Ancient Roman Forts, Frontier Fortifications and Defensive Walls

Home | Category: Military


reconstruction of Roman fort at Vindolanda

Rome was a walled city. The best preserved Roman protective wall — which functioned like the Great Wall of China — still standing is Hadrian's Wall between England and Scotland. The Romans raised walls in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya to keep out nomadic Saharan raiders; in Jordan and Mesopotamia as a defense against Persians and Arabs; and in the Danube and the Rhine against European Celtic tribes and horsemen from the Central Asian steppe. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

"The Romans," historian John Keegan wrote, "dotted the landscape with the rectangular legionary forts that their soldiers were trained to throw up at the end of each day's march in hostile territory." The forts were remarkably similar in design to fortifications around Chinese cities. They had four gates and a central ceremonial area as well as baths and a kitchen. Larger more permanent forts 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. [Ibid, Timothy Foote, Smithsonian, April 1985]

Germanic tribes often invaded towns near the borders. The Romans set up a chain of observation posts on the Rhine to guard the frontiers of the Roman empire, protect shipping, and give an early warning in the event of an attack. They were made from wood and stone and stood about five meters high. Surrounded by low walls, moats and sharp wooden stakes, they were set up between a 500 and 1,500 meters apart, close enough that towers could alert others in the chain in the event of trouble.

A typical fort had a wall with a main gate. A palisade around a kilometer square surrounded the fort . Near it was a tower. Villages houses were located outside the fort wall, Inside were the headquarters, commander’s residense barracks and workshops. Romans armies no the move carried prefabricated forts. They wall sections contained dovetail and cross-halving joints that allowed them to be quickly fitted together on site for instant defence. |

Watchtowers were built by Roman soldiers along the 342 miles of frontier between the Rhine and Danube Rivers.Qasr Bashir, built around A.D. 300 in the edge of the desert in Jordan, is one the world’s best-preserved Roman forts. Home to 70 to 160 horsemen, the fort kept Arab nomads from harassing caravans carrying frankincense and myrrh.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Siege Warfare and Tunneling

Trajan's Column, an attack on a Roman fort

Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “Whenever a town or building was under siege, a special army unit was sent ahead to surround the settlement and prevent anyone from escaping. A fortified camp would then be established around the area, preferably on high ground and always out of missile range. An army unit would then be sent to breach the defensive walls, protected by covering fire from archers, bolt-firers, and catapults. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 ]

“The catapult was one of the most intimidating siege weapons. Josephus (The Jewish Wars, 3.7.23) offers us a firsthand account of the catapult’s devastating power: “A soldier standing on the wall near Josephus was struck by it [a stone thrown by a catapult]. His head was torn off by the stone missile, and the upper part of his skull was hurled [550 meters (1,800 feet)].”

“Tunneling was key for siege warfare. The failure or success of many sieges was decided by how well the Romans were able to breach the defensive walls by digging tunnels underneath the town or building in question and breaking in. Although this was an effective tactic, it became widely known to Rome’s enemies and eventually lost its surprise factor. During the war against Mithridates of Pontus in the early first century B.C., the Romans were trying to dig a tunnel to breach the defenses of the city of Themiscyra. Its inhabitants drove a number of dangerous wild animals into the tunnel, including bears and even bees.

“The oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare has been dated to the third century A.D. and comes from tunnels found at Dura Europus (Syria), where evidence of an underground battle between the Romans and the Sassanian Persians were found. The Persians were besieging a Roman garrison and using tunnels to break in. The Romans responded by also digging tunnels to neutralize the attackers. Skeletons and weapons found in one of these galleries attest to the fact that the Roman soldiers were choked to death by an asphyxiating gas cloud coming from bitumen and sulfur crystals ignited by the Persians.”

Roman Frontiers, Fortifications and Walls

Rome depended on a network of forts, walls and natural barriers to separate the empire from outsiders. Walls, military outposts and frontier cities were all types of fortifications that were employed. Seventy-three-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall’s in northern Britain is the most well-known of these fortification. The Antonine Wall, built of stone, turf and wood, was used to extend the frontier beyond Hadrian’s Wall in A.D. 142. Lambaesis was established as military fort in 81. It later served as army headquartered in North Africa. Dura-Europos was built where the Romans seized a city on a cliff above the Euphrates from Parthians in the second century A.D. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

Major barriers included Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the Germanic Lines (walls in Germany that extended 342 miles), Limes Transalutanus (60 miles of walls in Romania) and Fossatum Africae (152 miles in Algeria.)

Diplomacy, trade and violence — and the fortifications — were all used maintain borders and keep the frontiers intact. Of the thousands of kilometers of frontier, only a small portion was protected by walls. They were mainly built to seal gaps between natural barriers such as mountains, deserts, rivers and sea. Troops were concentrated in fortresses, ultimately making the territory beyond them in the interior vulnerable. Over time, the barriers were breached and barbarian incursions led to the fall of the western part of the empire in the 5th century.

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “A stunning network of walls, rivers, desert forts, and mountain watchtowers marks Rome’s limits. At its peak in the second century A.D., the empire sent soldiers to patrol a front that stretched from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea as well as across North Africa.The question isn’t just academic. Defining and defending borders is a modern obsession too. As politicians have debated building a wall between the United States and Mexico and troops face off across the land-mine-strewn strip of ground between the two Koreas, the realities the Roman emperors faced are still with us. Understanding why the Romans were obsessed with their borders—and the role their obsession played in the decline of the empire—might help us better understand ourselves.

Purpose of the Walls

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “If the walls weren’t under constant threat, what were they for? Ever since British antiquarians organized the first scientific excavations along Hadrian’s Wall in the 1890s, historians and archaeologists have assumed Rome’s walls were military fortifications, designed to fend off barbarian armies and hostile invaders. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

Romans building a fort

“For decades arguments focused on tactical details: Did soldiers stand along the wall to rain spears and arrows down on invaders or sally forth to engage the enemy in the field? The trenches of WWI—and the deadly back-and-forth battling of WWII—did little to change the prevailing view of the ancient frontier as a fixed barrier separating Rome from hordes of hostile barbarians.

“Archaeologists studying the frontiers in the 1970s and ’80s later found that the Iron Curtain dividing Europe had shadowed their view of the distant past. “We had in Germany this massive border, which seemed impenetrable,” says C. Sebastian Sommer, chief archaeologist at the Bavarian State Preservation Office. “The idea was here and there, friend and foe.” “Today a new generation of archaeologists is taking another look. The dramatic, unbroken line of Hadrian’s Wall may be a red herring, a 73-mile exception that proves an entirely different rule. In Europe the Romans took advantage of the natural barriers created by the Rhine and Danube Rivers, patrolling their waters with a strong river navy. In North Africa and the eastern provinces of Syria, Judaea, and Arabia, the desert itself created a natural frontier.

Roman Fortifications: Border Stations Rather Than Invasion Stoppers?

Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Military bases were often ad hoc installations set up to watch rivers and other key supply routes. The Latin word for frontier, limes (LEE-mess), originally meant a patrolled road or path. We still use the term: Our “limits” comes from limites, the plural of limes. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Outposts on rivers like the Rhine and Danube or in the deserts on Rome’s eastern and southern flanks often resemble police or border patrol stations. They would have been useless against an invading army but highly effective for soldiers nabbing smugglers, chasing small groups of bandits, or perhaps collecting customs fees. The thinly manned walls in England and Germany were similar. “The lines were there for practical purposes,” says Benjamin Isaac, a historian at Tel Aviv University. “They were the equivalent of modern barbed wire—to keep individuals or small groups out.”

“Isaac argues that the frontiers resembled certain modern installations more than thick-walled medieval fortresses: “Look at what Israel’s building to wall off the West Bank. It’s not meant to keep out the Iranian army, it’s made to stop people from exploding themselves on buses in Tel Aviv.” Warding off terrorists may not have motivated the Romans, but there were plenty of other factors— as there are today. “What the United States is planning between itself and Mexico is substantial,” says Isaac, “and that’s just to keep out people who want to sweep the streets in New York.”

Romans using catapults in a siege of a walled city

“More archaeologists are endorsing that view. “Isaac’s analysis has come to dominate the field,” says David Breeze, author of the recent Frontiers of Imperial Rome. “Built frontiers aren’t necessarily about stopping armies but about controlling the movement of people.” The Roman frontier, in other words, is better seen not as an impervious barrier sealing Fortress Rome off from the world but as one tool the Romans used to extend influence deep into barbaricum, their term for everything outside the empire, through trade and occasional raids.

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. =

forts and walls in northern Britain

“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. =

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.” =

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

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.

building Hadrian's Wall

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. |::|

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 |::|]

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: ' 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

Vindoland water tank

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]

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.” |::|

Military Forces at Vindolanda

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 |::|]

Roman shoes at the Vindoland museum

“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]

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 |::|]

Hadrian's wall latrine

“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

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.

Vindolanda fort

“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. |::|


Andrew Curry wrote in National Geographic: “Just as Hadrian’s Wall shows the Roman frontier at its strongest, an abandoned fortress on the Euphrates River vividly captures the moment the borders began to collapse. Dura-Europos was a fortified city on the frontier between Rome and Persia, its greatest rival. Today Dura sits about 25 miles from the Syrian border with Iraq, an eight-hour bus ride through the desert from Damascus. It first came to light in 1920, when British troops fighting Arab insurgents accidentally uncovered the painted wall of a Roman temple. A team from Yale University and the French Academy put hundreds of Bedouin tribesmen to work with shovels and picks, moving tens of thousands of tons of sand with the help of railcars and mine carts. “At times it was like the Well of Souls scene from Indiana Jones,” says University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 2012 ]

“Ten years of frenzied digging uncovered a third-century Roman city frozen in time. Fragments of plaster still cling to mud-brick and stone walls, and the rooms of palaces and temples—including the world’s oldest known Christian church—are tall enough to walk through and imagine what they looked like when they had roofs.

“Founded by Greeks around 300 B.C., Dura was conquered by the Romans nearly 500 years later. Its tall, thick walls and perch above the Euphrates made it a perfect frontier outpost. The northern end was walled off and turned into a Roman-era “green zone” with barracks, an imposing headquarters for the garrison commander, a redbrick bathhouse big enough to wash the dust off a thousand soldiers, the empire’s easternmost known amphitheater, and a 60-room palace suitable for dignitaries “roughing it” in the hinterlands.

“Duty rosters show at least seven outposts reported to Dura. One of the outposts was staffed by just three soldiers; another lay nearly a hundred miles downstream. “This was not a city under constant threat,” James told me when I visited, before the political situation in Syria deteriorated and made excavation impossible. We sat amid the ruins and watched orange gas flares from Iraqi oil wells flicker on the horizon. “Soldiers here were probably busier policing the locals than defending against raids and attacks.”

Adonis Synagogue at Dura Europa

“The quiet didn’t last. Persia emerged as a major threat along the empire’s eastern border a half century after the Romans seized Dura. Beginning in 230, war between the rivals raged across Mesopotamia. It was soon clear the frontier strategy that had served Rome for more than a century was no match for a determined, sizable foe.

“Dura’s turn came in 256. Working with a Franco-Syrian team of archaeologists interested in the site’s pre-Roman history, James has spent ten years unraveling the walled city’s final moments. He says the Romans must have known an attack was imminent. They had time to reinforce the massive western wall, burying part of the city—including the church and a magnificently decorated synagogue—to form a sloping rampart.

“The Persian army set up camp in the city cemetery, a few hundred yards from Dura’s main gate. As catapults lobbed stones at the Romans, the Persians built an assault ramp and dug beneath the city, hoping to collapse its defenses. Dura’s garrison struck back with tunnels of their own.

“As fighting raged on the surface, James says, a squad of 19 Romans broke through into a Persian tunnel. A cloud of poison gas, pumped into the underground chamber, suffocated them almost instantly. Their remains are some of the oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare. James believes the bodies, found 1,700 years later, stacked in a tight tunnel, were used to block the tunnel while the Persians set it on fire.

“The Persians failed to topple Dura’s wall but eventually succeeded in taking the city, which was later abandoned to the desert. Surviving defenders were slain or enslaved. Persian armies pushed deep into what had been Rome’s eastern provinces, sacked dozens of cities, and overpowered two emperors before capturing a third, the hapless Valerian, in 260. The Persian king, Shapur, reportedly used Valerian as a footstool for a while, then had him flayed and nailed his skin to a wall.

“The crisis was a turning point. Around the time Dura fell, the careful balance of offense, defense, and sheer intimidation along the frontier fell apart.For nearly 150 years the border had helped Rome ignore a painful reality: The world beyond the walls was catching up, in part thanks to the Romans themselves. Barbarians who served in the Roman army brought back Roman knowledge, weapons, and military strategy, says Michael Meyer, an archaeologist at Berlin’s Free University.”

Settlement Built on Roman Military Fort

In 2015, archaeologists said the remnants of ancient water wells, pearls and hairpins found on top of a Roman fort was proof that villagers set up a settlement on top of the military fort after it was abandoned. Laura Geggel wrote in Live Science: “About 1,900 years ago, a group of Roman soldiers lived in a fort in what is now Gernsheim, a German town located on the Rhine River about 31 miles (50 kilometers) south of Frankfurt. Shortly after the soldiers left the fort in about A.D. 120, another group of people moved in and built a village literally on top of the settlement, researchers found. "We now know that from the first to the third century, an important villagelike settlement, or 'vicus,' must have existed here," dig leader Thomas Maurer, an archaeologist at the University of Frankfurt, said in a statement. [Source: Laura Geggel, Live Science, September 18, 2015]

metal tips from catapult projectiles found in Germany

“After excavating the fort last year, the researchers returned this summer to look for evidence of the Roman settlement. Their efforts paid off: They found relics of the village, part of it built on the foundations of the fort.. Researchers have found the well-preserved foundation of a stone building, fire pits, at least two wells and some cellar pits. They've also found ceramic shards, which they plan to date to get a better grasp of the village's active periods. "We've also found real treasures, such as rare garment clasps, several pearls, parts of a board game (dice, playing pieces) and a hairpin made from bone and crowned with a female bust," Maurer said in the statement.

“Though they built their settlement over part of the fort, the villagers likely knew the soldiers, the researchers said. In fact, the villagers were likely the soldiers' family members and tradespeople who made a business trading with the military. "A temporary downturn probably resulted when the troops left — this is something we know from sites which have been studied more thoroughly," Maurer said. But the little village managed to prosper after the soldiers left, as stone buildings were built in the second century A.D., during the Pax Romana, a 206-year period with relatively few conflicts in the Roman Empire.

“The inhabitants likely had Gallic-Germanic origins, but a few "true" Romans — people with Roman citizenship who had moved from distant provinces — lived there as well, the researchers said. They based this idea on several tidbits of evidence, including pieces of traditional dress and coins found there. One coin is from Bithynia, in northwest Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), which may have been a souvenir from someone's travels, they said.

“The Roman fort once housed about 500 soldiers, who lived there between about A.D. 70 and 120, the researchers said. When the soldiers left, they dismantled the fort and filled in the ditches with dirt and everyday bric-a-brac, much to the delight of the archaeologists excavating the site. Rome made the fort and settlement to expand its infrastructure and help it take possession of large areas east of the Rhine River in about A.D. 70, the researchers said. During that time, the fort and settlement were fairly accessible by roads. It may have even had a harbor,

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; 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, BBC, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books), 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, please contact me.