The Army on the Wall: Prologue

Thought you knew the Roman army? Well, you’re in for surprise. You’ve been looking through a glass darkly, my friends. Allow me to share my view of the reality with you.

First, let’s distinguish between the builders of Hadrian’s Wall and the garrison: not the same thing at all.

The Builders: a Prologue

RIB 1638

What do you notice about this inscription? Try breaking it into three parts: dedication, execution, attribution.


This is the inscription (from Milecastle 38, if you must know, but there are virtually identical ones from elsewhere) that gave antiquaries the clue that Hadrian, not Severus, built the stone wall. However, I want you to analyse the nomenclature. IMP(eratori). The first word on the first line is easily overlooked, because we instantly, almost autonomically, think ‘emperor’; but a Roman soldier looked at it differently. ‘Imperator‘ meant victorious general, hailed as such by his troops. True, only emperors received that acclamation from Augustus onwards, but that’s not the point. First word, first line: ‘conquering general’. Next comes the meat of the nomenclature: CAES(aris) TRAIAN(i) HADRIANI AUG(usti). No praenomen, no nomen, just Hadrian’s cognomen and that of his adoptive father (think Trajan, think warrior), sandwiched between the weasel words of Empire, Caesar and Augustus. This man is the commander-in-chief; your commander-in-chief.


Whodunnit. Now look carefully at the named unit. What do you notice? LEG(io) II AVG(usta). That’s right, there’s a missing word: VEX(illatio). The building work is not being undertaken by a detachment of the legion, but by the whole unit. In other words, their eagle (and the accompanying HQ staff) has travelled north with them; Legio II Augusta is in the field.


So, finally, who’s the project manager? Oh yes, A(ulo) PLATORIO NEPOTE LEG(ato Augusti) PR(o) PR(aetore). He gets the full tria nomina. Commander of the Exercitus Britannicus, newly arrived (by 17th July AD 122) from commanding the Exercitus Germanicus Inferior, where he had been Hadrian’s man to shake it up a bit … no, no, no, he’s NOT the governor, that’s just silly modern politico speak. He is The Commander of the Army in Britannia, deputed as such by the Emperor himself, and he just happens to have gubernatorial duties as well … as do the legionary commanders … and all the auxiliary commanders … in fact, just like any aristocrat anywhere in the Roman world. He learned how to run an army and a province by running an army unit and its civil settlement (possibly several times) and mixing with other men who had done it. The process was the same, only the scale changed. In fact, you could pretty much run an empire like that (oops, no! Pretend I didn’t say that! Thinking like that could be dangerous … couldn’t it, Sallustius Lucullus?).

Remember, Hadrian’s Wall was built ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans‘; yet, who is the inscription telling its story to? The clue is in the language used: the Romans themselves. More specifically, the Exercitus Britannicus. Ever heard of esprit de corps? This inscription positively oozes it. The Romans kept their army (or, rather, armies) successful by keeping them competitive. It could all go horribly wrong at times (think of those inscriptions to Concordia!) but, by and large, it worked. How best to get a massive engineering task completed? By injecting a little of the competitive spirit into it. There were few finer managers of men (proponents of Japanese management techniques would doubtless approve of Hadrian’s no-nonsense approach) and he managed to combine that sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling (except he really did it, unlike modern politicians) with touting the due reverence of that ominous and oh-so-prominent Imperator.

So there you have it: a new way of looking at RIB 1638. And you thought it just told you who built the milecastle!

NEXT: Who built the Wall?

Podcastellum 6: the Crosby Garrett Helmet

gaze headerOn April 14th 2014, I spoke to the Friends of the British Museum (join here) about the Crosby Garrett Helmet which, at the time, was on display there alongside the Ribchester helmet.

This was only the third time this cavalry sports (not ‘parade’) helmet had been exhibited after its sale (the first being the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, and the second – immediately prior to the British Museum – was at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle).

This podcastellum is entirely taken up with my recording of that lecture, entitled Beyond the Gaze of the Crosby Garrett Helmet.

A booklet was produced as a catalogue for the Carlisle exhibition and a full publication of the helmet, and the survey and excavation that followed its discovery, are planned following the success of the conference discussing the find held in Tullie House once the exhibition was under way. To this end, immediately after the British Museum exhibition finished, both helmets were weighed and scanned in order to allow the production of 3D models and permit detailed dimensions to be derived for the Crosby Garrett helmet.

As ever, don’t bother telling me that despite what I say at the beginning and end, the podcast is NOT about Hadrian’s Wall. There is such a thing as branding, you know.

The podcast is available as an MP3 file (46Mb). If there is enough demand I can create an Ogg Vorbis file too, but you have to tell me you want it. Right click to download. A bit torrent link is also available. Finally, if you prefer, you can stream it directly from the web page.

With a fair wind and a measure of good fortune, you can subscribe to the podcast series using this link.


Did Roman cavalry wear face-masks in battle?

There were, at various times, something like 2,500 cavalry along the line of Hadrian’s Wall within the alae and cohortes equitatae that made up its garrison.* Every man jack of them would have known the significance of a face-mask helmet, and at least 170 (perhaps more) of them will have owned one.

The 2013/14 exhibitions of the Crosby Garrett cavalry sports helmet at (first) Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle and (subsequently) the British Museum have inevitably disturbed the dust on a question that is occasionally aired, battered to within an inch of its life with a few facts, only to revive, zombie-like after a respectable interval: did Roman cavalry wear face-masks in battle?

Let’s begin by looking at some of those facts before we move on to what I regard as a decisive consideration that tends to get overlooked.


In his description of the elaborate exercises practised by the Roman auxiliary cavalry he called the Hippika Gymnasia, the historian, military commander, and friend of Hadrian was very clear about the use of face-mask helmets.

2. The riders themselves, according to rank or because they distinguish themselves in horsemanship, set off with golden helmets of iron or bronze, in order to attract the attention of onlookers by this means. 3. Unlike battle helmets, these defend not only the head and cheeks but, conforming to the faces of the riders, have openings for the eyes which do not hinder the vision and yet offer protection.


A number of burials from around the Roman Empire seem to have belonged to members of tribal elites who had served with Roman auxiliary cavalry units. Unusually (because it was not normal practise for Roman soldiers to do so), these included full panoplies of equipment. The recovery of both battle and face-mask helmets from burials like those at Chatalka in Bulgaria and Nawa in Syria demonstrate that both types of helmet were in use at the same time.


C. Romanius Capito

The funerary monuments of Roman cavalrymen are a vital source of information for understanding their dress and equipment, particularly in the 1st century AD. These usually show the deceased helmeted and almost invariably depict the helmet as being equipped with cheek-pieces. Some superb examples where the cheek-pieces of the rider’s helmet are unmistakeable come from the Rhineland, including T. Flavius Bassus from Köln and C. Romanius Capito from Mainz-Zahlbach, both of the ala Noricorum.

Longinus Sdapeze

Examples from Britain with similarly unambiguous cheek-pieces include Longinus Sdapeze of the ala I Thracum from Colchester (whose face was probably knocked off in the Boudican rebellion and only recently found and re-attached) and the slightly ghoulish depiction of Insus of the ala Augusta from Lancaster, brandishing the severed head of his foe.

Why are the cheek-pieces so important? Because only one of the known cavalry sports helmets depicts them on the sides of the face-mask (the helmet from Vize in European Turkey, now in Istanbul Archaeological Museum). All the others show an idealised face surrounded by curls of hair. Thus, if the tombstones were intended to show face-mask helmets, it might be anticipated that cheek-pieces would not be depicted.

Field of vision

An important – and I believe crucial – consideration that tends to get overlooked is that of peripheral vision. Helmets with some form of face-mask, such as Viking or Saxon examples, or even Corinthian helmets from the Classical Greek period, typically incorporate eye apertures that allowed for the largest possible field of view for the wearer. Cavalry sports helmets, on the other hand, by seeking to imitate the human eye, deliberately limited the field of view.

Research has shown that peripheral vision is vital for assessing a scene in a sports context and this would tend to suggest that this would also be a vital consideration in combat. Face-mask eye apertures can reduce the wearer’s vision to something like 30% of its full potential laterally and 50% vertically (depending upon the fit of the helmet), effectively giving the wearer tunnel vision.† By limiting the wearer’s field of vision in this way, the face-mask helmet would paradoxically render him more vulnerable on the battlefield. Armoured fighting vehicles provide a useful analogy, for (in the days before external digital cameras) tank drivers and commanders would always prefer to travel with their heads protruding unless the risk of injury from enemy fire would make it foolhardy. Driving or commanding a tank through a periscope simply did not provide sufficient information about the environment around the vehicle.

This, then, is presumably the reason that Arrian specifies that only the officers and best horsemen (the two were clearly not the same thing!) got to wear them: they needed all their skill to control the horse, perform the manoeuvres, and dodge dummy weapons, whilst handicapped in this way.

Thus, just as face-mask helmets were not ‘parade helmets’ (the Romans had no such notion: soldiers on parade wore their full battle kit), they were also not intended for real combat. Rather, they offered a level of protection necessary during the cavalry training exercise which Arrian called the Hippika Gymnasia and, as such, there was an inevitable trade-off between their usefulness as a defence and the situational awareness of the rider.

*That’s about one every 50m if you lined them up along the Wall, which would be silly, but impressive.

I’m grateful to Jurjen Draaisma of the Ala Batavorum for confirming (from practical experience) the limiting effects of wearing a face-mask helmet on peripheral vision.


Good morning, campers!

For some people, there’s nothing nicer than a spot of camping during the holidays, but have you any idea of the logistics involved in taking a few legionaries camping? If you thought building a stone wall (and turf-and-timber rampart) from coast to coast was bad, wait till you hear about Roman camping whilst you do it.

Camp construction on Trajan's Column

Camp construction on Trajan’s Column

In order to construct Hadrian’s Wall, and then the Vallum, and then the forts, the army needed somewhere to stay. This was provided by the temporary camp, something all soldiers built every night when on the march, when on campaign, or even for practice, when they had nothing better to do. The principle was simple: divide your force into groups, some of whom stood around and protected those actually building it, who then began by digging a ditch with mattocks and, using baskets to shift it, piling the resultant spoil within a double-faced wall of turves which they had already stripped, thereby forming a rampart. This activity is shown on Trajan’s Column, although the artists didn’t understand what was happening and depicted the turves as stone blocks. Vegetius makes clear there was one guiding principle: the greater the threat from the enemy, the deeper the ditch (and bigger the rampart). Camps had gaps in the defences, rather than gates, but these openings were protected by traverses (and guards, naturally) to deter attack by an enemy. To finish the whole thing off, obstacles were placed on the completed rampart.

Reconstructed camp corner at Oyne

Reconstructed camp corner at Oyne

The soldiers needed somewhere to sleep in the field and for this they had tents made of sewn leather panels. These are also shown in use on the Column. Each tent took something like 77 goat hides and was intended to house a contubernium of eight men. Around Hadrian’s Wall, leather panels from tents are known from Birdoswald, Carlisle, and Vindolanda, the last site producing a couple of substantial chunks of tent with the panels still attached to each other.

Reconstruction leather tent

Reconstruction leather tent

Tents were supported on a frame and held up with a system of guy ropes and tent pegs. Most tent reconstructions opt for seven ropes on either side, four bracers at the corner, and one at either end to support the ridge pole, so twenty in all. Of course, each guy rope needed a tent peg. Wooden pegs have been found in large numbers associated with actual examples of leather tent panels and were simply made to a form you can still buy today. Pegs from Ribchester (Lancs.) came in two main sizes, possibly matching the smaller tents of the men and the larger ones of their centurions.

Modern wooden tent peg

Modern wooden tent peg

Now you may have seen iron pegs with rings in the top described as tent pegs in some books or museums. In fact, the Greek writer Polybius (a big fan of the Roman army) describes (fragment 95) pegs being used by the Celtiberians to tether horses. But that’s not the only reason they weren’t used as tent pegs. Each century needed 220 pegs; made out of wood, they would weigh only 11kg, but iron would be closer to 70kg.

Rolled up, a contubernium tent looked like a pupa or chrysalis, so the soldiers called a tent papilio (butterfly). A modern goatskin reconstruction of the tent by the Ermine Street Guard was found to weigh 43.5kg which, despite waterproofing, could take on 8kg of water. Tents were transported by means of contubernium mules and each had to carry it, the tent-poles, the pegs (hence wooden ones being better), and probably a hand-mill too.

In the field, the Roman army used clamp ovens to bake their bread. These resembled the ovens found around the ramparts of permanent bases, so to that extent provided similar facilities to what they were used to. Everybody likes to play the game of Can You Fit Eight Men In A Tent?, but since a proportion of any force was on duty at all times, the question never arose. It is harder to know whether a ground sheet was used or what the soldiers used for bedding (‘their cloaks’ is the usual suggestion) but they clearly coped. Camps were usually placed next to a water source, fresh water always being drawn off above the location of the inevitable latrine facilities.

Don’t go away with the impression that camping was unusual for a Roman soldier. They knew two ways of life: a winter season in their hiberna, and a summer campaigning one in their aestiva. This was what the Roman army did and they did it well. After a hard day’s work building Hadrian’s Wall, the soldiers would have returned to their construction camp to eat and sleep. What could be more fun in a British summer?!

Remember the builders of Hadrian’s Wall next time you go camping. You’ve got it easy by comparison.

PLV Stanegate Inscriptions (Corbridge)


Although Corbridge began in the 1st century AD as a standard military site with an attendant civilian presence, in the 2nd century it evolved into a civil site with a small, yet significant, military presence. Moreover, despite the proximity of Hadrian’s Wall, Corbridge was always more concerned with a) the crossing of the Tyne by Dere Street; b) access to Caledonia via Dere Street; and finally c) the Stanegate itself. Consequently, these three factors need to be borne in mind when considering its inscriptions.

The fact that a remote ecclesiastical site, Hexham, is a major source for inscriptions from the site reflects its proximity to Corbridge and the convenience of deriving worked stone from the Roman site. There is no guarantee that inscriptions from Hexham derive from Corbridge, but it is on balance more likely than any of the other nearby sites, such as Chesters, due to the monumental nature of both the architectural and textual contributions amongst the assemblage.


RIB 1120: Apollini / Mapono / Q(uintus) Terentius / Q(uinti) f(ilius) Ouf(entina) / Firmus Saen(a) / praef(ectus) castr(orum) / leg(ionis) VI v(ictricis) p(iae) f(idelis) / d(onum) d(edit) (‘For Apollo Maponus Quintus Terentius Firmus, son of Quintus, of the Oufentina voting-tribe, camp prefect of the Sixth Legion Victrix, willingly and deservedly fulfilled a vow’). Altar found c.1866 near the SE corner of Hexham Abbey. Source: RIB I p.368

RIB 1121: [Ap]ollini / Mapon[o] / [Calpu]rnius / [...] trib(unus) / dedicavit (‘For Apollo Maponus, Calpurnius … tribune dedicated this’). Altar found before 1724 used as the village cross in Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.368

RIB 1122: [Deo] / [M]apo[no] / Apo[llini] / P(ublius) Ae[...]/lus c(enturio) [leg(ionis) VI] / [V]ic(tricis) v(otum) [s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)] (‘For the god Apollo Maponus, Publius Ae…lus, centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix willingly and deservedly fulfilled a vow’). Altar found before 1732 in Hexham Abbey crypt. Source: RIB I p.369

RIB 1123: Deo / Arecurio / Apollinaris / Cassi v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) (‘For the god Mercury, Apollinaris, son of Cassius, willingly and deservedly fulfilled a vow’). Relief found 1936 on the NE side of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.370

RIB 1124

RIB 1124

RIB 1124: Ἀστ[άρ]της / βωμόν μ᾿/ ἐσορᾰς / Ποῠλχέρ μ᾿ / ἀνέθηκεν (‘You see me, an altar of Astarte, Pulcher set me up’). Altar found before 1754 ‘in the vicar’s glebe’. Source: RIB I p.370

RIB 1125: Concordi/ae leg(ionis) VI / Vi(ctricis) P(iae) F(idelis) et / leg(ionis) XX (‘For Harmony between the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis and the Twentieth Legion’). Dedication slab found in 1907 near N door of nave aisle of Hexham Abbey. Source: RIB I p.371

RIB 1126: Ara(m) / Dian(ae) / posui(t) / N[...] (‘N… set up an altar for Diana’). Altar found in 1939 in site clearance at Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.371

RIB 1127

RIB 1127

RIB 1127: Discipuli/nae / Augustorum / leg(io) / II / Aug(usta) (‘For the Discipline of the Emperors, the Second Legion Augusta (set this up)’). Statue base found in strongroom of W compound HQ at Corbridge in 1912. Source: RIB I p.371

RIB 1128: [Disci]p(linae) Augusto[rum?] / [milit]es coh(ortis) I V[ar]/[dullo]rum m(illiariae) [c(ivium) R(omanorum) eq(uitatae)] / [cui] praees[t Pub(lius)] / [Calpur]nius Vic[tor tr(ibunus)] (‘For the Discipline of the Emperors, soldiers of the First Cohort of Vardulli, one thousand strong, Roman citizens, part-mounted, which is commanded by Publius Calpurinius Victor, tribune, (set this up).’). Dedication slab found before 1821 in Hexham. Source: RIB I pp.371-2

RIB 1129

RIB 1129

RIB 1129: Ἡρακλεῐ / Τνρίω(ι) / Διοδώρα / ἀρχιέρια (‘For Heracles of Tyre, Diadora the priestess (set this up)’). Altar found before 1702 in Corbridge, moved to churchyard. Now in the British Museum. Source: RIB I p.372

RIB 1130

RIB 1130

RIB 1130: I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) / [p]ro salut[e] / [v]exillatio/num leg(ionum) XX [V(aleriae) v(ictricis)] / et VI vic(tricis) mi[lites] / [a]ge[n]t(es) in p[...] (‘For Iupiter Best and Greatest, for the well-being of a vexillation of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix and Sixth Legion Victrix, soldiers in garrison…’). Altar found 1886 in demolishing a cottage. Source: RIB I pp.372-3

RIB 1131

RIB 1131

RIB 1131: Iovi Aeterno / Dolicheno / et Caelesti / Brigantiae / et Saluti / C(aius) Iulius Ap/ol(l)inaris / |(centurio) leg(ionis) VI iuss(u) dei (‘For eternal Iupiter Dolichenus and Caelestis Brigantia and Salus, Gaius Iulius Apolinaris, centurion of the Sixth Legion, (set this up) at command of the god’). Altar found 1910 as a kerb stone S of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.373

RIB 1132: [Deo Marti] / Ul[tori vex(illatio) leg(ionis)] / VI [Vic(tricis) P(iae) F(idelis) sub] / Cn(aeo) Iul(io) [Vero leg(ato) Aug(usti)] / per L(ucium) O[...] / trib(unum) [militum] (‘… a detachment of the Sixth Legion Pia Fidelis under Gnaeus Iulius Verus, governor, through Lucius O…, military tribune’). Statue base found in 1908 near Site 11. Source: RIB I pp.373-4

RIB 1133: [D]e[o] / Merc(urio) (‘For the god Mercury’). Fragment of a relief found in 1940 S of the E granary. Source: RIB I p.374

RIB 1134: Deae M[inervae] / T(itus) Tertini[us ...] / libr(arius) ex [voto pos(uit)] (‘For the goddess Minerva Titus Tertinius … clerk, set this up in accordance with a vow’). Statuette base found 1804 on the W part of the Roman site. Source: RIB I p.374

RIB 1135: B(ona) F(ortuna) / deae / Pantheae / [... ('For the good fortune of the goddess Panthea...'). Altar found 1913 in the E granary. Source: RIB I p.374

RIB 1136: Deo san(cto) Silvan[o] / [milite]s vexil/[lat(ionis) leg(ionis)] II Aug(ustae) et c[ol]/[le]g[ium] Si[l]vaniano/rum aram de suo pos(uerunt) / vol(entes) lib(entes) (‘For the sacred god Silvanus, soldiers of the detachment of the Second Legion Augusta and the cavalry unit of… freely and willingly gave this altar from their own resources’). Altar found at Orchard (Hole) Farm before 1865. Source: RIB I pp.374-5

RIB 1137

RIB 1137

RIB 1137: [[Soli Invicto]] / vexillatio / leg(ionis) VI Vic(tricis) P(iae) F(idelis) f(ecit) / sub cura Sex(ti) / Calpurni Agrico/lae leg(ati) Aug(usti) pr(o) pr(aetore) (‘[[For the Invincible Sun]], a detachment of the Sixth Legion Victrix built this under the governor Sextus Calpurnius Agricola’). Dedication slab found in 1911 in the roadway S of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.375

RIB 1138: Victoriae / Aug(ustae) / L(ucius) Iul(ius) Iuli[anus] / [...]us [... ('For the Victory of the Emperor, Lucius Iulius Iulianus...'). Altar found before 1732 in a cottage near The Hermitage E of the confluence of the N and S Tynes. Source: RIB I p.376

RIB 1139: Deo / Veteri ('For the god Veteris'). Altar found E of Site 11 in 1936. Source: RIB I p.376

RIB 1140: Deo / Vit/iri ('For the god Vitiris'). Altar found during Wm Coulson's excavations on the N bridge abutment in 1862. Source: RIB I p.376

RIB 1141: Vit(eri) / M/iti(us?) ('For Viteris, Mitius (set this up)'). Altar found 1939 in road E of Site 39. Source: RIB I p.376

RIB 1142: LEG() A[...] / Q(uintus) Calpurnius / Concessini/us praef(ectus) eq(uitum) / caesa Cori/onototar/um manu pr/aesentissimi / numinis dei v(otum) s(olvit) (‘Quintus Calpurnius Concessinius, prefect of cavalry, after killing a band of Corionototae, fulfilled a vow to the most effective spirit of the god’). Altar found 1725 in the crypt at Hexham Abbey. Now lost. Source: RIB I p.376

RIB 1143: …]sit [...] / [...]norus / [... pr]aep(ositus) cu/[ram] agens / horr(eorum) tempo/[r]e expeditio/nis felicissi(mae) / Brittannic(ae) / v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) (‘…praepositus placed in charge of the granaries at the time of the Most Fortunate British Expedition willingly and freely fulfilled a vow’). Altar found in the W granary in 1908. Source: RIB I pp.376-7

RIB 1144: …] / L[eg(io) ...] (‘… legion…’). Pedestal found 1907 E of Site 8 fountain. Source: RIB I p.377

RIB 1145: VMD (‘?’). Altar found 1908 on Site 11. Source: RIB I p.377

RIB 1146: ? (‘?’). Altar fragment (illegible) in Corbridge church yard. Source: RIB I p.378

RIB 1147

RIB 1147

RIB 1147: [Imp(eratori)] T(ito) Aelio / Anionino [Au]g(usto) Pio II co(n)s(uli) / sub cura Q(uinti) Lolii Urbici / [leg(ati) A]ug(usti) pr(o) pr(aetore) leg(io) II Aug(usta) f(ecit) (‘For the Emperor Titus Aelius Antoninus Augustus Pius, twice consul, under the charge of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, propraetorian Emperor’s legate, the Second Legiuon Augusta built this’). DEdication found 1935 in W granary. Source: RIB I p.378

RIB 1148

RIB 1148

RIB 1148: Imp(eratori) Caes(ari) [T(ito)] Ael[io] / Antonino A[ug(usto)] Pi[o] / III co(n)[s(uli) p(atri) p(atriae)] / sub cura Q(uinti) [Lolli Urbici] / leg(ati) Au[g(usti) pr(o) pr(aetore)] / leg(io) II A[ug(usta) fecit] (‘For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Antoninus Augustus Pius, thrice consul, father of his country, under the charge of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, propraetorian Emperor’s legate, the Second Legion Augusta built this’). Dedication found 1907 in E granary. Source: RIB I pp.378-9

RIB 1149

RIB 1149

RIB 1149: Imperato[ribus Caesaribus] / M(arco) Aurelio A[ntonino Aug(usto) tribuniciae] / potestati[s XVII] co(n)s(uli) [III et L(ucio) Aur/elio Vero Aug(usto)] A[rmeniaco trib/uniciae potestati]s I[II] co[(n)s(uli)] II / [vexillatio leg(ionis) XX] V(aleriae) V(ictricis) fecit su[b c]ura / [Sexti Calpurni] Agrico[l]ae / [legati Augustoru]m pr(o) pr(aetore) (‘For the Emperors Caesars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, with tribunician power for the 17th time, consul thrice, and Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus Armeniacus, with tribunician power for the 3rd time, consul twice, a detachment of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix built this under the charge of Sextus Calpurnius Agricola, Emperor’s propraetorian legate’). Fragmentary dedication found in three separate locations in 1702, 1912, and 1938. Source: RIB I p.379

RIB 1150: I[mp(eratori) ('For the Emperor...'). Fragment of a dedication found on the site of the W gate of the fort at Corbridge in 1953. Source: RIB I p.380

RIB 1151: Imp(erator) Caes(ar) L(ucius) Sep(timius) [S]everus Pi(us) / Pertinax et Imp(erator) C[a]esar M(arcus) / Aur(elius) Antoninu[s] Pius Aug/usti [[et P(ublius) Septi[mi]us Geta]] / [[Caesar]] horre[u]m [per] / vexillatione[m leg(ionis) ...] / fecerunt su[b L(ucio) Alfeno] / [Senecione leg(ato) Aug(ustorum) pr(o) pr(aetore)] (‘For the Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severeus Pius Pertinax and Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius Augustus and Publius Septimius Geta Caesar built this granary through the agency of the … Legion under Lucius Alfenus Senecio, Emperor’s pro praetorian legate’). Dedication found a) in 1725 in the Anglo-Saxon crypt and b) in 1907 in the Anglo-Saxon NW tower at Hexaham Abbey. Source: RIB I pp.380-1

RIB 1152

RIB 1152

RIB 1152: …]CA[...] / [Tere]ntio (?) Paulin[o p(rae)p(osito)] / [a]g(ente) in praeten[tura] (‘…Terentius Paulinus, commander, on frontier garrison duty…’). Dedication slab found 1902 at Corbow (Roman Corbridge). Source: RIB I p.381

RIB 1153

RIB 1153

RIB 1153: Imperatorib(us) / Caesaribus / [M(arco) A]urelio An/[tonino et ('For the Emperor-Caesars Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and...'). Dedication slab found 1902 at Corbow (Roman Corbridge). Source: RIB I p.381

RIB 1154

RIB 1154

RIB 1154: Vexillus / leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) (‘detachment of the Second Legion Augusta’). Decorative slab found at Corbridge in the E granary in 1907. Source: RIB I pp.381-2

RIB 1155

RIB 1155

RIB 1155: Leg(ionis) II / Aug(ustae) / coh(ors) III f(ecit) (‘Second Legion Augusta, Third Cohort built this’). Building stone found at Corbridge, probably in 1755. Source: RIB I p.382

RIB 1156

RIB 1156

RIB 1156: Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / coh(ors) III (‘Second Legion Augusta the Third Cohort (built this)’). Building stone found in 1883 in the Cor Burn W of Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.382

RIB 1157: Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / coh(ors) IIII f(ecit) (‘Second Legion Augusta the Fourth Cohort built this’). Building stone found 1711 reused in the NE corner of Corbridge church. Now lost. Source: RIB I p.382

RIB 1158: …]ce / [leg(io) II Au]g(usta) / [fec(it)] (‘… the Second Legion Augusta (built this)’). Building stone found before 1855 at Corbridge, now built into shop W of marketplace. Source: RIB I pp.382-3

RIB 1159: Leg(io) / VI Vic(trix) / fe[c(it)] (‘the Sixth Legion Victrix built this’). Building stone found 1937 W of Site 39. Source: RIB I p.383

RIB 1160: Leg(io) VI Vic(trix) P(ia) F(idelis) (‘The Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis (built this)’). Building stone found 1829 at Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.383

RIB 1161: Instante / Fl(avio) Hygin(o) / c(enturione) leg(ionis) VI v(ictricis) (‘Under the direction of Flavius Hyginus, centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix’). Building stone found in the chapter house of Hexham Abbey. Source: RIB I p.383

RIB 1162: Legio(nis) VI / pi(a)e f(idelis) vex(illatio) / refe(cit) (‘A detachment of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis rebuilt this’). Building stone found 1856 at the junction of Stagshaw Bank and Cow Lane. Source: RIB I p.383

RIB 1163: Vexi[llatio] / leg(ionis) V[I vic(tricis) p(iae) f(idelis)] / sub c[ura Viri] / Lup[i v(iri) c(larissimi) co(n)s(ularis)] (‘A detachment of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis under the command of Virius Lupus, of senatorial status and of consular rank (built this)’). Dedication slab found 1912 in the strongroom of Site 45. Source: RIB I p.384

RIB 1164: [Le]g(io) / XX V(aleria) V(ictrix) / [fec]it (‘The Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix built this’). Building stone found 1907 on Site 8. Source: RIB I p.384

RIB 1165: [Leg(io)] XX V(aleria) [v(ictrix)] / [fec]it (‘The Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix built this’). Building stone found 1907 on Site 8. Source: RIB I p.384

RIB 1166

RIB 1166

RIB 1166: Leg(ionis) XX V(aleriae) v(ictricis) / coh(ors) VII (‘Twentieth/Thirtieth Legion Valeria/Ulpia Victrix Seventh Cohort (built this)’). Building stone found 1912 near Site 45. Source: RIB I p.384

RIB 1167

RIB 1167

RIB 1167: c(enturia) Tu(lli) Cap(i)t(onis) / coh(ortis) VI / QD de(dit) (‘The century of Tullius Capito, Sixth Cohort, QD gave this’). Building stone found 1940 between apsidal building and Site 40S. Source: RIB I p.385

RIB 1168: …] / C[... ('... C...'). Dedication slab found 1912 on Site 39 or 40. Source: RIB I p.385

RIB 1169: coh(ortis) VIIII c(enturia) Ma/rci Coma(ti) ('Ninth Cohort, the century of Marcius Comatus (built this)'). Centurial stone found in 1885, now built into W end of nave of Hexham Abbey. Source: RIB I p.385

RIB 1170: Iulian/us ('Iulianus'). Building stone found on Site 43. Source: RIB I p.385

RIB 1171

RIB 1171

RIB 1171: [D(is)] M(anibus) / [Ba]rathes Pal/myrenus vexil(l)a(rius) / vixit an(n)os LXVIII (‘For the immortal shades, Barathes the Palmyrene, a vexillarius, lived 68 years’). Tombstone found 1910 reused in flooring on Site 23. Source: RIB I p.385

RIB 1172

RIB 1172

RIB 1172: Dis Manibus / Flavinus / eq(ues) alae Petr(ianae) signifer / tur(ma) Candidi an(norum) XXV / stip(endiorum) VII h(ic) s(itus) (‘For the immortal shades, the cavalryman Flavinus of the ala Petriana, a standard-bearer in the turma of Candidus, lived 25 years, served 7, lies here’). Tombstone found 1881 in the foundations of the porch of the S transept of Hexham Abbey. Source: RIB I p.386

RIB 1173: D(is) [M(anibus)] / [I]ul(io) Ca[ndi]/do Da[..] / h(eres) f(aciendum) [c(uravit)] (‘For the immortal shades, Iulius Candidus, Da.. his heir had this set up’). Tombstone found before 1929 in the vicarage stable at Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.386

RIB 1174: D(is) M(anibus) / Iul(ius) Primus / con[iu]gi c(arissimae) / p(onendum) c(uravit) (‘For the immortal shades, Iulius Firmus, set this up for his most dear wife’). Tombstone found 1895 at Trinity Terrace. Source: RIB I p.387

RIB 1175: L(ucio) Val(erio) Ius[t]o / mil(iti) leg(ionis) VI / Egn(atius) Dyonysi/us et Sur(ius) Ius/[t]us her(edes) f(aciendum) c(uraverunt) (‘Lucius Valerius Iustus, soldier of the Sixth Legion Victrix, his heirs Egnatius Dionysius and Surius Iustus, set this up’). Tombstone found 1802 on W part of Roman Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.387

RIB 1176: [Dis] / [Manibus] / Ti[b(eri) ...] / Pa[... ('For the immortal shades, Tiberius ...'). Tombstone found before 1883 in a wall on the NW side of Bridge market place. Source: RIB I p.387

RIB 1177: D(is) M(anibus) / miles / leg(ionis) II [Aug(ustae)] / [... ('For the immortal shades, a soldier of the Second Legion Augusta ...'). Tombstone found before 1907 in the Vicar's Pele in Corbridge. Source: RIB I p.387

RIB 1178: ... em]erit[o ex e]q(uite) alae [...] / [...]ae / [... ('...emeritus, formerly cavalryman in the ... ala'). Tombstone fragment found 1886 in Corbridge church. Source: RIB I p.388

RIB 1179: ...]icinicivi [...]/rauthus et [...]/arfaiaucus [et ...] / [...] et Scu[...] / [...]co [... ('?'). Tombstone fragment found before 1860 E of The Seal in Heexham. Source: RIB I p.388

RIB 1180

RIB 1180

RIB 1180: D(is) M(anibus) / Ahteh(a)e / fil(iae) Nobilis / vixit an(n)is / V (‘For the immortal shades, Ahteha, daughter of Nobilis, lived 5 years’). Tombstone found reused in late road S of Site 11. Source: RIB I pp.388-9

RIB 1181

RIB 1181

RIB 1181: D(is) M(anibus) / Sudrenus / Ertol(a)e nomine / Vellibia felicissi/m(a)e vixit an(n)is IIII / diebus LX (‘For the immortal shades, Sudrenus (set this up) for Ertola, called Velibia, she lived most happily for 4 years and 60 days’). Tombstone found reused in late road S of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.389

RIB 1182: Iulia Mate[r]/na an(norum) VI Iul(ius) / Marcellinus / filiae carissimae (‘Iulia Materna lived 6 years, Iulius Marcellinus for his dearest daughter (set this up)’). Tombstone found about 1861 in the W end of Corbridge church. Source: RIB I p.389

RIB 1183

RIB 1183

RIB 1183: [D(is) M(anibus)] s(acrum) / [... ('For the immortal shades, sacred ...'). Tombstone fragment found in 1910 in topsoil S of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.389

RIB 1184: D(is) M(anibus) / Mo[... ('For the immortal shades...'). Tombstone found 1911 on Site 29. Source: RIB I p.389

RIB 1185: [...]llon(ius) Lu/[...]cius (‘?’). Building stone found 1907 on Site 5 (40). Source: RIB I p.390

RIB 1186: [Coh(ors) I(?)] / Ling(onum) / Iliom/[arus? ('First Cohort of Lingones, Iliomarus...'). Building stone found in 1910 E of Site 11. Source: RIB I p.390

RIB 1187: ...]IVS BA[...] / [...]X A[...] / [...]VB IRA[...] / [...]ANIVI[...] / [...] EFMATER[... ('?'). Tombstone fragment in W tower of Corbridge church found in 1886. Source: RIB I p.390

RIB 1188: ...] / BIS I[...] / VAL[... ('?'). Dedication slab fragment found before 1730. Source: RIB I p.390

RIB 1189: ...] D(e) s(uo) [p(osuit?)] (‘… set this up from his own resources.’). Slab found 1942 in aqueduct north of Site 8. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1190: …]IE[...] / [...]TITICIA[...] / [...]VI BRIV[...] / [...]TAE [...] / [...] L(egio) VI Vic(tri…) F (‘… Sixth Legion Victrix …’). ?Building stone found 1760 at Corbridge, now lost. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1191: Le(gio) [... ('... legion ...'). Panel fragment found 1934 on Site 39. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1192: NI ('?'). Gutter stone found in 1911, now lost. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1193: ...]O NO [... ('?'). Inscription found in Hexham Abbey crypt around 1887, now lost. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1194: ...]VE[I... ('?'). Fragment found 1911 at Corbridge, now lost. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1195: Vic[...] (‘?’). Building stone found at Corbridge 1906-14. Source: RIB I p.391

RIB 1196: a) VII // VIII // XV(?) // XVIII // XX b) X / VIII // X / IIIIV (’7, 8, 15(?), 18, 20 10/8, 10/9(?)’). Voussirs found 1908 at Corbridge on Site 11, now lost. Source: RIB I p.392

RIB 1197: VIIII (’9′). Building stone found at Corbridge 1906-14. Source: RIB I p.392

RIB 3293: VO[...] / [...]Ael[...] (‘…]Ael(ius?)[...'). Altar found 1994 in Town Field during building work. Source: RIB III p.291

RIB 3294: Aurelius / M[... ('Aurelius ...'). Slab fragment found before 1964. Source: RIB III p.292

RIB 3295: a) ...] [...]R [...] / [...]O ❧ b) C (‘?’). Slab identified 1971 on a stone from the W granary. Source: RIB III p.292


Corbridge is one of the few sites in the Hadrian’s Wall region where history and archaeology collide head-on. This is a product of its strategic location – at the junction of the Stanegate and Dere Street, just by a major Tyne crossing – and the intensive campaign of excavation that began in 1906 and continued, with interruptions, until 1980.

The religious dedications give us a good idea of just how cosmopolitan a place Corbridge was. The deities represented include Apollo Maponus (1120-2), Mercury (1123, 1133), Astarte (1124, in Greek), Diana (1126), Minerva (1134), Heracles of Tyre (1129, also in Greek), Jupiter (1130-1), Mars Ultor (1132), Panthea (1135), Silvanus (1136), Sol Invictus (1137), and Veteris (1139-41). More militarily derived deities include Concordia (1125), Discip(u)lina (1127-8), and Victoria (1136). Notable by their absence are Cocidius and Mithras. The presence of pairs of legionary detachments in the compounds south of the Stanegate is most poignantly indicated by that dedication to Concordia (‘harmony’) between the Sixth and Twentieth Legions, but it is difficult to interpret that in any other way than the most pessimistic and see it as indicative as extreme rivalry, if not outright conflict, between the two detachments.

The various building inscriptions tell us something of what was happening to Corbridge as it developed from a turf and timber fort with a small associated civil settlement into a town with a legionary enclave. The Second Legion Augusta are seen rebuilding the stone granaries in AD 139–40 (11478), whilst a building inscription of AD 163–6 (1137) includes a (deleted) dedication to Sol Invictus by a detachment of the Sixth Legion, building under Calpurnius Agricola, possibly the occasion when construction of Site 11 began. The same legion is mentioned in other inscriptions (1159-63) and we know the Twentieth Legion constructed the ornamental fountain (Site 8) next to the granaries (1164) and they are recorded elsewhere (1165–7). The Second Legion Augusta is represented by a dedication on a statue base (1127) and a relief (1154) depicting their vexillus (sic), as well as on various building stones (11558). Severus’ northern campaign is reflected in an inscription set up by a praepositus in charge of granaries during ‘the Most Fortunate British Expedition’ (1143) and the construction of a granary by a legionary detachment (1151). We may also note in passing a building stone (1186) from a cohort (possibly the First) of Lingones (the First were at High Rochester in the Antonine period and Lanchester in the 3rd century).

Finally, the tombstones reveal some of the inhabitants to us. From its days as a fort, the tombstone of Flavinus (1172) is a fine example of the Reiter type of relief, with a cavalryman of the ala Petriana riding down a cowering barbarian. The tombstone of Barathes, a standard bearer (vexillarius), often equated with the husband of Regina, recorded on a tombstone (RIB 1065) from South Shields. The stone of a lefionary of the Sixth Legion (1175) has heirs with distinctly eastern-sounding names, possibly reflecting a sojourn in the East during the Antonine period for that unit, perhaps also attested in the dedication to Sol Invictus (1137). The civil population is highlighted by three child tombstones from the site, one each of 6 (1182), 5 (1180), and 4 years old (1181), all little girls.

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Was Hadrian’s Wall awash with cider?

Now, be honest: you’re thinking that I am positively potty, aren’t you? Everybody knows cider was introduced into Britain by the Normans, and that beforehand there was beer (the famed cervesa of the Vindolanda Tablets); imported (and natively grown) wine, of course; and possibly some mead too. But Roman cider? You’ve got to be joking!

One of my cider varieties

One of my cider varieties

I must declare an interest, here. When I lived in the Scottish Borders, I had a small (very small: on espaliered dwarf root stock) orchard and I grew my own apples in order to make cider (or cyder, since it only contained apples, with none of the chemical hotch-potch some producers add). Boosted by windfalls from neighbours (who, as a cider-maker, I rapidly learned soon tire of endless apple pies) and with a little added piquancy (and, importantly, tannin) from wild, hedgerow crab apples down by the old airfield (the one where Wojtek the bear used to live), I made passable cider. I once even managed to secure a few kilos of Kingston Black (a god amongst cider apple varieties): small, ugly, tannin-laden fruits that had a sort of tardis trick with the amount of rich, red juice they produced. That juice turned into a cider to die for. However, I digress – you get the picture: I have an interest in cider, in more ways than one.

Some of my apples

Some of my apples

Anyway, my quest for Roman cider in Northern Britain started out with light-hearted intent, sparked tangentially by a item on a television news programme, but serious evidential questions lie at the root of all this flippant alcoholic speculation, as will hopefully become apparent.

Why might there have been cider on Hadrian’s Wall? Because the most important ingredient necessary for the presence of cider was there. No, not apples (don’t be silly, that much is obvious); I mean cider-lovers.

Underground strongroom at Great Chesters

Useful cellarage at Great Chesters?

The auxiliary units based in Britain were drawn from all over the Empire except, as was policy, from Britain itself. The infantry cohorts, cavalry alae, and part-mounted cohorts came from a variety of peoples, and the mounted components in Britain contained a high proportion of Gallic and Spanish units. In fact, along Hadrian’s Wall, there were Asturian alae at Benwell (I Hispanorum Asturum) and Chesters (II Asturum), and an Asturian part-mounted cohort (cohors II Asturum) at Great Chesters. It has even been suggested that the Roman name of Chesters – Cilurnum – was derived from the Asturians’ home region, rather than an existing local placename. To these might be added the cohors I fida Vardullorum, a double-strength, part-mounted unit that pops up at Castlecary on the Antonine Wall, at Corbridge, Lanchester, Cappuck (possibly), and finally at the Hadrian’s Wall outpost fort of High Rochester in the 3rd century. The Vardulli came from the Aquitanian Basque region around modern Gipuzkoa, where there is still a tradition of cider production and consumption. We can be less certain where the cohors II Vasconum were deployed (they only show up on diplomas, not inscriptions), but the Vascones were neighbours of the Vardulli in northern Spain, so I think we might suspect them too of a fondness for the fermented apple.

A thirsty Asturian from Chesters

A thirsty Asturian from Chesters

And so to the news item. Amidst disturbing coverage of the proposed new anti-abortion law in Spain, Channel 4 News went to Asturias, where a group of women were singing protest songs against the new bill whilst drinking their favourite tipple: their local sidra. Now I’ve sampled Spanish cider and, like German Apfelwein, it can hold its own against British ciders and, at its best, give our finest a run for their money (perhaps just being pipped at the post; I couldn’t resist that…). I even have a friend from the north of Spain whose family had been growing cider apples since way back into the apple-blossomed mists of time. I nosed through a few of my history-of-cider books, most of which are more folklorish than factual (as is so much ‘popular history’; we ancient historians are rather fastidious about what we require as evidence), but all of which agreed on the antiquity of the Asturian love of cider, pre-dating even the Romans. A little bit of research on the web sort of confirmed that rather fuzzy view (the web is so good at sort-of-confirming vague things in a non-specific, word-of-mouthish way), but did not provide hard-and-fast evidence (I need citations, not guff). Then I hit pay dirt (rather appropriate, in an archaeological sort of way).

Asturian cavalrymen's tombstone

An Asturian dreaming of his cider?

For we do indeed have some literary evidence: Pliny the Elder (after whom, I discovered, a beer is named, but that is irrelevant) comes to our aid, specifically NH XIV.19. He tells us how both apples and pears could make an alcoholic drink (cider and perry respectively, although whether true perry pears were known is another matter). Strabo (IV.3.7) describes how the mountain Spaniards (which included the Cantabrians and Asturians) drank zytho and it has been argued that this is linked to the Greek Σίχερα, Latin sicera, and thus ultimately sidra. It should be noted that sicera, with the sense of a non-specific intoxicating drink, is claimed by various other modern beverages, not just cider!

Thus it seems that some form of cider was at least known from Roman literary sources. What about archaeology? That’s harder. You see, apples are entimophilous, which means you need insects to pollinate them and that means they do not contribute to the pollen rain: that’s the stuff that drops out of the sky, possibly giving you hay-fever in passing, but which almost exclusively derives from wind-pollinated plants. That in turn means that you can look as hard as you like through all the peat cores and pollen samples taken along Hadrian’s Wall (and there’s quite a few now), but apples just will not show up unless a tree was right next to the coring site. They are, as someone once said, A Known Unknown. So can environmental archaeology help us at all? Luckily it can. Apple pips could theoretically survive through waterlogging (as at sites like Vindolanda or Carlisle) and by carbonisation (where they are accidentally burned and turned to charcoal). Find apple pips and you have apple consumption. Crab apples are neither edible nor a good source of cider by themselves, so pips from a Roman site ought to be cultivars grown for consumption in one way or another.

The label from the back of my ciders

The label from the back of my ciders

Unfortunately, environmental archaeology has only really taken off after Benwell, Chesters, and Great Chesters were excavated, so any hope of proving apple consumption at those sites is forlorn. We may be able to use comparative data from other neighbouring sites, however. Excavations at Vindolanda and Carlisle have already been mentioned as possible sources of waterlogged material and Carlisle (Howard-Davis 2009, 524) has produced evidence for the consumption of both apples and pears.

The sub-literary evidence provides some interesting confirmation. Vindolanda Tablet 302 includes a request for ‘a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones’ in the same sentence as other foodstuffs, like beans, chickens, and eggs. The editors suggest this concerns the acquisition of food for the commanding officer’s house, so these would perhaps be more likely to be dessert apples, rather than intended for cider making, but it makes the point: apples were readily available for that fort, even if not necessarily grown there, and in relative bulk.


Apples. Yum!

So where does this leave us? As in so many details of life in Roman Britain there are things the novelist can invent and the ancient historian and archaeologist can only dream of verifying. Was cider only introduced to Britain by the Normans or could Roman auxiliaries have been quaffing it merrily? Despite the lack of fossil pollen evidence (and at least you have learned why there is likely to be none), there were clearly cultivated apples available on the northern frontier, and there were as many as five auxiliary units with the best part of 3000 men from a land with a cider-making and -consuming tradition that (allegedly) pre-dated the Romans. There appear to be good grounds to at least suspect that cider, like many of the soldiers (when opportunity arose), may have been drunk in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall. Yes, I’ll drink to that. Waes hael! (or should that be gayolá!?)


Now I hesitate to mention this, and please don’t tell the French, but it is a commonplace that some of the British garrison troops who never made it back to Britannia after the usurpation of Magnus Maximus in AD 383 may have settled in Brittany. (It is an incidental, but colourful, detail that Maximus himself hailed from Gallaecia, a region in north-west Spain that included Asturia.) If the stranded troops brought a love of cider with them, could that not be the origin of Normandy and Brittany cidre and that eventual Norman (re)introduction of cider to Britain? I’d best not say any more; there’s a chap with a baguette and a mean look in his eye heading this way…

Howard-Davis, C. (2009) The Carlisle Millennium Project 1998–2001. Volume 2 The Finds, Lancaster

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Edge of Empire: the Archaeology of an Annoying Meme


This is a tale of frustration, despair, and – frankly – misunderstanding. Frustration, because it does not come to a satisfactory conclusion; despair, because the ubiquitous quotation that forms our subject matter is verging on becoming an annoying cliché; and misunderstanding, because it begs a question that is left unanswered: do empires have an edge?


Let’s make this easy: hands up who hasn’t written a book, made a film, or baked a cupcake and not used the phrase Edge of Empire in relation to it? Thought so: not many of you. The phrase seems to have spread amongst both academic and popular writers like the common cold. It is everywhere (no hyperbole in that statement, naturally); just try googling “edge of empire” (if nothing else, a lot of Star Wars references turn up). Apart from finding it slightly annoying, I have become intrigued by its origins and set about trying to track them down.

Lendering & BrouwersWho said it?

It looks like it ought to be a quote from one of the usual suspects, but it turns out it is not Shakespeare, or Roger, Francis, or even Danish Bacon to whom it can be attributed. There is, perhaps, a Kiplingesque quality to it, but even that instinct proves wrong.

Geldard's bookAfter you’ve waded through the plethora of volumes on frontier studies dealing with various periods that have been produced in the last two decades, mostly touting sexy terms like ‘interaction’ and ‘exchange’ (and mostly deploring the role of whichever oppressor they decry), you get back into the barren wastelands of the 1960s, when nobody seems to have worried whether empires were edgy. How did scholars (and publishers, who have special bandwagon-adhesive-coated-boots) manage? Well, they got by. But do all these modern writers know the source of the phrase? It seems unlikely. I asked a few I know (and, yes, I know more than one) who have used it and they did not, and none of the others seem to quote the Urquelle for their label. The mystery deepens. Let’s venture a little further back in time.

In 1906, it turns out, Mills and Boon (that made you sit up!) published The Edge of Empire,  a piece of romantic fiction by Joan Sutherland – no, not that one; this is the pen name of Joan Collings (1890–1947) – set in, you will not be surprised to learn, Imperial India. You famously can’t copyright a title, which is probably just as well, when we look only a few years earlier and find On The Edge of Empire by Edgar Jepson and David Beames. Again, it is set in India and of its time (as fiction usually is). So, we are getting closer, but can the phrase really have originated with one or other romantic historical fiction author?

Stockton villaUnfortunately, at that point the trail peters out. Novelists have a habit of using quotations as titles and ‘The Edge of Empire’ has the feel of a quote, but I have been unable to trace the source. If you know it, do let me know and put me out of my misery. Actually, you can only really put me out of that misery by banning anybody from using it again for a period of, say, a century. Yes, that should do it.


The truth is, of course, that most of the frontiers so spectacularly plastered with the label Edge of Empire were very far from the edge of anybody’s empire. Hadrian’s Wall was always accompanied by its outpost forts at Birrens, Netherby, Bewcastle, Risingham, and High Rochester. Even without them, we might have suspected that Roman material culture would have oozed over the frontier, but with them there, it seems fairly certain. Even the Antonine Wall had contemporary forts to the north (Strageath, Ardoch, and Bertha spring to mind), so that too was far from the edge of anything. The areas outwith the frontiers were nevertheless under Rome’s sway to some extent and certain areas, Caledonia and Germania for instance, could be seen as handy ‘big game parks’, in which emperors hungry for a bit of military glory could venture out, defeat some barbarians and garner some captives, before returning home, issuing some self-congratulatory coins and perhaps putting up an arch somewhere more-or-less obscure to wrap things up nicely. Frontiers, it seems, tend to be two-way ticket barriers, not edged weapons, and as we are all discovering in 2014, they can have an afterlife as political footballs.

Werewolves and Gladiators