In 1976, an independent Newcastle publisher pulled off an archaeological coup. He combined the work of the leading contemporary expert on Roman arms and armour with that of his favoured reconstruction artist to produce one of the most oddly titled booklets in years: What the Soldiers Wore on Hadrian’s Wall. It was written by Henry Russell Robinson of the Tower of London Armouries (known to his friends as Russell) and illustrated by Ronald Embleton, one of the great comic artists (he had worked on Look & Learn and Eagle). Frank Graham, a former history teacher turned local publisher, had increasingly been using the latter to bring colour to his series of booklets on the Roman Wall which were otherwise mainly illustrated with royalty-free woodcuts culled from the various editions of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall, MacLauchlan’s Memoir, and Gordon’s Itinerarium Septentrionale.
Whilst the earlier booklets were largely derivative, using out-of-copyright woodcuts alongside text penned by Graham himself, WtSWoHW was very definitely an original. Robinson used the available archaeological and representational evidence to show how the arms and armour used on the Wall had changed with time, incorporating material from the whole Empire. Many of Embleton’s reconstructions had (almost certainly unwittingly) incorporated errors – famous amongst Wall scholars are the wounded soldier being tended by a medic equipped with gynaecological implements or the latrines at Housesteads that lack the vital front slot in their apertures – but the reconstructions for the new booklet were produced in consultation with Robinson and were evidently successful enough in the opinion of the latter for them to work on a further volume, The Armour of the Roman Legions, published by Graham after Robinson’s untimely death. As a tribute to their collaboration, some of the key paintings from WtSWoHW were donated to the site museum at Chesters and are on display there.
All of which begs the question so confidently answered in the title of that little book: what were troops on Hadrian’s Wall wearing and how do we know? To attempt to answer this, we must go back to basics and look at our sources of information. These are archaeological finds, artistic representations (such as sculpture or painting), and literary (books) and sub-literary (documents like writing tablets). Beyond archaeological finds, comparatively little evidence survives from Hadrian’s Wall itself but it is possible to piece together a picture from near-contemporary sources, even using nearby material like the Vindolanda writing tablets.
At the time of the construction of the Wall in AD 122, two major sculptural monuments had been completed within the last fifteen years. These were Trajan’s Column in Rome and the Tropaeum Traiani (‘Trophy of Trajan’) at Adamclisi in modern Romania. The first featured a helical frieze running from the bottom to the top depicting a narrative of the two Dacian Wars of AD 101/2 and 105/6. The second incorporated scenes from the same wars as a series of scenes or metopes around its base. What makes the two monuments so intriguing is the degree to which they differ. Nevertheless they give us a reasonable idea of what soldiers looked like at the time the Wall was built and the archaeological evidence chimes in some respects.
Excavations in the fort at Carlisle, from levels immediately pre-dating the construction of the Wall, produced examples of armour similar to those shown on the Column and the Tropaeum, especially laminated armguards (originally thought to have been a defence against the wicked scythe-like Dacian falx). However, to understand how the appearance of Roman soldiers on the northern frontier changed over the subsequent years, we have to compare the finds from the Wall with artefacts from the rest of the Empire, since the local representational record is so impoverished. We actually find an astounding degree of homogenisation, caused partly perhaps by the movement of troops around the empire (largely as reinforcements to fight in major wars), right up to the 4th century. Soldiers from Britain were sent abroad, then came back, having met other units from elsewhere, and the British garrison was itself occasionally strengthened with drafts from overseas, so it would be a mistake to think of the Hadrian’s Wall garrison as isolated from the rest of the Roman world.
Regardless of the period we are considering, soldiers on the Wall needed clothing, hobnailed boots, helmets, body armour, shields, swords, and spears, and the sundry items of personal kit that allowed a man to personalise his appearance. There was no uniform as such (the concept was alien to ancient armies) but, in their equipment, soldiers from one area probably resembled each other more than they did those from another, and overall trends changed with time.
Most of what Robinson wrote in WtSWoHW is still true now, but subsequent research has enabled greater depth and breadth to be introduced to our understanding of the subject. For example, whilst it was once thought the auxiliary soldiers of the Wall garrison just used mail and scale body armour, recent research has revealed pieces of lorica segmentata, traditionally associated with legionary troops, from sites like Great Chesters and Housesteads. This is unsurprising, given the fact that there were legionaries at both Corbridge and Carlisle throughout most of the Roman period. Nevertheless, his basic message, that equipment changed subtly with time, is as true now as it was then.