Caerleon was known as Isca in Roman times and was founded in AD 75. (There is a small town Risca in the Ebbw Valley a few miles north of Newport, which may have got its name from this Roman settlement.) The excavated remains of the Roman fortress are one of three legionary fortresses in Britain. Now there is more archaeological evidence to suggest that Isca was in fact a port town on the banks of the Usk. The town was only discovered in 2011 by accident, by students using geophysical equipment in the fields surrounding the fortress. The town is situated between the fortress and the banks of the River Usk.
Archaeologists have found a harbour and wharves, on the Usk and so it seems that Isca (modern-day Caerleon) was much more important in the Roman Empire than had previously been imagined. It could have connected Wales with the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean, so it must have been important for trade and for ensuring the legionaries were well supplied.
There are a number of places of interest to visit such as the amphitheatre which could seat the entire Roman legion which was stationed at Isca. It would have held around 6,000 soldiers of the Second Augustan Legion. The National Roman Legion Museum houses many artifacts which were discovered during the many digs which have been undertaken in the area, and my particular favourite museum is the Roman Baths Museum, which shows how the baths were originally used.
It has been suggested that Caerleon was the site of King Arthur’s Camelot, although there are other sites in Britain (Tintagel for one) which also lay claim to being ancient Camelot. It has been visited because of its Roman remains throughout history, and in mediaeval times was visited by Gerald of Wales, perhaps in 1188, when he was recruiting soldiers for the Third Crusade (1189-1192).
The Domesday Book (1086) records that there was a castle at Caerleon, but that was probably a simple wooden tower on a fortified mound – a motte and bailey castle. Of course, it is also possible that it was built partly, at least with stone from the Roman ruins. It was also listed in 830 AD by Nennius as Cair Lion, one of Britain’s 33 cities at that time.
There are reenactments of Roman battles in summer and hands-on experiences for kids all year-round, so this makes it a very interesting and entertaining family day out.
The modern town of Caerleon is a sleepy place during the day, but it has good restaurants including The Priory and the Hanbury Arms, both within easy access of the archaeological sites. For souvenirs, go to the Ffwrwm courtyard and if you need to after the morning’s excursions and exertion, have some refreshments there. There is also an art gallery in the town which mounts exhibitions of the works of local artists.