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York Roman Festival, photo Keith Meadley
What the Eboracum's it all about?
By Nicola Lawrence
Eboracum is the Roman name for York, but just how did we get from Eboracum to York? The answer involves boars, mistranslation and the oddities of the Nordic tongue!
There are two variations for the Roman spelling of Eboracum, the other being Eburacum. Both appear on Roman inscriptions discovered in York. For the sake of simplicity, only the Eboracum spelling is used in this article.
As you might expect for a city with such a rich Roman legacy, traces of York's Roman past are abundant. The Minster's Undercroft, the Multiangular Tower, the statue of Constantine and even the layout of several of the city's streets.
One aspect of the Roman legacy which is not as obvious is the city's name, York. Eboracum, the Roman name for York, sounds exotic and Latinised to our ears, and on initial consideration, appears to have little in common with the city's modern-day name. But in fact, the name York is a direct descendent of the name Eboracum.
In c71AD, the legendary Legio IX Hispana identified the natural advantage of the land in between the junction of the rivers Foss and Ouse. The area was selected by the invading army because of its elevated ground and the natural protection afforded by the proximity of two rivers.
Little is known of a settlement before the Legio IX Hispana settled there, although the area did have a Celtic name: Eburacon. According to Herman Ramm in his book Roman York from AD71, the native Britons' name translates as meaning 'the place where the yew trees grow' or 'the place belonging to Eburos'.
As was typical of the colonising Roman army, the existing place name was Latinised to become Eboracum. The Legio IX Hispana believed the name meant 'place of the boar'. Subsequently the boar appears on numerous inscriptions as a symbol of York.
Following the Romans' departure in c400AD, the Anglo-Saxon invaders substituted Eboracum for their own word for boar and town, Evorwic. However, the next set of invaders, the Vikings, couldn't quite get their tongue round Evorwic, so they settled for Jorvik. Pronounced 'Yorvik' the step to York is hardly surprising.
So how should York's Roman name be pronounced? There are plenty of different variations, but by general consensus amongst the archaeologists and historians is as eeborarcum.
Eboracum, Leslie P Wenham, (Guide and Company Ltd, 1984)
Roman York from AD71, Herman Ramm, (Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society, 1985)
Roman York, Patrick Ottaway, (B T Batsford, 1983)
last updated: 31/03/2008 at 14:10