It is very difficult to represent pre-Roman Colchester, because the site was so nebulous. The best physical indications of it are the Gosbecks dykes, of which the most impressive is Grym's Dyke; but even these just look like big, overgrown ditches. There are some nice burial goods from the Lexden Tumulus (itself less than impressive), and it is possible to see the outline of Cunobelin's farmstead in crop marks.
Colchester was called Camulodunum, which is a Romanisation of its Iron-Age name: the Fortress (-dunum) of Camulos, God of War. The original site of the Iron-Age settlement was some 3 miles south-west of the current city at Gosbecks. There, a sprawling Iron-Age farmstead was established, covering a roughly triangular area of approximately 10 miles which was surrounded by rivers on two sides and a complicated system of dykes on its open western end. It is these dykes which are the only real vestiges of the settlement today, forming great,sunken lanes in the flat Essex countryside.
The Trinovantes and Catuvellauni
Camulodunum was a hugely important site in pre-Roman times. It was most likely the royal stronghold of the Trinovantes, on whose behalf Julius Caesar invaded in 55 and 54 BC. At this time, the Catuvellauni under their king Cassivellaunus were spreading their authority as southern Britain's largest tribe across the south-eastern counties. It seems that Cassivellaunus invaded Trinovantian territory and murdered its king, whose son, Mandubracius, fled to Caesar for help.
This gave Caesar the excuse he was looking for to invade, and after a botched attempt in 55 (which even his own propaganda cannot quite disguise), Caesar returned to finish the job in 54 BC. He chased Cassivellaunus back to his stronghold, which he stormed from two sides, forcing Cassivellaunus to flee and come to terms.
A modern day Celtic couple
It is a moot point where this encampment was. Our best guess is Wheathamstead, Herts, but it is possible (though I do not think probable) that Cassivellaunus had transferred his capital to Camulodunum. Part of the problem is one of dating, since we do not know when Camulodunum came into Catuvellaunian hands. Our best dating criteria are by coins, but the earliest coins in the area are for the Catuvellaunian king, Tasciovanus, who ruled c.25-15 BC. By c.AD 10, Cunobelin the nephew of Cassivellaunus, had taken over the area and his coinage reflects this.
The last Trinovantian king was called Addedomaros. It is possible that his remains are buried in the Lexden Tumulus, close to Gosbecks. The king who was buried here had been ritually burned along with his goods, which were a mixture of Celtic and Roman ornaments. Among them were the fragments of a small casket, within which was a medallion bearing the head of the Emperor Augustus.
Britain's first city
Gladiators on a vase from Colchester. The gladiator holding up his finger is asking for mercy.
Even before it was complete, the function of the fortress had been changed. The conquest of Britain had moved on and instead of a military base, what Rome needed now was a colony. The Roman word colonia was a specific term for a planned town inhabited by military veterans. They would be allocated plots of land within the bounds of the settlement in order to establish a Roman presence within the conquered area.
This is what the Roman fortress of Camulodunum was turned into. It became Britain's first-ever city. Doing this, the Romans quite literally brought civilisation to Britain, as the word derives from the Roman word civitas, meaning 'city'. The city of Colonia Victricensis (The City of Victory) was deliberately placed within the bounds of the Roman fortress, using its street plan and converting the barrack blocks into houses.
In place of the military gate at the western entrance to the fort, a monumental arch was built, commemorating the Claudian conquest of Britain. Later, when the city acquired walls, this was incorporated into the western gate of the city and though nothing of the actual arch now remains, what is left of the gate and its walls still stand at the Balkerne Gate.
Similar monuments were erected in Rome, Gaul and at Aphrodisias in Turkey. Some fragments of these survive and because the Romans used the same formula for their monuments all over the empire, it is possible to use these to reconstruct pretty accurately what this arch and gate would have looked like. The inscription will have read:
A copy of the head of Claudius
The annexe of the old fortress was converted into the precinct for a monumental Temple to the imperial cult. Today the site is occupied by a Norman castle, built directly onto the foundations of the old temple out of re-used Roman stone. However, it is possible to see what the original temple precinct must have looked like by going to Nimes, where the Maison Carée still stands, surrounded by colonnades. Once again, nothing like it had ever been seen in Britain before. Within the temple stood a life-size bronze statue of the Emperor Claudius, of which the head still survives.
The local tribal magnates were recruited into the temple cult, but the financial burden of running the temple and the arrogant maltreatment of the locals by the colonists was to cause resentment which boiled into the Boudiccan revolt.
At the time of the revolt, the Romans were so sure of their hold on East Anglia that the only troops in the area were 200 members of the procurator's guard. Even joined by the veteran colonists, these were woefully inadequate to stop the tribal tide that descended upon an undefended Colchester. Tacitus says that: 'It seemed easy to destroy the settlement; for it had no walls. That was a matter which Roman commanders, thinking of amenities rather than needs, had neglected.' (Annals xiv.30), and the archaeological record confirms that the walls of the legionary fortress had been filled in to make way for the temple precinct and other amenities.
Terror in the temple
It was to this precinct that the survivors of the attack retreated, barricading themselves into the inner sanctuary of the temple, which was burned to the ground with them in it. It is possible today to huddle inside the foundations of that temple and envisage those last hours: men, women and children crammed within a dark space like this, waiting in terror for relief that never came, as they listened to thousands of bloodthirsty Britons destroying their town outside.
Eventually they could smell the choking smoke and feel the crackling flames that spelled the end. The temple was burned to the ground. Only the foundations survive. The cult statue of Claudius that stood within it was smashed to pieces, and its head was discovered a few years ago in the River Alde a few miles from the town.
There is evidence of this destruction throughout the town, though it can only be accessed through rostrum pics from the archaeological excavations and a few remains. The entire town was burned to the ground, leaving a black destruction layer and rubble in the soil. In some places, like Lion Walk, more tangible evidence of this destruction has survived. From a house in this site, the burned remains of a couch was recovered, its carbonised upholstery still intact. In the same house, a bowl of carbonised dates (and one plum) were also recovered. Each of these is a remarkable preservation of organic materials which do not usually survive.
Interestingly, with the single exception of a charred skeleton from North Hill, no human remains unequivocally linked to the Boudiccan Revolt have been recovered. This may be because the townsfolk fled or were taken elsewhere to be massacred (Dio paints a chilling picture of mass sacrifices in sacred groves: Dio LXXII), though in my opinion nobody ever takes into account the clean-up operation that must have occurred afterwards.
On a more speculative note, the skulls and incomplete remains of six men were found in the legionary ditch at the Balkerne gate. Two of the skulls show evidence of wounds inflicted to the back of the head, one of which was hit a couple of times by poorly-aimed blows intended to sever the neck. These are invariably interpreted as executions, and I would not argue with that. However, since other evidence shows an arm chopped off above the elbow, I wonder whether these might be remains from the revolt, rather than the judicial executions they are usually thought to be?
After the Romans
Both the sub-Roman Britons and the invading Anglo-Saxons were desperate to maintain some semblance of Roman civilisation - after all, this is precisely what made the empire so attractive to the barbarians - but the former no longer had the power and the latter did not have the experience to make it work. If Gildas is to be believed, the sub-Roman aristocracy refused to co-operate with the barbarian invaders and withdrew into Wales, whilst the Anglo-Saxons occupied the old Roman sites. Without the infrastructure of the Roman imperial machine in place to run the show, Roman civilisation could not be maintained, and the safest place to be was behind the walls of re-used hill forts and the abandoned towns.
This is what happened to Colchester. Anglo-Saxon settlers moved in and established grubenhauser style huts on the remnants of the Roman city almost immediately. At Lion Walk, a fifth-century hut like those found at West Stow in Suffolk was built directly on top of an abandoned Romano-British house soon after its abandonment. We can imagine the old sub-Roman population gradually moving out as it became impossible to maintain any semblance of civil life; the uncared for buildings eroding and the new settlers moving within the protection of the city walls to set up house on top of the rubble - all within a generation.
They even used the same street plan, so that the High Street of modern Colchester still runs along the route of the Via Praetoria of the old Roman fort, with Head Street and North Hill forming a T-junction at one end along the line of the Via Principalis.
Yet just because civil life had to be abandoned, it does not mean that everyone moved out of the cities completely. There is not enough evidence to say anything much about Colchester but in Wroxeter, there is good evidence that the bath-house was still being used as a public space throughout the fifth century. Though it had ceased in its original function, its ceiling was deliberately dismantled and used to create a tiled square some time between 490 and 550. After that, a Roman-style winged building was erected inside the shell and remained in use for at least 75 years. This means that people were living a recognisably Roman style of life in Wroxeter well into the seventh century.
As the new settlers became more sophisticated in their building techniques, they began to erect public buildings out of the rubble that was lying all around them. Colchester has several outstanding examples of this practice, the most significant of which is Holy Trinity Church. Built fairly late, during the eleventh century, it is made entirely out of re-used Roman stone: the perfect example of an Anglicised Roman institution (the Church) built out of the rubble of Roman Britain.
Finally, Colchester Castle, founded by William the Conqueror himself, was built once again out of re-used Roman stone, and was deliberately placed around the base of the old Roman temple to give its foundations strength. This great monument to the last of Britain's conquerors was therefore placed directly on the spot where the first great monument to the conquest of Britain had been erected over 1,000 years before.