Roman Forts: Although they were defensive, forts were not built with the intention to sustain attacks, but rather to provide shelter and a safe space for storing provisions

March 24, 2024

The history of Roman forts in Britain is a testament to Rome’s military ingenuity, its administrative capabilities, and the challenges it faced in this distant territory.

Evidence of the Roman occupation dating back 2,000 years remains littered across the landscape of the UK, and one of the primary survivors from this time are the Roman forts.

In the Roman period, forts were defensive structures constructed on either a temporary or permanent basis depending on their intended use. Although they were defensive, forts were not built with the intention to sustain attacks, but rather to provide shelter and a safe space for storing provisions, such as food, administrative documents, weapons, and horses.

Roman Forts in Britain

The term fortress comes from the Latin for strong, ‘fortis’, and denoted the base where Rome’s legions of soldiers would congregate.

Legionary Fortresses: These large, permanent installations were built to house an entire legion. Given the size of a legion, these fortresses were constructed to accommodate around 5,000 to 6,000 men when considering the additional cavalry, officers, specialized troops, and non-combat support personnel.

By the end of the first century AD, three permanent legionary bases had been established throughout Britannia, and they remain today.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaHabitancum Roman fort, also known as Risingham, lies adjacent to Dere Street and close to the River Rede. It is a classic rectangular shape with rounded corners and is enclosed by a substantial rampart and wall

These were York, Chester, and Carleon (Wales). However, during the initial first phase of conquest during the first century AD, legions were moved according to where they were most required, and so forts would be created along the way. Examples of these include Colchester, Lincoln, Exeter, Gloucester, Wroxter and Usk.

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Roman Forts were placed at strategic points, often along the frontier of the Empire so as to allow soldiers to defend against attack from neighbouring tribes and communities, or to prevent rebellion from the recently conquered.

Bases for Auxiliary Troops

Naturally, this meant that Britannia became littered with Roman forts within the first 100 years of its conquest. Many of the forts measured around 20 hectares each, though this could vary between 16.5 (Lincoln) and 22.7 hectares (Chester).

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaThe reconstructed West gate at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields, near Newcastle upon Tyne.

Roman forts were often solely used as bases for auxiliary troops, who served in units known as cohortes (infantry) and alae (cavalry). Auxiliary members of the Roman army were not citizens and were often foreign (i.e.g non-Roman), having commonly been recruited from conquered provinces.

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Upon locating a suitable site for a fort, soldiers would begin by constructing turf and timber ramparts, before raising internal timber buildings for shelter. Later in the first century AD, forts would begin to be built with more permanent materials such as stone.

What was inside Roman forts?

Across the Empire, Roman forts were built to a fairly standard plan up to the mid to late-3rd century AD, when Saxon Shore system forts began to be built instead.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaHardknott Roman Fort, located on the western side of the Hardknott Pass in the English county of Cumbria.

The Roman fort would follow a geometric grid pattern, containing various military buildings and accommodation for soldiers. They were also generally rectangular with rounded corners.

Within each, a standard set of buildings would be built. The first of these was the principia, or headquarters, located in the centre of the fortress. ​​The offices of the clerks were located in this building and from here, the commanding officer would issue orders to the soldiers.

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Principia

This was also where the salaries for the soldiers were kept, inside a secure room with walls at twice the thickness of the usual level. When the commanding officer was not at work in the principia, he would reside in the praetorium with his family and slaves.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaRuins of soldiers’ barracks at Chesters Roman Fort, along Hadrian’s Wall. There is a gutter visible, which was in the courtyard between the barracks.

This house would be built to the same style as those found in Rome, complete with an atrium and, often, a peristyle garden. A Roman fortress also needed somewhere to store food provisions. This was known as the Horrea, or granary buildings, of which there were often two.

It was a requirement that each fort had enough grain to feed its soldiers for six months, so the horrea would need to be large in size. Other goods, like oil and wine, were also stored here and use of the rations would have been carefully monitored.

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Finally, a fort was not complete without the soldier’s barracks. These were the buildings in which the soldiers lived. The regular auxiliary soldiers would have lived communally, while the centurions, higher up in rank, would have lived in bigger rooms, likely with their own slaves.

How did Roman forts become cities?

Chester is a good example of the development of a fortress into the status of a colony. Known as Deva Vitrix by the Romans, the settlement of Chester was established some time during the 70s AD, likely in 75 AD.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaRoman Forts followed a plan. Deva Victrix, or simply Deva, was a legionary fortress and town in the Roman province of Britannia on the site of the modern city of Chester

We know this due to the discovery of lead pipes laid here by the Romans dated to this time. Chester, located on the River Dee, was the perfect place for creating a settlement, as the river provided good protection from attack, as well as opportunities for trade, travel, and water.

At the initial layout of the fort, Chester’s structure was made of wood and was surrounded by a ditch with an earth embankment and a wooden palisade on top.

Roman citizens

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Here as in other fortresses, retired legionaries were granted land around the city and Chester earned the title of colonia, or colony. A colonia was a conquered Roman settlement with a population often composed mostly of Roman citizens.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaThe Roman Turf & Timber Fort of Olicana – Ilkley – Yorkshire.

Over time, as was almost always the case, people began to settle in the land around the fortress. This area was called the vicus, and often the bath house was located here also due to the fire risk it posed.

The presence of the soldiers provided a market for selling consumer goods, such as pottery, bread, carpentry, meat, and metal goods. Due to its proximity to the river, Chester also became a hub of trade for luxury goods, such as wine and fineware, and a large amphitheatre was built to provide entertainment for the growing city.

Suffixes in the landscape – which Roman forts survive?

One way to spot a Roman fortress is in the name. The suffix ‘-chester’ (or ‘-cester’), for example, comes from the Latin castrum, meaning fort or military encampment. There are plenty of examples of British towns with this suffix, Cirencester, Colchester, Manchester, Winchester, and Bicester being some examples.

Many cities in Britain retain their Latin origin names today, but not all retain their Roman structures. If you would like to visit an old Roman fort, then, where might you go?

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Forts in the Roman military north of Britain (north of the Mersey and Trent rivers) are widespread. One of the best places to start is on Hadrian’s Wall where Housesteads Roman Fort is located. This stone fort was the first to be excavated sufficiently enough to reveal a full fortress plan.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaDiorama of Roman fort Housesteads at Hadrian’s Wall (2nd century), Northumberland, England

Here you can travel back in time and visit the barrack blocks of the soldiers, as well as the hospital where the sick would have been nursed back to health, and the rather less glamorous public toilets.

Housesteads

Much like many Roman forts in Britain, Housesteads is located on a high ridge, so visitors are treated to a fantastic view of the surrounding landscape. Or, you might like to view those which originated as timber forts and so only leave a footprint of their former glory in the landscape today.

As early as the 1920s, a timber fort was uncovered by archaeologists at Fendoch in Scotland, which can still be seen on its natural platform from the air, as can the Roman fort as Inchtuthil in Perthshire.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaCaerleon Amphitheatre, Caerleon, Wales. The Romans built their amphitheaters next to their major towns . Image Credit: Becks

By the very nature of their establishment, many forts have been excavated in urban centres, and so are not easily visited.

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However many retain the walls and gates of the original cities, as at Chester, York, and in London, and anyone can walk in the footsteps of Rome’s legions today.

History of Aesica Roman Fort

Aesica, known today as Great Chesters, is one of the many forts that punctuated Hadrian’s Wall, the iconic Roman frontier in Northern England.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaAesica (with the modern name of Great Chesters) was a Roman fort, one and a half miles north of the small town of Haltwhistle in Northumberland, England.

Located between the forts of Vindolanda and Housesteads, Aesica holds a unique place in the history of Roman Britain. Constructed around AD 128, Aesica was originally designed to guard the Caw Gap, one of the natural passageways through the rugged terrain of the region.

Positioned on the southern side of Hadrian’s Wall, rather than directly on it like many other forts, Aesica was uniquely situated. This positioning was possibly due to the available flat land in the area.

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Cohors I Thracum

Throughout its active years, Aesica was home to several different Roman garrisons. Records indicate that the original occupants were the Cohors I Asturum, hailing from northern Spain. Later, the fort housed the Cohors I Thracum from modern-day Bulgaria, followed by the Cohors I Dacorum from present-day Romania.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaThe Roman Fort of Olicana Remains of the 4th century outer walls at the Roman Fort of Olicana. The Roman fort was first established here in the first century A.D.

These shifting garrisons highlight the diverse composition of the Roman army and its extensive reach. Structurally, Aesica contained all the essential buildings typical of a Roman fort: the principia (headquarters), barracks for soldiers, granaries, and a commanding officer’s house.

Over the years, it underwent several renovations and expansions, reflecting changes in military strategies and the shifting needs of its garrison.

After the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, the fort, like many other Roman structures, fell into disuse. Over the subsequent centuries, much of its stone was repurposed for local building projects.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

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Today, the remnants of Aesica, though less prominent compared to other Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall, offer invaluable insights into the life and structure of Roman frontier installations. The site, preserved as part of the Hadrian’s Wall UNESCO World Heritage Site, continues to attract historians, archaeologists, and visitors keen to delve into its ancient past.

Roman History of Manchester

Manchester, known as “Mamucium” during the Roman period, holds a distinctive chapter in the Roman history of Britain.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaReconstructed gateway to Roman fort (Mamucium), Castlefield

Located in the northwest of England, Manchester’s Roman story began around AD 79, shortly after the Romans initiated their campaigns to subdue the Brigantes, a powerful Celtic tribe that dominated much of northern England.

The Romans constructed a fort at Mamucium to safeguard the key routes that crisscrossed through the region, notably the road linking the Roman settlements of Deva Victrix (Chester) and Eboracum (York).

The fort was strategically situated on a sandstone bluff overlooking the confluence of the rivers Medlock and Irwell, providing a natural defensive advantage.

The Roman North

The fort was surrounded by a defensive ditch and rampart, primarily made of timber and earth. Over time, a civilian settlement, or vicus, developed adjacent to the fort.

This settlement housed the families of soldiers, traders, craftsmen, and merchants. Together, the fort and the vicus formed a bustling community that facilitated trade, craft, and commerce, making Mamucium an integral part of the Roman north.

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By the 3rd century, the original timber fortifications were replaced with stone, signifying the permanence and importance of Mamucium in the Roman network. However, by the late 4th century, as with many Roman settlements across Britain, Mamucium witnessed decline and eventual abandonment.

Today, the remnants of Roman Manchester can be explored in the Castlefield area of the city, where the reconstructed fort walls provide a tangible link to the city’s ancient past. Numerous archaeological excavations over the years have further enriched our understanding of Roman Mamucium, showcasing its role in the vast Roman Empire.

Roman History of Colchester

Colchester, situated in Essex, England, claims the title of the oldest recorded town in Britain, with a Roman legacy that is both rich and significant.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaThe remains of the Balkerne Gate, which straddled the main road from London.

Known as Camulodunum during the Roman era, Colchester’s origins trace back to before the Roman conquest when it was the capital of the Trinovantes tribe. These early inhabitants had established strong ties with Rome, as evidenced by their coinage bearing Roman symbols.

With the Roman invasion of AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, Camulodunum quickly became an emblem of Roman power. It was here that the Romans established their first provincial capital and built the only known Roman chariot racing track, or circus, in Britain.

However, this emblematic status also made it a target. In AD 60 or 61, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe led a formidable revolt against the Roman occupiers.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaRoman streets and excavated remains of Colonia Victricensis (Camulodunum)

The rebellion saw Camulodunum razed to the ground, with the Temple of Claudius, a symbol of Roman oppression, being a focal point of the attack. The Romans, despite this setback, rebuilt the town with typical Roman urban features: walls, gates, and a grid street pattern.

By the end of the 1st century AD, Colchester had its first Roman theatre and, later on, grand Roman townhouses with intricate mosaics. The town’s prominence, however, gradually diminished in the later Roman period as London (Londinium) grew in significance.

In subsequent years, after the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century AD, Colchester’s Roman walls, parts of which still stand today, played a crucial role in the town’s defense.

Today, these remnants of its Roman past, along with other archaeological finds, make Colchester a significant site for understanding Roman Britain.

Roman History of Exeter

Exeter, located in Devon, England, is another city with an intriguing Roman history that dates back to the early days of Roman Britain.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaA Roman mosaic floor discovered under the ruins of St Catherine’s Chapel and Almshouses. It is now on display at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

Known as “Isca Dumnoniorum” during the Roman era, Exeter was originally a settlement of the Dumnonii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the region. Following the Roman invasion of AD 43, the southwest of Britain gradually came under Roman control. By around AD 55, the Romans established a fortress on a ridge overlooking the River Exe, an advantageous position for overseeing the region.

This fortress, primarily built from timber and earth, was occupied by the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) for several decades.

Their presence solidified Roman control over the southwest and ensured the pacification of the local tribes. In time, as the military presence stabilized, the fortress evolved into a town.

The Romans introduced their urban planning skills, laying out a street grid, constructing a defensive wall around the town, and establishing bathhouses, administrative buildings, and residential areas. The city became a vital hub for trade, administration, and communication in the region.

Throughout the Roman occupation, Exeter thrived as a regional center. However, as with other parts of Roman Britain, the city witnessed decline and reduced influence towards the end of the Roman era, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

Today, traces of Roman Exeter can still be found. The city’s underlying street plan, some sections of the Roman wall, and various archaeological discoveries all bear testament to Exeter’s Roman past and its role in the broader tapestry of Roman Britain.

Roman History of Winchester

Winchester, known as “Venta Belgarum” during Roman times, has a history deeply intertwined with the Roman occupation of Britain.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaExposed section of the Roman foundations which lie underneath the medieval city walls

Situated in modern-day Hampshire, Winchester’s roots trace back to the Iron Age, but it was under Roman rule that the settlement transformed into a significant urban center. Venta Belgarum, translating roughly as “Marketplace of the Belgae,” was established around AD 70, serving as the administrative capital of the Belgae tribe, which had lived in the region before the Roman conquest.

The Romans, recognizing the strategic value of the settlement at the crossroads of several key routes, developed it into one of Roman Britain’s major towns.

They constructed a grid of streets, public buildings, and townhouses, delineating the city with defensive stone walls and gates. The city’s layout was characteristic of Roman planning: a central forum and basilica complex served as the civic and commercial heart, and there were numerous townhouses showcasing intricate mosaics.

Winchester’s significance during this era is further underscored by its size, which surpassed many other Roman towns in Britain. By the 4th century, as the Roman Empire faced internal and external pressures, Venta Belgarum, like many other Roman cities, began to see a decline in its prominence.

The Romans eventually withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, marking the end of their direct influence on Winchester.

Despite the decline of Roman power, Winchester’s legacy as an important settlement endured. The city’s Roman foundations played a part in its later historical significance, especially during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Today, traces of Roman Winchester, from its walls to archaeological finds, serve as a testament to the city’s storied past and its importance in the Roman era.

Roman History of Dorchester

Dorchester, situated in Dorset, England, has a rich Roman heritage that dates back to the early stages of Roman Britain.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaMap of Roman Dorchester – Durnovaria. Credit: Illustration by Karen Nichols, Wessex Archaeology

Known as “Durnovaria” in Roman times, Dorchester was initially a significant settlement of the Durotriges, a Celtic tribe which dominated the region before the Roman conquest.

Following the Roman invasion in AD 43, Durnovaria was swiftly integrated into the Roman provincial system. By the end of the 1st century AD, the town had been transformed with the typical trappings of Roman urban life.

A grid-like street pattern was established, and various public and private structures, including an aqueduct, amphitheater, public baths, and basilicas, were constructed.

Surviving Wall

These developments highlighted Durnovaria’s importance as a regional hub for trade, administration, and communication in Roman Britain.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaSurviving fragment of the Roman town walls of Durnovaria – Dorchester, Dorset

One of the standout features of Roman Dorchester is its amphitheater, known locally as the Maumbury Rings. Initially constructed as a Neolithic henge, it was adapted by the Romans for entertainment purposes, showcasing the ability of the Romans to repurpose pre-existing structures to fit their needs.

Over the centuries of Roman rule, Dorchester flourished and saw a blend of Roman and native cultures. However, by the end of the 4th century and into the 5th century, as with much of Roman Britain, there was a decline in urban life and Roman-style infrastructure in Dorchester.

The town gradually transformed during the subsequent Anglo-Saxon period. Today, Dorchester’s Roman past can be glimpsed through its archaeological sites and finds, with the town’s layout still bearing the imprint of Roman town planning.

The preserved remnants of its Roman walls, roads, and the Maumbury Rings serve as a testament to the town’s importance during the Roman era and its enduring legacy in British history.

Ambleside Roman Fort

Also known as “Galava”, is located near the northern shore of Lake Windermere in Cumbria. This historical site offers an insightful glimpse into Roman Britain and the empire’s northern frontier.

Roman Forts Still Litter Our Countryside - RuralHistoriaRemains of Ambleside Roman Fort. The modern name given to the remains of a fort of the Roman province of Britannia.

The fort was established in the 2nd century AD, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This was a period when the Romans sought to consolidate their hold on Britain, and Ambleside served as a strategic location for controlling the northern tribes and maintaining secure routes throughout the region.

Its proximity to Lake Windermere made it pivotal for transportation and communication, given that the lake would have been a major navigational route. The fort’s design was typical of Roman military architecture. With its defensive stone walls, gateway entrances, and watchtowers, it spanned an area of about 3 acres.

Within its confines, archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of granaries, a headquarters building, and barrack blocks, suggesting a once-thriving garrisoned community.

However, by the early 4th century AD, the Roman Empire began retracting from the fringes of its vast territories. Ambleside Roman Fort was seemingly abandoned during this period, as Roman influence in Britain waned.

Today, the fort’s ruins serve as a testament to the reach and organization of the Roman Empire. It is a popular archaeological site that attracts historians, researchers, and tourists, all keen to understand the intricate tapestry of Roman Britain.

Over the years, careful preservation efforts have ensured that visitors can still trace the outlines of the buildings and gain insight into the lives of the Roman soldiers stationed at this remote outpost.