The origins of Isca Silurum and the Via Julia
Bob Trett
... cities and towns of note in the time of the Romans ...
Sutton Nicholls sculp. circa 1700

Many contemporary accounts refer to Caerleon as the Roman "city" of "Isca Silurum". The Roman road passing through "Isca Silurum" to Caerwent and then to a crossing of the Severn is referred to as the "Via. Julia" or "Julia Strata".

This is incorrect in the sense that they were not names known in Roman Britain. Caerleon was called "Isca" and was the fortress of the Second Augustan Legion. The tribal capital of the Silures (the native tribe of South East Wales) was at Caerwent and was called "Venta Silurum".

The confusion is understandable since many reputable authors and historians have used these names. Sir Joseph Bradney in his major work "A History of Monmouthshire" states:

"The Romans adopted Isca Silurum as the name of the town they made here, Isca being the Latin equivalent for Wysg (the river Usk)."

Bradney also refers to "the Via Julia, going by Cat's Ash to the main road, which it followed as far as Caerwent, when it crossed the Severn at Caldicot Pill." (1)

In 1862 John Edward Lee, Honorary Secretary of the Monmouthshire and Caerleon Antiquarian Association, published his illustrated catalogue of the Museum of Antiquities at Caerleon under the title of Isca Silurum. He was influenced by other antiquarians of that time, including Thomas Wakeman who had read a paper at the first meeting of the Caerleon Antiquarian Association in 1848 using the name Isca Silurum.

They in turn were influenced by William Coxe who wrote "An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire", first published in 1801. Coxe refers to:

"Isca Silurum, the residence of the second Augustan legion, and the chief station of the Romans in the country of the Silures, now occupied by the small town of Caerleon". (2)

He also makes reference to "the Julia Strata that led from Bath, through the counties of Monmouth and Glamorgan, to Caermathen and St.David's." (3)

Coxe would have consulted references by William Camden, the author of "Britannia: or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland". This historical topography was first published in 1586 in Latin, but was translated into English and republished in 1610. Later editions were also published, including fresh additions and revisions. Camden makes reference to:

"A City, called by Antoninus Isca and Legio secunda … and by the Britains Kaer Lheion and Kaer Lheion on wysk (which signifies the City of the Legion on the river Usk) from the Legio Secunda Augusta, which was called also Britannia Secunda." (4)

Coxe must have been using other earlier sources. In 1695 Robert Morden published his "Britannia Romana" which refers to Isca Siluru. , and about 1701 Sutton Nicholls engraved a map for Edward Wells entitled "A New Map of the British Isles, Shewing their Antient People, Cities and Towns of Note in the time of the Romans. Dedicated to His Highness William Duke of Gloucester". This also mentions Isca Silurum. (5)

Although Camden does not refer to Isca Silurum in a section on Newport he states:

"… where was formerly some Military way, mentioned by Necham in these verses:

'Intrat, et auget aquas Sabrini Fluminis Osca Praeceps ; testis erit Julia Strata mihi.' (translated as) 'Increased with Usk does Severn rise, as Julia Strata testifies.'

That this Julia Strata was a way (road), we have no reason to question : and if we may be free to conjecture, it seems not absurd to suppose it took its name from Julius Frontinus who conquered the Silures."

The 'Antoninus' referred to by Camden was the Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, now usually called the Antonine Itinerary. This was a road map of the Roman Empire dating from the second or third century, probably from the time of the Emperor Caracalla (M. Aurelius Antoninus). It was first printed in 1512 and Camden makes many references to it. The section referring to Britain contains fifteen itinera, giving routes between different places with the names and distances of intermediate places. There are three routes passing through Caerleon. Route XII, from Moridunum (Carmarthen) to Viroconium (Wroxeter), includes the name Iscae leg.ii Augusta (Isca of the Second Augustan Legion). There is no mention of Isca Silurum. (6)

'Necham' is the celebrated medieval scholar Alexander Neckham. Neckham was born in Hertforshire in 1157 and died at Kempsey, Worcestershire in 1217. He joined the Augustinian order and became Abbot of Cirencester in 1213. He was a prolific writer although many of his works have not survived. (7)

It remains a mystery when these terms were first used, but hopefully more evidence will come to light. However there is one strange fact. The Second Augustan Legion at Caerleon were previously based in a fortress under modern day Exeter. This fortress too was called Isca, and this name was perpetuated in the Roman town established on the site, Isca Dumnoniorum (Isca of the Dumnonii tribe). It could be argued that the Legion brought the name Isca with them to Caerleon. However experts in early place-names disagree. According to P.H. Reaney river names such as Axe, Exe, Esk and Usk are all derived from the British word isca meaning "water". (8)

Bob Trett 2004

1. Sir Joseph Bradney. A History o f Monmouthshire. Volume III - Part II. The Hundred of Usk page 185. 1923

2. Coxe Volume I page 80.

3. Ibid page 13.

4. Taken from the edition revised by Edmund Gibson 1695

5. Illustrated at top of page.

6. Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain Various editions since 1928.

7. A brief biography of Neckham can be found in the Catholic Encyclopaedia .Volume X. 1911.

8. P.H.Reaney The Origins of English Place Names. 1960 page 77.

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