The Antonine Itinerary was a document produced in the 2nd century AD, listing the road stations throughout Britain. It details some fifteen routes, or itinera (way) through the province of Britannia and is considered by researchers and historians as extremely accurate. And that is the problem in our attempts to identify the lost fort of Varis.
In ‘Her XI’ (Way 11), the Itinerary details the route along North Wales, from Segontium (identified as Caernarfon) to Deva (identified as Chester), by way of two other stations, Canovium (undoubtedly Caerhun) and Varis, and this is measured as an accurate 74 miles. Unfortunately, the normally reliable measuring of distance between these Roman forts falls apart when it comes to Varis. The route is measured west to east, and the distance between Segontium and Caerhun is spot on, some 24 miles, while the distance between Caerhun and Varis is measured as 18 miles. This places Varis, rather conveniently at St Asaph. This makes sense in so many ways, that it is highly irritating then, that the Antonine Itinerary then measures the distance between Varis and Deva (Chester) as 32 miles. Unfortunately, if the distance along the known Roman road is followed, the distance is some 27 miles, a frustratingly five short.
The most likely explanation is that the Antonine scribe made a mistake. It is a curious fact that we seem to hold peoples of the past to as much higher standard than we do ourselves. Historians have struggled with this idea of the scribe making a mistake, and writing down an ‘X’, rather than a ‘V’ but I cannot in truth see the problem. Given that the peoples that came after the Romans for many, many years were not of the same bureaucratic excellence, it is more than likely that the mistake simply went unseen. That historians today still debate the location of Varis is a testimony to our respect for the efficiency of the Romans.
Varis is at St Asaph. Somewhere. Suggestions range from beneath the Cathedral, to a curious bend in the River Elwy south of the City, just off the B5381 Denbigh road. Even a cursory look at maps, both old and new, shows the geographical sense of positioning a fort at St Asaph. Situated on an established road, the route follows the valley south to Ruthin where there is increasing evidence of considerable Roman settlement, both civil and military, and on then to Corwen, where there is known to have been a fort, although its precise site eludes us. The matter is complicated by the inconvenient lack of Roman finds. Initially promising earthworks are medieval, pottery and tile fragments are disappointingly sparse, and even the location of those finds have become confused. Frustrating, to say the least. However, there is the possibility that an excavation trench opened in 1982, in the canonry gardens attached to the Cathedral indicates the possibility of the perimeter of a Roman fort, since the dimensions are promising. The Cathedral is certainly the most promising site, since its position on the old crossroads, west to east, north from Prestatyn, south to Corwen and on is more clearly established. Since digging up an eight hundred year old Cathedral to find possible pottery, tile and trench works is unlikely to be given the go-ahead, the possibility of definitively finding Varis there is somewhat limited.
Another complication to a St Asaph location, is the identification of a Bodfari site as the lost Roman fort. The area of Pontruffydd Farm near the Afon Chwiler has produced a considerable amount of Roman material, including cremation urns which point to a military function. Indeed, old Ordnance Survey maps of the 19th century definitively name the site as Varis, and writers of the 18th and early 19th century often tell of their travels around Bodfari, looking for the site of this or that lump or bump linked with Varis, most notably Russell Colt-Hoare in 1839. The most likely explanation is that Bodfari was the site of a marching camp, a temporary settlement, or even the site of an ad hoc burial ground. However, it remains highly unlikely, given the geography, that Bodfari was the site of Varis. The lack of evidence for a civil structure is telling.
Until definitive evidence of Varis can be found, we are left with endless speculation, all because a Roman scribe, in some candle lit cell some eighteen hundred years ago, made a little mistake. I find this both amusing and oddly reassuring.