Linking to inscriptions in Clauss-Slaby

If you want to make a direct link to just one inscription in the magnificent Clauss-Slaby database, here’s a way to do it. I should point out I found this out ages ago (I know not where, sadly, so anonymous credit is due), lost it, then rediscovered it!

Tombstone of Classicianus

The information on the inscription is conveyed to the database in the format of

= corpus
B = year/volume
C = number

like this (note that the %20 is essential in each case to pass a ‘space’ character – you can’t have spaces in URLs).,%20C

Thus the diploma listing units discharged in Britain in AD 122, CIL XVI, 69 is,%2000069

Alternatively,  let’s try the inscription to Iulius Classicianus from London, AE 1936, 3,%2000003

All you need to do is form your URL in a text editor, copy it, and paste it into the address bar of your browser. You can even use a URL shortener on the resulting page for posting in Twitter.

Easy when you know how 😉

Hadrian’s Wall by R. H. Forster

Published in 1903 in his collection Idylls of the North, R. H. Forster‘s poem Hadrian’s Wall is typical of its time and probably exactly the sort of thing Edward Thomas disliked amongst Edwardian poetry (although, so far as I know, he never reviewed it). Nevertheless, it is what it is and at least has the virtue of having been written by somebody who had actually excavated on the Wall. Having performed it at the Late Shows 2016 several times (no small feat), I’ve grown rather fond of it and make no apology if it is not to your taste.


Hadrian’s Wall

Robert Henry Forster

Wave upon wave of tawny autumn moor, –
A sea of rolling upland, flecked and seamed
With here a crag, and here a monstrous stone,
Here a gaunt patch of heather, half in bloom
And half new-faded to a sickly white.
Yonder a blue lake edged with waving reeds,
Where wildfowl love to nestle, and the wind
Makes wistful music; by the western shore
A fringe of pine trees, – stems of ruddy brown,
Straight as a smoke-wreath on a windless morn,
Like pillars of a woodland shrine, upholding
A deep and solemn verdure. Over all
Lower the grey-pillared foreheads of the cliffs,
Hill ranked by hill, a marshalled battle-line
Of brother giants frozen into stone
Even in the onset; and upon their heads,
Wreathing those foreheads with a mural crown,
The wasted relics of an empire dead
Still brave the storm and sunshine, as they braved
The warrior-tempests of the ancient North.

A silent ruin on a silent waste,
Now rising to the tallness of a man,
Now lost beneath a natural mound of turf,
Like one whom time has laid in sepulture.
A silent ruin, silent to the sense,
But to the finer hearing of the heart
Still vocal: echoes of a life forgot,
Strange notes of far-off music here resound
Above the wind that whistles in the crags.
Some dying whisper of the alien tongue,
Which once spake sternness to a subject world,
Shall linger here, where erst it rang aloud,
Backed by the brazen trumpet notes of power.

Oh that some Muse would wander o’er the hills,
And voice the fainting echo! ’Tis a spot
Almost as quiet as those hidden dells
Amid the woodland heights of Helicon,
Where the Nine Sisters, when the world was young,
Sang to the music of Apollo’s lyre.
A lone bleak wilderness beside the charm
Of those enchanted uplands, like the brow
Of an old shepherd, weather-tanned and grey,
Beside the rosy softness of a girl:
Yet here is more than outward eye can see;
Here lurks the pathos of a buried past,
The glory of endeavour and success,
The bitterness of failure; joy has led
Triumphant revel o’er this sward of green,
And grief has swelled yon murmuring brook with tears,
And love has whispered yonder by the trees;
Here pleasure held her riot in the town,
A handsbreadth space from hunger: everywhere
Has life seethed manifold, everywhere has death
Claimed new a single victim, now a score,
Now the full hundred, and at last the whole.

Come, let us climb to yonder pointed hill,
Which, jutting out toward the naked North,
Captains its basalt fellows. East and west,
Northward and southward, all is pastoral peace,
Or sleepy marsh and moorland: the few sheep,
That nose among the rushes for a meal,
And yon grey heron, winging o’er the waste
To keep his fishing-vigil by the mere, –
These are the only visible things that live.
The few lone farms that speck the southward view,
Sparse as the ships upon a winter sea,
Seem almost relics of a younger past,
Less shattered, scarce less desolate and still.

But come, O Muse of Memory, and tread
With quickening feet this solitary waste;
Stretch out thine hand, and turn the wheel of time
Backward, yet backward to the misty dawn,
The infant years of Britain: bid the charm
Of solemn music breathe upon the moor;
And lo! as sweetness of Amphion’s lyre
Drew stones to rear the battled walls of Thebes,
Here shall a mightier fabric rearise,
Stretched o’er these summits like a monstrous snake
With scales of stone and, dorsal crest of spears.
See, how the moorland seethes again with life!
Hark, how the stillness iof the autumn air
Vibrates with all the myriad sounds of man!
The trumpet blows a warning from the tower;
The measured tramp and clang of weaponed men
Floats upward from the fortress, and the wheels
Creak harshly through the grey dusts of the road.
And yonder, where the little city basks
Behind the cosy shelter of the Wall,
A hum of many voices intermixed
Swells up, and seems to hover like the smoke,–
A murmur of the market and the street,
A snatch of song from one whose work is done,
The clamorous anger of a tavern brawl,
The shrill impeachments of disputing wives,
The noisy comments of a boyish game,
The plaint of children’s lightly wakened grief.

So lived and rung this shred of rugged moor
For some three hundred summers. Who can stand
On this hill-head, and see no more than hills,
Bare moorlands, marshy hollows, fit for sheep
And not for human minds to browse upon?
Nay, let us listen with the soul, and catch
Each moment some lost music of romance,
Some strain of wordless poetry to thrill
Hearts capable of feeling. Here the wind
Shall whistle out a stirring tale of war,
Of clamorous nights when blaze of beacon fires
Brought the grim Tungrians in the nick of time,
As painted thousands from the barbarous North
Came seething upward with a murderous roar
Against this gateway or yon lonely gap,
Or scaled the pillared basalt, thick as flies,
And slew the watch that slumbered in the tower.

Nor shall a strain of softer note be dumb;
For love-tales murmured in a score of tongues
Shall wake our fancy, claim our sympathy,
Or, it may happen, wet our eyes with tears.
Three hundred years, and twenty thousand men
Of twenty diverse races; – stolid folk
From the cold confines of the northern sea
Made neighbours here to some whose hotter blood
Could boil with passion of the amorous south.
Ten thousand common episodes of love,
But surely something greater, something strange,
Some love more fiery than the wonted flame,
Has left the embers of a tortured heart
To move our pity. Many a thrilling tale
Is whispered faintly by the waving grass,
Or muttered by the lapping of the mere:
And some have happy ending, like the calm
Of a pure sunset after hours of storm;
And some end softly with a gentle moan,
And some in blood and throes of tragic pain.

Here in this sunny hollow of the hills
Mayhap some crass Batavian long ago
Has dallied with a maiden of the south,
Toyed with her ebon tresses, sunned his soul
In the deep blaze of dark and passionate eyes;
And after, wearied by her fulsome worship,
Passed with a laugh and proffer of his purse,
And left her with strained eyes and parted lips,
Hands clenched, voice frozen, and a heart on fire, –
Passion of love transformed to passion of hate,–
And but one thought, one hope, one prayer, – revenge.
And soon another meeting in the dusk;
A torrent of reproaches, checked and changed
To soft persuasive blessing as of love,
Still strong though unrequited, and a prayer,
Timidly breathed, for one memorial kiss,
A clutch, a stab, – and so the story ends.

Even thus about a hundred lonely spots
Might Fancy weave the garland of her thoughts
To deck the graves of those who loved and died
A thousand years ago. These massive stones,
Which once upheld the iron-studded gate,
Mayhap could whisper of a summer night,
When some Delilah of the northern moors
Witched the lone sentry to her arms and death.
And here, where once a villa wooed the sun,
A British youth, made hostage for his clan,
Perchance has voiced the passion of his soul,
And pleaded for a Roman maiden’s love;
Or it may be that fury of assault
And lurid menace of devouring fire
Have here shot terror through a woman’s heart; –
A tribune’s daughter, haply, – till at last,
When death has all but gripped her by the throat,
A trumpet-note of rescue, and a man,
Who long has loved her with a bashful love,
And often prayed for such a chance as this,
Leaps with strong arms to hear her through the press,
And wins the homage of a grateful heart,
Which ripens to the harvestage of love.

Nor only love shall whisper out the tale
Of joy or sorrow. Here as everywhere,
Through every region of the Roman world,
Hangs the dusk cloud of slavery. The word
Is poignant in itself: what depths of woe,
What pangs of yearning, and what tales of shame
Are summed in those few letters! Aye, and here
The moan is surely more pathetic still,
Which rises from the captives who of late
Were free barbarians of the northern wilds,
And now are slaves almost in sight of home.

See yon slight figure of a growing boy,
Who longs to weep, but will not weep for pride,
And burns to curse, but dare not curse for fear.
’Tis but a month since in the flush of youth,
A chieftain’s son, he ruled his fellow boys,
And raced in sport across the summer hills,
Shouting with joy to feel the leaping blood
Of young existence and the dawn of strength,
Or plunged and splashed the river into foam,
Clomb forth and waged mock battles on the bank,
Till wind and sunshine dried his naked limbs
And kissed the water from his waving hair.

Or see this weary maiden, who must spin,
That he who slew her lover may he clad
Against the northern winter. Were e curse
In every tear she drops upon the wool,
Not Nessus’ robe were deadlier. But alas!
There is no venom mingled with her tears;
They only scald the fountains whence they rise,
And only mar the smoothness of the cheek
O’er which they chase each other as they fell.
And he, mayhap, her master and her shame,
This very while, luxuriously couched
Beside the seasoned dishes and the wine,
Revels and riots with his drunken friends,
And boasts of things he ought to tell with tears

A mist of weeping hangs about the moor;
A scent of blood steals upward from the grass,
And everywhere a savour as of death
Pervades these relics of a dying age.
Here at the climax of imperial power
This Wall was built; and here within the space
Of one man’s life that power began to die.
Like some death – stricken giant here it lay,
And writhed, and sobbed, and passed from fit to fit,
Now smitten unto semblance of the end,
Now rising with a paroxysm of life,
But never to the pitch of life that was.
Here came a night of pillage and of flame,
Of blood and ruin and barbaric hate,
When the red fury of the rebel north
Burst without warning like a summer storm
Upon the fortress and its slothful guards:
And here a day of vengeance and repair,
A building up of shattered tower and wall,
A cleansing of the rubbish-cumbered street,
But never to completion. Year by year
Worse follows better: year by year the work,
Of old so strong, so thorough, so immense,
Is patched and clouted with a feebler hand;
And all the arts and energies of life
(The stones bear record); wane to something worse,
Something less vigorous, something less exact.
The lamp is dying: ever and again
There leaps a flicker of its wonted flame,
But every flash is lower than the last,
And as it sinks it leaves more smoke behind.

So the smoke thickens and obscures the end, –
The latest and most lurid scene of all;
And dimly through the vapour and the mark
Appear vague shapes of agony and shame,
And shrieks of inarticulate distress
Ring out half stifled through the choking air.
Then darkness and the quietude of death
Succeed, and close the tragedy of Rome.



Into The Light (the Where is Easy but the Who is Harder)

October 8th 2015 is National Poetry Day. This year the theme is light.

Into the Light (the Where is Easy but the Who is Harder)

And so we’re in,
Into the peat-dark temple of light.
The dull Mithraists have not been here
For aeons to see their god, so bright
In his dark cave.

We light our lamps
And begin our crafty destruction,
Swinging our axes, kicking with boots.
Cautes, godlet of sunrise, smitten:
Off with his head!

Gets it next; sun-down godlet, alas!
And now, in the flickering lamplight,
We fell the main altar of Mithras,
Broken in two.

Someone’s coming!
We pause and pant in the golden gloom.
‘Dowse the lights!’ I hiss; back to darkness.
They’ll think the Christians upset their room.
We know the truth.

Hear, goddess queen!
Old scores are settled, and so we leave;
Into the light, diffuse silver light,
Washing us clean of midnight mischief
In his dark cave.

Did Roman cavalrymen smell a bit horsey?

The fact that the same Latin word was used for a Roman soldier’s cloak as for a saddle blanket – sagum – gave me pause recently to wonder whether this may have been more than just a coincidence of vocabulary. Did the same garment serve two different purposes? If so, they must have, well, you know, reeked a bit.

Cavalryman on cast of Trajan's Column

This chap has both cloak and saddle blanket – but can we trust Trajan’s Column?!

Anybody with kids who go riding and generally hang around horses (the two usually seem to go together) will be familiar with that horsey smell (just as those who do it evidently are not): not unpleasant, but definitely distinctive. Even if cavalrymen didn’t wear their horse blankets in off-duty moments, we have had to come to terms with the knowledge that they lived right next door to their horses in what are now termed stable barracks: three men on one side of a partition, their mounts on the other. It seems inevitable that, at the very least, the average auxiliary cavalryman will have been inured to that horsey pong.

A stable barrack in Wallsend fort

A stable barrack in Wallsend fort: horses (with soakaways) to the left, men to the right

That brings us sweetly, if not exactly fragrantly, to the dimension of ancient life that we so often overlook: smell (or, as we politely call it these days, odour). We frantically deodorise at every available opportunity with cans of this and plug-ins of that wafting chemical freshness at our vulnerable nostrils whenever they are in danger of smelling some of the real odours of life. At Housesteads, everybody marvels at the famous latrines in the south-east corner, flushed periodically by the water so carefully garnered from the run-off every time it rained.

The Housesteads latrine

The Housesteads latrine

Fewer pay any heed to the sewer outfall that gave out into the adjacent part of the civil settlement. Presumably they assume it was all carried away underground to some distant location. Not so; analysis of samples from the ditches of Roman forts often finds evidence of the presence of faecal matter, most famously so at Bearsden, where the remains of wholegrain bread that had passed through the human gut were identified, along with intestinal parasites. Yum.

The Housesteads sewer outfall

The Housesteads sewer outfall

In fact, the rank cacodour* that clung to the lower orders (and the army) may be one reason why perfume was so popular in the Roman world: not just to make you smell good, but to hide the pong of all around you.

With all of that, can we seriously propose that anybody would even notice if a cavalryman wandered around the civil settlement wearing his horse blanket? Hang on; has someone round here trodden in something … ?

* I admit, I made that word up, but cacodorous is a real word (OED Online. December 2014. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 28, 2015))

Ut Milites Dicuntur cover

Another Wall Face: Robert H Forster


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

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.

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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