Although most scholars today regard the tales of King Arthur and his Round Table to be legendary more than historical, there are still locations that claim a link with Camelot, the place where Arthur held court and the supposed location of the famous Round Table.
Where was Camelot?
The top four claimants for this honour are Winchester with its round table dating from the 13th century, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall whose claim to the title rests on a 1,500-year-old piece of slate bearing two Latin inscriptions, Cadbury Castle in Somerset where the first reference to its connection was written down by John Leland in 1542 and Caerleon in Wales, one of three Roman legionary forts in Britain, chosen as Camelot by both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes.
On purely subjective grounds I’m going for Caerleon. It’s a magical place and when I go there not only does the Arthurian legend seem less a fiction and more a fact of history, but the presence of the Roman Legion of 30,000 men that was stationed here in the 1st century BC is very palpable.
The top thing to do in Caerleon is to visit the Roman Baths, housed in an inconspicuous building that opens to reveal the remains of a Roman outdoor swimming pool and bath house. The ancient stone foundations that are on display give some idea of the original building but when you enter the enormous natatio (open air swimming pool), the basilica (indoor sports hall) and the frigidarium (cold baths) it all comes suddenly to life. Modern technology allows the projection of water onto the remains of the baths, complete with sounds and images of people swimming, and this is truly amazing: there is a short, informative, but humourous film to accompany this.
This was where the Roman Legionaries in first-century Wales would come to escape being shouted at by the Centurions or skirmishing with the local ancient Britons. Here, they could hang out with their friends in the immense open-air swimming pool that held more than 80,000 gallons of water, and after a swim they could play ball games, or gamble, have a massage and even buy fast-food snacks. The whole complex would have been much like a modern-day leisure centre/sauna, with a tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room).
Procedure before Swimming in Roman Baths
Before swimming the soldier would have had a bath in one of the lofty vaulted halls next to the swimming pool where he would strip, hand his clothes to one of the bathhouse slaves and enter the frigidarium (cold bath suite). After a cold dip he’d coat his body with perfumed oil and then visit the warm and hot suites in turn. In the last room, heated from wood-burning furnaces (you can look down and see the stacked pillars under the floor that allow heat to circulate) he’d scrape the oil and sweat from his body with a metal tool called a strigil, before finishing off with a final cold plunge.
Bathing was done naked but as mixed bathing was frowned on, women and children used the baths in the morning while the soldiers would use it in the afternoon. On some days though, prostitutes were allowed in and on these days mixed bathing took place.
Thanks to modern technology and film projection, you can see and hear the splash as a Roman soldier dives into the water, and you then see him swimming in the pool. Then watch as women enter the water and swim together.
Replica objects on display testify to the cleanliness of the Romans, tweezers, ear wax cleaner, toothpicks, nail files and body scrapers.
From baths to Amphitheatre
After the baths it’s outside to see the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain, built to entertain the legionnaires and keep them happy in their time off. Walk through the great north entrance to this huge arena build around AD 90 to seat up to 6,000 spectators, and imagine the din of those 6,000 people baying for blood.
This impressive amphitheatre was the Roman equivalent of today’s multiplex cinema or a massive sports stadium. Wooden benches with seating for up to 6,000, were provided for the spectators who would gather to watch bloodthirsty displays featuring gladiatorial combat and exotic wild animals.
Long after the Romans left the country, the amphitheatre took on a new life as the Camelot of Arthurian legend. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century scholar, wrote in his History of the Kings of Britain that Arthur was crowned in Caerleon and that the amphitheatre was actually the remains of King Arthur’s Round Table.
I’m happy to go along with that because I think I saw Merlin flit across the grass one evening as dusk was descending. Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that I was listening to Richard Burton singing/speaking one of my favourite songs from the musical Camelot, Finale Ultimo. https://youtu.be/HmOhwkVFFQM
NB. The Caerleon Amphitheatre, which boasted eight vaulted entrances and a shrine to the goddess Nemesis, is the only fully excavated Roman amphitheatre in Great Britain. It was maintained until its abandonment in the 3rd century when the Second Augustan Roman Legion departed to protect what remained of the diminishing Roman Empire.
The Welsh Government is to be congratulated on this imaginative place and when I was there it was entirely FREE. I urge anyone who is in the area to visit it.
To read a full history of the place and to watch some excellent videos (including an aerial one of the amphitheatre) click on http://www.caerleon.net
And back in the 21st century, don’t miss the Sculpture Park in Caerleon town, a truly wondrous journey through myths and magic and the power of the artist.