A Brief History of Roman Colchester

Camulodunum - The 'Fortress of the War God Camulos' - was the capital of Roman Britain and Britain's First City.

Fast forward to the present day and although the name has now changed to Colchester it remains one of the finest locations for exploring Roman Britain in the country and is a fantastic city for history lovers to explore on a day trip or short break.

As well as the surviving ruins, which have stood for thousands of years, Roman Colchester is also celebrated in more modern ways, from a cutting-edge exhibitions at the Castle Museum to the informative Roman Circus Visitor Centre, or brand new walking trails for adults and children alike.

The Roman city was extremely important in Roman Britain and many of its attributes have survived to the present day. Roman Colchester was home to 3 theatres- more than any other in Britain, and hosted the only Roman chariot-racing Circus on the island. Large town houses have been uncovered with under floor heating and fine decorated mosaic floors. The defensive wall circling the city remains two thirds intact and 'walking the walls' is a popular activity with tourists and locals alike.

Much of ancient Camulodonum can be discovered simply by walking the streets of Colchester. You will find a selection of maps and guides to download below, or stop by the Visitor Information Centre for physical copies and expert advice. 

Colchester's dramatic story from it's rise to the capital of Britain to it's destruction at the hands of Boudicca, Queen of the Celts, is woven into the fabric of the city. To get the full story, visit the Colchester Castle Museum, built on the historic site where the Temple of Claudius was burnt to the ground and today home of numerous Roman artefacts among its myriad treasures.


The Roman Invasion


The Emperor Claudius spent just sixteen days in Britain, long enough to lead his troops into Camulodunum and receive the submission of several British kings. The Roman army then built a legionary fortress on the highest ground inside Camulodunum, the site of the present city centre.

By AD49 the fortress at Camulodunum had been turned into a civilian settlement named Colonia Claudia after the Emperor, and this became the first capital of the new Roman province of Britannia.

The Colonia was populated mainly by retired soldiers, whose role was to spread Roman civilisation and keep an eye on the natives. Many of the military buildings were retained and converted, but the legionary defences were dismantled, leaving the city fatally unprotected. Large public buildings were constructed, including a theatre and a senate house. The grandest building of all was the Temple of Claudius, built to worship the Emperor after his death in AD54, when he was made a God.

The Boudican Revolt


Colchester Castle stands on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius, and these can still be seen by taking a trip to the Castle vaults, accessible via guided tours which take place daily in the Castle.

Roman Colchester was virtually destroyed a few years after it was founded. In AD60 Queen Boudica of the Iceni, led a major rebellion against the Roman rulers who submitted to Claudius in AD43. After his death the Romans assaulted his widow Boudica and her daughters, refusing to accept the women as the king's heirs.

A revolt erupted and Boudica led her followers against Camulodunum, the Roman capital. Here the Iceni joined forces with the Trinovantes to attack and burn the undefended city. Those who survived retreated to the city's largest building. The Temple of Claudius, but they could only hold out for a couple of days. The Temple, which had been paid for through local taxes and built with slave labour of the Britons, was a focus of hatred. It was burnt and all the defenders slaughtered.


Colchester rebuilt


Colchester was quickly rebuilt but this time the city was enclosed by a substantial defensive wall. Some two thirds of the wall still stand today and is the oldest city wall in Britain. A particular section of interest is Balkerne Gate, the original main entrance to the city.

In South-West Colchester you can discover Gosbecks Archaeological Park, formerly Cunobelin's (King of the Britons) royal seat at Camulodunum. After the Roman invasion, Gosbecks was allowed to continue as a flourishing native centre, watched over by a Roman fort which could house 500 soldiers. Nearby the largest of the five known Roman theatres in Britain was built, with seating up to 5000 people. There was also an impressive Romano-Celtic temple complex.

The discovery of the finest bronze figure from Roman Britain, known as the Colchester Mercury, shows that even native religion was becoming Romanised. The Gosbecks site can be visited, preserved as an Archaeological Park, and its various historic features are explained via interpretation panels at the site.

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