Yes it’s true – a biblical character once decided to visit Colchester (or Camulodunum as it was then known), and he was the Roman Emperor Claudius, who in AD 43 launched a massive assault with four legions on Britain.* This, of course, is just one of our many claims to fame – I mean how many towns and cities in Britain do you know who can claim that a biblical character has actually visited their town or city? One of our other claims, of course, relates to the fact that Colchester is the ‘Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ and more latterly also dubbed ‘Britain’s First City’!
So we might ask what justification do we have in support of this claim? Well really everything hinges on one particular word, and this is ‘Recorded’ and for something to be recorded we would normally expect it to be written down somewhere. Of course, we could include words written on coins and tombstones etc., but I think it’s fair to say that most people would expect to find something written in a book or something similar. And if we were to concentrate on the ancient writings themselves, the first ever mention of a town or city in Britain was made by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (AD 77), where he clearly mentions the British town of Camulodunum (modern Colchester). So we are certainly on firm ground here and as regards the claim that we are also ‘Britain’s First City’, as described on several new road signs on the approaches to Colchester, then this is also a reasonable claim because Colchester was the first Roman city or town in Britain, although at the time it was described as a Colonia, (Colonia Claudia Victricensis – Colony of Claudius’ Victory), which meant that it was basically an extension of Rome and would have been mainly inhabited by retired veterans of the Roman army and their families.
After building the first Legionary Fortress in Britain on the site of our modern town centre in around AD 43, within just a few years the Romans had decided to convert it for civilian use (hence Colonia Claudia Victricensis), with the erection of civilian buildings including a theatre, bath house and various other amenities. Around AD 54, following the death of the Emperor Claudius, a great temple was also erected to facilitate the worship of this newly acclaimed Roman god. Amazingly, and yet another claim to fame for the town, is that the Temple of Claudius would almost certainly have been the very first large stone and mortar building ever constructed in Britain and as many will know parts of the foundations of the temple still survive beneath Colchester Castle.
However, the good times were not to last for the records reveal that only a few years after the temple was completed it was destroyed, along with the rest of the Roman town, by the marauding army of the Iceni queen Boudica. Boudica’s husband, King Prasutagus, had forged an alliance state with Rome following the invasion and had willed that in the event of his death half of his wealth and estates would go to the Emperor, while the other half would go to his two daughters. But when the king died in AD 60 the Romans reneged on these agreements and took everything for themselves. They even had his wife Boudica flogged and his two daughters were raped. This terrible act of betrayal sparked off what became known as the Boudican Revolt resulting in the total destruction of Colchester by fire, along with London and St Albans. Even today, nearly 2,000 years after the event, clear evidence of this major inferno is still clearly visible for archaeologists when excavating down to the Roman levels in the modern town. In fact, the burnt layers resulting from the devastating Boudican fire have been discovered in virtually every major excavation in the town over the last few decades, suggesting that Boudica’s rampaging army embarked upon a systematic destruction of every single building with the purpose of obliterating the Roman presence once and for all. * Claudius is mentioned twice in the Bible book of Acts in Chapter 11:28 and Chapter 18:2
If you would like to find out more about this exciting period in our town’s history, including learning about one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries from the Boudican period in recent years, why not view the free online video presentation – Colchester: the Roman Conquest & Boudica’s Revenge. This is part of a free programme of short online courses currently being offered by Adult Community Learning Essex. The courses last for up to an hour in length and cover a range of subjects to suit all tastes. Other titles include – The Secret Life of a Tree, Floristry Bunches to Bouquets and Life of Florence Nightingale – plus many more.
For more information visit https://aclessex.com/acl-shorts-free-online Images used: ,
1. Reconstruction drawing of Roman Colchester by Peter Froste. Colchester Archaeological Trust
2. The approach road to the Greenstead Roundabout on St Andrew’s Avenue showing the ‘Colchester Britain’s Oldest Recorded Town’ sign. Patrick Denney
3. Part of the Balkern Gate – the oldest surviving Roman gateway in Britain still in use.
Article by History Tutor, Patrick Denney.