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Guest Author Essay: Name of the Roman Town at Kenchester

Author: David Holton (2002)

This site is now generally called "Magnis", with a short -i-, to rhyme with "miss". This cannot be correct.

There are only two extant references to the name: in the Antonine Itinerary and the Ravenna Cosmography. These are merely entries in a list of routes, with mileages. This is the relevant section of the Antonine Itinerary:


Iscae ...                              Magnis          xii

Burrio          viiii                   Bravonio        xxiiii

Gobannio     xii                    Viroconio      xxvii


Burrio ...                             Ariconio         xi

Blestio        xi                     Glevo            xv

The Ravenna Cosmography entry is similar. Note that all names are in the Dative case, with the sense of "from ... to ...".

In modern languages (as in Latin), it is normal to refer to any Latin name or noun in the Nominative form. It is wrong to say that Caerleon was called Iscae, even though that is the form of the entry quoted above - we use the Nominative form Isca. Similarly we say Londinium, not Londinio.

So what is the Nominative form whose Dative is Magnis? A Dative form in -is can only be a second-declension plural. Magnis must be the Dative plural of the adjective magnus, "large". (Incidentally, the ending is pronounced long, to rhyme with "geese".) Therefore the Nominative was one of the forms Magni (Masculine), Magnae (Feminine) or Magna (Neuter). There is no certain way of knowing which.

Common sense suggests that the name of the town was Magna Castra - "the big fort" - because of its position below the Credenhill hillfort. The Roman town was no doubt placed there for reasons of social engineering, as was so common. The hillfort might very well have had the British version of that name previously; it is and was very common in Welsh (Dinas Fawr, Dynevor, etc.). I expect the name Mægonsæte would be based on it, and thus the names "Marden", "Maund" etc. (Incidentally this makes no sense unless you realise that the Latin word for "fort" - castra - was grammatically plural although referring to a single object, like our words "trousers" or "scissors".)

Until recently most scholars knew their Latin and these facts were a matter of course. Older books use the form Magna, as does for example the notice by the Roman Mosaic in Hereford Museum. The form in -is has crept in this century and is now almost universally used. Perhaps it is not too late to re-introduce the correct form.

Footnote: all this assumes that the Kenchester town is the one to which the entry Magnis refers. Kenchester was previously thought to have been Ariconium. To my mind the mileages do not make perfect sense however you take them but the argument of the place-name is powerful.

© David Holton, 2002