Bath – Aquae Sulis – was one of the jewels of Romano-British civilisation. What happened to it when the Romans left? Roman specialist James Gerrard has been studying the tantalising evidence for the end of Roman Bath.
The remains of the temple and baths dedicated to Sulis Minerva at Bath are some of the most evocative Roman ruins in the country. On a chill winter’s morning, with steam rising from the Great Bath, it does not take much to understand why this place was special in Roman Britain and famed across the empire.
Most research at Bath has gone into understanding how and why temple and baths were built. My interest, in contrast, has always lain at the other end of the Roman period. I want to know what happened when the Romans left. Did this oasis of Classicism in Britain come to a rapid end in the 5th century? Did it perish before the fire and sword of Anglo-Saxon invaders? Or did life continue, dominated by the monumental structures of the Roman city?
Excavations at Roman Bath stretch back over 200 years to the efforts of 18th century antiquarians. It is, however, the excavations of 1978-1983, directed by Peter Davenport and Barry Cunliffe, that have given us the most detailed account of the site. The inner precinct was one of the targets of those excavations, and the result was a sequence of activity from construction through to ruin and the subsequent development of the medieval town.
Between the well-paved surface of the inner precinct and the massive scree of collapsed masonry marking the collapse or demolition of the Roman temple, the excavation team hit archaeological pay-dirt. Dismissed by earlier excavators as ‘mud and rubble’, a series of layers of sediment interleaved with paved and rubble surfaces was found which contained the evidence for the Temple of Sulis Minerva’s final years.
The layers of mud and rough paving sandwiched between the inner precinct’s paved surface and the massive layer of demolition rubble above clearly contains the evidence for the demise of the temple. For some, everything up to the demolition of the temple can be contained within the 4th century, while for others, the sequence runs on into the 5th and even 6th century. This debate has, if not raged, then certainly bubbled away in the background for the best part of two decades.
Only absolute dating techniques can truly determine whether the temple was demolished early (at the end of the 4th century) or late (in the 6th or 7th century). Calibration of the radiocarbon dates gives a series of calendar dates at 95.4% probability – meaning that there is a 95% chance that the date falls between the earliest and latest dates given. All the dates are early, none extending beyond the early 5th century except for Sample 4, which returned a determination of AD 130-540; even in this last case, there is an 82% chance that the date falls between AD 320 and AD 470, with only a 6% chance that it falls between AD 480 and 540.
The implication is that layers of paving and sediment were laid over the Period 4 (see table) surface in a fairly swift succession. The subsequent re-pavings were all of rubble and dumped tile. There were also traces of small structures being built against the north wall of the spring reservoir. It seems that what had been built as a great architectural monument in the 2nd or 3rd century was being remodelled much more simply from whatever materials were to hand in the late 4th.
Also significant is that by Period 5b (see table) architectural fragments were incorporated into the rough paving, showing that the temple complex was falling into a state of disrepair, and that the great altar, the ritual focus of the whole complex, had been demolished. That the altar was not rebuilt is surely significant. Either it could not be reconstructed, or by the late 4th century it held no significance for people visiting the temple and spring.
The excavators argued that the temple structures had been deliberately demolished, perhaps to salvage the iron clamps and lead sealings that held the masonry blocks in place. To demolish a structure as big as the Temple of Sulis Minerva to extract small quantities of reusable metals, when it existed in such large quantities, seems hard to believe.
What, then, was the motive? How the West Country was ruled in the 5th and 6th centuries is beyond historical reconstruction. The British monk Gildas tells us that there were political units ruled by kings and tyrants, but the organisation of those kingdoms remains obscure. What is clear is that by the late 5th century there were individuals and communities in the South West capable of commanding and controlling resources on a large scale.
The demolition of the temple and baths should be seen in the same light as the construction of refortified hillforts: a community mobilised the resources and labour necessary to remove a major set of structures from the ancient Roman townscape, just as they did to create new high-order settlements in the surrounding countryside. Gildas hints at why they might have done this. Writing in the early 6th century, he rages against British kings for their sins: they were murderers and usurpers. But not once does he call them ‘pagans’.
The end of Roman Bath may be the story of a cult centre that had been supported by the Roman state, that staggered on for a few decades after the collapse of Roman power, but then succumbed in the late 5th century to the attacks of a post-Roman Christian community engaged in an ultimately successful struggle for political, economic and religious supremacy.
When the Frankish nun Bertana founded what was to become Bath Abbey in the late 7th century, all that was left of the Temple of Sulis Minerva were a few ruins and wall stubs sticking up through the mire, and some vague memories of a great Classical religious sanctuary.
This is a cut and condensed version of the article, to read more see issue 217
A fuller version of the evidence and arguments presented here can be found in The Antiquaries Journal 87 (2007). The Roman Baths are open every day of the year except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. For opening hours at different times of year, check the website (www.romanbaths.co.uk) or phone 01225 477785.