When the Romans invaded Britain, they brought with them four legions, of which three remained as a permanent garrison. As a result, three legionary fortresses were established, far larger than regular forts and built to hold an entire legion. These were constructed at Caerleon, Chester and York, and naturally these became strategically important locations. In around 78AD the governor of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, was campaigning against the Brigantes, a tribe in the north of Britain. The Brigantian territory included the areas around Manchester, and the fort at Manchester was first constructed during Agricola’s campaign against them. It remained in use after the campaign until the end of the 4th century, since it lay on the road between Chester and York.
Archaeology on the site of the Roman fort, in the Castlefield area of Manchester (named on account of the remains) has revealed that the original fort of c. 78AD was constructed quickly out of turf and wood, as most forts were on campaign. We know that it was garrisoned by an auxiliary cohort of about 500 men. In around 160AD, the fort was extended to include granaries, and then in around 200AD it was rebuilt in stone. The occasion was the visit of the emperor Severus to the area in order to subdue a revolt.
As well as the fort itself, a small civilian settlement called a vicus sprung up just outside its walls. These were not official towns and had no administrative buildings, but instead co-existed with those stationed in the fort. The inhabitants of the vicus profited from the presence of the troops, and in return they provided supplies and entertainment for the soldiers. The vicus at Manchester developed into an industrial estate, which we know on account of the number of furnaces found in excavations. However the vicus declined in the first half of the 3rd century and was abandoned not long after, despite the occupation of the fort until the next century.
In 1980, the Castlefield site was excavated and it was found that the northern quarter of the fort was relatively undamaged. Unfortunately the rest had been destroyed by the Rochdale canal and several railway viaducts. Nevertheless, the north gate and a section of wall survived and were reconstructed, making it one of only a few in the country. The name of the Roman fort, Mamucium (meaning ‘breast-shaped hill’) survives in Manchester’s name today, through the early medieval Mamecaestreas recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, just over 1000 years since the original fort was built.