Roman Army Life in Britain III

Barrack blocks for the infantry could have up to sixteen pairs of rooms. The layout of these barrack blocks can be seen at Caerleon where the foundations consist of pairs of long narrow blocks 74 m (243 ft) long, facing each other and reflecting the division of the legions into double centuries. At one end were the centurions’ quarters, which take up a space equal to five of the rooms allotted to the legionaries. There is a washroom, a latrine and one room heated by a hypocaust; braziers probably heated the others.

Many barracks were at first built of timber, later to be replaced by stone as happened at Corbridge. One of the Vindolanda tablets refers to a decision to be taken on the number of waggons needed to carry stone to the fort. At Caerleon timber buildings were placed on stone foundations. Shirley has suggested that a single barracks block would require wood from 300 trees. For all the timber barracks a small forest of 70,000 would need to be cut down. The number of roof tiles needed – tegulae (flat tiles), imbrices (semi-cylindrical tiles) and shingles – would be prodigious. In addition there would be constant repair and rebuilding work by skilled military men. Shirley estimated the number of man hours needed to build a fortress as 16.5 million, probably comprising two 30-week seasons of 2,000 men.

If there were only 80 men to each century extra rooms might be given to the standard bearers or optiones. Larger rooms, sometimes suites of rooms, were provided at the end of the blocks for centurions. Each contubernium of eight men occupied two rooms, one holding equipment, and the larger one serving as living quarters. Many of the front rooms have a stone hearth for cooking or heating purposes. The internal areas varied from 15 sq. m (49 sq. ft) to 30 sq. m (98 sq. ft). A veranda at the front would have provided an extension of living space. Flooring of clay or gravel, possibly covered with timber planking, would be warmer than the stone-flagged floors found at Birrens and Ebchester (County Durham) and these would have been made comfortable with skins, rugs or even bracken.

Post-holes identified at the fort of Heidenheim in Germany may be linked to the provision of bunk beds placed against the wall. Mattresses or palliasses, however, stacked during the day, could be brought out to cover the floor at night. Sleeping arrangements might depend upon the tastes of the men and the time of watch. Barracks might not have been as crowded as they seem. Soldiers posted away from the forts, would allow their comrades some extra space. Beds might be shared between men on and off duty.

Auxiliary infantry cohorts were housed in the same types of barracks but the cavalry, organized into turmae (squadrons), would have needed to have more space allotted. Chesters, garrisoned by an ala of the Second Asturians, 500 strong, seems to have quartered the men in blocks with ten pairs of rooms, possibly to store equipment more easily. At Wallsend troopers and horses were installed in adjoining rooms with grooms accommodated in lofts above these.

Given the discipline of the army in the first two centuries the rooms would have to be kept tidy, ready for periodic inspection. There must have been some sensible method of storing military equipment and personal possessions in cupboards, pits, on shelves or hanging from hooks. Eight men living together for a long time would either come to some harmonious agreement or a dominating leader would arise to assert his own discipline and force ‘room duties’ on to others. Off-duty games could fill hours of boredom. Counters and a board have been found at Corbridge and a bag containing nineteen gaming counters was found at Ravenglass (Cumbria); a bronze inkwell at Longthorpe may indicate that some soldiers practised writing skills. Checking armour, oiling hinges and joints and repairing leatherwork would fill up time, as would other tasks. A Vindolanda tablet mentioned builders for a bathhouse, plasterers, workers with kilns and shoemakers.

Some entertainment might have been of a more sinister nature. Excavators recently found the body of a female child, with her hands tied behind her back, buried in a corner of one of the barrack blocks at Vindolanda. The find was dated to the mid third century when the fourth cohort of Gauls formed the garrison. She might have been a slave who was killed for not doing her tasks or been sexually abused and killed by the soldiers. Whatever the situation, her body was buried hastily to avoid discovery.

Bathhouses were a vital part of any fort for they allowed soldiers to bathe, clean themselves and provide relaxation when off-duty, soothing aching limbs and chatting to friends. Usually bathhouses were placed outside forts because of the danger of fire and the fact that men could relax more easily away from authority. The bathhouse at Chesters was situated close to the river, where there was easy access to water. Vitalis, a balneator (bath attendant), was in charge of the bathhouse at Vindolanda situated outside the south gate of the fort. Large fortresses provided more elaborate accommodation. Caerleon seems to have had two sets of baths, an official one inside the fortress and another outside the walls, possibly to allow soldiers to have greater relaxation. The discovery of hairpins and milk teeth inside the main baths may indicate that ladies married to senior officers and their children could use them at specified times. A lead plaque found on the site might be an admission ticket. Shellfish and other food remains suggest that a snack bar was provided. Baths continued to be built throughout the Roman occupation, the last ones being recorded at Binchester in the mid fourth century.

Another essential building was a latrine. At Caerleon during the reconstruction of the fort in the second century, the opportunity was taken to construct latrines in each corner of the ramparts. They were provided in the bathhouses of Bar Hill and Corbridge. Separate arrangements were made for one at Piercebridge, which could accommodate thirty soldiers. Some of the most elaborate remains are to be found at Housesteads, where the drains, the channel for flushing the sponges and the water tanks for washing hands still remain.

Latrines had to be kept clean but it would have been an unpleasant task. Slaves might have been available but soldiers detailed to do the work would need to be carefully supervised, especially at forts where the latrines were a series of seats built over wooden buckets. A papyrus from Egypt, giving a duty roster, included C. Julius Valens and Marcus Longinus A— as being detailed for ad cunus (drain duties) and ad stercus (latrine duties) respectively on 3 October and 6 October AD 90. The disposal of waste may not have always been carefully supervised; at Bearsden the waste debouched into the fort ditch. At several forts there was evidence that the latrine was in the veranda or in the barrack room itself.

All forts would have had an adequate water supply. Vitruvius recommends digging wells but where possible an aqueduct or leat was constructed. At Benwell, where the water brought for over three miles had become stale and flat, it was sent through five settling tanks to help it regain its sparkle. Sometimes fatigues would include carrying water. At Hod Hill water from the River Stour was the only supply, brought laboriously up the hill and poured into huge collection tanks, one of which had a capacity of 5,455 litres (1,200 gallons). At Housesteads, with a garrison of 800 men, it has been suggested that it would have been possible to collect water from the roof structures within the fort, giving a capacity of 8,000 tonnes of water collected into storage tanks. Excess water would have been used to flush the latrine in the south-east corner of the fort.

The cavalry needed stables and, where possible, these were placed inside forts or in securely guarded annexes to prevent horses from being stolen. Mules and baggage horses might have been kept in annexes and grazed outside the fort. Immediate access to the horses was necessary in an emergency and troopers might have felt happier placed near to their mounts. Celtic ponies would stand rough weather better than high-spirited ones; skeletons of horses found buried at Newstead give a range of twelve to fourteen hands high (1.21–1.42 m/48–56 in.).

Legionary forts would have had to find space for 120 horses, with remounts and those belonging to the officers bringing the total to at least 150. Auxiliary cavalry forts would have needed room for over 500 horses. Separate stable boxes were provided at the auxiliary forts of Benwell and Halton but unless the horses were sick or temperamental it would have been sufficient to tether them in rows. Drains were noted at Ilkley and Broughon-Noe and mucking out was done daily, as Xenophon emphasized; perhaps local farmers were glad to take the resulting dung. At the legionary fortress of Usk a barrack block was reconstructed as stables by the removal of the panels between the inner and the outer rooms, and by the cutting of cesspits. The horses were accommodated in the outer part, while hay and equipment were stored in the inner rooms. In another area stables and barracks were placed back to back, a most unusual arrangement, which suggests a temporary measure. Separate tack rooms would be essential as the ammonia vapour of urine can attack leather. Troopers could keep their own gear, including parade armour, in their quarters.

Other necessary buildings were workshops (fabricae), which Hygenius recommends should be far away from the hospital so that the noise would not disturb patients. Identification of these can only be tentative but buildings containing smelting hearths, ovens or metalworking debris indicate repair work on armour and weapons. Sweepings from a blacksmith’s forge were found at Benwell, where the cavalry regiment of Asturians was stationed. Traces of urine and excreta found in a building at Vindolanda and the bundles of leather panels found at Birdoswald and Bar Hill provide evidence for leather-working and tent-making at these forts. Hides are soaked in urine as part of the preliminary treatment. Wagons and carts would have been kept in open-fronted sheds like those deduced at Fendoch.

Granaries (horrea) grouped in pairs are easily identified by the remains of rows of stone or timber pillars, which allowed air to circulate underneath, and buttresses on the outer walls to restrain the pressure of the grain. At Corbridge small doors allowed access to the space beneath the floors, possibly for inspection or to let dogs or cats enter to control vermin, not an unexpected problem. Burnt grain at South Shields contained skeletons of rats, mice, voles and other vermin. Vermin might be smoked out and burnt material discovered by the sides of the granaries at Cadder and Slack was suggested to be the remains of fires for this control. The weight of the grain required heavy stone floors and buttresses placed at frequent intervals to control the side pressure on the walls. Wooden louvres were set between the buttresses for internal ventilation. Normally the floor was placed on parallel sleeper walls or pillars. Hardknott, Rudchester and Corbridge had loading platforms covered with a portico to make easier the unloading sacks of grain directly from carts.

Grain was probably kept stored in sacks or bins leading off a central passage. Tacitus in the Agricola said that forts in the conquered area of Scotland held sufficient supplies to feed the garrison for a year. Calculations made of grain in granaries in Britain indicate that supplies were far and above what was needed to feed a particular garrison. This may have been to ensure that sufficient food was available in case of a siege or that the garrison should never go short of food in case of a mutiny. Other provisions could be stored in these buildings – meat, dried and salted in barrels, cheese, lard, pulses, salt, amphorae containing wine, olive oil and garum. Pliny mentioned a carnarium, a wooden rack from which dried or fresh meat could be suspended. The librarii horreorum, in charge of issuing supplies, would ensure constant replacement rather than let food become bad or stale. One fort held vast supplies. In the third century South Shields was remodelled to become a supply base for the campaigns of the Emperor Septimius Severus in Scotland. At least 22 granaries were available, which, if all full, would have had capacity of 8,000 tonnes.

There was no large mess hall in a fort. Each contubernium had to prepare its own meal. The basic diet of a soldier consisted of corn (which could be made into soup, pottage or pasta), bacon, cheese, vegetables, oil and wine, and the cost of their provisions was deducted from their pay. An extra deduction was made to cover the greater variety of food during festival days such as Saturnalia. Boudicca sneered at the Romans when she made her speech before her final battle, saying they had to have kneaded bread, wine and oil and that if they ran short of these they perished, which seems to indicate that the military’s essential ingredients were known to the Britons early after the conquest.

Pork in the form of meat, bacon and sausages, the latter being cheap and long lasting, would be standard. Bones on military sites indicate that increasing quantities of beef were provided. The Vindolanda accounts indicate large numbers of chickens being bought, possibly more to feed the officers than the men. One account dated to AD 101–104, when Flavius Cerialis was prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, refers to geese and chickens being supplied, which might have been to serve visiting officers or a visit of the provincial governor. Officers got better food, which probably included game hunted as part of their sporting activities.

Other foods were available. One of the Vindolanda accounts asked for 100 apples if good ones were available and 100 or 200 eggs ‘if they could be bought at a reasonable price’. A slave was ordered to procure radishes seemingly as a treat for Saturnalia. If soldiers required snacks or a treat they could supplement their diet by buying from itinerant tradesmen or from shops in the vici.

Normally soldiers had two meals a day. Josephus said that the men ate when they were commanded and were expected to eat during the day sitting down but could recline during evening meals. Each contubernium would be given a grain ration, which had to be collected from granaries and then ground. At South Shields, bread wheat and spelt were stored in one granary burnt down in the late third or early fourth century. Near the entrance were discarded weed seeds containing corncockle, which can be poisonous if baked in bread. It has been suggested that soldiers had collected their rations from the granary and cleaned the grain where the light was better, obviously being ordered to make sure that the wheat was safe before it was ground.

A stone hand-mill was carried on the pack of the unit’s mule. Grinding would be done by the contubernium, a strenuous job, probably taking over one-and-a-half hours to produce a decent quality of grain as it might have had to be repeatedly ground and sieved up to three times. Possibly enough flour would be ground for two to three days to save time. Water and salt would be added to knead the flour and the resulting dough would be baked in ovens situated alongside the walls of the camp or fort for baking. Meat and other foods could also be baked there. There were two kinds of bread. Panis militaris castrensis was black bread or hard tack and panis militaris mundis was baked from finer flour and served to officers. The daily ration of a Roman soldier would probably have consisted of about 850 gm (30 oz) of bread which would provide 1,950 calories.

The recommended diet for men in the British army in barracks has been estimated to produce 2,900 calories. A man on active service in the field requires between 3,400 and 3,600 calories. According to Roth, the daily military ration of a soldier in the Roman army might consist of grain (pulses or bread), meat (probably 226 gm/8oz), vegetables, cheese, olive oil, possibly 70 gm (2.5 oz), a quantity of wine between 0.54 and 0.27 litres a day, salt and other condiments. This diet would give a total of 3,390 calories and 142 gm (5 oz) of protein, quite adequate for a man living in a fort and doing heavy work.

The wine was a sour wine and if mixed with water would have doubled the quantity for drinking. The auxilia, especially those from the northern provinces, drank beer. Both beer and Celtic beer were ordered at Vindolanda, suggesting that these were different kinds of beer. One letter from Masclus, a decurion, to the prefect Flavius Cerialis indicates that supplies had run out under his command, with the implication that some should be sent very quickly.

The army diet would not be entirely a Roman one as more than half the legions and certainly most of the auxiliars came from the provinces. The legions which came over at the conquest had been based in the Rhineland and the Danube regions where their taste might have been more akin to the ethnic groups. Bones excavated at many of the forts indicate that the preference was for beef, which is more a northern than a southern taste. This was particularly apparent at Colchester in the first century AD and in the camps established by the army during their campaigns in the north. A specific change of diet has been noted on the Antonine Wall where Vivian Swan has identified pottery akin to that made in North Africa. It has been suggested that reinforcements from Britain were sent to the Emperor Antoninus Pius’s troops in his Mauritanian War (AD 146–9). The survivors returned to Britain together with North African and Moorish soldiers who brought with them their own pottery for their distinctive cooking methods. A plentiful supply of herbs and spices would be available.

The army had to have fit men and this was ensured by a vigorous training routine, care in the choice of the campsite, a good water supply and a healthy diet, but men might have had to be treated in a hospital (valetudinarium). They would have had special food there; Plutarch and Vegetius recommended chicken. A tablet at Vindolanda reported that some of the men were sick or wounded and at least ten suffered from conjunctivitis, not surprisingly if men used a communal towel. Not every fort had a hospital, although forts would have medical orderlies attached to them. That at Housesteads was placed next to the principia; at Benwell, it took the form of a central courtyard surrounded by a double range of small rooms and had a small latrine and a bath. Healing herbs could be grown in the sheltered courtyard. Facilities would be available to treat sick soldiers in most forts but anyone who fell seriously ill or was badly wounded could be transferred to the legionary fortresses for treatment, where they were served a special diet. The large fortress hospital at Caerleon seems to have had sufficient rooms for each of the sixty-four centuries of the legion; later, parts of it were heated to give greater comfort to the sick. Soldiers could also be sent to convalesce at spas such as Buxton and Bath.

Medical staff were recorded and they probably provided a distinct professional corps. The optio valetudinarii, in charge of the hospital, supervised a staff of immunes, who performed medical tasks, and capsarii, who dressed wounds. Roy Davies, in his study of the Roman medical staff, suggests that there might have been several medici, each having the same title but performing different duties. A tombstone at Housesteads describes Anicius Ingenuus of the First Cohort of Tungrians as medicus ordinarius. It has been suggested that this man and four others known in Britain were qualified doctors with the same status and rank of a centurion but serving under a camp doctor. Many doctors were Greek, like Hermogenes who dedicated an altar in Greek to ‘the mighty Saviour Gods’ at Chester. Complete sets of surgical implements have been found on continental sites and isolated implements are known at Newstead and Housesteads.

One of the Vindolanda tablets gives a list of ingredients brought into the fort between AD 101 and 104, which seem to have been used as medical supplies. These include black bryony berries used in the treatment of wounds, pitch, which was mixed with garlic for treating arrow wounds, resin, which could be mixed with garlic and sulphur for drawing out pus, and anise as a treatment for stings and insomnia. One item seems to have referred to linen soaked in honey. Honey was used for treating wounds, drawing out splinters and other intrusive objects, and for treating inflammation. Another item was siliginus or soft wheat. This could have been used as flour for bread but Pliny the Elder said that if the grain was roasted and ground into flour it could be used as a poultice, which seems sensible, and also to stop eye discharges.

There were also vets to ensure the welfare of the horses and mules, together with the numerous cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry on which the troops would rely for food; Abio and Virilis are recorded as vets at Vindolanda sometime between AD 101 and 105. For a favour and a cash payment, they might have attended pets kept by soldiers and the civilians in the vici. Candidus and Lucco are recorded as tending the pigs.

Much of the description given above could be said to provide only a typical account of life in camps and forts. Obviously not all soldiers would be in a fort at the same time. Men needed to be trained in the use of a catapult or an onager. Some would be out on patrol noting if there were threats of violence and thereby put down an incipient revolt. They could be sent out to collect taxes, fetch in supplies, supervise harvesting and organize the rounding up of cattle to provide meat and leather. About AD 90 soldiers from Vindolanda had been sent to London to provide part of the bodyguard for the imperial governor. Over 300 had been dispatched to Coria (Corbridge). Forty-six men were reported to have been sent as a guard to Ferox, probably the Legatus Legionis of Legion IX at York.

According to the Vindolanda tablets some leave was granted. There seems to have been a strict formula for applying. One tablet, requesting leave from either Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, or his successor, Priscinus, Prefect of the First Cohort of Thracians, gives this formula: ‘I Messicus … ask my lord that you consider me a worthy person to grant leave at Corio (Corbridge).’ This fort was only 29 km (18 miles) away so this would be a short leave. Soldiers were given rest periods, especially on days devoted to religious observances, and many may have gone to spas such as Buxton and Bath. Desertions and absence without leave, however, were not infrequent. Possibly, unless there was a state of emergency, a particular fort might have been half-empty of its garrison.

Relations with civilians might not always have been amicable. Soldiers could assault and oppress them and the law or brute force could be on their side. Their cases could be treated more leniently in law courts and soldiers were exempt from service in mines and were spared torture. Requisitioning of fodder, food and transport would have caused problems. Even so, soldiers may have visited the vici to be with families and friends, consort with prostitutes, drink and gamble in inns, negotiate with traders and engage in numerous other social ploys. Military and civilian life were not entirely divorced from each other and there is reason to believe that by the second century, in some of the forts, civilians were sharing in soldiers’ lives not only outside the forts, but also within them. 

2 thoughts on “Roman Army Life in Britain III

  1. Pingback: Roman Army Life in Britain III – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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