• Parts of the forum were probably still standing in the 13th century
  • Leicester’s Roman forum and basilica covered a 132m by 91m area, a space larger than many football pitches
  • The columns in the forum’s colonnade came from Derbyshire. They were spaced 3.3m apart and there would have been at least 200

The commercial and administrative heart of Roman Leicester

When the streets of Roman Leicester were laid out in the early 2nd century AD, a large open space in the centre of the town was set aside for the construction of the main public buildings.  These included the forum and basilica which functioned not only as a market-place but also as a centre for social, political and religious gatherings.

The forum was a large open square with colonnades containing shops on three sides and a large aisled building known as the basilica on the fourth side, which housed offices and served as the town’s administrative and judicial centre. Today, what remains of the forum lies buried beneath Jubilee Square.

Building the forum would have been a major undertaking, comparable to constructing a medieval cathedral or a modern skyscraper, and it would have taken years to complete. When finished sometime in the middle of the 2nd century AD, it would have measured some 132m by 91m – an area larger than many football pitches.

Excavating the Forum

A number of small excavations in the 1960s and 1970s have revealed evidence for what the building looked like. Many of the rooms had clay or concrete floors, giving the impression of a very functional building. Later, some rooms were redecorated with mosaic pavements and painted or marble-veneered walls, and it is possible that traders were responsible for the maintenance and decoration of their own shops. Some timber partitions were found which may have been used as counters, whilst other shops had small hearths which may have been for cooking food, providing warmth or for industrial purposes such as metalworking.

Looking across the excavation of the Roman forum at St Nicholas Circle in the early 1970s. Wygston’s House can be seen in the background. University of Leicester Archaeological Services

The heart of Roman Leicester

The area surrounding the forum contained a variety of public and private buildings.  To the west was the Jewry Wall public bathhouse and Leicester’s only known Roman temple, a Mithraeum, whilst to the north commercial activity had expanded out of the forum into a macellum or market-hall.  Smaller commercial and domestic properties also surrounded the forum.  To the south, rows of timber and stone shops lined the street. To the east, further substantial stone buildings were uncovered beneath the BBC building on St Nicholas Place, whilst to the west was a substantial mid-2nd-century townhouse, now beneath St Nicholas Circle, which contained the Peacock Mosaic Pavement, one of the finest mosaic floors discovered in Roman Britain.

The stone pillars in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church believed to be from the Roman Forum

What remains of today?

Little is known of the forum’s final years, but repairs and renovations seem to have continued into the 4th century AD.  Some evidence of fire damage has been found but this appears to have been a minor conflagration because the affected rooms were repaired.

Parts of the forum were probably still standing in the 13th century, and influenced some of the medieval town’s streets, particularly Highcross Street which still exists today.

Pieces of stone pillars, believed to be from the colonnade of the forum, can be seen in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church, whilst objects uncovered by the archaeologists who excavated the site can be seen at the Jewry Wall Museum.

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