in the early 2nd century better quality spacious stone houses were erected with central courtyards. A particularly fine excavated example had tesselated and mosaic floors, decorative plaster walls and, around its courtyard, an elaborate frieze of architectural features, theatrical masks, doves, pheasants, cupids and flowers. It was not occupied for long, however, and part of it became a factory for the manufacture of horn objects. Other industries in the town included pottery production and metal and glass working.
Eventually, the forum and basilica was built, though it did not fill the previous market place. The public baths soon followed, just to the west, around AD 145. Fed by an aqueduct, they are of an unusual plan and had a large exercise room alongside. A second market place was laid out in the early 3rd century and a basilican market hall erected. Its offices had decoratively painted plaster ceilings. A stone defensive circuit surrounded Ratae by the end of the 3rd century. There were four gateways with cemeteries outside each and a suburb to the north. Only two suggested temples have been discovered in the town, one a possible mithraeum.
In the late 4th century, Ratae was occupied by a detachment of the Roman army and towers may have been added to the town walls. However, a serious fire spread through the town centre and the forum, basilica and market hall were never rebuilt. Early Saxon burials in the cemeteries suggest these people took control of the town soon after their arrival.
- The Jewry Wall, a large wall believed to have formed part of the public baths complex
- Raw Dykes, an earthwork thought to be the remains of an aqueduct
- St Nicholas' Church incorporates substantial re-used Roman building materials
- A large collection of artefacts from Ratae are on display in the Jewry Wall Museum
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- Tomlin, R S O (1983). "Roman Leicester, a Corrigendum: For Coritani should we read Corieltauvi?". Transactions of the Leicester Archaeological and Historical Society 48.
- Tomlin, R S O (1983). "Non Coritani sed Corieltauvi". The Antiquaries Journal 63.
- Clay, P. & Pollard, R. "Iron Age and Roman Occupation in the West Bridge Area, Leicester: Excavations 1962-1971." (1994), Leicester.
- Wacher, John (1995). The Towns of Roman Britain. London: B T Batsford.