ROMAN MILITARY IN BRITAIN: SOLDIERS, HADRIAN’S WALL AND VINDOLANDA

ROMAN MILITARY PRESENCE IN BRITAIN


model of a Roman soldier

After the initial conquest and the Boudiccan Revolt, the Romans had a relatively small military presence in Britain. Dr. Neil Faulkner of the University of Bristol wrote for the BBC: “Elsewhere, the empire's frontiers were under attack. Reinforcements were needed. Troop numbers in Britain had to be reduced. A phased withdrawal was carried out from the far north, eventually bringing the army to a line that stretched across modern Northumberland from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Carlisle on the Solway. This was the line along which Hadrian's Wall was constructed in 120s and 130s AD. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

“Here, and across the empire, the Romans were drawing symbolic lines across the map. On one side 'civilisation', on the other 'barbarians'. On the ground, the lines were made real in stone, earth and timber. The line stretched for 73 miles across northern Britain – a ditch, a thicket of spikes, a stone wall, a sequence of forts, milecastles and observation turrets, and a permanent garrison of perhaps 8,000 men. |::|

“The rest of the Roman army was also stationed in the west and the north - in lonely auxiliary forts in the Welsh mountains, the Pennines, or the Southern Uplands of modern Scotland; or in one of the big three legionary fortresses at Isca Silurium (Caerleon), Deva (Chester) and Eboracum (York). |::|

“Here, through some 350 years of Roman occupation, the army remained dominant. Settlements of craftsmen and traders grew up around the forts, sustained by army contracts and soldiers' pay. Local farms supplied grain, meat, leather, wool, beer, and other essentials. But change was limited. The land was impoverished and sparsely populated, and the army took what little surplus there was, so there were few of the trappings of Romanised life. |::|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Book: “Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier” by Alan K. Bowman

Hadrian's Wall

Emperor Hadrain (A.D. 76-138) ordered and oversaw the building of Hadrian’s Wall near the present-day border between Scotland and England to protect the unstable British provinces from fierce tribes such as the Caledonians, Picts and "Raiding Scots" in present-day Scotland. Hadrian's Wall was a Roman frontier built between A.D. 122 and 130. Running for 117 kilometers (73 miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west, it makes use of ridges and crags, particularly Whin Sill, and offers goods view to the north. A deep ditch reinforced some parts of it. Other parts were built on the top of cliffs.

Probably largely built by Roman troops and slaves, Hadrian’s Wall is the most lasting and famous monument left behind by the Romans in Britain and remains a powerful symbol of Roman rule. Stretching from the North Sea near the east coast town of Newcastle to the Irish Sea near Carlisle in the west, the 2000-year-old wall snakes through treeless valleys and over bluffs in a land as big as the sky. The 12 best preserved miles of the wall are located in Northumberland National Park where hills gently rise and fall like waves in a calm sea.

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “That “outermost island” was where Hadrian built the monument that bears his name, a rampart of stone and turf that cut Britain in half. Today Hadrian’s Wall is one of the best preserved, well-documented sections of Rome’s frontier. Remnants of the 73-mile barrier run through salt marshes, across green sheep pastures, and for one bleak stretch not far from downtown Newcastle, alongside a four-lane highway. Miles of it are preserved aboveground, lining crags that rise high above the rain-swept countryside. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 >|<]

“More than a century of study has given archaeologists an unparalleled understanding of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, perhaps designed by Hadrian himself on a visit to Britain in 122, was the ultimate expression of his attempt to define the empire’s limits. In most places the stone wall was an intimidating 14 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Traces of a 9-foot-deep ditch running the length of the wall are still visible today. In the past few decades excavations have uncovered pits filled with stakes between ditch and wall, one more obstacle for intruders. A dedicated road helped soldiers respond to threats. Regularly spaced gates were supported by watchtowers every third of a mile.” >|<

Composition of Hadrian's Wall


Hadrian's Wall at Milecastle

During Roman times Hadrian’s Wall was 10 feet wide and 13 and 15 feet high— high enough so that a man standing on the shoulders of another man still couldn't reach the top. Signal stations were set up every mile and every five miles or so there was a castle. As a testimony of how much the Scots were feared 13,000 soldiers and 5,500 horsemen were positioned along the wall. To put these numbers in perspective William the Conqueror captured England with a force of only 7,000 men.

During Roman Times, a traditional fighting ditch stood on the north side of the wall. On the south side was a 10-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide ditch intended to keep smugglers and local inhabitants at bay. Causeways were built across these ditches at the forts. The largest fort enclosed nine acres and housed 1000 men. Each fort had a central headquarters, a chapel for storing sacred weapons, rows of slate-roofed barracks, storage granaries, cookhouses and latrines with running water large enough to accommodate 20 men at one time.

Hadrian's wall was made from 25 million lunch-box-size stones. In the interior of the wall was poured mortar, and tons of rubble, dirt and gravel. The wall was built at a rate of five wall miles and one fort a year per legion. Although the wall wasn't finished until A.D. 122 most of the work was complete in three years.

“Hadrian's Wall makes use of locally-available materials. Running for forty-five miles from the east, the Wall was built of stone. The stone wall had two outer faces of dressed stone, containing a centre of rubble. The remaining thirty-one miles of the Wall in the west was built of turf. The turf wall, constructed from turf blocks, was built either from the prepared ground or upon a bed of cobbles.” On “locally-quarried stone. Roman stone-masons have left inscriptions in the stones which describe the location of these quarries. |::|

Frontiers of the Roman Empire

According to UNESCO: “The ‘Roman Limes’ represents the border line of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 2nd century AD. It stretched over 5,000 kilometers from the Atlantic coast of northern Britain, through Europe to the Black Sea, and from there to the Red Sea and across North Africa to the Atlantic coast. The remains of the Limes today consist of vestiges of built walls, ditches, forts, fortresses, watchtowers and civilian settlements. Certain elements of the line have been excavated, some reconstructed and a few destroyed. The two sections of the Limes in Germany cover a length of 550 kilometers from the north-west of the country to the Danube in the south-east. The 118-km-long Hadrian’s Wall (UK) was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian c. AD 122 at the northernmost limits of the Roman province of Britannia. It is a striking example of the organization of a military zone and illustrates the defensive techniques and geopolitical strategies of ancient Rome. The Antonine Wall, a 60-km long fortification in Scotland was started by Emperor Antonius Pius in 142 AD as a defense against the “barbarians” of the north. It constitutes the northwestern-most portion of the Roman Limes. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website *=*]

“The Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, was one of the greatest empires history has known. Enclosing the Mediterranean world and surrounding areas, it was protected by a network of frontiers stretching from the Atlantic Coast in the west to the Black Sea in the east, from central Scotland in the north to the northern fringes of the Sahara Desert in the south. It was largely constructed in the 2nd century AD when the Empire reached its greatest extent. This frontier could be an artificial or natural barrier, protecting spaces or a whole military zone. Its remains encompass both visible and buried archaeology on, behind and beyond the frontier.”*=*

The site “consists of three sections of the frontier: Hadrian’s Wall, the Upper German- Raetian Limes and the Antonine Wall, located in the northwestern part of the Empire, constituting the artificial boundaries of the former Roman provinces Britannia, Germania Superior and Raetia: Running 130 kilometers from the mouth of the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth, Hadrian’s Wall was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian in AD 122 as a continuous linear barrier at the then northernmost limits of the Roman province of Britannia. The frontier extended a further 36km down the Solway coast as a series of intervisible military installations. It constituted the main element in a controlled military zone across northern Britain. The Wall was supplemented by the ditch and banks of the vallum, supporting forts, marching camps and other features in a wide area to the north and south, linked by an extensive road network. It illustrates an ambitious and coherent system of defensive constructions perfected by engineers over the course of several generations and is outstanding for its construction in dressed stone and its excellent use of the spectacular upland terrain through which it passed. *=*



“The Upper German-Raetian Limes covers a length of 550 kilometers and runs between Rheinbrohl on the Rhine and Eining on the Danube, built in stages during the 2nd century. With its forts, fortlets, physical barriers, linked infrastructure and civilian architecture it exhibits an important interchange of human values through the development of Roman military architecture in previously largely undeveloped areas thereby giving an authentic insight into the world of antiquity of the late 1st to the mid-3rd century AD. It was not solely a military bulwark, but also defined economic and cultural limits. Although cultural influences extended across the frontier, it did represent a cultural divide between the Romanised world and the non-Romanised Germanic peoples. In large parts it was an arbitrary straight line, which did not take account of the topographical circumstances. Therefore, it is an excellent demonstration of the Roman precision in surveying. *=*

“The Antonine Wall was built under the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 140’s AD as an attempt to conquer parts of northern Britain and extends for some 60 kilometers across central Scotland from the River Forth to the River Clyde. Through its military and civil constructions, it demonstrates cultural interchange through the extension of Roman technical skills, organisation and knowledge to the furthest reaches of the Empire. It embodies a high degree of expertise in the technical mastery of stone and turf defensive constructions. As it was in use for only a single generation, it provides a snapshot of the frontier at a particular point in time and offers a specific insight into how the frontier was designed and built. Together, the remains of the frontiers, consisting of vestiges of walls, ditches, earthworks, fortlets, forts, fortresses, watchtowers, roads and civilian settlements, form a social and historical unit that illustrates an ambitious and coherent system of defensive constructions perfected by engineers over the course of several generations. Each section of the property constitutes an exceptional example of a linear frontier, encompassing an extensive relict landscape which reflects the way resources were deployed in the northwestern part of the Empire and which displays the unifying character of the Roman Empire, through its common culture, but also its distinctive responses to local geography and climate, as well as political, social and economic conditions.” *=*

Historical Importance of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire

According to UNESCO: The site is important because: “1) The extant remains of the fortified German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall constitute significant elements of the Roman Frontiers present in Europe. With their forts, fortlets, walls, ditches, linked infrastructure and civilian architecture they exhibit an important interchange of human and cultural values at the apogee of the Roman Empire, through the development of Roman military architecture, extending the technical knowledge of construction and management to the very edges of the Empire. They reflect the imposition of a complex frontier system on the existing societies of the northwestern part of the Roman Empire, introducing for the first time military installations and related civilian settlements, linked through an extensive supporting network. The frontiers did not constitute an impregnable barrier, but controlled and allowed the movement of peoples: not only the military units, but also civilians and merchants. Hence, they triggered the exchange of cultural values through movement of soldiers and civilians from different nations. This entailed profound changes and developments in the respective regions in terms of settlement patterns, architecture and landscape design and spatial organization. The frontiers still today form a conspicuous part of the landscape. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage sites website *=*]

2) “As parts of the Roman Empire’s general system of defense the German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall have an extraordinarily high cultural value. They bear an exceptional testimony to the maximum extension of the power of the Roman Empire through the consolidation of its northwestern frontiers and thus constitute a physical manifestation of Roman imperial policy. They illustrate the Roman Empire’s ambition to dominate the world in order to establish its law and way of life there in a long-term perspective. They witness Roman colonization in the respective territories, the spread of Roman culture and its different traditions – military, engineering, architecture, religion management and politics – and the large number of human settlements associated with the defenses which contribute to an understanding of how soldiers and their families lived in this part of the Roman Empire. *=*


Hadrian's Wall west of Housesteads


3) “The fortified German Limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall are outstanding examples of Roman military architecture and building techniques and of their technological development, perfected by engineers over the course of several generations. They demonstrate the variety and sophistication of the Romans’ responses to the specific topography and climate as well as to the political, military and social circumstances in the northwestern part of the Empire which spread all around Europe and thereby shaped much of the subsequent development in this part of the world.” *=*

Purpose of Hadrian's Wall: a Frontier Zone Not an Invasion Stopper

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Scholars today ask a key question that must have crossed the minds of Roman soldiers shivering through long watches in the English rain: What were they doing there in the first place? The scale of the wall and its system of ditches, ramparts, and roads suggest that the enemy could be deadly. Yet reports from Vindolanda hardly portray a garrison under pressure. Aside from a few scattered clues—like the tombstone of luckless centurion Titus Annius, who was “killed in the war”—there are no direct references to fighting anywhere on the British frontier. The big building project to the north isn’t even mentioned. “You get a sense something’s up. Colossal amounts of supplies are being ordered,” says Andrew Birley, director of excavations at Vindolanda and Hadrian biographer Anthony Birley’s nephew. “But they don’t refer to the wall itself.” “ [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 >|<]

Hadrian’s Wall, it was long thought, was built to keep the tribes northern tribes from invading Roman Britain. It was not formidable enough to keep determined individuals out, but it was obstructive enough to halt an invading army, with its requisite supply wagons and horses. The wall also signified the limit of Roman expansion. By building it from sea to sea, the Romans admitted they did not have the resources to pacify the tribes in Scotland. The goal was to keep them at bay. In the A.D. 2nd century, the Roman Empire reached its limit and one of Hadrian’s major contributions was saying enough was enough: lets focus on keeping the existing empire together rather being compelled to constantly expand it.

According to the BBC: “The Wall was not designed to prevent movement, but rather to control it, as can be seen in the numerous gateways or milecastles which, as their names suggests, were placed at regular mile intervals along the length of the Wall. Although the Wall had a military function, and enabled watching and patrolling, over time it attracted wider settlement and trade to its forts and garrisons. [Source: BBC |::|]


Roman fort


Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “The Roman army at this time was in a period of retrenchment. In A.D. 84, Agricola had defeated the Caledonii of south-eastern Scotland at Mons Graupius, and was (according to his somewhat partisan biographer Tacitus) poised to conquer the rest of Britain when his army was recalled by the emperor Domitian, who needed it for his Chattan wars on the Rhine. Large detachments of troops were withdrawn from the province, and those that were left established a frontier zone called a limes [pronounced leem-ays] along the military road of the Stanegate which ran from Carlisle to Corbridge (approx.). | [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“The fact that the limes was not fixed at the narrower neck of land between Edinburgh and Glasgow suggests strongly that the Scottish tribes had not been quite as comprehensively trounced as Tacitus would like us to believe, as do tombstones and snippets of official correspondence which hint at troubles in the north during this time. |::|

“However, it would be a mistake to view the limes as a static defensive line. Even when Hadrian's Wall was erected some thirty years later, it was never that. It was a permeable frontier, designed to control the movements of the tribes within the border zone and to regulate commerce between Roman Britain and its barbarian neighbours. As such, the troops within it fulfilled a similar sort of police function as those British troops who used to guard Hong Kong. Pivotal to this system was the fort of Vindolanda, which sat at the approximate centre of the frontier.” |::|

Vindolanda and Roman Forts Near Hadrian’s Wall

Situated a few miles behind Hadrian’s Wall was a string of forts, evenly spaced a half a day’s march apart. Each fort could house between 500 and 1,000 men, capable of responding quickly to any attacks. Housesteads Roman Fort is one the best preserved forts in the country. Located on a high ridge. It covers an area of five acres. Within its walls are a number of buildings including the fort's headquarters and commander's house, granaries, barracks, a hospital, and latrines. |::|

Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England. Archaeological excavations of the site show it was occupied by the Romans roughly from A.D. 85 to 370. Artifacts found b archaeologists have included Roman boots, shoes, armour, jewelry and coins. Perhaps the most interesting discovery has been the Vindolanda tablets, which contains letters and notes by soldiers stationed there, found in a waterlogged trash pile.


Vindolanda ruins

Vindolanda fort embraced a wall and gatehouse. Located south of Hadrian's Wall, it was surrounded by a settlement. As well as providing protect Roman forts near the wall attracted settlement and some local trade. According to to the BBC: “Sixteen forts were built on or near the Wall: each was different, with no standard interior plan. Archaeological evidence suggests that the forts were built after the Wall had been laid out and constructed. The forts were designed to house the soldiers that patrolled the Wall, although historians disagree about the numbers who were stationed there.” [Source: BBC |::|]

The Vindolanda Praetorium was the official residence of the Roman governors stationed at Vindolanda. Along the main street at Vindolanda there was a bath house with a raised floor. The fort and settlment also embraced temples, granaries, hospitals, and latrines. Among the 2000 or so ink tablets found at Vindolanda, one reads: 'I have sent you...pairs of socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.' Another says: '...you ought to decide, my lord, what quantity of wagons you are going to send to carry stone...I ask you to write back what you want me to do. I pray that you are in good health.' |::|

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “For a Roman military historian like me, Vindolanda is one of the most fascinating and exciting sites in the Roman world. It ranks alongside my old third-century hunting ground of Dura-Europos as a site of major importance, in which a snapshot of Roman life has been preserved for posterity. As such, it transcends the basic military significance of the find and, like so much else of the Roman army (around which the Roman system revolved), sheds light upon the everyday lives of those who lived and worked in and around the camp. The Vindolanda tablets provide a unique insight into what it must have been like to be a Roman representative in a foreign land.” [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

One tablet reads: “The Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons [Brittunculi] mount in order to throw javelins.” (Tab. Vindol. II.164) This memorandum “was probably written by one of the commanders at Vindolanda as informative notes to his successor. It graphically portrays the frustrations of the regular soldier when faced with a guerrilla army that will not stand and fight, rather like the experience of American soldiers in Vietnam.” |::|

History of Vindolanda

Vindolanda was built before Hadrian’s Wall. In approximately A.D. 92, it was rebuilt nearly doubling its size, perhaps in preparation for the start of the construction of Hadrian's Wall in A.D. 122. Towards the end of the second century and into the third century there was further expansion with a number of shops, workshops and domestic buildings added to the fort and settlement. [Source: BBC]


reconstruction of a Vindolanda tower

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Like most Roman forts, Vindolanda followed several phases of construction. Originally a turf rampart, probably erected in the time of Agricola, by the late 80s A.D. it was a permanent turf and timber fort in the classic Roman playing-card shape, aligned east-west, with a stone headquarters building, an officer's house, and a small bathhouse situated down the slope on the eastern side. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“During the Hadrianic period (c.120 and after), this whole fort was demolished and a new structure was built facing north-south. Attached to the west of this Hadrianic fort was a small civilian settlement, called a vicus, within the remains of the old rampart and which incorporated a fine bathhouse and a mansio, a guesthouse with space for up to six residents travelling along the Stanegate on official business. All of this was enlarged and rebuilt in stone during the early third century AD, and it is this ground plan that we see today. The famous Vindolanda tablets date to the pre-Hadrianic fort, though they are typical of Roman military life in any period. “

“During the fourth century, the Wall's function as a barrier declined as Roman power waned. Bede writes about the Wall in the seventh century as being eight feet (2.4 m) wide and twelve feet (3.6 m) high. The Wall was undoubtedly a handy source of stone for a number of new buildings, including new monasteries at Jarrow, Monkwearmouth and Lindisfarne.” |::|

Vindolanda Tablets

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “In 1973 workers digging a drainage ditch at Vindolanda, a typical frontline fort, uncovered piles of Roman trash under a thick layer of clay. The wet layer held everything from 1,900-year-old building timbers to cloth, wooden combs, leather shoes, and dog droppings, all preserved by the oxygen-free conditions. Digging deeper, excavators came across hundreds of fragile, wafer-thin wooden tablets covered in writing. They provide day-to-day details of life along Hadrian’s Wall: work assignments, duty rosters, supply requests, personal letters. There is even a birthday party invitation from one officer’s wife to another, the earliest surviving example of women’s handwriting in Latin. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 >|<]

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “The Vindolanda tablets were found mainly in a waterlogged rubbish heap at the corner of the commander's house in the pre-Hadrianic fort. More have been recovered from other parts of the site since. In all, there are over 400 tablets, made from thinly cut slivers of wood between one and three mm thick, about the size of a modern postcard, on which the correspondent wrote in ink before folding the leaf in half and writing the address on the back. In some cases, longer documents have been created by punching holes in the corner and tying several of these tablets together. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]


Only Vindolanda tablet written by a Roman woman

“Documents such as these were not uncommon in the Roman world, and were even described by Herodian, who talks of the emperor Commodus making a list of proscribed persons by: 'taking a writing-tablet of the kind that were made of lime wood and folded face-to-face by being bent.' It was the discovery of this list which prompted his assassination. The Vindolanda tablets are made of birch, alder and oak. Chance finds from other sites in Britain indicate that they were not unique, and the vast volume of them in the anaerobic conditions of Vindolanda suggest that such tablets were ubiquitous in the northern provinces as means of record-keeping and letter-writing where papyrus was scarce. |::|

“They can tell us a great deal about the nature of life on the Roman frontier, not just in a military context. The vast majority of them date from the period A.D. 97-103, when the fort was occupied by IX Batavorum and its sister unit III Batavorum, both 'quingenary' units approximately 500 strong, as well as a detachment of cavalry from the Spanish Ala Vardullorum. |::|

“It is almost impossible to separate the military activities of Vindolanda from its civilian activities, as you will see, since the two naturally blend into one. Yet the Vindolanda tablets can tell us some very interesting things about the way the Roman army was run on the northern frontier. What they show is just what a well-oiled and bureaucratic machine the Roman army was. Much of the Vindolanda material is made up of accounts, work rosters, and interim reports. Its value lies in its very nature as interim material, used to write up the more formulaic official reports which we find elsewhere, such as at Dura and in Egypt. These not only demonstrate how such a small number of men could be used to police and control such a wide frontier, but the extent to which the army was always engaged in non-military activities that interacted with the local area. |::|

Military Forces at Vindolanda


Roman officer

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Vindolanda was garrisoned at different times by several units, most importantly the First Cohort of Tungrians and the Third and Ninth Cohorts of Batavians. These were auxiliary units, made up of non-citizen recruits who served for a period of up to 25 years in return for Roman citizenship. None of them were Britons. This is because of a policy prompted by the revolt of these very units in A.D. 69. In the wake of the infamous Year of the Four Emperors, the Dutch Batavian auxiliaries had mutinied against the emperor Vespasian, joined by their neighbours the Tungrians on the River Meuse. It had taken five Roman legions to subdue them, commanded by the veteran general Q. Petilius Cerialis. He had taken the subdued auxiliaries with him on his next tour of duty, to Britain, where they stayed. From then on, Rome followed a policy of not allowing native troops to serve within their province of origin. The units were commanded by their own tribal chieftains, but were gradually diluted by recruits from other areas. The names on the Vindolanda tablets suggest origins from Gaul, Germany, Pannonia, Dacia and Greece (probably Greek slaves) as well as the upper Rhine homelands of the original units. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“The most fascinating military document to come out of the material is a strength report of the double-strength military cohort I Tungrorum, which shows just how many men could be absent from home base at any one time. (Tab. Vindol. I.154): '18 May, net number of the First Cohort of Tungrians, of which the commander if Iulius Verecundus the prefect, 752, including 6b centurions.'

“This lends weight to what we have long thought, that Roman frontier units were not static entities stuck in one place, but had men all over the place. It is significant that the vast majority of the troops were not even stationed in their own home base, but were elsewhere. Corbridge was the big granary fort at the eastern end of the Stanegate (and this is the only evidence we have of I Tungrorum occupying it, at almost quingenary strength). It is also interesting to see how far afield some of the troops were, for whatever reason. God alone knows what the men in Gaul were doing there (though bear in mind that I Tungrorum was technically a Gallo-Belgic unit); but the six men with a centurion were probably garrisoning an outpost or on patrol. I like to think that the single man below the pay detachment was away on leave, and we have at least a dozen formulaic leave requests written by soldiers in the fort to lend weight to this: 'I, [so-and-so], ask that you consider me a worthy person to grant leave at [such-a-place]'. The centurion in London was probably carrying official correspondence to the governor's office. Once again, we have evidence of centurions acting as couriers like this.

Life of the Soldiers at Vindolanda

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: ““The tablets suggest that watching over the “wretched little Britons,” as one Vindolanda writer describes the locals, was no picnic, but the fort wasn’t exactly a hardship post. Some soldiers lived with their families—dozens of children’s shoes, including baby booties, are among the footwear recovered. And the wall’s patrollers ate well: Bacon, ham, venison, chicken, oysters, apples, eggs, honey, Celtic beer, and wine were on the menu. There was even garum, a fermented fish concoction that was the Roman version of Worcestershire sauce. Homesick soldiers received care packages too. “I have sent you ... socks ... two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants,” writes one concerned correspondent.” [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012]


Hadrian's Wall latrine

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “The diet of the inhabitants of Vindolanda was pretty varied. Within the Vindolanda tablets, 46 different types of foodstuff are mentioned. Whilst the more exotic of these, such as roe deer, venison, spices, olives, wine and honey, appear in the letters and accounts of the slaves attached to the commander's house; it is clear that the soldiers and ordinary people around the fort did not eat badly. We have already seen the grain accounts of the brothers Octavius and Candidus, demonstrating that a wide variety of people in and around the fort were supplied with wheat. Added to that are a couple of interesting accounts and letters which show that the ordinary soldiers could get hold of such luxuries as pepper and oysters, and that the local butcher was doing a roaring trade in bacon. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“One list in particular is interesting, because it seems to illustrate the standard military practice of docking pay in return for some form of centralised supply. The tablet contains a list of men arranged by century, from the centuries of Ucenius and Tullio son of Carpentarius, who have been provided with various goods such as overcoats, towels, a flask, a cloak, thongs, tallow and in the case of Gambax son of Tappo, pepper. There are check marks to the left of several of these entries, as if they have been ticked off once they have paid, and we are able to ascertain from the fuller entries what the cost of certain commodities were. For instance, a towel cost 2 denarii, Gambax had 2 d worth of pepper, and Lucius the shieldmaker paid 5 d 3 asses for a cloak (Tab. Vindol. II.184). |::|

“Instead of paying for such items, the more fortunate soldiers in the unit could expect parcels from their families containing the basics of life, as in the case of this anonymous soldier (Tab. Vindol. II.346): ‘I have sent(?) you...pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals...Greet...Elpis...Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune.’

A letter from the cavalry decurion Masculus to Flavius Cerialis, Verecundus' successor in the fort, illustrates just how involved the commander could be in determining these assignments: ‘Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings. Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow. Are we all to return with the standard, or just half of us?...(missing lines)...most fortunate and be well-disposed towards me. My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.’

Alan K. Bowman, author of “Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier,” wrote: “If he had lice, there were baths, soap and towels; for the cold, a medical service and a hospital; if looking at the sky gave him inflamed eyes, he could sign on the sick list. If he was lonely, he could take leave and find a friend in Corbridge, or perhaps even go home to Tungria. But it would be optimistic to suppose that even the Roman army could stop the rain pattering out of the sky in a climate notorious for its tempestates molestae.” |

Duties of the Soldiers at Vindolanda


Building Harian's Wall

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Another report of work assignments shows how these men could be employed. Of 343 men present, 12 were making shoes, 18 were building the bath-house, others were out collecting lead, clay and rubble (for the bath-house?), while still more were assigned to the wagons, the kilns, the hospital and on plastering duty. Other accounts indicate that the completed bath-house had a balniator, a bath-house keeper called Vitalis. The remains of the third-century bath-house on the site give a very good idea of what Vitalis' bath-house must have been like. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“Other trades attached to the fort were two vets called Virilis and Alio, a shield-maker called Lucius, a medic called Marcus and a brewer called Atrectus. Most of these must have been soldiers, though we shall see later that civilians also played their part within fort life. Atrectus the brewer owed money to the local pork butcher for iron and pork-fat, which smacks of a little economic diversification on the butcher's part. It is not at all clear whether the butcher was a civilian or a soldier. He is likely to have been a civilian, if two other documents are anything to go by.

“The first is an intriguing account of wheat which, to me, paints a marvellous picture of everyday life at the fort. It is a long account, so I have excerpted only the clearest entries. [NB: a modius is a measure of weight] (Tab. Vindol. II.180): ‘ Account of wheat measured out from that which I myself put into the barrel: To myself, for bread... To Macrinus, modii 7 To Felicius Victor on the order of Spectatus, provided as a loan, modii 26 In three sacks, to father, modii 19 To Macrinus, modii 13 To the oxherds at the wood, modii 8 Likewise, to Amabilis at the shrine, modii 3 To Crescens, on the order of Firmus, modii 3 For twisted loaves, to you, modii 2 To Crescens, modii 9 To the legionary soldiers, on the order of Firmus, modii 11[+] To you, in a sack from Briga... To Lucco, in charge of the pigs... To Primus, slave of Lucius... To Lucco for his own use... In the century of Voturius... To father, in charge of the oxen... Likewise to myself, for bread, modii ? Total of wheat, modii 320½ .’ The document is clearly the account of a family business run by two brothers, whose father occasionally tends the oxen. |::|

Trade and Business at Vindolanda


Vindolanda tablet

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Another fabulous, long and very well preserved letter, from Octavius to his brother Candidus, gives us the names of these two brothers and portrays them as a couple of local wide-boys, with their fingers in as many pies as possible (Tab. Vindol. II 343): “Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings. The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus, I will settle up. From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me. I have several times written to you that I have bought about 5,000 modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least 500 denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about 300 denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible. The hides which you write are at Cataractonium, write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write. And write to me what is with that wagon. I would have already have been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad. See with Tertius about the 8½ denarii which he received from Fatalis. He has not credited them to my account. Know that I have completed the 170 hides and I have 119(?) modii of threshed bracis. Make sure that you send me some cash so that I may have ears of grain on the threshing room floor. Moreover, I have already finished threshing all that I had. A messmate of our friend Frontius has been here. He was wanting me to allocate(?) him some hides, and that being so, was ready to give cash. I told him I would give him the hides by the Kalends of March. He decided that he would come on the Ides of January. He did not turn up, nor did he take the trouble to obtain them since he had hides. If he had given the cash, I would have given him them. I hear that Frontinius Julius has for sale at a high price the leather ware(?) which he bought here for five denarii apiece. Greet Spectatus and ...and Firmus. I have received letters from Gleuco. Farewell. [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]|

“Candidus was obviously so well known in the fort that his brother did not need to put his name on the back for whoever was delivering the note. The two seem to have the supply of grain to Vindolanda sewn up (which is interesting when you consider that the military granary of Corbridge was just down the road). The regular allocations to Macrinus and Crescens are probably rations doled out to individual unit centurions: since a Crescens is named as a centurion of III Batavorum. In that case, who are Firmus and Spectatus? Clearly Firmus is a key individual, as he has the authority to allocate grain to a detachment of legionaries in the fort; yet does this mean that he is a senior centurion of one of the cohorts, or is he just a middle-man? Since Spectatus uses grain as a loan to Victor, it seems most likely that they were agents of the brothers (though this does not necessarily stop them being soldiers). |::|


“I think it is clear that the two brothers were civilian entrepreneurs, and when you consider that the annual pay of an auxiliary soldier at this time was about 300 denarii, they were obviously not in the little-league if they could fork out 500 denarii for their grain supplies. The fact that they had Roman names can tell us little, since anyone who wanted to get on is likely to have 'Romanised' by this time. One possibility does come to mind. Given the Roman penchant for farming out public services (like tax-collecting and mining) to individual entrepreneurs, it is possible that these two men had the contract for supplying grain to the army from Corbridge. Flavius Cerialis and his family |::|

The other great strength of the Vindolanda tablets is the insights that they give into the personal lives of some of the people who inhabited the fort. Naturally, this is most graphic for the officers of the fort, especially since the majority of the tablets were found in a rubbish tip linked to the commander's house, but there are things they can say about the lesser individuals who lived and worked in the vicinity also.” |::|

Patronage and Promotion in Vindolanda

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Flavius Cerialis was the praefectus in command of Cohors IX Batavorum, which occupied Vindolanda from around A.D. 97 onwards. His name indicates that his family was granted the citizenship by the Flavian dynasty of Vespasian, and the cognomen Cerialis may have been in honour of Q. Petilius Cerialis, who brought the Batavians over to Britain. He was a Batavian nobleman of equestrian status, which meant that his family had amassed a fortune of over 400,000 sesterces (100,000 denarii), the property qualification for entry into the equestrian order.” [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

“He was therefore, an important man in the area, and it was only natural for those who knew him to request letters of recommendation for their friends. One of these survives, from a certain Claudius Karus. (Tab. Vindol. II.250): ‘Brigionus has requested me, my lord, to recommend him to you. I therefore ask, my lord, if you would be willing to support him. I ask that you think fit to commend him to Annius Equester, the centurion in charge of the region at Luguvalium, by doing which you will place me in debt to you, both in his name and my own’.


“Brigionus is a Romanised Celtic name, and it does not take a great leap of imagination to see this as a classic example of patronage, by which the subjects of the frontier region were absorbed into the Roman system. Karus, a fellow officer, recommends to Cerialis a British client, and requests that he pass him on in turn to the regional administration officer for the legions, Annius Equester, whether as a potential recruit or for some other purpose is not clear (though given that it is being done through military channels, I would suspect the former). |::|

“Cerialis clearly had good contacts of his own, with which he was trying to wangle a promotion. Here are a couple of letters that paint an interesting little picture: ‘[Cerialis ] to his Crispinus... Since Grattius Crispinus is returning to [you], I have gladly seized this opportunity, my lord, of greeting you, whom I dearly wish to be in good health and master of all your hopes. For you have always deserved this of me, right up to your present high office... greet Marcellus, that most distinguished man, my governor. He offers opportunity for the talents of your friends, now that he is here, for which I know you thank him. Now, in whatever way you wish, fulfil what I expect of you and... so furnish me with very many friends, so that thanks to you I may be able to enjoy an agreeable period of military service. I write this to you from Vindolanda, where my winter quarters are’. (Tab. Vindol. II.225)

‘Niger & Brocchus to their Cerialis, greeting. We pray, brother, that what you are about to do is most successful. It will be so indeed, since our prayers are with you and you yourself are most worthy. You will assuredly meet our governor quite soon.’ (Tab. Vindol. II.248) |::|

“We do not know who Crispinus is, but he was clearly a high-ranking official in the province, with the ear of the provincial governor, L. Neratius Marcellus (Leg. Brit. A.D. 100-103). Cerialis obviously hoped by his patronage to gain a promotion from the governor, and his friends and fellow officers, Niger & Brocchus, clearly wished him well. The somewhat tart: 'I write this to you from winter quarters in Vindolanda.' might give some indication of how Cerialis viewed life up on the cold north-west frontier, as does another letter to a fellow officer, an aptly named September, offering to send him some goods: 'by which we may endure the storms, even if they are troublesome.' “ |::|

“We do not know whether Cerialis was successful in pursuing his promotion, but we do know about his friend. C. Aelius Brocchus went on to command the prestigious Ala Contariorum in Pannonia. At times, official channels could be abused, or at least stretched, in order to accommodate those in the position to take advantage of them. A legionary centurion called Clodius Super asks Cerialis to send him some clothing Cerialis had picked up from a friend in Gaul, saying: 'I am the supply officer, so I have acquired transport'. (Tab. Vindol. II.255).

Leisure Time and Family Visits at Vindolanda


Vondolanda water tank

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Life on the north-west frontier was clearly less than exciting for the officer classes. Cerialis writes to Brocchus in another letter asking for some hunting nets: 'and please make sure that they are repaired strongly'. Brocchus was the commander of a nearby fort called Briga (Celtic for 'hill'), which we cannot identify. His wife, Claudia Severa, was in regular correspondence with Cerialis' wife, Sulpicia Lepidina.: [Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|]

The most famous of these is the well-known birthday invitation.’Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present(?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him(?) their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’. (Tab. Vindol. II.291)

“In fact, the officer classes seem to have been engaged in a constant round of visits. Another letter from Claudia Severa informs Lepidina that Brocchus will always let her come to Vindolanda to visit whenever she can, while several accounts by the household slaves indicate that Brocchus had donated tunics to the Cerialis household in the past, and in return had dined on several occasions, both with and without his friend Niger, on which occasions chickens were slaughtered. Finally, a cryptic line at the end of one list of accounts informs us that on 25 June: 'The lords have remained at Briga'. |::|

“On a more personal note, a certain Velde(d)ius, who had secured a promotion to act as groom of the governor down in London, visited his 'brother and old messmate' Chrauttius en route to Housesteads. He probably stayed in the mansio, since he was on official business of some sort, and may have dropped off the shears which Chrauttius had asked him to get for him in the letter, which he discarded whilst he was there. He also left behind a leather offcut with his name inscribed upon it, and may have owned the magnificent chamfron which was found nearby. The two of them probably exchanged news about their 'sister', Thuttena, and various old messmates whom Chrauttius had mentioned in his letter. Veldedius then went on to Housesteads, where he died in unknown circumstances and an official tombstone was erected, with his name slightly mis-spelled, though it is still likely to have been the same man.” (Tab. Vindol. II.310). |::|

Romans and Caledonians Drank Together as a Pub in Northern Britain


Roman shoes found at Vindolanda

In 2012, archaeologists surveying the world’s most northerly Roman fort announced they had found an ancient pub there. George Mair wrote in The Scotsman: “The discovery, outside the walls of the fort at Stracathro, near Brechin, Angus, could challenge the long-held assumption that Caledonian tribes would never have rubbed shoulders with the Roman invaders. Indeed, it lends support to the existence of a more complicated and convivial relationship than previously envisaged, akin to that enjoyed with his patrician masters by the wine-swilling slave Lurcio, played by comedy legend Frankie Howerd, in the classic late 1970s television show Up Pompeii!. [Source: George Mair, scotsman.com, September 8, 2012]

“Stracathro Fort was at the end of the Gask Ridge, a line of forts and watchtowers stretching from Doune, near Stirling. The system is thought to be the earliest Roman land frontier, built around AD70 – 50 years before Hadrian’s Wall. The fort was discovered from aerial photographs taken in 1957, which showed evidence of defensive towers and protective ditches. A bronze coin and a shard of pottery were found, but until now little more has been known about the site. The archaeologists discovered the settlement and pub using a combination of magnetometry and geophysics without disturbing the site and determined the perimeter of the fort, which faced north-south.

“Now archaeologists working on “The Roman Gask Project” have found a settlement outside the fort – including the pub or wine bar. The Roman hostelry had a large square room – the equivalent of a public bar – and fronted on to a paved area, akin to a modern beer garden. The archaeologists also found the spout of a wine jug. Dr Birgitta Hoffmann, co-director of the project, said: “Roman forts south of the Border have civilian settlements that provided everything they needed, from male and female companionship to shops, pubs and bath houses.

““It was a very handy service, but it was always taught that you didn’t have to look for settlements at forts in Scotland because it was too dangerous – civilians didn’t want to live too close.“But we found a structure we think could be identifiable as the Roman equivalent of a pub. It has a large square room which seems to be fronting on to an unpaved path, with a rectangular area of paving nearby. We found a piece of highquality, black, shiny pottery imported from the Rhineland, which was once the pouring part of a wine jug. It means someone there had a lot of money. They probably came from the Rhineland or somewhere around Gaul.” We hadn’t expected to find a pub. It shows the Romans and the local population got on better than we thought. People would have known that if you stole Roman cattle, the punishment would be severe, but if they stuck to their rules then people could become rich working with the Romans.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.