Antonine Itinerary XIV 4): Cunetio to Calleva, via Spinae

Doubts are sometimes expressed as to the location of Spinae, the penultimate station of Iter XIV. Is it Speen, Berkshire, on the outskirts of Newbury, Spone in Domesday?

Domesday entry for Speen,Berkshire

The Nottingham toponymists consider the origin of the name to be unclear, ‘possibly, ‘wood-chip place’, from spōn (Old English), a chip, a shaving of wood; perhaps also a wooden shingle tile’. They make no mention of Spinae which in Latin would mean thorns, not woodchips.

There may also have been lingering doubts on account of the fact that no Roman settlement has been discovered at Speen, unlike at Isca, Venta, Aquae Solis, Verlucio, Cunetio – and the final station, Calleva (Silchester), main centre of the Atrebates.

Calleva Atrebatum: the east-west road leads on to Speen, Cunetio, Corinium and Glevum

The earliest recorded name for Speen seems to be Spene, perhaps of the 9th century; though intriguingly, the twelfth and thirteen centuries yield Spenes, Spienes and Spenis which look like plural forms, as is Spinae. Faute de mieux, the identification stands. In any case, it is not here so much a matter of identifying Spinae as on checking how accurate the Itinerary is overall in its measured distances.

Do the distances correspond with those given by the Itinerary? Spinae was supposedly midway beween Cunetio and Calleva, xv mpm, or 22.2 km from both; so Cunetio to Calleva is therefore roughly 44.4 kms: how accurate are the Itinerary‘s distances? The conjectural (another variable) road from Cunetio-Spinae-Calleva is, indeed, about 44.5 kms.

However, the two sections are not quite equal: Cunetio to Speen, following Margary 53, is nearer 25 km, whereas Speen to Calleva is barely 20 km.

Thatcham, a little further on from Speen on the main road, has also been suggested as being Spinae. There was seemingly a small Roman settlement there – and even now a ‘Roman Way’. However accepting that suggestion would increase the Itinerary‘s discrepancy, adding about 5km to Cunetio to Speen/Thatcham, making it about 29km; and removing  5km from Thatcham/Speen  to Calleva, making that about 15km. That looks out of keeping with the general accuracy of the Itinerary.

The individual sections so far considered (note, the distances Venta-Abone-Traiectus-Aquae Solis have so far been omitted for later consideration) are recorded in the Antonine Itinerary as totalling 109.52km, while the conjectural road route would be 106 km. That is impressively close. Only one stage (Verlucio to Cunetio) falls significantly short of the Itinerary‘s distance, and is the main reason for the overall discrepancy. Strange, since the route from Verlucio to Cunetio seems very ‘straight forward’ and therefore could have been expected to be very accurate:

The route corresponding closely with Margary 53. Click to enlarge.

These results suggest the Itinerary was accurate, discounting the many imponderables and small compensating discrepancies, to within a very few kilometres. So, to the final puzzle: what of Abonae and Traiectus?

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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?