As centuries pass in such historic venues, history often melds into romance, and so it was with the lost city of the legion. Though much had disappeared, what remained was dramatic. Legend says that King Arthur himself made Caerleon his headquarters, and that the amphitheater was indeed his famous Round Table. As tales of Arthur, his knights and valiant deeds became all the rage in the Middle Ages, Caerleon emerged as a favorite site with storytellers. In Wales they were gathered as the Mabinogion. Geoffrey of Monmouth (just up the road) linked Caerleon with Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, and Thomas Malory often placed King Arthur in the ancient fortress community. Even Alfred, Lord Tennyson came to town for inspiration when working on his own Arthurian masterpiece, The Idylls of the King.
There may well be fire in the smoke of the Arthurian romances. In actuality, the historic Arthur was more likely a Celtic warlord and king of Powys, who made his capital at the long abandoned Roman city of Viroconium—now Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury. He would, however, have been very familiar with Caerleon, and may well have employed its location and amphitheater as a meeting place and encampment during his southern campaigns against the encroachment of the Anglo-Saxons.
Today, Caerleon is a pretty, quiet small town. St. Cadoc’s Church, begun in the 12th century, stands over the site of the old Roman principia in the heart of 2nd-century Isca. Caerleon’s Arthurian connections show up in a few place names and souvenir shops, and some fine wooden sculpture in a courtyard garden called The Ffwrrwm. Sculptures on show also include “the World’s Biggest Lovespoon.” With a dozen charming pubs and restaurants within the old fortress walls, there is not a chain store or eaterie in sight. The Bell Inn, though, has been pulling pints since 1602, when it began life as a coaching house.
Across the hills into the Cotswolds, with the Corinium Museum and nearby Chedworth Roman Villa, Cirencester provides an unparalleled perspective on domestic life in Romano-Britain. The Roman fort of Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall evokes what the soldier’s life was on the frontier of the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire. Perhaps none of the many impressive remnants of Britain’s centuries as a Roman province, however, provides quite such a complete picture of the organization and life of the Roman army as the lost city of Isca. That modern Caerleon is a warm, friendly and rewarding place to visit is the proverbial icing on the cake.