SEGONTIVM

Roman Auxiliary Fort
Minor Romano-British Settlement

Caernarfon, Gwynedd

NGRef: SH485624
OSMap: LR114/115, OL17
Type: Minor Settlement, Fort.
Segontium Praetorium - click to enlarge
The Praetorium of the Segontium Fort
viewed looking due north
(picture taken May 2005)
Roads
ENE (20) to CANOVIVM (Caerhun, Gwynedd)
Possible road: S (12) to Pen Llystyn (Gwynedd)
By coracle across the Menai Strait: NW (1) to MONA INSVLA (Isle of Anglesey)

Segontium - The Place of the Segontii?

The Roman name for Caernarfon is recorded in the Antonine Itinerary of the second-century AD as Segontio, and is placed 24 Roman miles from Canovium at the starting-point of Iter XI, the route from Caernarfon to Deva (Chester, Cheshire). Not mentioned in Ptolemy's Geographia, the name appears as Seguntio in the Ravenna Cosmography, following the unknown Mediomanum entry. The accepted Roman name for Caernarfon is Segontium, which very likely means 'the place or home of the Segontii'; implying that there was a tribe of that name in the area. The modern Welsh place-name Caernarfon is readily translated as 'the fort at the river mouth'.

The Fort at Segontium

Segontium Plan
Image scanned from The Archaeology of
Roman Britain
by Collingwood (fig.6).

The first fort was established here in the autumn of AD77 by the dynamic Roman governor of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. It was originally built to command the Menai Straits and thus to enable the capture of the island of Mona (Anglesey) which it overlooked to the north-west. The site underwent a number of reconstructional phases during its lifetime and was occupied until c.AD383.

The space within the rampart available for occupation measured about 510 by 415 feet, giving an area of about 4½ acres. The fort was aligned towards the south-west, probably on the Ordovician stronghold on Dinas Dinlle at the south-western end of the Menai Strait separating Mona Insula (the Isle of Anglesey) from the coast of Wales. Defences consisted of an 18 feet wide clay rampart, a berm varying in width between 3 to 7 feet, then a double ditch system, with two identical ditches, 17 feet wide separated by a gap 15 feet wide. The four gateways and the internal buildings were originally built in timber, and were later replaced by stone.

When the principia or regimental headquarters in the centre of the camp was excavated by Mortimer Wheeler during 1921-23, he was able to distinguish four separate phases of building and alteration ranging from the early-second to the late-fourth centuries. The sunken strong-room beneath the sacellum or regimental shrine in the centre of the rear-range of the principia yielded no less than 114 coins.

Segontium Strongroom
The Strongroom in the Principia
viewed from the north-east
(picture taken May 2005)

The original Flavian timber-built fort was apparently burned in late Trajanic times, and was either abandoned or destroyed, to be replaced by a stone fort during the reign of Hadrian. Antonine samian ware and a Severan rebuilding inscription suggest continued occupation throughout these times, and repairs to the strong-room floor around AD235, along with building repairs, new road surfaces and well-clearance dated around 350-360 prove that the fort remained of key importance until at least the late-fourth century. The latest coin from the site is that of Gratian (367-383).

Segontium Bath-House - click to enlarge
The Segontium Bath-House
in the fort's south-west corner
now trashed by the local yobs
(picture taken May 2005)

During excavations over the years at Caernarfon a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of Ox, Sheep, Pig, Red Deer, Boar, Hare and Wolf; the latter animal very likely being hunted and killed for sport and as a means of pest control. (Davies)

Excavations at Segontium

SH485624 - Excavations conducted outside the north-east gateway (porta decumana) of the fort in 1971 revealed that the road issuing from this gate remained unchanged from Flavian times, when the gateway was constructed of timber, until about AD330 when the external defences were altered. The causeway to the gate was cut-through and the W-profile ditch was re-cut to a more typical V-shape. After this time, access through the gateway was achieved via a wooden bridge, evidence for which has been found.

Segontium south-west - click to enlarge
The South-Western part of the Segontium Fort
has not yet been fully excavated
(picture taken May 2005)

The Garrison Units

Based on archaeological findings in the interior of the fort it has been suggested that it was built to house a Cohors Equitata Quingenaria, a five-hundred strong mixed unit of infantry and cavalry. Other similar forts have been identified at Canovium (Caerhun), Coelbren and Castell Collen, all in Wales, which likely housed garrison units of the same type. A dedicatory inscription was later found which proved this premise (vide infra).

Cohors Primae Sunicorum - The First Cohort of Sunici

IMP CAES L SEPT SEVERVS PIVS PERTINAX ET M AVREL ANTONINVS PIVS AVG [ET P SEPT GETA NOB CAES] RIVOS AQVAEDVCTIVM VETVSTATE CONLABS COH I SVNIC RESTIT ... LEG EORVM PR PR ... NL ...
"Imperator Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Augustus [and Publius Septimius Geta, Noble Caesar].¹ the streams of the aqueduct, collapsed through old age, were restored by the First Cohort of Sunici,² [...] their pro-praetorian legate [...]³"
(RIB 430; dated: AD198-209)
  1. The emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta. The younger son's name had been erased in antiquity, following his murder by Caracalla and later condemnation by the senate, which would have placed the dedicator's career - if not, his life - in jeopardy had the inscription remained unaltered.
  2. Cohors Primae Sunicorum were recruited from among the Sunici (or Sunuci) tribe who lived on the shores of the Rhine in Germany. The tribe is mentioned by Tacitus in his Histories (IV.lxvi), and it is possible that this infantry unit had originally been formed by the rebel Roman general Julius Civilis in AD69.
  3. I cannot figure out what the last part of this inscription is trying to tell me.

Religion in Roman Caernarfon

Segontium Mithraeum

There are five known temples in Britain dedicated to the ancient Persian sun-deity Mithras; three on Hadrian's Wall each containing altars dedicated by the military, one civilian temple in London which is perhaps the most famous, and another military establishment at Caernarfon. These temples were invariably long, low buildings, with no natural light apertures apart from the entrance portal, meant to imitate the cave in which the god Mithras slayed a mythical bull.

Roman Altar-Stone from Segontium

DEAE MINERVAE AVR SABINIANVS ACT VSLM
"To the goddess Minerva,¹ Aurelius Sabinus, Actarius,² willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."
(RIB 429; altarstone)
  1. Roman goddess of wisdom, equated with the Greek Athene, a goddess favoured by scribes.
  2. A post concerned with regimental record-keeping and numbered amongst the immunes, soldiers who were excused normal duties.

This stone was found in the south-eastern part of the fort and was associated with a late (third-century?) bath-house and administration block. It has been suggested that by this time, the Segontium fort was used as the centre of administration for North-West Wales and Anglesey, encompassing the tribal territories of the Ordovices and its adherent minor tribes the Gangani and the Segontiaci, thus covering the modern counties of Gwynedd and Anglesey. It is possible that the neighbouring tribe the Deceangi of Clwyd were also administrated from here, though it is more likely that this region came under the aegis of the Legionary Fortress at Deva (Chester, Cheshire).

Hen Waliau

3rd-Century Fortlet / 4th-Century Castellum

There is a small Roman fortlet 150 yards west of Segontium at Hen Waliau (SH482624). This stone-walled enclosure possibly started in use during the third-century as a storage depot for the fort itself. Another suggestion voiced is that the Hen Waliau site was built as a means of protecting the harbour from a height, possibly as a level platform on which to place ballistae, onagri and other Roman artillery pieces. R.G. Collingwood, in his excellent work The Archaeology of Roman Britain, describes this fortification which was built close to the shoreline:

"At Carnarvon, the lower fort, 150 yards west of the earlier fort, has its east wall complete, about 230 feet long; of the north and south walls about 120 and 180 feet remain. The walls are 5½ feet thick and up to 12 feet high; bastions were once visible. There are bonding-courses of flat stones and regular rows of putlog holes. The area was something over an acre, and the fort was probably a small Saxon Shore castellum (Segontium, 95)." (Collingwood, p.54)

This later addition at Segontium was contemporary with similar fortifications at Cardiff and Holyhead, which have been dated to the Theodosian period c.AD365. It would appear that the garrison of the old fort had been reduced by secondment to less than half of its original complement, and during continued raids by the Irish into Wales - likewise by the Angles and Saxons on the south-east coast during this period - the old fort was abandoned because the reduced number of men could no longer effectively defend it.

The depletion of the Segontium garrison is seemingly evidenced by an entry in the Notitia Dignitatum, which places a palatine auxiliary unit suffixed Seguntienses in Illyricum during the late fourth-century. It would appear then, that a substantial proportion of the troops from Segontium had been removed en-masse, sometime before the end of the fourth century to be redeployed in the region of the modern Czech & Slovak Republics.

Milestones from the Caernarfon Area

Ty Coch Milestone, 7 miles North-East of Caernarfon

NVM AVGG IMP CAESAR M AVREL ANTONINVS PIVS FELIX AVG ARAB ... IX
"To the divine spirits of the emperors, [and] Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Felix Augustus Arabicus¹ [...] nine [miles to/from Canovium?].²"
(RIB 2264; milestone; dated: AD212-217)
  1. The emperor Caracalla, the elder son of Septimius Severus, who became sole emperor upon the murder of his younger brother Geta in late December AD211, and ruled until his own murder by members of his own bodyguard in April 217.
  2. The trailing text is somewhat damaged but may have contained words to this effect.

Click Here for the Llys Dinorwig/Cae Metta Milestone

Click Here for the RBO Segontiaci page

Click Here for the RBO Temples and Shrines Index

Click here for a map of Segontium from StreetMap.co.uk

See: Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, London, 1995);
Britannia iii (1972) p.299;
The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia ii (1971) pp.122-142;
The Roman Frontier in Wales by Nash-Williams (1969) pp.59-64;
Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966);
The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
The Archaeology of Roman Britain by R.G. Collingwood (Methuen, London, 1930).
All English translations, including any inherent mistakes, are my own.

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