What have the Romans ever done for Ilkley?

“The Roman fort at Ilkley in not called Olicana, Olicana is somewhere else and Ilkley might actually have been called Verbeia when the Romans were here”

Words to that effect were uttered by me during a pleasant walk across our famous moor. The little nugget of information was offered merely to make the stroll more cerebrally nourishing. 

However, the provenance and reliability of my local knowledge were subsequently challenged, supported by the involvement of a published academic, professor and Wikipedia personality. I should have rebutted them through strength of character and seniority of residence, but I have decided to go against the advice attributed to Elbert Hubbard 

“Never explain – your friends do not need it and your enemies will not believe you anyway”

At this point I could also have picked up one hefty tome from my shelf, nonchalantly flicked it open, pointed and with grace said ‘there you are, clear as day – no please don’t applaud’

But that wouldn’t do at all as there is still cheese to eat, a warm fire and bugger all else to do. So, settle down and I’ll tell you the whole story (or just go to Part 5 for the conclusion).

Part 1: What’s in a name

There have been members of one tribe of my family living almost continually in Ilkley for 54 years. For the majority of that time, Olicana was the name of the Roman fort in Ilkley, established AD 79. That would be my quiz answer. Another point please.  

The Romans were in ILKLEY from about AD79 to AD400. Over 300 years at a fort that was rebuilt in stone at the junction of two important Roman roads[i] and so it must have had a name attached to it.

 “Ave Decimus, where have you been all winter?”
“ Ave Marcellus, at some god forsaken outpost called Olicana in Britannia. Lost me galea[ii] whilst marching on the hillside”

The august Yorkshire Archaeology Journal reviewed the matter in 1926. In an article entitled ‘The Roman Fort at Ilkley’ it concluded

“We may continue accordingly, unless some overwhelming proof appears to the contrary, to regard Olicana as the ancient name for our site”[iii]

‘Right that’s that then Ebediah, next 40 editions can look at great Yorkshire people’ 

The article relies on the works of a 17th century writer called William Caxton. He produced a weighty tome called Britannia. In one chapter he rambles through Yorkshire and first states that some locals of Halifax think (wrongly) that it was called Olicana by the Romans (he mentions that Halifax residents at that time had a bylaw that allowed instant beheading for people found to be stealing -hence what do they know). Next he tells us that some people near Huddersfield also think wrongly that their Roman fort was called Olicana (obviously they were related to them Halifax idiots). He eventually arrived in Wharfedale and states, not very convincingly, the following: 

“Hence it {the river Wharfe} passes by Ilekely,* which I imagine to be the Olicana in Ptolemy, both from its situation in respect of York, and the resemblance of the two names”[iv]

Still, until 1979 most people were siding with Caxton. Clearly many businesses also think the same as there are about 30 entries on Companies’ House website with Olicana in the name, although a small number are not based locally (coincidently 30 miles is the distance as the crow flies from Ilkley Fort to York Roman fort – but more on that later). 

Part 2: Moths and Maps

Enter an amateur Lepidopterist who has spent most of his life as a university lecturer and expert on medieval Spanish and the Spanish language (including 15 years at Leeds University) but who thought he might turn his hand at Roman place names.

He hooks up with a former book seller and map maker who was then the Professor of Roman Provincial Studies at Keele University (sadly not a university department anymore) and who had initials rather than a first name. The resulting book “The Place Names of Roman Britain”[v] by A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith became the definitive guide.

Of the books’ many sources, the main one is known as Ptolemy’s Geography, believed to have been written between Ad 141 and 150. Claudius Ptolemaeus (‘Ptolemy’) lived and worked in Alexandria, Egypt in the second quarter of the first century A.D. His works were rediscovered in the 15th century and translated from Greek into Latin. He was a mathematician and astronomer and his book was an attempt at mapping the known inhabited world, including Britain and Ireland. However, he never visited the places he mapped and relied on sources available to him, including to a great extent earlier maps produced by Marinus of Tyre[vi]. His book provided place names and their position in terms of latitude and longitude – latitude was similar to the way we measure it but longitude was measured starting at the Canary Islands. Rivet and Smith suggest that the positions of some towns in Northern Britain were based on bearings and distances from London, York and Chester[vii]. It is also known that Ptolemy worked out longitude based on an underestimate of the size of the earth[viii] (quite understandable without GPS satellites but he ignored a Greek scholar  from 200 years earlier who had got it more or less right). Rivet and Smith also think he wasn’t too bothered about being too accurate and hence locations could be out as much as 16.5 Roman miles (15 miles)[ix].

Rivet and Smith were also dubious of the accuracy that Ptolemy copied place names and they concluded that Olicana is the same place as Olenacum and Olerica[x] which were referenced in other ancient sources of information. Ptolemy misspelling Olenacum and Olicana led to Caxton, amoungst others, looking at the approximate position and finding that Ilkley sounds most like Olicana and hence Olicana is Ilkley. Rivet and Smith however concluded:

“The identification of Ptolemy’s Olicana with Ilkley has no etymological basis. The position given by Ptolemy suits the Roman fort at Elslack”[xi]

The fort at Elslack is shown as having the Roman name Olenacum in a number of sources[xii] and is further strengthened by etymological research by Anthony Rowley, a Skipton born, German Professor[xiii]

If you are still with me and got this far – well done! So, because Ptolemy was a bit slapdash in writing things down, Olicana is actually Olenacum (or Olerica) and because he was a bit crap at accurately recording locations, the position could be out by 15 miles, so Elslack is a possible location and actually can be better derived etymologically from Olenacum. Few.

Part 3: Are we nearly there yet?

But hang on. What about the Bematists you cry? 

Yes, the Bematists of ancient Greece were famed for accurately measuring distances from one place to another by counting steps. Their travels with Alexander the Great show a high degree of accuracy over significant distances (as little as 1 mile out over a 230 mile journey)[xiv]. Some of their measurements were used to work out the circumference of the earth from which longitude was derived. It has been suggested that to be so accurate, the Bematists used some form of mechanical odometer[xv] although references for these only appear from 27 BC  and Alexander lived 356-323 BC. Building on the Bematists’ work and with the aid of mechanical odometers, the distances recorded between Roman installations in Britain would therefore have been pretty accurate (not +/- 15 miles when measuring Olicana from York).

There is also competing evidence for the other names. The official listing for Old Carlisle Roman fort is Olerica[xvi]and the accompanying map shows the fort name as Olenacum!

So where  the f*** is the Olicana that Ptolemy has in his atlas?

Ok, remember the number 30? For those of you not paying attention it is the distance (in miles) between York and Ilkley Roman forts – or 48km in new money.  Now let’s look at Ptolemy’s coordinates for Olicana and York Fort (known as Eboracum)[xvii]


Both on a similar latitude but 1° of longitude apart. As mentioned previously Ptolemy got the size of the earth wrong and his longitudes were overestimated by a factor of 1.4[xviii].

1° of modern longitude is 111km so Ptolemy’s 1° would have been 79km. So not 48km (Ilkley) or even 66km (Elslack) but somewhere further west, at about the same latitude. Strangely at 79km there is a Roman settlement called Bomber Camp near Gisburn, although limited excavation dates it as 4th century AD which is after Ptolemy. One further strange fact is that Olenacum/Olicana is shown on a list of forts in another ancient text and the list seems to follow roads[xix]. Olicana is between the forts at Ribchester and Bainbridge – a quick look at the map and the shortest road route turns north at Gisburn.

Finally, some cleverer people in 2018 reassessed and calculated the coordinates and distances of places mentioned by Ptolemy (using such methods as flocking with Bayesian correction no less) and produced a new digital map of Roman Britain[xx]. This shows Olicana on the River Ribble around Long Preston (due north from Gisburn).

Figure from “Ptolemy’s Britain and Ireland: A New Digital Reconstruction”
© Corey Abshire, AnthonyDurham, DmitriA.Gusev, and SergeyK.Stafeyev

So….Olicana probably was further west than Ilkley but where abouts is difficult to say!

Part 4: Divine Inspiration

Now to the more difficult part of the story – what was the fort at Ilkley called if not Olicana?

Well to be honest, I had never heard of Verbeia until my local primary school had a giant effigy of Verbeia, the goddess of the Wharfe as their entry to Ilkley Carnival in 2007 (and won)[xxi]. But back to Rivet and Smith and they have an entry for Verbeia:

“The name of the river Wharfe and hence very probably that of the Roman fort at Ilkley”[xxii]

Not totally convincing but it is based on their arguments that Olicana is not Ilkley and that an alter stone dating from the era has the name Verbeia on it (see picture) and a depiction of a water goddess. This reference/artifact is the only one to Verbeia that has been found to date.

It is thought that the Roman soldiers stationed were Celts recruited from the Lingones tribe, either from France or Italy. The French Lingones have similar carvings to the picture on the Verbeia stone. The Italian branch of the Lingones have similar carvings to the swastika stone on Ilkley moor. Both of these discoveries suggest they were in Ilkley and therefore that they may have named the area Verbeia.

[For those wanting more information about Verbeia , some useful research has been undertaken by a writer who goes by the name of ‘Gyrus’ and has looked into Verbeia in a bit more detail[xxiii] , although many of his weblink references are not active and his website is a bit weird. ]

As if to confuse things further, Historic England has been referring to Ilkley Roman Fort as Verbeia[xxiv] since 2015 but the official listing doesn’t mention any name (Olicana or Verbeia) [xxv]

So, the jury is out – Verbeia appears to be associated with the area but whether the fort was named Verbeia cannot be proved at the moment.

Part 5: Known and unknown knowns and unknowns

So, what do we know:

  • The Romans constructed some pretty good buildings and roads
  • The Ilkley Romans could have been mostly French
  • Ptolemy never visited Ilkley and the name Olicana is only seen in Ptolemy’s writings
  • The clever people have now persuaded the authorities that Olicana is in doubt as the name for the Roman fort in Ilkley
  • It would take a lot of persuading and costly changes to names and plaques for Olicana to not be associated with Ilkley
  • Verbeia sounds more like a shampoo than a Roman Fort
  • Why has no one else mentioned Bomber Camp before?

As a final note, Olecanum, the alternative name suggested for Olicana, is an anagram of ‘an Ocelum’ which is Latin for a promontory or headland. It is also the name of a Roman coastal fort/signal post on the east coast of Yorkshire that Rivet and Smith suggest could be at Flamborough Head. QED.


[i] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013674

[ii] Galea was the name for a Roman soldier’s helmet

[iii] https://archive.org/details/YAJ0281926/page/376/mode/2up

[iv] https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/B18452.0001.001/1:65.7?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

[v] The Place Names of Roman Britain – A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith. First published in 1979 and republished in 1981 by Book Club Associates

[vi] http://roadsofromanbritain.org/ptolemy.html

[vii] The Place Names of Roman Britain – A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith (1981) p142

[viii] ibid page 106-107

[ix] ibid page 105

[x] ibid page 430 

[xi] ibid page 431

[xii] https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MNY13493&resourceID=1009

[xiii] http://www.snsbi.org.uk/Nomina_articles/Nomina_26_Rowley.pdf

[xiv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bematist

[xv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odometer

[xvi] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1007249

[xvii]The Place Names of Roman Britain – A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith (1981) p142 and also https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Periods/Roman/_Texts/Ptolemy/2/2*.html

[xviii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_(Ptolemy)

[xix] http://roadsofromanbritain.org/notitia.html


[xxi] https://www.ilkleygazette.co.uk/news/1357242.goddess-to-feature-in-ilkley-carnival-parade/

[xxii] The Place Names of Roman Britain – A.L.F. Rivet and Colin Smith (1981) p493

[xxiii] https://dreamflesh.com/projects/verbeia/research/

[xxiv] https://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=49938

[xxv] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013674