Sunday, 2 April 2017

Roman Towns in Britain

Many will know how place names ending in -cester or -chester show they were former Roman towns. Until comparatively recently this was attributed to the Romans themselves, where the Latin castra or 'fort' had produced the name. Yet records show these settlements were not known as -cesters or -chesters until after the Romans had left. Further proof of a different origin comes in the form of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where caester meant very specifically 'a former Roman stronghold'. Thus could not have been named until after the Romans departure because of (a) the specific meaning and (b) the language was not known in Britain until after the Romans had left.

The following list of Roman towns give the modern name and that used by the Romans, along with a definition wherever possible.

Bath is an Old English name, this clearly referring to 'the Roman baths'. The Romans referred to the place as Aquae Sulis, this 'the waters of Sulis'. The place was already a shrine to the Celtic goddess Sulis, the Romans seeing similarities with their goddess Minerva and always keen to adopt as many gods as possible (one can never have too many gods), a goddess perceived as the life-giving mother goddess. Further information on Bath and nearby place names can be found in my Somerset Place Names.

Canterbury speaks of itself as 'the stronghold of the people of Kent'. To the Romans it was Durovernum Cantiacorum, here the Romans referred to the former British tribe, the Cantiaci, residing at Durou ernon or 'stronghold by the alder grove'. All this is covered in my book East Kent Place Names.

Carlisle is a an old British name meaning 'the (place) of a man called Luguvalos'. The Celtic term cair added to the personal name, much as the Romans did when they called this place Luguvallum. Further information in my Cumbria Place Names.

Chelmsford comes from 'the ford of a man called Ceolmaer', while the Romans knew this as Caesaromagus or 'the market place of Caesar'. See my Essex Place Names.

for further information. Chester simply uses the basic Old English caester or 'former Roman stronghold' with no additions. For the Romans this was Deva Victrix, the Latin referring to the goddess who also gave a name to the River Dee, with Viictrix simply meaning 'victorious' and all seen in Cheshire Place Names.

Cirencester tells us it was 'the former Roman stronghold known as Corinion, the origin of which is uncertain but may share an origin with the River Churn in ultimately referring to a tribe known as the Cornovii. It is known several tribes throughout the land were known as such, the meaning is unclear but could mean 'the people of the horn' and refer to the shape of the land they occupied. These and more in Gloucestershire Place Names by, of course, me!

Colchester is 'the former Roman stronghold on the Colne', Camulodunum to the Romans who knew this as 'the stronghold of the Camulos' a Celtic deity seen as the equivalent of the Roman Mars with more information in my Essex Place Names.

Doncaster is 'the former Roman stronghold on the River Don', a British river name meaning simply 'water'. To the Romans this was Danum for the same reason, with information on the place in my South Yorkshire Place Names and on the river name in English River Names by the same author.

Dover, or Dubris to the Romans, is found in my East Kent Place Names where you will discover both originate in the British name for the River Dour, where dubras simply meant 'water'.

Exeter also owes its present name to the river on which it stands, the present name speaking of 'the former Roman stronghold on the Exe' with the river name again meaning simply 'water', while the Roman name of Isca Dumnoniorum describes the river as 'full of fish' being where the people known as the Dumnonians or 'people of the vales'. You can find more information on this and neighbouring place names in my South Devon Place Names.

Gloucester, which is the county town found in Gloucestershire Place Names, has the modern name referring to 'the former Roman stronghold called Glevum, which is exactly what the Roman name was for the Celtic settlement named as the 'bright place'.

Lancaster and the Roman name of Lunecastrum share an origin in the river on which the fortification stands - Oold English caester and Latin castrum both refer to the Roman fortification, albeit the former in the past tense. The river name, as discussed in my English River Names, comes from a British term meaning 'healthy, pure', while the Lancashire town can be found in Lancashire Place Names.

Leicester speaks of itself as 'the former Roman stronghold of the Ligore, a tribal name of unknown origins. The Romans knew the place as Ratae Coritanorum, the first element meaning 'ramparts' and the latter the tribal name of Corieltauvians, again of unknown origins as is discussed in my Leicestershire Place Names.

Lincoln, as found in my Lincolnshire Place Names, was known to the Romans as Lindum Colonia was known as the linduo colonia or 'the pool of the Roman colony (for retired legionaries)'.

London is often said to be 'the place of a man called Londinos', but just who that person was is unknown, as was it to the Romans whose form of Londinium shares an origin but was equally uncertain. A deeper look into the alternative meanings of the name is found in my Middlesex Place Names.

Manchester is traditionally a city of Lancashire, and is therefore covered by my Lancashire Place Names where we see 'the former Roman stronghold near the mamm or breast-shaped hill' was known as Mancunium by the Romans, a name of identical meaning.

Newcastle speaks for itself, although note this castle is 'new' which tells us it replaced an earlier feature. To the Romans this was Pons Aelius, this meaning 'the bridge of Aelius', this the clan or family name of the Emperor Hadrian. More information can be found in my Northumberland Place Names.

Pevensey is an Old English name meaning 'the river of a man called Pefen'. To the Romans this was Anderitum which, as discussed in my East Sussex Place Names, simply means 'the great ford'.

Rochester, found in my West Kent Place Names, is 'the former Roman stronghold called Hrofi'. This is not a personal name but badly corrupted form of the earlier name of Durobrivis, the Roman version Durobrivae, both meaning 'the walled town with bridges'.

St Albans, as found in my Hertfordshire Place Names, is named as 'the holy place of St Alban', this the saint martyred here in AD 209. Earlier this had been Verulamium, this possibly referring to 'the tribe of the broad hand'..

Salisbury refers to itself as 'the stronghold at Sorvio', hence for the Romans this was Sorviodunum. As discussed in my Wiltshire Place Names, the etymological trail ends here.

Winchester refers to itself as 'the former Roman stronghold called Venta' and known as Venta Belgarum to the Romans. Here the venta or 'town' was associatd with the tribe known as the Belgae, who not only gave their name to modern Belgium but also gave us a series of Brythonic and Gaulish derived words fundamentally telling us they had a reputaion for being angry. Find out more in Hampshire Place Names.

Worcester or 'the former Roman stronghold of the Weogora is found in my Worcestershire Place Names.Here the name of the tribe is shown to come from 'the people of the winding river', while the Roman name of Wigornia has identical origins.

Wroxeter, found in my Shropshire Place Names, speaks of 'the Roman stronghold of the Uriconio. Known to the Romans as Virconium, both these early names have given us the modern name of Wrekin and derived from a personal name with a root meaning 'man wolf'..

Yarmouth, as discussed in my Isle of Wight Place Names, stands at the 'gravelly or muddy estuary'. To the Romans this was Magna Gernemutha, the same meaning but with the addition of magna or 'great'.

York, famously known to the Romans as Eboracum, will be covered in my forthcoming North Yorkshire Place Names, where the ancient Celtic name of Eborus is shown to refer to 'the place of the yew trees'.

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