Soldiers and their barracks

A soldier on campaign would have slept in a tent (papillo) made of goat skin, but in more permanent quarters, he would have lived in a barrack block.

Long L-shaped barrack ranges are a familiar feature of Roman forts. A large house which projected out at one end of the block would have housed the commander of the contingent, normally either a centurion (if it was an infantry unit) or a decurion (if cavalry). The soldiers would then have lived in blocks within the barracks. An eight man infantry section (contubernium) would have occupied each two room block, and probably used one room for sleeping and the other for other purposes such as storing equipment.

Cavalry barracks look the same in plan, but their internal organisation was different: one room for three troopers, and back to back with it, another room for three of their mounts. Many first and second century barracks had a veranda where soldiers could sit and work while sheltered from the elements.

In the video we see a reconstructed barracks from the third century, as displayed at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields. You will notice that this particular barrack type does not have a veranda, or a projecting officer’s house, but the internal divisions of the building are similar to those used in earlier periods – a larger quarters for an officer at one end, and blocks of two rooms each running along the rest of the building.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about the internal organisation of Roman barracks, and our ignorance is compounded by the fact that soldiers probably varied their organisation of these spaces. Future excavation work will no doubt help us understand the arrangements better. Crucial clues as to how the occupants lived will come from the study of the remaining structures and the artefacts found within.

The video contains a number of examples of barrack buildings from the frontier zone in an attempt to help understand how they were used. We will talk more about some of the artefacts and their significance later.

Vessels for food and drink on the frontier

Perhaps one of the most hackneyed clichés about archaeology concerns pots. The archaeologist is seen as someone who scrambles about gathering broken vessels and then sticks them back together.

Well yes, and no. The truth of the matter is that Roman archaeologists are looking for more than a jigsaw puzzle when they study pottery and glassware. Aside from any aesthetic appeal, there is a huge amount one can learn from both.

Pottery combines two extremely important qualities. Firstly, It is made of fired clay, fragments of which will survive millennia when other types of archaeological evidence do not. Secondly as pottery vessels are eminently breakable and their fragments hard to recycle we find them liberally discarded on many sites.

Close study of the vessel form (shape), its fabric (the clay from which it is made) and its decoration allow us not only to date the vessels (thus helping date the objects and features with which they are associated) but also to reconstruct the networks of communication and exchange that brought them to the site. Ceramic petrological analysis of the fabric, for example, allows us to determine the source of clay used to make the pots.

Glass, whilst more likely to be recycled in ancient times, still survives in large quantities. The very presence of glass on the northern frontier testifies to a revolution, as it was not made in northern Britain prior to the arrival of Rome. Interestingly though, once it did arrive, indigenous artisans were quick to learn how to melt it down and model it into the distinctive types of adornment that their people sought.

With both pottery and glass,we can attempt statistical analysis to determine the relative quantity of different types of vessels. Use-wear analysis can help identify their functions. This involves microscopic analysis of the objects to help determine precisely how they were used. Surprisingly, in many cases we are still uncertain as to how otherwise familiar vessel types were actually used. Both the use patterns and the source of these vessels can offer important clues about the cosmopolitan nature of the frontier.

In this video we take a brief look at the range of drinking vessels by the units garrisoning the frontier.

© Newcastle University

Belts, brooches and late Roman soldiers

Dress and the army of conquest

The great Roman writer Vergil begins his epic tale, the Aeneid, with the words Arma virumque cano, ‘I sing of arms and the man’.

Arms, armour, men and identity were themes interwoven in Roman literature and, it appears, on Roman battlefields too. The sophistication of Rome’s military meant that her soldiers took the field clad in extensive armour and brandishing the best weapons available. The Romans had long learnt to abandon any cultural chauvinism in their search for the best equipment and would quickly adopt and adapt any weapons they found in the hands of their enemies if it was superior to their own.

Yet for all the pragmatism that necessarily accompanied military innovation, there was still a sense under the early empire that certain soldierly identities should be distinguished by the equipment associated with them. The world class collections of the Great North Museum (GNM) in Newcastle are an excellent place to explore this theme. Containing as they do artefacts from every major site on Hadrian’s Wall, the GNM collections include many elements of arms and armour. In this video we consider some of the evidence for legionary and auxiliary equipment used in the first and second centuries AD. Though it would be wrong to imagine that Roman soldiers followed some modern form of dress regulations, leading to a notional uniformity of appearance, it is clear that there were nevertheless certain conventions at this time.

Legionary soldiers, the citizen soldiers, appear more likely to wear plate armour (lorica segmentata) and to carry a curved shield (scutum), a short sword (gladius) and a weighted javelin (pilum). Conversely, auxiliary soldiers were more likely to wear mail shirts (lorica hamata), carry a flat shield (clipeus), longer sword (spatha) and a spear (hasta). A dagger (pugio) was carried by both legionaries and auxiliaries. All wore helmets, but different types appear to have predominated in different types of units. As we will see, these conventions break down over time, and by the third century, they are very hard to see, perhaps partly because by this time the distinction between citizens and non-citizens has become less important in Roman society.

To learn more about Roman arms and amour, see Bishop, M. C. and Coulston, J. C. N., 2005 Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, Oxbow: Oxford. Haynes, I. P., 2013 Blood of the Provinces: the Roman auxilia and the making of provincial society from Augustus to Severans, OUP: Oxford, examines the relationship between arms, armour and identity.

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The organisation of the Roman Army under the early Empire

To appreciate how Rome’s armies worked under the early empire, it is necessary to understand two defining attributes of Roman society: firstly, citizenship and secondly, the emperor’s relationship with his armies.

First, Roman citizenship. It was possible to become a citizen, you did not have to be born one. This approach to identity played a vital role in determining the growth and character of the Empire, though it lost much of its significance when in AD 212, the Emperor Caracalla passed an edict (the Constitutio Antoniniana) extending citizenship to all free born subjects within his dominions. The distinction between citizens (those with a privileged legal status) and non-citizens was important, but there were recognised ways in which people could acquire citizenship. One of these was military service.

Second, the emperor’s relationship with his armies was a central theme of Roman history. Soldiers swore their military oath to the emperor and served his interests. That was their primary role; the defence of the provincial subjects was not a priority unless it served the emperor’s wishes. Much of the Empire’s tax revenue went to paying for this military.

The distinction between citizen and non-citizen that ran throughout the Empire also informed the organisation of Rome’s armies. In theory at least, only citizens could serve in the emperor’s Praetorian Guard (his bodyguard), and the legions. Yet more than half of Rome’s land forces consisted of auxiliaries, a term seemingly coming from the notion of ‘helping forces’. To join these one did not have to be a citizen.


The legions (formations of citizen infantry) were between 5,000 and 6,000 strong. During the first century of conquest the Empire had approximately 30 legions (sing. legio, pl. legiones), each strategically located. Each legion was divided into 10 cohorts (sing. cohors, pl. cohortes), the first larger than the rest. Each cohort was in turn subdivided into centuries (sing. centuria, pl. centuriae) which in practice often fell short of a literal century of 100 men. Most were probably about 80 strong.

A legion was commanded by a legionary legate, drawn from the highest echelons of society (the Senatorial Class). The legate would not have been a career soldier. He would have seen his command appointment as a step in a wider career that involved periods in diverse civil and military roles. He was in turn supported by tribunes, and centurions (sing. centurio, pl. centuriones). Many centurions came up through the ranks. They had their own complex hierarchy with the primus pilus being the senior centurion of the legion. Distinguished by their vitis, or cane of office, the centurions were generally career soldiers. Each centurion had a second in command or optio, whose badge of office was a long cane with a knob at one end.

It is often imagined that because they were formed of Roman citizens, the legions that came to Britain were full of Italians – they were not. Most were composed of soldiers drawn from citizen communities outside Italy. Quite a number, for example, came from Gaul and Germany. The crucial issue was not place of birth, but citizenship.


Auxiliaries served in a range of smaller formations commanded by prefects or tribunes. There were cavalry regiments (sing. ala, pl. alae) which were subdivided into troops (sing. turma, pl. turmae) under not centurions, but decurions (sing. decurio, pl. decuriones). Infantry units (sing. cohors peditata, pl. cohortes peditatae), were organised much like infantry cohorts, and mixed units of cavalry and infantry. A mixed unit or cohors equitata (pl. cohortes equitatae), was an adaptable formation well suited to a range of frontier tasks, but their cavalrymen did not enjoy the same status as their counterparts in the alae. Cohorts and alae came in two broad sizes, nominally 500 strong (quingenaria) or 1,000 strong (milliaria). Their organisation as we understand it is summarised below, but we should assume that there was considerable variation even within unit types.

Size and Composition
Cohors peditia (Infantry)
480 to 600 men (all infantry)
6 centuriae of 80 to 100 men

Cohors peditia milliairia (Infantry)
800 to 1000 men (all infantry)
10 centuriae of 80 to 100 men

Cohors equitata (mixed unit)
600 to 720 men
120 cavalry (4 turmae) and 480 to 600 infantry (6 centuriae)
An adaptable formation suited to a range of tasks. The cavalrymen did not enjoy the same status as their counterparts in the alae

Cohors equitata milliaria (mixed unit)
1040 men
800 infantry (10 centuriae of 80) men and 240 cavalry (8 turmae of 30 men)

Ala quingenaria (Cavalry regiment)
480 men (all cavalry)
16 turmae of 30 cavalrymen

Ala milliaria (Cavalry regiment)
720 to 864 men (all cavalry)
24 turmae of 30 to 36 cavalrymen

Alongside these different types of unit, another formation emerges in the late first century, the numerus (pl. numeri). We still know little about these entities. The very vagueness of their title (numerus simply means unit) compounds our ignorance. They vary considerably in size – some as small as 200 men, others perhaps with ten times that number. They appear to be drawn overwhelmingly from non-citizens on the edge of empire or sometimes even from beyond the frontiers.

Having looked briefly at the organisation of the Roman army in the first and second centuries AD, we are now ready to look at how its soldiers would have appeared. We will start by looking at their equipment, and then go on to view the monuments they erected to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Mons Graupius: a decisive battle?

Outnumbered, but storming uphill through the ranks of their enemies, the soldiers of Rome destroyed Caledonian resistance in a final climactic battle. And remarkably, the battle was won almost without the loss of Roman blood, for the men delivering this lethal assault were not Rome’s famous legionaries, her citizens in arms, but auxiliaries brought to Britain from the tribes of the Rhine.

This is the climax of Tacitus’ biography of Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, governor of Britain. It is an account of combat 40 years before the building of Hadrian’s Wall at a place – still not definitively identified – known to the Romans as Mons Graupius (in the Grampian Hills) in what is now Scotland (Tacitus Agricola 29-38). In this account, Agricola emerges as an exemplary governor, a successful and innovative general (as here) and outstanding statesman. So compellingly is the man portrayed that it inspired future generations, and indeed as late as 1894, a fine statue of the great man was erected at Bath (see image above).

Praising Agricola’s brilliance, Tacitus relates how Rome’s famous citizen soldiers, the legionaries, were held in reserve as non-citizen auxiliaries were launched instead upon Rome’s Caledonian adversaries. He places particular emphasis on the Batavian and Tungrian auxiliaries, men recruited from two tribes of the Lower Rhine. The rationale, Tacitus assures us, was that by keeping his legionaries back, Agricola could hope to win without the loss of ‘Roman blood’, while if he suffered a reverse, he still had the legions in reserve. After an exchange of missiles, it was the Batavians and Tungrians, who, stabbing with their swords and striking with their shields, destroyed the enemy line, while auxiliary cavalry countered the enemy’s flanking attack and pursued them from the field.

How should we read this account of great generalship? It is clear that we should not take it at face value. Tacitus has an agenda in boasting of the achievements of Agricola; the man was his father-in-law after all! Some scholars have questioned whether the battle was anywhere near as decisive or as significant as Tacitus claims. We cannot identify the site for certain and debate continues as to precisely in which year the confrontation took place, AD 83 or AD 84. But the account is of more general interest – for it shows that a Roman readership could accept the idea that non-citizens could fight and win battles for Rome without the aid of citizen soldiers. And indeed, we will see that they often did.

Entry to the legions was not open to non-citizens, but they could enrol in the auxilia. By the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, it had become commonplace to award Roman citizenship to non-citizens who had served 25 years as auxiliary soldiers. This arrangement became a major force for social change. The children of some auxiliaries may have chosen to serve in the legions, but other avenues were also open to those with citizenship. Interestingly too, the auxiliary regiments themselves ended up with growing numbers of citizens enrolling in their ranks. In contrast to Tacitus’ claims, soldiers with ‘Roman blood’ were also to be found amongst the auxiliaries.

Historical accounts of battles are often vivid and exciting, but they are also notoriously problematic. Eye witness testimonies conflict, no one individual has total oversight, and the historian recording them may not even have been present. In a case such as this one, other agendas are also at play and some of these are drawn out in the preamble to the battle, a speech ‘reportedly’ from the lips of the Caledonian leader, Calgacus. His comments offer a wide ranging critique of his Roman adversaries, and lament the fact that they have even brought British allies with them to fight the Caledonians.

© Newcastle University

The changing faces of Rome's armies

‘The most important single factor in the whole of Roman history is quite simply the success of the Roman army’ wrote John Mann in 1974. That army had been called the ‘ultimate war machine’ and has inspired generations of military men with its organisation, tactics and victories. But in their enthusiasm to study an army at the peak of its battlefield efficiency, students have sometimes overlooked not simply the way in which the Roman military changed over time, but also the way in which it varied, from place to place and unit to unit.

Acknowledging this variety, and recognising that there was much more to the soldiery than their battlefield exploits, does not diminish the importance of military success to Roman history. It does help us to understand how the frontiers worked and, no less importantly, how Roman provincial society evolved.

In this introductory video we aim to show you what you can expect of this week. There is violence, certainly, but there are also profoundly important points to consider in terms of how and why Rome’s armies changed. So we will look at both the army of conquest, the force that swept through Britain in the decades following the Claudian invasion of AD 43, but also at the force that garrisoned Hadrian’s Wall from the second century onwards.

Mann, J. C. 1974 ‘The Frontiers of the Principate’, in Temporini, H. (ed) Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2. 1 508-533, p. 509 (out of print)

If you are looking for an introduction to the broader military history of Rome, we would particularly recommend both: Goldsworthy, A. K. 2007 Roman Warfare, and Phoenix & James, S.J. 2011 Rome and the Sword: How warriors and weapons shaped Roman History, London: Thames and Hudson.

The army that (almost) conquered Britain

Contrary to what many people believe, Julius Caesar neither conquered Britain nor transformed it into a Roman province. Rather he led two short military expeditions here, in 55 and 54 BC respectively. It was not until AD 43 (during the reign of the Emperor Claudius) that a true army of conquest arrived in Britain to stay.

This army, a fully professional force, owed much of its character and organisation to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, the man who transformed the Roman state during his rule (from 27 BC to AD 14). It contained four legions, made up of citizen soldiers: the Legio II Augusta (whose standards appear on the building stone RIB 1341 from Hadrian’s Wall above), Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XX Valeria Victrix. Two of these legions had left Britain by the time Hadrian’s Wall was built and another, Legio VI Victrix, had arrived. The army of conquest also consisted of auxiliary units of infantry and cavalry, composed overwhelmingly of the Empire’s non-citizen subjects and comprising over 20,000 men. It was a huge force – and it was to transform Britain as it took over the south and, within a few decades of arriving launched itself as far up as the Scottish Highlands. But what did it look like?

In our first activity this week, we explore the organisation and equipment of the invading army. We will consider the evidence for the equipment they carried and read the monuments they left behind.

© Newcastle University

Understanding forts and fortresses

What was the purpose of Roman forts and fortresses, and how were they organised?

Most of the soldiers stationed on the Wall, its outposts to the north, the Cumbrian Coastal system and indeed the hinterland were quartered in forts. Understanding the anatomy of forts is therefore vital to understanding how the Roman army of Britain worked.
What were they for?

Forget any preconceived notion based on medieval castles: of high walled citadels designed to withstand determined siege. The forts and fortresses of Roman Britain were not built with such concerns in mind. None of Rome’s British adversaries had the capacity to sustain a siege even if they could, briefly, marshal the forces necessary to confront Rome’s military might in the field.

Yet forts and fortresses were essential instruments in Rome’s conquest and control of Britain. In some respects they performed similar functions to towns, facilitating administrative control, and they should be understood as part of a wider discussion of urbanism. As we will see, they were home to a wide range of non-combatants.

But forts were also, as the archaeologist Professor Simon James puts it, ‘wolf cages’ designed to keep soldiers in order. Not all of Rome’s soldiers were willing. Contemporary documents from other provinces refer to desertion, to soldiers running riot, and less frequently but significantly, to mutinies by entire regiments.

Under Hadrian’s original scheme, the Wall included milecastles and turrets, but in a significant development (known to archaeologists as the ‘fort decision’) larger installations accommodating 400 to 1,000 soldiers were constructed. These forts were an essential part of Roman strategy, complementing a handful of outpost forts north of the Wall, as well as the large number of military bases to the south. Further south again were the great fortresses at York and Chester, capable of housing entire legions of 5,000 to 6,000 men.

Design and layout

While no two forts or fortresses were identical, they shared several key elements. Later in the course we will examine what life was like in the different parts of these complex settlements, but let us start with the basic layout.

In our image above you can see a plan of the fort at Wallsend (Segedunum). Wallsend is important because:

- it was the fort at end of the curtain wall, where Hadrian’s Wall literally came to its end in the River Tyne
- it was the first fort where Newcastle archaeologists were able to produce a convincing plan of its earliest, Hadrianic phase

Evidence suggests Wallsend contained a cohort of approximately 500 men made up of a mixture of cavalry and infantry. Note the different elements in the plan – the classic playing card shape of the fort, its curved corners (a legacy from the older practice of making turf walls, despite sharp corners being easier to build in stone). As at most other forts, an extra-mural settlement and communal baths lay beyond the walls, and we will see those later, but for the moment our concern is what lay within.

As our image shows, the dominant type of building were the long thin barrack blocks.

Forts had at their centre a headquarters building (principia) consisting of a courtyard and covered hall (basilica). This building housed the regimental standard in a chapel, guarded 24 hours, which itself lay over the fort’s underground strong-room holding soldiers’ pay chests.

Adjacent to the principia lay the commanding officer’s house (praetorium) which followed the layout of a traditional Mediterranean style courtyard house, making few concessions to the climate! In keeping with Roman notions of work and leisure, the praetorium was both a place for the commanding officer (and family) to live and conduct official business.

The final element in the central range of the fort would have been the granaries (horrea), substantial buttressed buildings, capable of holding (amongst other things) enough grain for the soldiers’ needs for a year.

Sometimes as at Wallsend, we find other structures, such as a probable hospital (valetudinarium), made up of rooms around a small courtyard, and more rarely a covered training hall.

Below are two very different images of Roman military installations.

The first is a plan of the legionary fortress the Romans began constructing at Inchtuthil in Scotland in the AD 80s. It is clear that its construction was central to imperial plans to establish permanent military control there – but when other priorities intervened and soldiers were needed abroad, it was abandoned, and archaeologists inherited one of the most complete plans of a legionary fortress anywhere.

Our second picture shows Housesteads (Vercovicium), first excavated in the nineteenth century and most recently the site of another major Newcastle University excavation. It is one of the best known forts on the Wall and is commonly, and somewhat misleadingly, used as an example of a typical fort. The units stationed in and around it changed over time, but it is known to have contained an infantry regiment of about 800 soldiers during the second and third centuries AD.

Who built Handrian's Wall?

It was one thing for an emperor to conceive of a Wall, quite another for it to be built. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was a colossal undertaking. Who undertook it?

Fortunately for us Roman culture placed no premium on modesty. Achievements in the Roman World, whether in public office, or in construction, were to be acclaimed and commemorated publicly. And there is a lot of evidence for the individuals who built the Wall. As you might expect, most of those attested are soldiers. We will discuss Rome’s army in Britain extensively next week, but for the moment, note that there is a striking pattern to the evidence. Inscriptions where a unit can be identified refer to units that consisted only of citizen soldiers – the legions. Three legions are known to have helped build the Wall, Legio VI Victrix (which arrived in Britain c. AD 122, just in time to start work on the Wall), Legio XX Valeria Victrix and Legio II Augusta.

By contrast the non-citizen units of the army, the auxiliaries, are very rarely recorded explicitly on inscriptions recording the initial building of the Wall. Indeed, the only inscription we have recording the work of an auxiliary unit at this time records not the building of the Wall, but the cutting of a ditch. Why? It is often assumed that this is because the legions were the only units with engineering specialists in their ranks, but other factors were probably at work. During later rebuilding work even labourers sent from southern towns are documented building stretches of Wall. Later we do in fact see auxiliaries undertaking building projects on the Wall, including the internal buildings of far greater structural complexity than the curtain walls and turrets the legionaries had once so proudly built.

In this video we see something of the challenges of Wall building and some of the inscriptions that record the builders themselves.

© Newcastle University

The ultimate barrier? Hadrian's famous curtain wall

The curtain wall, the most famous and instantly recognisable part of Hadrian’s frontier system, has fascinated visitors to northern England for generations.

It certainly looks as though it could present a formidable obstacle, but recent excavations have raised important questions as to just what its purpose really was. Large and imposing it may have been, but could such a wall really have stopped a determined army, or even a small group of fast moving raiders? Excavations at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, at the aptly named Wallsend, have revealed more of the original wall, but also mysterious features on the berm, the strip of ground that lies between the wall and the ditch that ran along its northern side. How should these be interpreted? In this evidence we look at the Wall at Wallsend as it appears in both its surviving state and as a full scale model.

Any attempt to understand the role of the curtain wall must, of course, take into account the structures attached to it -the turrets, milecastles and forts which we will discuss in our next steps- but the question of linear barriers also touches on another unique feature of Hadrian’s Wall, the remarkable earthwork that runs immediately to its south known as the Vallum.

With its deep ditch, paralleled to the north and south by earthen banks, the Vallum must have been a major barrier in its own right. It was built within a few years of the Wall, blocking almost all access to the Wall from the south, and then slighted (cut through) when the army moved into Scotland. What does its shape, location and history suggest about Roman thinking on movement and control on the Tyne-Solway line?

For a magnificent technical guide to the Wall we recommend Breeze, D. J., 2006 (ed.) J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall, now out of print but some copies still available directly from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne: Newcastle Upon Tyne

© Newcastle University

The road before the Wall: excavating the Stanegate at Vindolanda

Roman commanders were well aware of the strategic importance of the River Tyne, to the east, and the River Solway, to the west, long before Hadrian’s Wall was constructed.

Excavations at Corbridge, where a major road (Dere Street) built to support the army’s northern campaigns crossed the Tyne, and at Carlisle, which lay at the head of the Solway Estuary, show that major forts were established at both sites in the early AD 70s. And crucially both were linked by an east-west road which endured into the medieval period when it became known as the Stanegate. Other forts, most famously Vindolanda, along with towers and fortlets were established on this road.

In this video, Dr Andrew Birley, Director of Excavations for the Vindolanda Trust discusses the evidence for this earlier period of activity discovered during excavations at his site. This evidence includes the celebrated writing tablets, which we will be discussing in the next few steps. Note how complex the Vindolanda site is, and how many phases of Roman occupation overlie the waterlogged deposits which date from before the Wall, to the time when the Stanegate road marked the line of Roman control along the Tyne-Solway Isthmus.

© Newcastle University

Postcards from the past: reading the Vindolanda tablets

Wooden writing tablets continue to be discovered in the excavations at Vindolanda, and have now also been identified at several other sites in Britain.

The Vindolanda Tablets are of particular importance to our understanding of life on the Stanegate in the decades immediately before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Invaluable sources of information though they are, the tablets are often frustrating. Their authors knew of course to whom they wrote, and seldom needed to refer to the title and role of their correspondent. Tablets can be incomplete, the Latin is that of daily speech and sometimes littered with colloquialisms which we only partially understand. Additionally, diverse spellings, poor grammar and sloppy handwriting can all present challenges to translators.

In the following steps, we will look at two groups of tablets to see what they tell us about life on the edge of Roman Britain on the eve of Hadrian’s Wall. The translations used are the work of Alan Bowman and David Thomas and may be found on the excellent Vindolanda Tablets online maintained by Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents.

What does aerial photography tell us about the Roman advance?

For those unfortunate enough to witness its terrifying onslaught, the passage of Rome’s campaigning army must have been striking. Smoke curling up where villages had once stood, crows circling sites littered with corpses, the detritus left by the passage of thousands of soldiers. But almost two millennia later, it is much harder to track Rome’s murderous routes through northern Britain.

Yet, there are clues. We have just discussed the literary sources, noting that while they are essential reading, they have multiple limitations. And of course ancient writers did not really seek to give a detailed account of strategy or topography. They did not desire to act as war correspondents.

The fast pace of campaigning armies can mean that little endures of their passing for archaeologists to find. But Roman soldiers built temporary camps as they advanced into Scotland. Few of these contained internal buildings (tents sufficed) but ramparts were required to keep the enemy out and deserters in. These ramparts and their accompanying ditches survive. Eroded, diminished by centuries of ploughing, they can be hard to see from ground. From the air things look very different. An archaeologist trained in aerial reconnaissance can identify the tell-tale ‘ground responses’, the visual clues, that show the presence of even short-lived campaign camps.

There are three basic types of ‘ground response’: shadow, soil colour and crop mark. From the air it is possible to see the play of shadow on undulations in the ground over a larger area, making it possible, for example, to detect systems of banks and ditches. This ground response can be strong in low light conditions, and/or when there is snow or frost.

Soil marks sometimes show the presence of buried structures, particularly after ploughing, which brings elements of the buried feature to the surface. The problem with soil marks is that they indicate that the archaeological feature is being actively destroyed. Crop marks are the third type of ground response. Crop growth will be affected by what lies beneath the ground: a nice moist ancient ditch will foster growth, while an old stone wall will inhibit development.

Dr Rebecca Jones is Head of Archaeology Strategy at Historic Scotland, and a Newcastle University graduate. She is a specialist in aerial photography and Roman camps. Her book, (2012) Roman Camps in Britain, published by Amberly (ISBN 1848686889), is recommended for anyone trying to understand these extraordinary testimonies to Rome’s campaigns in northern Britain.

The conquest that never was: Rome beyond the Tyne-Solway line

It is clear that as he wrote the biography of his father in law, Agricola governor of Britain, the great Roman historian Tacitus was exasperated. Writing of Rome’s great campaigns in Northern Britain forty years before Hadrian’s Wall, Tacitus glorifies Agricola for advancing Roman control, but claims that at the end of his governorship: Britain completely conquered, was at once neglected (Tacitus Histories 1.2)

Is this true? Did the failure lie, as he claims, in the petty jealousy of an imperial tyrant (the Emperor Domitian) resentful of the governor’s successes?

These questions matter because the abandonment of the campaigns Tacitus claims were so important ultimately led Rome to place most of its British army on the line that was to become Hadrian’s Wall. They also matter because they raise questions about how we balance different types of evidence, in this case, a literary account against archaeological data. Take the picture above for example. This helmet dates from the period of Rome’s first campaigns in Northern Britain. It has a Roman form, but is decorated in a Celtic style. Literary sources have nothing to say about it, but to archaeologists this combination raises important questions about culture conflict and cultural change.

Much of Britain remained under Roman control for centuries, but despite several brutal campaigns in the north, the Romans never conquered the land beyond the Tyne-Solway. This raises the question of of how significant Agricola’s campaigns into Scotland really were. For these we have two sources, Tacitus’ account and compelling archaeological discoveries. Both have weaknesses.

Let’s look at the literary evidence first. Not only was Tacitus writing about a relation (hardly the recipe for objectivity) but his Life of Agricola was also written as a moral argument. Tacitus was interested in what a good person, by his definition, should do in a position of influence at a time of tyranny. Gnaeus Iulius Agricola was governor of Britain c. AD 77-85, and his governorship coincided with the reign of the Emperor Domitian – a man reviled as a savage despot by historians. Tacitus presents Agricola (who probably was talented - the governor of Britain was a prestigious post) as an idealised figure to whom he attributes all Rome’s military and civil ‘achievements’ in Britain.

Archaeological evidence suggests, however, that some changes Tacitus attributes to Agricola were probably undertaken by previous governors. Whist it is difficult to date events precisely enough to link them to alleged and real historical events, there is no doubt that Roman soldiers established major military bases along the Tyne-Solway well before Agricola. Dendrochronology (the dating of tree rings in timbers) shows that the Romans were already preparing a fort at Carlisle in AD 72/73. To the east, we have evidence for early work at Vindolanda and Corbridge. That said, Agricola’s presence probably coincided with a turning point in the campaign. Tacitus writes engagingly of a decisive Roman victory (which we will look at in detail next week) before claiming that Britain was neglected. He thus implies that proper consolidation of victory (the incorporation of what is now Scotland into the Empire) would have required a commitment that was lacking.

Archaeological evidence also suggests that the Romans had control of Scotland in mind. In addition to many smaller installations, they began work on a legionary fortress at Inchtuthil. The decision to abandon this was almost certainly not as whimsical at Tacitus implies. Soldiers were urgently needed to bolster Rome’s positions on the Danube, then under massive pressure from a new superpower, the Dacians. With reduced numbers, the first great advance gave way. The soldiers fell back to the Tyne-Solway, a line allowing better communication and supply (by land and sea) than any Rome could afford to occupy to the north. Consolidation in this zone led to the establishment of what we speak of as the Stanegate system, and in turn Hadrian’s Wall.

The line was held, with varying degrees of success until the closing stages of Roman rule in Britain in the early fifth century. But even when the Wall was established Roman commanders did not see it as a barrier to their operations. Shortly after the death of Hadrian the army pushed north to establish a new wall, the Antonine Wall, between the Forth and the Clyde in southern Scotland. This was occupied for a generation, before the army withdrew south and reoccupied Hadrian’s Wall (c. AD 158).

Other campaigns followed. In AD 208 the Emperor Septimius Severus led a substantial field army and his warring sons into the north. His operations, which concluded in AD 211, were savagely criticised by Cassius Dio, a contemporary writer (Dio Roman History 77. 11.1-77.15.4). We discuss the evidence for the Severan campaigns in more detail in week five. Further campaigns are known to have taken place in AD 305 and 382 (Panegyrici Latini Veteres 6(7).7.2). But Rome’s presence was not limited to sporadic campaigning – it also used outpost forts, patrols, spies and alliances to maintain its interests in Northern Britain.

There is a full online version of Dio’s Roman History available online in several different formats if you are interested in exploring it further.

Dio's Roman History

Tacitus, the Agricola and Germania (1894)

Hadrian's wall