Hadrian’s Wall – Rome’s Most Northerly Outpost

In September 2020 I finally made the trip I had been dreaming of for many years – the museums and excavated sites along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. I started at the most easterly end in South Shields, where the Roman fort of Arbeia once guarded the mouth of the River Tyne.

Replica West Gate of Arbeia Roman fort

The archaeological ruins were first uncovered and laid out in 1875. In more recent times, the local council have adopted the site that occupies an entire block in a residential area. Features include the restored and re-constructed Commanding Officer’s House, with courtyard and shaded portico, and the impressive replica gatehouse (pictured above). It is thought that the visible stone fort was built in the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), replacing an earlier wooden fort that dated from the time of Hadrian (117-138) when major construction of the wall commenced at Wallsend on the north Tyne. Arbeia’s function was expanded to include extensive granaries, and it became the main supply fort for Emperor Septimus Severus’s (193-211) campaign against the Caledonian (Scottish) tribes. The restored Commanding Officer’s house (pictures below) gives an insight into how the commander and his family lived and worked, and the many luxuries they had, including underfloor heating, in the second and third centuries.

Next stop was Wallsend (Segedunum) fort and museum on the north Tyne. In the 1970s the site was recovered from housing that had been built over it, and it is now a museum managed by the council. As the name suggests, Wallsend is literally the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, and my picture shows the excavated outcrop of wall that ran down to the riverside, leaving the marshy estuary beyond as a natural barrier to any incursions from the north. In the corner of the site is a replica of the bath house building whose ruins can be visited at Chesters fort in the middle section of Hadrian’s Wall. I am pictured standing in front of the replica building, that was unfortunately closed at the time of my visit. In the site is a reconstructed herb garden (pictured), and inside the museum is an interesting display of the hospital block with description what injuries and ailments would have been treated by legionary surgeons and healers. There is much information on the life and trials of the soldiers – mainly cavalrymen – who were stationed here. For instance, did you know that there is no mess hall or any evidence of communal eating? This is because each soldier was given a weekly ration of food and they had to bake their own bread (in a communal oven) and cook their meals on braziers, most likely in ‘buddy’ groups with those they bunked with in the barracks. Also pictured is a bronze bust of the Emperor Hadrian on display in the museum.

My next stop was eight miles to the west of Newcastle, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where a lengthy outcrop of the Wall has been partially excavated. The Wall is 3m wide and there were no platforms for soldiers to stand or walk on between strategically-placed observation towers and more substantial mile towers. The forts that could garrison a cohort (480 men with stables for horses) were positioned off the east-west Stanegate road at intervals of roughly 13 miles, as this was the distance a legionary could march in a day with a full backpack weighing approximately 125 pounds or 57 kgs. The forts (often with civilian settlements adjacent) could be on the Wall (as with Chesters) or up to two miles south (as with Vindolanda). The Wall itself (when complete) ran for 73 miles across the narrowest part of the island, from Bowness-on-Solway (east of Carlisle) to Wallsend, and there were most likely seven forts in total – although not all have been excavated.

Heddon-on-the-Wall

Driving west for 10 miles along the A69 road, I arrived at the English Heritage-managed site of Corbridge Roman Town (Coria). This is an extensively excavated site of what was once a walled town and barracks that sits on a bluff above the River Tyne valley, where it once guarded a bridge no longer there. I was fortunate to be given an impromptu guided tour by a knowledgeable volunteer, who explained the layout and functions of a town where civilian tradesmen and women rubbed shoulders with a cavalry unit. It was a supply fort for legions marching north, west and east, and stands on an important crossroads where Dere Street (S-N) and Stanegate (E-W) intersect. The town was occupied throughout the Roman period from the 80s to late 390s, and beyond into the Dark Ages by Romano-British nobility. In the centre of the town lay an impressive fountain at a meeting point surrounded by temples to a wide range of gods from across the Empire, including deities from the far east, that have yielded many interesting stone carvings, some of which are on display in the adjacent museum. There is also evidence of some temples’ conversion to Christian churches from the early fourth century. The bustling town, located two miles south of the Wall, may have been home to as many as 3,000 people at the height of its occupancy. Pride of place in the museum is a sandstone carving of a lion standing over a slain goat (pictured) that is thought to have been a tombstone that was later employed as the centrepiece of a fountain.

In my next post, I’ll be describing my visits to Vindolanda and Chesters Roman forts.

Abandoned Re-loaded

I’ve just re-published a new, longer second edition of Abandoned, book one in A Light in the Dark Ages series. It addresses the complaints at the brevity of the original novella that told the story of Marcus and the defence of Calleva. This is now incorporated into a longer story that charts Britannia’s troubled journey from abandonment by the Romans to choosing a king to organise their defence from determined raiders.

Abandoned second edition ebook coverThe narrative thrust is loosely guided by the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1136 work, The History of the Kings of Britain. The romantic in me likes to think there might be some credence in his account of events in fifth century Britannia leading up to the coming of King Arthur (now widely thought to be a composite of a number of leaders who organised opposition to the spread of Anglo-Saxon colonists).
I’m holding the e-book price at just 99p/99c – so please help me replace the lost reviews from the now unpublished first edition. Much work has gone into this upgrade from novella to novel – I hope you enjoy it!
http://amazon.co.uk/dp/B07FKT7W8J
http://amazon.com/dp/B07FKT7W8J

The History Behind ‘Britannia’

Having enjoyed watching the recent Sky Atlantic television series, Britannia, I decided to find out more about the history behind it. Although it could be said that the series came to the small screen marching on the cloak-tail of the success of Games of Thrones, I found that unlike its illustrious predecessor it is more firmly rooted in history.

School history books may tell us that Julius Caesar ‘Came, saw and conquered’ Britain in 54-55 BC, but the real Roman invasion did not happen for a further ninety years. It took place in 43 AD to be precise, when a force of four legions and auxiliary support (over 30,000 men), sent by Emperor Claudius and under General Aulus Plautius, landed on Britain’s south coast. This was the start of the Roman occupation of Britain – the creation of the Province of Britannia – that would last for three-hundred-and-seventy years. Surely the telling of the story of this pivotal event in British history (albeit in a fictionalised form) is long overdue? Well, here it is – and the series overcomes an unsatisfactory start to reward the viewer with a neatly-constructed and engaging drama.

KerraAt the time of the invasion, Britain was an island which was politically fragmented, with multiple tribes each led by a chief, king or queen who – if we believe Roman writers – were constantly at war with one another. Some of the names of the British tribes, such as the Cantii (of Kent), the Trinovantes (of Essex) and the Durotriges (of Dorset), were preserved by the Roman government when they built brand new towns to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. Unfortunately, we know very little about the customs, lifestyle, outlook, language or religion of these individual tribes. Some had leaders who actively traded with the Mediterranean world, exchanging locally-produced cattle, grain, metal and slaves for wine, olive oil and exotic forms of glassware and pottery. Others seem to have actively opposed any kind of Roman influence.

The Roman Empire, which in the early 1st century AD stretched from Spain to Syria, was a resource-hungry superstate and Britain, on its north-western frontier, was a hugely attractive target. This was a land rich in metals (especially iron, tin, lead and gold), cattle and grain. Unfortunately for Rome, Britain lay beyond the civilised world, on the other side of ‘the Ocean’. Just getting there seemed a risky endeavour – especially if, as many Romans believed, the place was full of monsters and barbarians.

Roman CampJulius Caesar had led two expeditions to southern Britain in 55 and 54 BC and, although these ultimately came to nothing, he had been celebrated in Rome as a hero simply for daring to cross the sea. Caesar’s heirs meddled constantly in British politics, trying to bring order to the frontier-land by helping to resolve disputed royal successions and organising lucrative trade deals. By the time Claudius came to power in AD 41, several British aristocrats had formed alliances with Rome, visiting the city in person to pay their respects and leave offerings to the Roman gods. When the political situation in southern Britain became unstable, with warring tribes threatening both trade and the wider peace, Claudius deployed boots on the ground. The fact that he needed to draw public attention away from difficult issues at home, whilst simultaneously hoping to outdo the military achievements of the great Julius Caesar, probably helped to spur this on.

Very little is known about the actual invasion, as no contemporary record survives. The popular view today is that four legions together with auxiliary support, totalling between 30-40,000 soldiers, landed on the Kent coast and fought their way inland. But there is no real archaeological or historical evidence to support this, and the landing point remains the subject of speculation.

What we do know is that the ‘invasion’ appears to have been undertaken in two distinct phases. The first, led by senator Aulus Plautius, was probably a peace-keeping mission, which saw Plautius operating with a small force in order to negotiate a truce between the various British factions whilst hoping to restore certain British refugee monarchs to power. Not all the tribes were opposed to Rome in AD 43 and many leaders would have seen the emperor and his advisors as friends. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, negotiations broke down leaving the emperor no choice to trigger a second phase of the invasion, some months later. This was a calculated display of force, designed to shock and awe enemy elements into submission. Claudius himself led the reinforcements, bringing with him a number of war elephants (he intended to arrive in style). Shortly after, Roman troops marched into Camulodunum (Colchester), the centre of native resistance, and took the formal surrender of 11 British leaders.

PlautiusSome tribes, like the Trinovantes – based around what is now Colchester – seem to have actively resisted the advance of the Roman legions whilst others, such as the Atrebates (of Berkshire), supported the newcomers and were subsequently very well rewarded. The native town of Camulodunum (Colchester) was subjugated by the Roman military and had a legionary fortress built directly over it.  Elsewhere, the Trinovantes were treated as a conquered people whilst the Catuvellauni tribe, who had helped the Romans, were awarded special status in the province and had a brand-new town, full of civic amenities, built for them at Verulamium (St Albans). Having lost the first stage of the war, the British resistance leader Caratacus fled west, stirring up tribes in what is now Wales against Rome. Eventually Caratacus was betrayed by the pro-Roman queen Cartimandua, and handed over to the emperor Claudius in chains.

Aulus Plautius was probably nothing like the battle-hardened veteran depicted in the TV series (by tough-talking Mancunian, David Morrissey), being more of a capable and reliable member of Rome’s ruling senatorial class. Although Plautius would have had some experience in the army, he was ultimately a career politician (a safe pair hands) and, for military advice, would have relied on the more experienced legionary officers under his command.

AntediaUnlike the male-dominated world of Rome, ancient British society was more egalitarian with both men and women wielding political and military power. We know very little about the command structure of British tribal armies opposing Rome during the invasion. Although the names of some leaders survive on Celtic coins and in the pages of Roman writers and historians, there is, unfortunately, no historical evidence (yet) for the female war leaders Antedia and Kerra (played by Zoë Wanamaker and Kelly Reilly in the TV series).

A king called Antedios certainly seems to have ruled in Norfolk just prior to the invasion whilst the leader of the British resistance was a king called Caratacus (who later became target number one for the Roman government). There were certainly strong and militarily capable women within the British tribal armies – this was a point often used by Roman generals in an attempt to ridicule their foe. Later, in the AD 60s, Queens Cartimandua of the Brigantes (in Yorkshire) and Boudicca of the Iceni (in Norfolk) emerge. Both, however, were, at least during the early stages of the invasion, firm supporters of Rome, seeing the obvious benefits of siding with a Mediterranean superpower.

VeranIn popular culture, the druids are usually seen as being integral to Celtic society: part mystical, religious teachers and part hard-line resistance leaders, constantly stirring up trouble for Rome. The problem is that we really have very little evidence for their existence in Britain. In Gaul (France), Julius Caesar had noted their presence in the mid-50s BC, but there is only one definite reference to them in the British Isles, on the island of Anglesey where, so the Roman writer Tacitus tells us, they were committing acts of human sacrifice in AD 60. Modern writers and historians tend to view druids as part of an all-encompassing religion (druidism) and, thanks to fictional accounts (most notably in the stories of Asterix the Gaul) suggest that every tribe would have had one: a prehistoric equivalent, perhaps, of a parish priest or holy man. The trouble is, as plausible as this theory may appear, there is absolutely no evidence for this.

 

Article Source: www.historyextra.com

Britannia Publicity photos by Sky UK Ltd.