‘Scratch the earth and you will find an Empire’ is an adage that suits Carmarthen admirably. Around AD 75 the Romans built a fort, naming it Moridunum, Brythonic Celtic Moridunon (=sea fort) from which Carmarthen derives its name. The fort was located in the King Street/Spilman Street area and a trading settlement quickly developed to the east. By the second century this had grown into a substantial town, one of only two in Wales. It was constituted as a civitas, the administrative capital of the Romanised Demetae, from which the ancient kingdom of Dyfed took its name. Moridunum was laid out with formal ‘gridiron’ streets, enclosed by walls and gates which were so prominent that even today the street layout of eastern Carmarthen still respects their alignment. Viewed from the air, the outline of Moridunum’s defences can be traced as a characteristic ‘playing-card’ shape enclosing some 30 acres (12.5 ha). At the eastern end of Priory Street stands the amphitheatre, which is open to the public.
The scraps of history that exist from the ‘Dark Ages’ have been blended with mythology and tradition. Over 600 years span the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans in 1093. When they arrived, they found a Welsh religious community in control of the now ruined Roman town. Dedicated to Teulyddog, this was soon to become St. John’s Priory. Caerfyrddin, as the town is known in Welsh, became associated with Merlin (Welsh Myrddin), especially after it was given currency in the 12th century by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Black Book of Carmarthen, written at the Priory, contains Arthurian legends and tales of the Mabinogion including Merlin, a character who is sometimes a prophet and sometimes a ‘wild man of the woods’. The Merlin prophesies foretold the coming of a British champion who would defeat the Anglo-Saxons. The Merlin tradition is deeply rooted in Caerfyrddin – the ‘fortress of Merlin’, although the name ‘Merlin’ actually derives from Caerfyrddin and not the other way around. The Merlin legends, in time, took on a more local character, including one relating to the Old Oak, or Merlin’s Oak, a tree that formerly stood in Priory Street. Fragments of the tree are preserved in the foyer of St. Peter’s Civic Hall.
Town Trail One - Town Trail Two - Town Trail Three - Eisteddfod Journey - Port of Camarthen - The Old Oak