York is a city famous for its rich history. However, York’s Roman past can be hard to find on your first trip to the city, as most of the historic buildings are younger. Here is a list of five places where you can see some real Roman remains in York (three of them are free) and a little bit of York’s Roman history!
The Roman city of York was founded in 71AD as an outpost fort and later a city called Eboracum. The Roman Empire was quite late to Britain. Rome had colonised Spain in 206BC, the Greeks in 146BC and France in the 1st century BC, yet they didn’t manage to take Britain until 43AD. Only Germany was conquered later- a defeat that ultimately led to the downfall of the Roman Empire, but that’s a topic for another time.
The Romans extensively colonised the south of England, but their presence in the north was less established, because of the perpetual threat from the Picts in what is now Scotland. Additionally, the cost of over-extending the Roman Republic was starting to take its toll on Rome’s ability to defend itself in every direction, due both to money and manpower.
When the Roman Empire went into decline and withdrew between 405 and 420AD, York remained populated, and ultimately grew into the city you see today.
It is estimated that only two per-cent of ancient Eboracum has been excavated. This is because the city expanded enormously during the medieval period and a lot of this was built over the remains of the older, Roman city.
I love discovering aspects of a city’s past, especially somewhere like York where there’s so much of it. Here are five places with Roman remains that you can find yourself (three are free) on your York adventure, plus a sixth bonus statue that isn’t Roman, but it’s of a Roman Emperor.
The Roman baths are, funnily enough, situated beneath the floor of the pub Roman Bath. What you will see here are the excavated remains (you can’t take a bath here). You will spot them immediately on entering the pub.
If you’re wondering, the type of bath here was most likely a balneae, a small public or private bath, not a grand Imperial thermae. This bath was used by the Roman army which occupied York, and was probably built by them. The remains of other Roman baths have been found around the city, but the ones at Roman Bath pub are the only ones that you can go and see. If you visit, remember this is a pub and a business. You don’t need to pay entry, but you can support the bath by buying a drink.
An 8m tall column sits outside the Minster. It was one of many which supported the Basilica–a huge Roman building. The Roman Column was discovered in 1969, during excavations around York Minster. It was raised and left on display near where it was found. It was donated to the city by the Dean and Chapter. Unfortunately, the builders made a terrible mistake and it is, in fact, upside-down.
To find it, head to the main entrance of York minster. From the entrance, locate the black metal gates that can be used to close the road. The column is on the right of the railings, near the school. Free access 24/7.
More of the Basilica can be seen in the Undercroft of York Minster, where the foundations have been excavated. The Basilica was built in 100AD, only 29 years after Eboracum was founded. It was a huge civic building intended for use as a courthouse and other public functions. Usually, basilicas were sited next to a forum, but none has been discovered in York, yet (also missing: York’s Colosseum).
You can visit the Undercroft by going inside the Minster and buying a ticket. There are three different areas of the Minster with separate tickets; be sure to get a ticket specifically for the Undercroft to see the Roman remains of York’s basilica.
The Roman wall
The Romans built walls around many of their settlements. Most archaeologists will tell you walls are there to keep invaders out, but Bar-Yosef put forward an alternative idea in 1986 which deserves more attention; walls can be used as a flood defence and to prevent mud flows damaging the city. Walls also keep people in. It is much easier to control a population when they can’t simply get up and leave, and it’s also easier to find criminals and to accurately collect taxes inside a walled city.
Most of the Roman wall actually lies beneath the Medieval wall you can walk on. The Roman remains are tucked within the embankment that holds up the Medieval walls. But in a little green area, beside a car park on Museum Street, there’s an exposed area of the original Roman walls. From the art gallery, walk to the gate of King’s Manor and don’t go inside. Instead, go left along the pavement toward the theatre (don’t cross the road).
The Roman wall is immediately on your right.
The Yorkshire Museum
Of course, you’re going to find a lot more of York’s Roman artefacts if you visit a museum. The Yorkshire Museum holds quite a collection of small finds, including the reconstructed Coppergate helmet (which the reconstructors got wrong, I believe the museum now goes into detail on this). There are also Roman sarcophagi and other large items like a mosaic floor and a wall fresco. I think a better way to present the past is to do what they do in Athens and leave it in-situ but put protective glass over it, so the past becomes part of today’s buildings, retaining the context of where they were found. However, this is why I don’t work in a museum.
So there you have it. Five places you can see York’s Roman past.
And the sixth (not quite Roman)…
As a bonus, check out the statue of Constantine outside the Minster. This isn’t a Roman find, but was created later to memorialise the Emperor due to his ties with the city. His father Emperor Constantius is one of two Roman emperors who died in the City of York (the other is the African-Roman who became Emperor of Rome, Septimus Severus). Constantine the Great (pictured below) was the first Christian Emperor of Rome, legitimising the religion in 312AD and paving the way for its widespread acceptance in Europe.