• The Jewry Wall is one of the largest remaining Roman masonry structures in Britain
  • Kathleen Kenyon is one of the greatest archaeologists of the 20th century. She also made ground-breaking discoveries at Jericho and Jerusalem in the Middle East
  • No one really knows how the Jewry Wall got its name. It may have come from the latin janua (gateway) or medieval jurat (juror)

The social centre of Roman Leicester

Today, the only visible reminder of Leicester’s Roman past, in-situ, is the Jewry Wall.  At 23m long, 9m high and 2.5m thick, it is one of the largest pieces of Roman masonry still standing in Britain.  Since the medieval period, when it was commonly believed to be part of a Temple to Janus, there has been much discussion about what the Jewry Wall may have been.  It was not until it was excavated in the late 1930s by the pioneering archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon (coincidentally in preparation for the building of a new swimming baths) that its role as part of a substantial bathing complex was demonstrated, and not the town’s forum as previously thought.  Kenyon’s excavations were the first large-scale archaeological investigation of Roman Leicester and paved the way for eighty years of archaeological discoveries.

 

 

Kathleen Kenyon (centre right) and her excavation team at Jewry Wall

Not just a place to bath…

Bathing was an integral part of cultural and social life in Roman towns regardless of who you were.  Bath-houses were not just places to get clean: customers would also exercise, relax, eat, socialise and conduct business.  They would now be considered similar to community centres, combining all the facilities provided by gyms, spas, libraries, shopping centres and restaurants.

How to bathe, Roman style

Built in the mid-2nd century CE, the bath complex did not change much and probably remained in use until the 4th century.  Access to the baths is thought to have been through arches in the Jewry Wall.  This was the west wall of a large, aisled basilica on the eastern side of the complex, most of which now lies beneath the Church of St Nicholas.  This was the palaestra, the exercise hall where men could meet, box, wrestle and play ball games.

The central focus of the baths themselves was the tepidarium, the warm room heated from under the floor through a hypocaust, where bathers could assemble and relax before moving on to the hot or cold baths – the caldaria or the frigidarium. Bathers would cover themselves with oils and use a tool called a strigil to scrape off the dirt and oil. The hot rooms were maintained at a temperature of about forty degrees centigrade – this made them very humid, much like a modern sauna.  The final step was to plunge into a pool of cold water, to close the pores and refresh the body.

A cut-away impression of how the Jewry Wall baths may have looked during the late 2nd century CE. Mike Codd / Leicester Arts and Museums Service

The stage is set…

Bathing was not the only way to relax in Roman Leicester. Recent archaeological excavation on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way found parts of a substantial Roman public building, most likely the supports for the curved seating of a theatre, built in the early 3rd century behind the town’s macellum (market hall).

Other entertainments

Traces of other public entertainments and Roman culture enjoyed by Leicester’s populace have been found on other sites, including a small graffitied sherd of pottery bearing the names Verecunda the actress (or female gladiator) and Lucius the gladiator, and a mosaic depicting the story of Cyparissus from Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses.

Gallery

Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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