Inside the Roman Fortress

A Roman blacksmith - Yorkshire Museum, York

71AD - 400AD

At the centre of the fortress was the principia, the headquarters where the administration of the legion and religious ceremonies took place.  A range of buildings was built on each side of a courtyard, including a great aisled hall, or basilica, which stood where the Minster is today.

This large structure would have been astonishing to the people of the area.  Nothing on anything like its scale had been seen in the north before.  The principia was a square 78m wide, while the basilica was 68m long and 32m wide and could have been 23m in height, only a little lower than the nave of York Minster today.

The commanding officer would have addressed his troops from the tribunal, or podium, at one end of the basilica.  Behind it, a row of rooms served as offices except the central one known as the aedes, the legionary shrine.  This was the spiritual heart of the fortress.

Other buildings included:
– the commanding officer’s house (praetorium), similar to a splendid town house, used for domestic and business purposes.  The south-west corner of a building uncovered under the Minster was probably part of the praetorium
–    granaries
–    workshops
–    a hospital
–    barracks
–    a bath house

York’s bath house took up the southern corner of the fortress.  Roman baths were not just for washing, but a social centre.  The Eboracum bath house occupied about 9,100 square metres and must have required a great deal of both heat and water.

The size of the operation was confirmed in 1972 by the discovery of a Roman sewer on the north side of Church Street.  Here waste water from the baths and latrines would have been washed away.  Made from large stone blocks, it ran for 44m and was tall enough to allow slaves to crawl along and clean it.

Romans would have worked up a sweat to open the skin’s pores before entering a hot room, or caldarium.  Slaves would oil the body then remove sweat and dirt with a scraper.  Under floor heating is nothing new: a hypocaust system saw hot air circulated below the floor, raised on pillars, warming up the occupants of the caldarium.  Part of it can be seen under the Roman Bath pub in St Sampson’s Square.

The locations of the other rooms in the baths are not known.  They would have included a room to provide the dry heat of a sauna and the frigidarium, where the Romans would plunge into a cold bath to close the pores.  Gambling was popular in the baths, as evidenced by the discovery of bone and pottery counters in the sewer silt.


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