24/05/2018
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Roman troops and legions on Scotland’s Antonine Wall

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John Richardson, founder of the Antonine Guard living history society, explores the various Roman legions and auxiliary troops that manned the Antonine Wall.

In AD 142 following the instructions of the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius, the Roman forces under the command of the governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus, set about the construction of the Antonine Wall. This wall today, as then, runs between the rivers Forth in the east to the Clyde on the west coast.

This wall was to become Rome’s new most northerly frontier, built and manned by both soldiers from the three legions and their supporting auxiliary. This new wall, like its neighbour Hadrian’s Wall, was designed to keep the so called ‘Barbarians’ in the north from those who lived behind the Roman Antonine Wall. It also ensured the Roman troops had control of those who sought to enter or leave the protection of Rome and its forts.

The Romans called this land south of the Antonine Wall the province of Britannia, which was governed from London. Following the death of the emperor Antoninus in around AD 165, the soldiers of the Roman Army returned to man Hadrians Wall.

A military zone

At the time of the Roman occupation, the area of the Antonine Wall became a strictly military zone, with an estimated total force of auxiliary and legionary soldiers stationed along this area of the wall of around 9,000. The number of soldiers sent north to build and man this northerly wall was similar to that which manned Hadrian’s Wall.

It contained soldiers from the then three main legions of Britain who supplied the manpower to build this new Roman frontier wall, built of wood and turf laid on a stone foundation. These were legionaries from the XX Valeria Victrix, the 2nd Augusta and the V1th Victrix. These soldiers came from their main forts in the south of Caerleon, Chester and York.

The Legions built most of the forts and surrounding curtain, while the auxiliaries built mainly buildings close to the fort.  Each legion was given precise lengths to build and the legionary soldiers set up large stone inscriptions called “distance tablets” to show what length of the Antonine Wall they built; each unit strived to do better than the other unit in completing their distance.

Now while we know much about the history of the three legions, we do not have the same coverage for the auxiliary soldiers. These were men drawn also from across many parts of the Roman Empire; usually they would serve in detachments of 500 or in some units, up to 1,000 men. It was mostly those troops who would remain and man the Antonine Wall after it was built. In the main, they were not yet fully Roman citizens but after serving their 25 years, this privilege was granted to them on discharge.

Most of the auxiliary troops were infantry but we also know that there were also some very highly skilled cavalry troops amongst them. There may be yet undiscovered troop detachments of the auxiliary but we do know from records and inscriptions of probably eight such units who came from many different lands such as the archers from distant Syria.

At Mumrill’s and Castlehill forts on the Antonine Wall squadrons of cavalry were stationed. We know of this because of the inscriptions left on altars and  distance slabs by both the Legionary and Auxiliary Units/Cohorts.

The Legions

The Roman Army was formed into two main groups; these were the legions who were Roman citizens, and the auxiliaries, who were the allies of Rome. It was during the period of Antoninus Pius that there were three legions serving in Britain, being the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, the Sixth Victrix and the Second Augusta.

Each legion was about 5,500 strong and consisted of heavily-armed and trained infantry soldiers, these were formed into ten cohorts, each being 480 in strength. The first cohort was double in manpower and was about 900 strong. 

The Legatus Legionis (Legate) was the commander of each legion. There were also cavalry alae of 120 split up into four squadrons of thirty that served with each legion on the field. The legionaries were the strength of the Roman Army and with their training and discipline guarded the sacred Eagles of the Standards. The normal length of service was 25 years before being discharged.

The auxilary cohorts

It was the auxiliary troops who supported the men of the regular legions. As mentioned it was only after serving their time in the Roman army they would become Roman citizens and this status would also be given to their children. Like the men serving in the legions at this time 1st & 2nd AD, they were not supposed to marry, however just as their counterparts in the legion, they would have families living alongside in the Vicus close to the forts.

The Roman army had up to eight various auxiliary units serving along the Antonine Wall, from as far away as North Africa. These units would come normally from one region in the Roman Empire but would after being formed be shipped out to another different area of the empire.

This greatly reduced these troops being involved in any local uprisings. Auxiliary troops came from those who shared the same ethnic identity. These units were under the command of Roman officers from the standing legions.

The auxiliary’s equipment was in many ways similar to those of the legions but each unit retained its own arms, such as long slashing swords, bows, slings and spears for stabbing. Otherwise they wore helmets, chainmail and carried oval shields; this all provided the men with protection. Under this they would have woollen tunics, cloaks, and leather hobnailed boots for their feet.

From records and inscriptions we learn that many auxiliaries stayed in their assigned provinces for a considerable period of time. During these long periods of encampments they took on new recruits from the area that they were serving in. So that as far as in Britain these new British recruits served alongside these soldiers from across the Roman Empire. Many of those auxiliaries retired and continued to live in these provinces.

While the auxiliary soldiers and units clung to their own traditions and identities, they became also “Roman” and were an essential part of Rome’s military war machine

Hamian archers

These auxiliaries may have come over to Britain during the first invasion of Britain in AD 43. This First Cohort consisted of 500 skilled archers who originated from Hama in Syria. Records show that it served at Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall and during the Antonine period it served at the fort at Bar Hill. After Roman troops withdrew back to Hadrian’s Wall it was probably at both Housesteads and again at Carvoran.

Tungrians

The first Cohort of Tungrians originated from what we now call Belgium and consisted of a force of some 1,000 infantry. It also can be found on Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh. It also shows that it served at the Roman Forts of Cramond and Castlecary on the Antonine Wall. It was later based during the 3rd century onwards at Housestead’s on Hadrian’s Wall.

Baetsians

This unit of 500 comprised of the 1st cohort of auxiliary soldiers and came from the area we know as the Netherlands. Before being sent north to the Antonine Wall there is an inscription that suggests they served in the Manchester area. On being moved north the records show that this unit was at Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde and at Bar Hill. On the withdrawal south this unit was sent to the Cumbrian Coast and relocated to Maryport.

Thracians

This unit can be traced from having being at Mumrill’s fort on the Antonine Wall. Known as the Second Cohort this was a mixed unit of both cavalry and infantry. The soldiers came from what is modern-day Bulgaria. Other records show it later served on the Cumbrian coast at the Fort at Moresby.

Gauls

The Fourth Cohort of Gauls came from modern-day France and again was a mixed auxiliary, with a unit of some 600. Again this auxiliary may have come to Britain during the invasion of AD 43. Records/inscriptions reveal it being at Castlestead’s fort on Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda. It moved north to the Antonine Wall where it was stationed at Castlehill fort. It was from this fort we know the name of the Roman commander, one Pisentius Lustus who had an altar made to honour the Parade Ground Goddesses. The final record shows it back serving at Vindolanda.

Vardullians

This was a unit that came from the north of Spain (Hispania Terraconensis) raised as the First Cohort of Vardullians, with a field strength of some 1,000 men. One of its earliest locations along the Antonine Wall was at the fort at Castlecary. However because of the unit’s numberical size it must also have been stationed at other forts.

One other source suggests that it also served in North Africa. It is known from archaeology that pottery from North Africa has been found along sites on the Antonine Wall. Some of the troops probably came from the campaigns of the war in Africa. Other sites where this Unit served were on forts along Harridan’s Wall as well as being at High Rochester and Cappuck in the Borders area.

 

Nervi

Another famous Unit of Auxiliary infantry some 500-strong who came from modern Belgium and were known as the Sixth Cohort of Nervians. Julius Caesar enlisted these soldiers into the Roman army after he witnessed their military powers.

Their headquarters on the Antonine Wall was at the fort called Rough Castle, where the unit raised an altar to commemorate Victory after their part in building the fort Principia. During their time at this fort, the Nervi were under the command of a Roman Officer from the twentieth legion named Gaius Flavius Betto.

This Sixth Cohort of the Nervi can also be traced to Hadrian’s Wall where they were at Great Chesters.

Batavians

Although evidence is unclear, there are inscriptions from an altar at Castlecary on the Antonine Wall that this unit of Batavians who originated from the area today called the Netherlands was the first cohort of Batavians.

This was a mixed auxiliary unit of both cavalry and infantry and what is certain is that it served under Agricola during his engagements in Scotland during the late 1st century AD. It is known at sites also along Hadrian’s Wall such as Carrawburgh.

Imperial Roman Navy

In order to bring the Roman Empire under its control and move its legions and auxiliaries around, the powers in Rome knew that they had to have command of the seas, which in turn led them to develop a powerful fleet of vessels; they in turn were manned by both Romans and auxiliary sailors. Their terms of service were similar to that of their army counterparts.

It was with their mastery of the seas that these armies of Ancient Rome could be easily and successfully moved when needed. The fleet known as the Classis Britannica, CL.BR, was with its German counterpart responsible for the ferrying of the soldiers, their arms and equipment, plus goods and services needed. The port/fort at Cramond on the river Forth was used during the Antonine period for supplying the material and men on the Antonine Wall, as was Old Kilpatrick fort on the Clyde.

Further reading

The Legacy of Rome, Scotland's Roman Remains by Lawrence Keppie.

The Antonine Wall by David J. Breeze

The Antonine Guard living history society

The Antonine Guard is a registered Scottish charity, founded in 1996 to promote awareness of Scotland's Roman heritage. At events across the UK and overseas we bring to life Roman history of the late 1st and early 2nd Century AD.

From military drill displays to school visits and talks, we portray the people who campaigned, built, and patrolled on the northern edge of the
Imperium Romanum.

Images © John Richardson. Pictured are members of the Antonine Guard living history society.

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