Noviomagus Reginorum: Roman Chichester

Some plaques on the ground indicating the lines of the old city walls (this was on Southgate Street, funnily enough not far from the old South Gate of the city!) Excuse the wonky angle, it was a busy thoroughfare and I had to dip and duck between pedestrians to get this shot. (Credit: Me)

Yup, I went to Chichester. Again, I cannot stress enough this is not becoming a travel blog! It’s a lovely town, a lot of nice places to visit and I went into a charity shop that had better, nicer stock than first-hand clothing and furniture shops where I’m from. It’s fucking lovely, okay.

But I wasn’t there for the second-hand shops, the beautiful independent retailers or the rather magnificently placed Premier Inn. Incidentally, though, shout-out to Premier Inn, I know they’re basically the McDonalds of hospitality but they were quick, excellent service, air-conditioned rooms, yeah we were basically on a retail estate in a layby but that just meant a considerable choice of trashy fast food to bring to the hotel room and easy transport links.

Neither was I in Chichester for its rural scene, possibly the other thing it is most famous for. Chichester was, and still is, a market town – and I mean a proper market town. Not like ‘farmers from the nearby area sell cheese at overinflated prices in gazebos’ kind of market. This is a ‘farmers come from all around bringing livestock in to sell to others to be raised, milked, fucked or eaten’ kind of market. Chichester is a proper market town, and the local museum has a wonderful exhibit all about it.

A livestock branding iron, part of the exhibit about the farming and market past of Chichester. I don’t know why but I love a good branding iron. (Credit: Me)

But that museum, and what it tells of, is also the Roman past of Chichester. It was known as Noviomagus Reginorum, although by the Antonine era, around 140 CE, they were just calling it ‘Regno’, apparently. Roughly translated it means the ‘New Field of the Regnenses’ – The Regnenses, or just Regni, being the group of people who lived there who were either a sub-group of the Atrebates tribe or were possibly given the title ‘Regni’ by the Romans. The whole thing is one of those clusterfucks of historical pedantry where people argue the whys and whats when actually, what matters is the Regni were and they lived there. Noviomagus Reginorum was the capital of the civitas Reginorum, a local client Kingdom.

Prior to the Roman’s arrival the area was settled by a tribe of people who came to be known as the Atrebates. I will warn, a lot of this history is speculative and therefore I cannot verify anything specifically as truth. The Atrebates seem to have been a Belgic tribe (from the Belgae, people from roughly the area of modern day Belgium) but what is interesting is that they don’t seem to have caused much upset for old Gaius Julius Caesar on his ‘invasion’ of 55-54 BCE and, indeed, in the Res Gestae of Augustus a British king, Tincomarus, is listed as a supplicant. Tincomarus has been shown, in archaeological record, to have been a King of the Atrebates. He was a client-King of Rome, then, basically, so likely pre-Claudian-invasion trade, contact and/or support was going on between Rome and the Atrebates.

The “those Ikea glasses and plates” of the Roman era, Samian ware. This type of glazed pottery was mass produced and exported around the empire for its functionality and fashion. Honestly, some of it is gorgeous and some of it is just red bowls. (Credit: Me)

Eventually an upstart of the neighbouring Catuvellauni tribe, Cunobelinus (or Cunobeline, or Cymbeline) and eventually his son, Caratacus, started making trouble in the neighbourhood. The Atrebate’s then King, Verica, got in one little fight and then he got scared and said “I’m going to see my Patron in Rome, over there.”

That Patron was the Emperor Claudius who, having possibly been made emperor by mistake and being delicately propped up by a military always in need of a little pillage and plunder, had his casus belli, his cause for war, and started plans for an invasion.

That’s a little slice of the history BEFORE the Claudian invasion of 43-44 CE! As you can see British life at the time was hardly a bunch of mud-hut savages having arguments with each other in gruntese. There were sophisticated cultures, grouped around tribal identities, likely involving trade and exchange of culture, people and goods.

One of the exhibits at the museum in Chichester, The Novium, was particularly interesting along these lines. It was about a body of a warrior found near Bognor Regis, a seaside town not far from Chichester, who would have been a hulk of a dude (around 6 feet tall, or 1.8m, pretty tall for the time) who was buried with his sword ceremonially bent, his spear ceremonially broken and the most remarkably decorated helmet.

The skeleton of the North Bersted Man, a warrior given what was clearly a ceremonial burial of some significance and honour. Also a big dude! (Credit: Me)

This warrior, known as the North Bersted Man, demonstrates a point I have been trying to make in my ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ series about European cultures outside of the Greco-Roman dominance. They did not leave behind complex diaries about their lives, but that does not mean their lives were not worthy of complex diaries. Greco-Romans had the art of writing, documenting, they even had ‘historians’, people who would write about the past or document the present so that it could be studied in the future. That makes them easier to study, not better, cleverer or more ‘complicated’.

A replica of the Mystery Warrior’s helmet (Top Left) along with its constituent parts the main helmet (Top Right), and the two decorative wings (Bottom Right and Bottom). The skill required to do that sort of open-work metalwork is incredible.

Pre-Roman British society may not have had complex villas but they had metallurgy skills that could make any Roman gasp in marvel. I’ve also explained in my Roman History series that the Gauls, had they politically organised into a collective, imperial, unit, likely would have dominated the continent at the time and we would be talking of Rome as little more than upstart military state with a few people of penmanship. History is not written by the victors, that’s a daft, wrong trope anyway. Where victors literally did not have writing, though, it is hard for them to write their histories.

The Romans did a lot to change Britain and the British way of life, but the notion that they came in and civilised our savage tribes is a fucking nonsense when many of those same tribes had earlier shaken hands with Caesar and formed lasting relationships with this distant power. They were clearly canny and clever enough to know how to politics!

An artist’s recreation of the North Bersted Man, this warrior about whom we know so little but have so much evidence he was clearly quite important. (Credit: Photograph by me)

Whoever this North Bersted Man, this honoured warrior, was he had wealth enough to have an artistic helmet on his head. His sword was potent enough that, rather than be passed on, inherited, or sold – as would have been common at the time – it was bent, ceremonially killing it with its owner. His spear saw much the same treatment. Whoever this man was he was no mere savage who needed to be taught how to bathe, read and write. He lived his life on his terms, presumably died on them too, and is a perfect example of the depths and complexities we tend to think don’t exist because we do not see them in writing. We admire so many of the rituals, lives and stories from other parts of the world only because someone documented them in writing.

But, let’s get back to the invasion shall we. As far as is believed the Romans would have used the port at Boulogne, or Gesoriacum as they would have called it, in Northern France not far from Calais. Again, not a travel blog but Boulogne-sur-Mer is a beautiful little town to visit if you get the chance. So many people take the ferry from Dover-Calais and don’t think of driving the forty-minutes down the gorgeous Côte d’Opale to visit this gem of a town with a rich Roman past.

One of the gates to Boulogne Old Town – Definitely worth the walk up the hill. When I was last here I ended up having to stop and wait for a wedding procession, got delayed eating moules frites and ended up having to run for the coach back. Great day (Credit: Public Domain via pxhere)

Caligula had previously sorted this site out, and ordered a lighthouse be built here, in preparation for his proposed invasion of Britain that he ended up not bothering with and allegedly took back a bunch of shells from the beach and said he fought, and beat, Neptune instead…Interesting chap.

So Claudius’ nephew Caligula had already laid the groundwork for a naval invasion and the Gesoriacum became the main port between the continent and Britannia, but the Romans needed a spot on the other side. One of the purposes of Caesar’s invasion of 55-54 BCE was to scout for places such as this. Caesar is believed to have landed somewhere around Walmer-Deal area, where there is a very natural shallow and bay. Not far North from there is Rutupiae, modern Richborough, near Sandwich. This is where it is believed Claudius’ fleet landed and established their first major base, which would later become a significant enough town that it had an amphitheatre (still visible as a recess in a nearby field).

The South Wall of Rutupiae Fort – Richborough. It was heavily fortified in the mid-late 3rd Century to help protect the coast from invasions by Saxons. At around the same time the Classis Britannica, the fleet of Britain, was also established as a naval force to protect British waters and quickly move troops around. (Credit: © Copyright Rob Farrow, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The leader of the invasion (besides the Emperor himself) was Aulus Plautius, who would become the first governor of the province of Britannia. The only Legion we know, for sure, took part was the Legio II Augusta, at the time led by one Titus Flavius Vespasianus – the future emperor Vespasian. It is also believed the IX Hispania, the XIV Gemina and the XX legions also took part but this is due to their being available to respond to the Boudican revolt – so whether they all landed in 43 CE, or whether some would have been shipped in later from Northern Gaul is unknown.

I know what you’re asking me, and it’s “The fuck this gotta do with Chichester!?”

Well, somehow or other, sometime around 43-44 CE at least the II Augusta legion ended up in Chichester. Whether or not their landing was actually there or whether the II Augusta was charged with marching West after the initial battles in the South East is, again, unknown. Similar to Rutupiae, however, Noviomagus Reginorum became the site of one of the earliest military bases of the Roman Empire in Britain.

You would think given the propensity for xenophobia and hatred of ‘foreign invasion’ in Britain you wouldn’t find the legionary flags of a foreign invading legion lining the streets but that’s exactly what they do in Chichester! I had to stop and get a snap of the standard of the Legio II Augusta flying beside the Chichester Market Cross, a striking octagonal building that, in 1746, restored a cross that had existed there since the 14th century! (Credit: Me)

Togodumnus and Caratacus, the sons of Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni, were the main opposition leaders to the Roman march, and, as we have established, their invasion of Atrebate territory was the excuse for the invasion so ‘liberating’ the former Atrebate territory would likely have been a priority.

We do know the Romans first, or also, marched straight into Catuvellauni territory, heading North from Richborough, through the land of the Cantiacii (the tribe from which Canterbury derives its name) and up into East Anglia, land of the Trinovantes (who had been, as the Atrebates, somewhat diminished by the Catuvellauni by this point) and the Catuvellauni.

Claudius came over for the final push of the battle, he allegedly brought with him not only his heavy armaments and praetorian guard but war elephants, surely enough to convince any other local leaders to shake hands with him. Togodumnus had died in the meantime, and Caratacus fled out West to maintain his resistance.

Britain, then, at least a major part of it, was now a Roman province.

A small selection of pre-invasion coins from the Kingdom of the Atrebates, from the reign of Verica. They had some very lovely pre-Roman coins on display at The Novium. (Credit: Me)

Either Verica (who would have been quite old) or his son Cogidubnus (or sometimes written Togidubnus) was installed as a Roman client King of the Atrebates and all evidence seems to indicate this part of the world, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent – the South East region, took to Romanisation quickly and without fuss. Partly this may have had something to do with the fact that these were the areas already interacting with Rome since the time of Caesar.

Sadly, because so much Roman history focuses on conflict, and so much of Roman achievement is tied up in war, the social history of these seemingly calmly Romanised areas of England is often lost. Focus is on chasing Caratacus West, suppressing the Silures tribe, the Boudican revolt of the Iceni tribe, or other conflicts like the Romans getting embroiled in the civil wars and court intrigues of the Brigantes. I have read more books on the Northern Frontier, the battles with the Picts in Scotland, than I have books on people happily living a Romanised life in the South East. I’d love to read, and know, more about every day Romanised life. I’d love little stories from Romanised towns in the South East. I’d love to know of these Romanised peoples’ loves, losses and lives.  

A beautiful amphora, centre, these vessels would have been used to store and transport liquids like wine or oil. Many examples seem to be linked to the export of Spanish olive oil around the empire but the very presence of them in and around Chichester demonstrates the trade that would have taken place with Southern England during the Roman period. By the way those bones to the left are believed to be of a dead dog. (Credit: Me)

And what a life? What a change in life? Cogidubnus is believed to have been honoured by Roman Emperors. A nearby site (which we will write about soon) the Roman Palace at Fishbourne, is believed to have been his residence and it truly is a fit-for-a-King building, the levels of technology, engineering, architecture and mosaic art would have been as if aliens landed today and built a space-building using discarded tin-cans and physics that seems like magic.

As much as I want to stress that pre-Roman Britons were not just shit-smeared, naked cavemen there absolutely would have been a seismic shift in life, quality of life and expectations from life, for many people in Romanised Britain and I do think there is so much focus on the conflicts of elsewhere that this change in living, how people took to it, how people resisted it, how they integrated it with their own lives is often, if not understudied, at least under-represented in popular media.

As a writer this is possibly one of my favourite exhibits at The Novium – a very well crafted stylus. These ‘pens’ would have been used to write on wax tablets. (Credit: Me)

Noviomagus Reginorum would have been a big, major town. So major that post-Romanisation, by the 5th century, it was fought over, and became a key city in the Kingdom of Sussex. Recent discoveries are showing the maintenance of a Romanised way of life long after the last of the legionaries had fled to deal with the troubles on the continent. Chichester was likely such a place where that life persisted.

The finds visible in The Novium all show the history of a town that has been valued for millennia. The ground floor contains the remains of a bathhouse. Not believed to have been a public bath, but rather believed to have been a bathhouse of a private residence! What wealthy people were living here!? I spoke about the Woman of Beachy Head last time out, a seemingly wealthy, healthy, sub-Saharan African Roman Briton! What was life like in this area during these times!?

A view of the pilae (the tile stacks) used in the hypocaust (the heating system) to warm the waters of the caldarium (the hot bath). Hypocausts were also used for underfloor heating as we shall see when we get to Fishbourne! (Credit: Me)

We know so very little, but what little we do know presents so many questions that this Curious Idiot™ is glad to be asking them. It’s always good when you can visit a place and you end up wanting to go back to find out more. Chichester, Noviomagus Reginorum, did just that for me.

Special thanks to Premier Inn, for being comfy, Chichester for being wonderful and of course The Novium who, despite me being there around closing time, did not hurry me or tell me to hurry the hell up so they could clock off! You are wonderful, I had a great day, vivat Noviomagus Reginorum Novium.

Want to read more about my recent travels?
Eastbourne: Victoriana and Ethnogenetic Surprises tells you about the town of Eastbourne, a little bit of history and the story of the remarkable Beachy Head Woman mentioned today.

Or visit my archives for more.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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