Antonine Itinerary XIV: 3) Verlucio to Cunetio

This stage is the longest one on Iter XIV – xx mpm – and therefore the one to test any theories about the accuracy of the Itinerary‘s distances most severely. Like the two stages just previously considered, the stations where this stage begins and ends have been pretty firmly identified,  Verlucio as Sandy Lane in Wiltshire, which stands on the site of the Roman road designated Margary 53; at the other end, Cunetio stood just south of Mildenhall (My-null), near Marlborough.

Time Team artist’s impression of the Cunetio mansio

If you can bear the Time Team banter, their episode on the archaeology of Cunetio is here and is interesting because they identified a 2nd-century mansio. Mansiones were travellers’ ‘coaching inns’, in settlements near the main roads, where there would be food and accommodation, and where horses could be changed – an additional sidelight on the Itinerary‘s Cunetio.

The archaeologists speculated that Cunetio might have been a Roman tax collection centre (perhaps explaining the huge hoard of 55,000 Roman coins found there); and perhaps a market town, where agricultural produce from the area would be brought in to be sold.

The site is alongside the River Kennet which presumably gave its name to the Roman town. A 10th-century source names the villages of East and West Kennet, just under 10 miles down river, as Cynetan.

Early Ordnance Survey maps trace the Roman road from just outside Bath through to Sandy Lane (Verlucio), then passing  south of Beckhampton and on to Silbury Hill where a Roman village was discovered in 2007. The track is lost here, though it points to a route straight through Marlborough on a line which which would lead directly to the site of Cunetio, still roughly corresponding to Margary road 53.

The site of Verlucio lies just at the point where there is the slight dip southerly at Chittoe, so the route from Verlucio to Cunetio is as clear as it can be, visible or guessable, the road distance measuring c.24.8km. It is as near direct, Roman road style, as it could be, so as the crow flies it is a similar distance, 24km.

OS map: the site of Verlucio, close to the Roman road

However, the 20 mpm of the Antonine Itinerary would be 29.6 km so there is some discrepancy there. Either it was measured inaccurately, or the manuscript tradition could be corrupt, recording xx mpm for xv mpm (22.2km) for example.


Antonine Itinerary XIV: 2) Aquae Solis to Verlucio

This section of the iter is one of the most straightforward: signs of a Roman road are distinguishable at least from Bathford, just east of Bath. This is the Margary road 53 which carries on to Verlucio/Sandy Lane and beyond in an almost straight line. As a result, the ‘as the crow flies’ distance is virtually the same as the road route. From the satellite view the line of the road can be made out by the stright line forming the division between the fields.

Red dots are just below the route of Margary road 53, indicated by the field boundaries. Click to enlarge.

As on Margary 53, the road seems to dip southwards near the supposed site of Verlucio, and then continues east to Cunetio. The ‘as the crow flies’ distance between Aquae Solis and Verlucio is 22.43 km, as against the possible road route from the very centre of Bath, which would be about 23 km. The Itinerary‘s  15 x 1.48 = 22.2 km is close.

Like Caerleon to Caerwent, where there is a predicted,  direct Roman road, the Itinerary is fairly accurate; on this stage very accurate.

And so to the stage between Sandy Lane/Verlucio and Mildenhall/Cunetio …




Antonine Itinerary, Iter XIV: 1) Isca Silurum to Venta Silurum

For the calculations in kilometres and modern miles in what follows, the equivalents used are the commonly accepted 1,000 Roman paces = 1.48 km or 0.92 modern miles. The edition of Itinerarium Antonini Augusti consulted is that of G.Parthey and M.Pinder, Berlin, 1848. Iter XIV is on p. 233.

How accurate the Itinerary’s distances ever were, and whether/where the manuscript tradition might – perhaps – be corrupt, are problems to acknowledge rather than linger over at this stage. Iter XIV, on which Traiectus lies, starts at Caerleon (Isca Silurum) and ends at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), and is an alternative route (alio itinere) to the one via Gloucester. The total distance is recorded as CIII (103,000 paces or 103 Roman miles); and the separate distances given between each stopping point, satisfyingly, add up to exactly CIII. So far, so good.

The first stage of the iter, Isca Silurum (Caerleon) to Venta Silurum (Caerwent),  is given as VIIII mpm or 9,000 paces – c. 13.32 km or 8.28 miles. As the crow flies, the distance between the two is 13.23 km or 8.22 miles. Is that what the Itinerary’s measurements mean, or is it just a coincidence? A coincidence, surely, since mille passus must refer to a distance walked (rather than flown), mustn’t it? [But see future blog on this.] The ‘predicted’ Roman road route between Isca and Venta is roughly along the A48, though little archaeological evidence seems to exist.¹ Following that route (and cutting out some of the wiggles), the distance would be at least 14.42 km or 8.96 miles.

Measured distances: Top, along the A48, bottom, as the crow flies. Click on image for clearer view

There are reasons to think that the measurement of this stage, at least, of the journey ought to be fairly accurate. Firstly, the terrain is easy: along a flattish coastal plain, gently undulating but with no deep valleys, wide rivers, mountains or steep hills to negotiate. It’s therefore not too surprising that the as-the-crow-flies distance is almost exactly as recorded by the Itinerary. Secondly, at 9,000 paces it is one of the shorter stretches between stopping points on this iter (the shortest is 6,000 paces, the longest 20,000). Longer stretches can present more possible deviations and uncertainties; and there are always the unknowable variables introduced by the marching army or whoever measured the distances used by the Itinerary.

The A48 road just past the turning left to Parc Seymour, travelling east.

We can infer that the Itinerary was very accurate in its measurement here if:

a) it was measuring the ‘as the crow flies’ distance or

b) 1,000 paces represented c. 1.6 km/0.99 miles, instead of the commonly accepted 1.48m/0.92 miles. These revised equivalents can be used for calculating the other stages.

Not very much more can be learned from this stretch: there are certainties and uncertainties. Old Somerset, not for the first time, has wandered off the beaten track; but Traiectus may bring us back a little closer to home.

¹ “West of Crick, the road is assumed to follow the route of the modern A48 through Caerwent, though the section between Crick and Cat’s Ash is almost all purely conjectural, except where it passes through Caerwent where it is confirmed by the position of the gates. Although [the] modern A48 consists of a series of straight alignments, these may owe their origin at least in part to turnpiking. To the west of Penhow Castle, Ordnance Survey fieldworkers excavated a short section of agger but little further information was recorded about the results of the excavation”, Roman roads in Southeast Wales. Desk-based assessment, p. 17, report for Cadw by A. Sherman and E. Evans, Sept 2004.


That old chestnut (Chapter One)

Much examined, not yet solved is the puzzle of the placename ‘Traiectus’, referred to in the Antonine Itinerary of the 2-3rd century. In the section on Britannia, Itinerary XIV starts at Isca (Silurum), or Caerleon, and ends at Calleva (Atrebatum) – Silchester.

Most of the stations along the way have been identified, with more or less certainty; but very roughly fourteen miles on from Sea Mills (Abone) and six miles short of Bath (Aquis Solis) is the mysterious ‘Traiectus’. The figures xiiii and vi mean 14,000 passus and 6,000 passus. Given the modern computation of a passus, that would be roughly 13 miles from Sea Mills and 5 1/2 from Bath. The common view is that it coincides most closely with Bitton, on a stretch of the old Roman road between Bath and Hanham on the outskirts of Bristol. The distances match closely enough, but it remains the least certain of the identifications of this Iter.

The River Boyd, taken from the A361 as it passes through Bitton

So, why would it not be? Well, firstly, a traiectus is a crossing, so the argument is that this could be the River Boyd. If so, it must have been a bigger river than it is now – by some considerable margin.

At present it looks like the kind of small waterway which might or might not have needed a stone ford. Wheeled carts or wagons could splash in and out the other side, hardly noticing it. To designate the place ‘Traiectus’ would be to dignify it beyond its obvious desserts.

The River Frome at Frenchay

After leaving Sea Mills and before arriving at Bitton, the traveller would also have to cross the River Frome, not the widest river in all Britain, but this is still (at the present time, it must always be remembered) only the size of river that could be easily forded, without even the need of a bridge.

Traiecti must have been ten a penny if river crossings the size of that over the Boyd merited the name.

The other point is that Bitton has no very strong Roman connections. A nearby camp, once considered to have been Roman, seems more likely to have been medieval and there are no more than a few odds and ends in the way of Roman remains. So for the Romans, the most notable aspect of Bitton would have been – its river crossing …

On the other hand, more puzzling than that, the Itinerary as it survives makes no mention of the fact that to get from Caerwent to Sea Mills a rather wider stretch of water must be crossed than the River Boyd. An alternative suggestion for Traiectus is that it referred to the crossing of the Severn Estuary itself. Can that be supported?

A brief recapitulation

I have been unable to find any primary reference to Iscalis other than in Ptolemy’s Geographia: all later references derive from Ptolemy. The original was in Greek and I don’t know how the name was spelled as I can’t find a Greek text (of which the earliest manuscript is 13th c.)

The (2nd c.) Antonine Itinerary didn’t cover this area. William Stukeley’s 18th c. ‘reconstruction’ marked the Fosseway, and Ilchester as ‘Ischalis’ – the common identification at the time; but there is no Iter along the Fosseway in the original, so this is Stukeley’s addition. The nearest Iter is XV which goes through Winchester, Salisbury and Dorchester to end up at Exeter.

The Stukeley reconstruction

The Stukeley reconstruction, in which Ischalis = Ilchester

The Ravenna Cosmography also does not mention it so Ptolemy, c. 150 AD, appears to be the only early source.

The only other point of information (or more probably misinformation) was that it was one of the πόλεις of the Belgae, along with Venta Belgarum and Aque Calide. And, according to Ptolemy’s method, it was situated west of Aque Calide (Bath). One difficulty is that the territory of the Belgae almost certainly didn’t extend even as far as Bath, still less further west to ‘Iscalis’. Another suggestion (Francis Haverfield in the Somerset Victoria County History, 1906) is that it was no more than a mistake, perhaps a confusion with Isca Silurum, modern-day Caerleon.

If we discount the supposition that the town may not have existed at all, and if it did it wasn’t in the territory of the Belgae, we can say that it was in Somerset, probably in the area where the territories of Dobunni, Dumnonii and Durotriges met – the No Man’s Land. It also seems an irresistible conclusion that the name is related to the British isca, meaning ‘water’? (rather than ‘a river’ – afon – Abona). So we have a Romanised/Latin name with an adjectival suffix that suggests ‘a watery place’.

So, what manner of place was No Man’s Land at the time of the Romans?

Phonologically yours (1b)

I’ve now discovered a very useful website: Nottingham University’s Key to English Place-names. This is much more cautious about the derivation of  Countisbury than AD Mills who simply quoted arx Cynuit c. 894 (that’s Asser).

The problem is that when the historians were looking for somewhere on the Devonshire coast that might have been the site of the ‘Battle of Cynuit’, they fixed on Countisbury as the possible place, due to its situation and the similarity of the name; the place-name specialists then took the modern name as deriving from Cynuit, because that was ‘where the battle took place’. That was the wrong way round: if the specialists had first derived Countisbury from Cynuit on existing documentary evidence, then the historians could have come along and said, ‘Well, that solves the mystery of where the battle took place, then.’

Anyway, the Nottingham site says of Countisbury’s derivation: “Uncertain. Perhaps, ‘fortification called/at *Cunet’, a Celtic place-name of unknown meaning. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the first element is a Celtic personal name, ‘Cynuit’.”

Notts UnivSo the elements are explained thus: a British placename cunẹ̄ti̥ū, meaning unknown;  a (Celtic) personal name (Cynuit?); and burh (Old English), fortified place.

But where did this ‘Celtic place name’ *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū come from? It resembles the personal name Cunetus, found in the medieval document referring to Cuneti confessoris as the patron saint of Llangynwyd in Glamorgan, where the original form would appear to be the British/Welsh/Celtic Cynwyd or Cynuit; the later Cunetus is probably a late/neo-Latin back formation; but this is the personal name, not a place name.

It looks like the Roman place name Cunetio, which according the Antonine Itinerary (3rd c. AD) was some 35 Roman miles from Bath and has been uncovered by Mildenhall in Wiltshire. The origin was the British/Celtic name of the river on which the Romans built their town – now the River Kennet. This river name may well be represented as having been something like *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū in Roman times. But Cunetio is nowhere near Countisbury.

William Stukeley's 18th-c. reconstruction of the Antonine Itinerary (Iter XIV); rectangles mark Cunetio and Countisbury

William Stukeley’s 18th-c. reconstruction of the Antonine Itinerary (Iter XIV); rectangles mark Cunetio and Countisbury

There are several river names with the Celtic element Kenn or Kennet, but they aren’t near Countisbury either. It does seem as if this *Cunet’/cunẹ̄ti̥ū would, phonologically, give Cynuit – but there is still nothing to link it to Countisbury.

As I see it, the Nottingham site is more circumspect regarding the derivation – which leaves us … where we were.