Podcastellum 7: Walking the Wall with Mark Richards

Have you ever heard of Clare Balding’s Ramblings? Well, this Podcastellum is going to be more like Per Lineam Valli’s Stumblings; consider yourself warned.

Mark Richards on Peel Crag

Mark Richards on Peel Crag

On a fine September day this year (2014), I met up with Mark Richards, author of the best-selling Cicerone guide to walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path. We then walked from Steel Rigg to Carrawburgh* and chatted, giggled, chatted some more, and generally passed the time of day, with subjects ranging from the importance of maintaining the Trail, how he writes his guide books, Walltogether, and why he is no longer a beef farmer. Oh, and his mentor, AW, gets at least one mention. I’ve edited the ensuing wordathon down to less than an hour to give you a flavour of our extremely enjoyable day on Hadrian’s Wall.

Mark's first guide book to the Wall

Mark’s first guide book to the Wall

Mark wrote his first guide to the Wall back in 1993, long before the Hadrian’s Wall Path National Trail existed (although it was already being considered by then). Once the Path came into being in 2003, the book was updated again and it is now one of the three main guides to the Wall (but the only one that considers that people might want to walk both ways on the Trail). He was in fact preparing a new edition as we met.

Mark's current guide to the Wall Path

Mark’s current guide to the Wall Path

Mark has not only written about the Wall, however, with guide books to the Lake District and the Pennines, all illustrated with his characteristic line drawings (which he calls linescapes). When we met, he was just about to film a DVD about Helvellyn and that is now available. My suggestion that he should produce a DVD on Hadrian’s Wall met with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and some surreal banter.

Mark Richards walking on Hadrian's Wall

Mark Richards walking on Hadrian’s Wall

The podcast is available as an MP3 file (48.8Mb). 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 archive.org web page.

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

Mark Richards and Hadrian's Wall

Mark Richards contemplates Hadrian’s Wall


* In case you hadn’t realised, the best way to walk Hadrian’s Wall is from west to east. Why? The  weather; the start; the weather; the finish (Segedunum!); and, of course, the weather.

Another Wall Face: Robert H Forster

Introduction

A new exhibition is currently (21 August to 9 November 2014) running along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Wall Face uses portraits of antiquarians and archaeologists involved with the Roman Wall to provide a personal perspective on its study. The rather interesting concept it embodies is a distributed exhibition, with components hosted at different venues within the Hadrian’s Wall part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. To see the whole exhibition you simply have to visit all the sites (and there are incentives to encourage you to do so)!

The exhibition covers Sir Ernest Budge, William Camden, R G Collingwood, John Hodgson, William Hutton, John Leland, Sir Ian Richmond, William Stukeley, and Sir Mortimer Wheeler. To mark the opening of Wall Face, then, here is one more face from Hadrian’s Wall that Per Lineam Valli thinks deserves a little additional recognition; unlike most of them, however, he was a local lad.

R H Forster

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

Robert Henry Forster (1867–1923) was born at Backworth in Northumberland (now not far from Newcastle Airport), trained as a lawyer, made a living as a historical novelist and poet, relaxed as an oarsman, but was most significantly for our purposes an archaeologist. The one thing he was not was the author of the History of Corbridge, as many of the knock-off POD editions available claim (that was a different Robert Forster, 1815–85, a watch- and clockmaker in Corbridge).

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910 (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund*)

Why was Forster important? Together with Newcastle architect W H Knowles, he directed the excavations of the Roman site at Corbridge from 1907 to 1914 (The Corstopitum excavations) after Leonard Woolley left to start digging in the Near East (when they became the first training excavation in British archaeology). His connection with Hadrian’s Wall began in 1899, when he published The Amateur Antiquary, a series of Wall-themed essays that included a fictionalised description of the frontier as he envisaged it. In his Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Richard Hingley claims Forster’s book as ‘an inspiration for the approach adopted in this book as it effectively brought the remains of the Wall to Life’ (p.204). As Hingley notes, following Eric Birley, Forster was the first to assert that there were two turrets between each milecastle, something we simply take for granted nowadays.

Forster went on to publish a paper in 1901, rather modestly entitled ‘Some notes on Hadrian’s Wall‘ which, whilst not exactly establishing him as a major-league Wall scholar, served to indicate his abilities and interests. It was perhaps this that brought him to Francis Haverfield’s attention when he was recruiting a team of supervisors to support Woolley for the first Corstopitum excavation season in 1906.

R H Forster supervising excavators in front of the W granary at Corbridge

R H Forster supervising excavators on the portico in front of the W granary at Corbridge (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund)

Forster was a perfectly capable excavator in the terms of his day (the only fair way to judge an archaeologist), although the reputation of the Corstopitum campaign subsequently suffered at the hands of Woolley’s rather embittered comments on it. A much better assessment of his work can be gleaned from W H Knowles’ obituary of his friend and colleague, where he noted Forster’s popularity with the labourers (mostly agricultural, mining, and pottery men). Annual interim reports were produced, as well as newspaper articles and sundry other discursive pieces. Interestingly, Forster stood up to Haverfield (‘The Pope of Roman Britain’) over the issue of the function of Site 11, the large courtyard building still visible at Corbridge. Haverfield thought it was a legionary headquarters building, but Forster disagreed and some heated and very public discussion ensued.

The First World War brought an end to the Corstopitum excavations and Forster retired early to Devon, where he lived with his wife in Combeinteignhead in a 17th/18th-century house called Rest Dod. His last published work was a book of poems about his garden there and, rather fittingly, he is buried within sight of the house and garden. However, his tombstone is capped by a significant epitaph: ‘a faithful son of Northumberland’.

R H Forster's gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

R H Forster’s gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

Finally, on the grounds that you can probably tell more about a writer by what he wrote than what he looked like, here is R H Forster ‘imagineering’ in The Amateur Antiquary, describing Roman Corbridge more than seven years before he actually dug there:

Soon the road swerves to the right, and slants down to the level of the haughs; and a few hundred yards bring us to the bridge, which forms the last link in the chain of our day’s travel. The water is swirling and gurgling against the massive stone piers and abutments, and, as we ride across by the great timber roadway, we feel half inclined to loiter and admire the view; for the sun is hanging close above the western heights, and the river, as it steals down towards us, is like a stream of dancing gold. But the keen autumn air has made us too hungry to linger over reflections, actual or sentimental: let us press on up the last short ascent, and enter the town which is to harbour us for the night.

Corstopitum is a curious, irregular little place. The cramped fortress, which Julius Agricola planted here on the ruins of some old Otadene stronghold, has already been swallowed up by the thriving town, to which peace and commerce have given birth. There is no troop in garrison now; but some two thousand rough, pleasure-loving soldiers are quartered within a few miles of the place, and Corstopitum lives on them. Even at this late hour the forum is ringing with the clamour of bargainers; for during the afternoon various parties have come hither on leave from Cilurnum, Hunnum, and Vindobala; and every man of them is bent on enjoyment. Garrison life in these Wall-fortresses is a monotonous form of existence; and many a rough soldier knows no other charm to beguile its dulness, than the memory or expectation of these “noctes Corstopitanae”.

But let us take a peep at the scene in the forum, if we dare risk our ear-drums in such a pandemonium. The little square is packed with the stalls of provision-dealers and wine-sellers; each tradesman is volubly extolling his own wares, and giving full, particular, and extremely libellous accounts of the stock, person, character, and genealogy of his nearest rival. Here a spruce Asturian trooper is wildly threatening vengeance against an unwashed Otadene, who is trying, with the aid of many grimaces, to pass off sparrows for larks: here a petty officer of the Ala Sabiniana is explaining, in a mixture of barbarous Latin and good but highly flavoured Norican, that the market-woman’s sausages are no true product of the genuine pig; and the good lady is indignantly, but not altogether truthfully, recounting the names and titles of the various distinguished persons, who have eaten of the accused dainties, and afterwards sent for more: and here a heavy-witted Frisian private, three parts drunk already, stands, like the ass between two bundles of hay, lost in hopeless indecision between two capacious jars of wine, which the smiling and subservient Greek merchant is smoothly assuring him contain prime Massic and choice Caecuban respectively.

“Believe him not, good sir,” cries his subtle countryman from the next stall. “By Dionysus! he made both of them himself, here in Corstopitum.”

Meanwhile the taverns, which appear to be numberless, are doing a roaring trade; and the two or three temples, which the town contains, are trying their utmost to outbid the taverns. The more sedate deities of official Rome find little favour at Corstopitum: orgy-loving gods from Syria and Egypt have ousted them, and the temples are ablaze with lights, and ringing with the clash of cymbals and the rattle of the sistrum. But these places are too thickly crowded to allow us to make further investigations in comfort, and of too dubious a character for respectable travellers to enter without risk of insult or loss of reputation: and finally, seeing that the process of painting Corstopitum red is about to begin, we are driven back to the one building which will escape this general redecoration, the official posting-house, where we are to pass the night.

Morning comes once more, and after much worry and certain explosions of temper we resume our journey. Corstopitum wears an air of depression, and we are up too early to suit the habits of a town which usually goes to bed in the not-very-small hours of the morning. However, threats and promises induce the sleepy posting-house attendants to bestir themselves at last; and soon Corstopitum has fallen asleep again, and we ourselves are riding northward up the long hill, which leads us towards the Wall.

At last the straggling woods, through which the steeper part of the road passes, are left behind: there is a glorious view behind us, the wide expanse of Tynedale, backed by the wooded hills, between which the Devilswater comes rushing out to join the greater Tyne; but we can spare no more than one brief backward glance for all its beauties: a small entrenched camp lies close to the wayside on our left; but we do not stop to examine it. Straight in front of us is something better worth looking at, the Wall itself. Dignified as we are, we set our horses to a canter, and challenge each other to try who shall reach it first; an exciting but frivolous amusement, which nearly brings us into trouble. There are sentries posted at the gap, where the road pierces the great earthworks, which run parallel to the Wall, upon the southern side; and such is the eagerness of our competition that we can hardly rein in our steeds, when the guardians of the pass shout lustily to us to stop (for none may go northward of the Wall without a proper authorization), and angrily enquire whether we imagine that we are in a maledicted circus.

Further Reading

Bishop, M C (1994) : Corstopitum: an Edwardian Excavation, London

Forster, R H (1899): The Amateur Antiquary: His Notes, Sketches, and Fancies Concerning the Roman Wall in the Counties of Northumberland and Cumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne

Freeman,  P W M (2007): The Best Training Ground for Archaeologists: Francis Haverfield and the Invention of Romano-British Archaeology, Oxford

Hingley, R (2012): Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Oxford

Knowles, W H (1923): ‘Robert Henry Forster’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 29, 293–5


* R H Forster was an executive committee member when the Corbridge Excavation Fund was set up in 1907. The Fund not only still exists, but owns all of the pre-1930 artefacts from the Corstopitum excavations, making them available to English Heritage through a loan agreement.

The PLV ebooks

The garrison: Part I

The cavalry

Five cavalry units are known to have been based along Hadrian’s Wall. That does not, of course, mean there may not have been others we do not yet know about.

Auxiliary cavalry were organised in units known as alae (literally ‘wings’, from the fact that they used to be placed on the flanks of a Roman battle line). They were either quingenaria (regular strength; literally 500-strong) or milliaria (double strength; literally 1,000-strong), although their exact strengths are a matter of dispute (and even the occasional mud fight). Alae were composed of turmae which are thought to have been around 32 men, including a decurio and standard bearer (other interpretations of the limited evidence are available); probably 16 turmae for an ala quingenaria (giving a theoretical total of 512 men) and 24 for an ala milliaria (and thus 768 men).

The units along the Wall came from three distinct regions: Gaul, Spain, and Pannonia. The two Asturian alae originated in one particular region of the Iberian peninsula (Asturia, naturally), and may have enjoyed a fondness for cider. The Wall garrison included the largest (and most prestigious) of the cavalry units in the Exercitus Britannicus, the ala Petriana, and we shall start with them.

Ala Gallorum Petriana milliaria civium Romanorum bis torquata

Named after its first commander, T. Pomponius Petra, and ultimately the only milliary  cavalry unit in Britain, the ala Petriana was still apparently only quingenary at the time that Flavinus (RIB 1172) died and was buried, most likely in the Flavian period and probably at Corbridge. By AD 98, it had received a block grant of Roman citizenship and then by AD 122 it had been increased to double-strength, both recorded on diplomas. An inscription from Carlisle notes the unit as milliary and torquata (meaning it had received a block grant of torques as a distinction), whilst a career inscription of a former commander, C. Camurius Clemens from Matelica, in Umbria, records the unit as bis torquata. Ala Petriana is placed in the Notitia Dignitatum at an eponymous base, generally supposed to have been Stanwix. Support for the identification of Stanwix as its base comes from a tile stamp and tombstone missing its inscription from the site, which − at 3.27ha − is the largest fort on the Wall (Housesteads, by comparison, is only 2ha).

Ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata [Gallorum]

This is now thought to be the same as the ala Augusta Gallorum Proculeiana civium Romanorum known from diplomas. It has been suggested that the unit was originally called the ala Flavia by Domitian, but that it was subsequently renamed to Augusta following his damnatio memoriae. The unit’s presence at Lancaster is attested by the tombstone of Insus (RIB 3185), before next being recorded under Hadrian at Chesters. It had settled at Old Carlisle by the middle of the 2nd century, with dedications by prefects from AD 185, 188, and 191, and is last recorded there in AD 242. An inscription from Carlisle (RIB 947) may also belong to this phase, possibly between AD180 and 184, rather than actual occupancy at Carlisle. Whether it is to be identified with the ala I Herculeia of the Notitia Dignitatum at that same station is unknown. The unit’s presence (under its formal title ala Gallorum Proculeiana) in the Exercitus Britannicus is recorded on diplomas from AD 122 through to 145/6.

Ala I Hispanorum Asturum

This unit may have arrived in Britain with the initial invasion of AD 43, although there is no clear evidence for this. By the 3rd century AD, it was at Benwell, where it is also attested in the Notitia Dignitatum. The presence of a tombstone belonging to a trooper’s freedman from South Shields is probably not relevant to the location of the unit.

Ala II Asturum

This unit is recorded in Pannonia in the Claudio-Neronian period (CIL III,14349). It appears to have transferred to Britain with Petilius Cerealis at the beginning of his command of the Exercitus Britannicus in AD 71 and to have been based at Ribchester at the end of the 1st/beginning of the 2nd centuries AD. A member of the unit (one Caravus) may have been the owner of the Ribchester cavalry sports helmet. Ala II Asturum subsequently moved to Chesters, presumably replacing the ala Augusta, where it was to remain.

Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana

This ala is first listed in the famed Hadrianic diploma of AD 122 (CIL XVI, 69). Its early postings are unclear, but by the 3rd century it was based at Haltonchesters, where it may have been producing brick and tile (a stamp comes from South Shields). Lead seals bearing its stamp are also known from South Shields, Corbridge, and Pittington Farm and it is assumed that these were destinations receiving communications or goods from the unit when it was at Haltonchesters. The Notitia Dignitatum records it as still being based at Haltonchesters. Although normally just referred to as the ala Sabiniana, a former prefect is more formal by calling it, like the diplomas, ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana in an inscription.

Those, then, are the alae. They are not, however, the only mounted troops on the Wall. The mixed cohortes equitatae contained an element of cavalry in them and it is those we shall examine next.

NEXT: The garrison: Part II

Who Built the Wall?

The legions

A legion was around 5,000 heavily armed and armoured men who were, by the 2nd century AD, even more of an anachronism than the rams that still adorned the prow of every Roman warship in their fleets. Organised into ten cohorts, each of around 480 men, they were extremely effective in open battle, especially when complemented by their attached auxiliaries. Legionaries (never, please, ‘legionnaires’) were nevertheless unsuitable for garrisoning a province and all-too-easily wrong-footed by even the most basic of insurgencies (as all technologically dependent armies tend to be).

Britannia was to turn out to be a troubled (and troubling) place. It needed four legions until the end of the AD 80s and right up until the beginning of the 2nd century AD it still had three (II Augusta, IX Hispana, and XX Valeria Victrix). Then something happened, and at some point between AD 108 and 122 it was probably reduced to two, which was evidently not enough. So it came to pass that, (probably at the same time) in AD 122, three things were crated up and shipped in from Germania Inferior: 1. an emperor (the supreme commander of all Roman armies); 2. a new army commander (who also happened to be a chum of said supreme commander); and 3. a shiny new legion (VI Victrix). All three left their mark, but let’s first look at those three legions.

Legio II Augusta

Based at Caerleon-Isca since c.AD 75, the Second Augusta was a primary legion of the Exercitus Britannicus: it had arrived from Germania (that part later called Superior) in AD 43 and had made the province its home ever since. If there was a stain on its record, it was when its praefectus castrorum refused to support his army commander against the Boudican rebels. Its totemic animals, an important part of its corporate identity, were the capricorn and the winged horse, Pegasus.

Legio XX Valeria Victrix

Established in its fortress at Chester-Deva since c.AD 89, the Twentieth Valeria Victrix was likewise a primary British legion and came from what was to be Lower Germany (Neuss, to be precise). It may have been the intended garrison for the new Flavian legionary base at Inchtuthil, abandoned before it was finished, in which case it would have become the northernmost legion in the Empire. The Twentieth had their own dirty linen: in AD 68, their legate, Roscius Coelius, had rebelled against the commander of the Exercitus Britannicus, Trebellius Maximus, and incited the rest of the provincial army to join him, forcing Maximus to flee. The Twentieth took as its symbol the boar.

Legio VI Victrix

The newcomer. It seems to have arrived on the Tyne directly from its base at Xanten-Vetera in Germania Inferior, if the two altars discovered in the river near the likely site of the Pons Aelius are any indication. Those altars seem to show a legion very glad to be disembarked. We know both its outgoing (Propinquus) and incoming (P. Tullius Varro) commanders from AD 122 and we also know its tribunus laticlavius (second-in-command of a legion), the splendidly named M. Pontius Laelianus Larcius Sabinus. The Sixth Victrix was much less free and easy with its totemic animal on sculpture and inscriptions, but for what it’s worth it is thought to have been a bull.

As has been discussed, none of the legions building the Wall described themselves as a detachment or vexillatio, but there may well have been a vexillation present. An inscription records 3,000 troops from VII Gemina from Hispania Tarraconensis and VIII Augusta and XXII Primigenia from Germania Superior being sent on a Hadrianic expeditio Britannica. Were these extra troops to help with the construction process, or perhaps a draft of troops to bolster depleted British legions?

Auxiliaries and the fleet

An enterprise of this scale tended to suck in all who were available. Adding the forts and the Vallum to the original scheme of the Wall was obviously going to cause problems if the legions had to build those as well, so auxiliary units were drafted in to work on the Vallum and even the fleet (the classis Britannica) had a crack at building Benwell fort. Was that their reward for bringing over legio VI Victrix from Lower Germany?

During construction, the legions were preeminent. However, when the time came to man the Wall, the auxiliaries were to take a prominent, but by no means exclusive, role.

NEXT: The garrison

CGHad

The Army on the Wall: Prologue

Thought you knew the Roman army? Well, you’re in for a 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.

Dedication

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.

Execution

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.

Attribution

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 archive.org web page.

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

CGHad

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.

Arrian

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.

Burials

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.

Tombstones

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.

CGHad