CAISTER ROMAN FORT, NR30 5JP
Postcode: Norwich Road, NR30 5JP
Lat/Long: 52.649575N 1.719786E
Notes: Quite limited signage and the fort is hidden with a residential area. Using Lat/Long is recommended onto Norwich Road. A small lay-by provides sufficient parking for a few cars.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
Limited remains of a partially excavated Roman Fort. The foundations of several structures are visible but the vast bulk of the fortification is buried under modern Caister-on-Sea..
1. The Notitia Dignitatum lists nine forts under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore. Three of the forts were constructed early in the third century AD - Brancaster, Caister and Reculver - and confirmed to traditional Roman military design, i.e. based on a 'playing card' shape. The reminder were constructed in the latter part of the third century and were defined by thicker/taller walls, semi-circular bastions and irregular layouts. The forts of the latter group were: Bradwell, Burgh, Dover, Lympne, Pevensey, Portchester and Richborough.
Changing Coastlines. This map is taken from the information displayed at the fort and shows the coastline as it appeared in the third and fourth centuries with the dotted line indicating the modern coast. Great Yarmouth is built over the site of the estuary Caister protected.
Layout. Built around AD 200 Caister Roman Fort conforms to design features associated with traditional Roman Forts albeit the shape is a slightly deformed square rather than the traditional playing card. A double ditch surrounded the walls.
Guarding a key estuary that enabled access to the interior of East Anglia, Caister Roman Fort was originally sited on an island. A combined operating base for elements of the Army and British arm of the Navy, it was built around AD 200 and remained in use until the latter days of Roman Britain including possible inclusion in the Saxon Shore Command.
HISTORY OF CAISTER ROMAN FORT
Today little remains of Caister Roman Fort and even less of the great estuary it once stood guard over. The fort was built around AD 200 seemingly as a joint base for Army and Navy (Classis Britannica) units. The land it was positioned upon was in Roman times a small island that provided a sheltered estuary at the point where the Rivers Ant, Bure, Waveney and Yare converged and flowed into the sea. Together these provided access inland across East Anglia and the River Yare in particular was a vital line of communication to the key Roman Town at Caister-by-Norwich. Unlike later Roman Shore Forts, Caister was built to a traditional configuration with rounded corners and earth backed ramparts albeit the normal 'playing card' layout had been converted into a slightly off-square shape; perhaps a design forced upon the builders due to the size of fort required due to the mixed Army/Navy forces within; in total Caister encompassed an area of around 6.5 acres.
The name of the fort may have been Gariannum. Contemporary documents list this name in relation to a shore fort but it is unclear whether it applies to Caister or Burgh Roman Forts; most historians seem to prefer the latter. Furthermore the function Caister played in the Roman's British operations is unknown. Its key location - well served for both access to the open sea and into the East Anglia interior - made it ideally suited to a logistical role. Additionally, or alternatively, it may also have acted as an outpost operating against pirates and raiders. The former assessment would seem to be a sensible analysis as the fort - along with Brancaster and Reculver - were constructed long before any (surviving) record of piracy in the North Sea. Around AD 260 a second fort was built on the south side of the estuary, Burgh Roman Fort, which is indicative of a growing threat at this time and/or increased military activity in the area.
Both forts would have performed a coastal defence role during the short-lived succession of Britannia under the usurper Mausaeus Carausius. Tasked with anti-piracy duties, Carausius was given a military command including elements from Gaul and the Classis Britannica. However his relations with central administration became strained and he declared himself Emperor of Britain in AD 287. The following year an attempt by Rome to re-invade and topple Carausius failed perhaps due to military intervention by the Classis Britannica. Defeats in Gaul however saw his position in Britannia weakened and he was assassinated. Britannia was back under central Roman control by AD 296.
Excavations on the fort have raised interesting questions. The foundations of the building visible on site were laid in AD 300 replacing earlier timber structures. Whilst these earlier buildings probably conformed to normal Roman Army barracks, the new structure was more complex; it was seemingly divided into seven individual dwellings with at least one installed with an under floor heating system and internally was decorated with painted plaster. Perhaps this was indicative of parts of the civilian vicus moving inside the fort's parameter or changing domestic standards for military personnel - perhaps this was the Roman equivalent of the married accommodation available to today's military personnel. The building burnt down circa-AD 340 for reasons unknown.
During the fourth century AD Caister may have formed part of the Saxon Shore Command of the Roman Army although even this is uncertain. The Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395, listed nine forts under the control of the Count of Saxon Shore in Britain (comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam). Gariannonum is listed although this is generally assumed to be Burgh with seemingly no specific listing for Caister despite it being occupied upto the late fourth century. Perhaps the Notitia Dignitatum was incomplete or alternatively maybe Caister had a purely logistical role at this time. Caister was abandoned around AD 390 as military forces were diverted from the province.