The fort at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, during winter. The wall is on the right side.
1 = the commandant’s house
2 = the hospital
3 = the headquarters building
4 = the granaries (where grain was stored to make bread)
5 = the barracks (where the soldiers slept)
6 = one of the gateways into the camp
7 = the small town outside the camp

Foraging in enemy territory was essential but always dangerous, especially if the men were separated and laden down with what they had collected; it was essential to send a foraging party out with other troops whose sole job was to guard them and maintain vigilance. Pompey had been dispatched with an army to defeat Sertorius, the rebel governor of Spain. But when the legion concerned was out foraging, Sertorius saw his chance to strike. The whole legion was ‘cut to pieces’, along with all its baggage animals. In 56 BC, during Caesar’s campaign against the Gaulish Veneti tribe, some of his men were captured after being sent out to forage for grain. Caesar sent envoys to negotiate for the men’s release but the Veneti imprisoned them too, in the hope that they could be used to bargain for a release of hostages. Caesar refused and continued the war.37 In 60 in Armenia, Corbulo’s army had to ward off starvation by killing its horses and pack animals until it reached cultivated land and could steal crops.

Even in Cato’s time, the Roman army had been large, widely dispersed and often on campaign for years. In the long run it would depend on a sophisticated and reliable food supply chain. By the time of the emperors, with a standing army largely settled in fortresses and forts, the organization of food supplies reached a level unmatched until modern times. The army remained dependent on middlemen of various sorts who sourced and supplied food both for units as a whole and for individual soldiers. Of course the army could also grow its own food. Many documents found at Vindolanda are perfunctory lists of goods and supplies that were supplied to the fort at the end of the first century AD. Because the archive is unique in the history and archaeology of the Roman army, there is consequently no means of knowing how representative it is, at least in detail. But what must have been typical of the Roman army was the sheer quantity and range of commodities, the records of cost, the logistical arrangements and the numbers of people involved. A single line in Tacitus describes how the whole military frontier zone along the Rhine had ‘Roman itinerants and traders scattered all over the countryside’. Polybius mentions the inclusion of a market in the Republican fortress layout, while at Lambaesis two standard-bearers of Legio III Augusta, Sabinius Ingenuus and Aurelius Sedatus, were the agents in charge of a marketplace attached to the fortress where traders sold goods to the legion or the legion sold some of its own produce. These references, and the Vindolanda documents, paint a picture of Roman forts as hubs in a thriving and ceaseless network of trade manned by countless individuals for whom the Roman army was the basis of their existence and livelihood.

One Vindolanda document refers to a saddle, something that might be expected at a fort, priced at 12 denarii. It also lists expensive lengths of scarlet, purple and greenish-yellow curtain. The purple curtain, measuring 11.5 (feet) (3.4 m) was priced at twelve times the cost of the saddle. Clearly luxury products, the curtains must have been destined for the residences of the officers and their wives whom we know to have been living there. However, thanks to damage and decay many of the documents consist now only of fragments with tantalizing references. One laboriously lists the poultry consumed on various dates, including an occasion described as ‘17 January for the dinner of Brocchus’. Aelius Brocchus was the commanding officer at another fort in the area – which one is unknown – and was friends with Flavius Cerealis, who commanded Cohors VIIII Batavorum at Vindolanda. The two also hunted together.

One Vindolanda letter, from a cornicularius named Severus to Candidus, a slave of a prefect called Flavius Genialis, refers to preparations for the midwinter Saturnalia festival. The two men seem to have been on good terms, probably because they had to work together on various arrangements involving the fort’s administration and supplies. Severus wrote:

Severus to his Candidus. Greetings. Saturnalia expenses. I ask, brother, you settle [them] at four or six [asses], and radishes at no less than -1/2 a denarius. Farewell brother. To Candidus, slave of Genialis, from Severus, cornicularius.

One of the most famous of the writing tablets found at Vindolanda is a letter from Octavius to Candidus. Octavius was involved in some way with the trading of commodities, though it is not clear whether he was acquiring these in the capacity of a military official or whether he was a private trader hoping to sell them on to the army. His business seems to have been obtaining goods for the fort at Vindolanda. He wrote the letter while dealing with other incoming correspondence, to which he refers. Candidus may be the aforementioned slave of Genialis, an optio at the fort of this name, or may be another Candidus altogether. Octavius’ main concern was that he was sent money to pay for commodities he had acquired, such as ‘5,000 modii of ears of corn’. At about 15.4 pints (8.73 litres) per modius, that meant he had taken possession of 43,650 litres of corn ears. The weight of corn depends on its moisture content. Depending on the moisture level, each litre of corn might have weighed about 1.7 lb (0.789 kg), but this is very approximate. This means Octavius had bought 55,323 kg of corn, or over 54 tons. In Polybius’ time soldiers received ‘two-thirds of an Attic medimnus’ monthly, approximately equivalent to 37 litres or about 64 lb (29 kg), totalling 767 lb (348 kg) annually. Assuming this was still valid, this crude calculation means that Octavius had enough corn for almost 160 men for a year. Or, to put it another way, it was almost exactly the right amount to feed a cohort of 480 men for one-third of the year. Since army pay and supplies were computed on the basis of three stipendia annually, this is surely no coincidence and may have been the purpose of the order.

Octavius had paid out a deposit of 300 denarii to secure the corn and needed at least another 500 to make sure the deposit was not forfeited. Among his other concerns was a consignment of hides which were still at the fort and military settlement of Catterick, on the road south to the legionary fortress of York (Eboracum). Octavius wanted to collect them and asked Candidus to authorize their handover, explaining that he would have been to get them already but had been reluctant to send his wagons down ‘while the roads are bad’. This is not a paraphrase – the Latin (dum viae male sunt) says exactly that. Octavius was also bothered by the fact that 8-1/2 denarii owed to him by a man called Tertius had not been paid. He was even more annoyed by a ‘messmate of Frontinus’ who had turned up asking for hides and promising to pay cash. They had arranged that he would come on 15 January, but he never showed up.

The corn Octavius was so troubled about would eventually have been stored in a granary. These were some of the most distinctive structures in a fort. They also had to be the most robust. Settling grain causes enormous pressure on a granary’s walls, creating heat and a fire risk. Masonry military granaries had conspicuous buttresses down either side unless they were built in a pair, in which case the adjacent walls of the two buildings supported each other. Granaries also had raised floors, suspended on piers or rows of parallel supporting walls, to maximize ventilation and provide some protection against rodent activity. At Wallsend, at the easternmost point of Hadrian’s Wall, the two fort granaries sat in the central zone of the fort between the headquarters building and the hospital. At South Shields, not far from Wallsend but closer to the mouth of the river Tyne, the fort was enlarged to accommodate an exceptional number of granaries so that it could act as a supply base for Septimius Severus’ campaign in Caledonia. As a result as much as two-thirds of the fort was given over to granaries. The rest was occupied only by a small number of barrack blocks and the headquarters buildings, all other conventional fort structures being done away with.

Other documents found at Vindolanda refer to all sorts of goods, including cervesa (‘beer’), wine, muria (‘brine’, but usually translated as ‘fish sauce’), barley and pork fat. The availability of these was totally dependent on the province of Britain’s infrastructure. Vindolanda, like all other forts on the northern frontier, was linked to a network of roads and rivers leading to the sea that gave it access to goods available across Britain and beyond. Some of the commodities which were transported up to Vindolanda proudly bore their manufacturers’ name stamps and trademarks, such as the leather shoes made by Lucius Aebutius Thales, son of Titus, stamped with his name, vine-leaves and cornucopiae. It is possible he worked on the northern frontier but London or York is probably more likely, servicing the military frontier market through middlemen. Finds at Vindolanda include a small lead mirror frame manufactured by Quintus Licinius Tutinus of Arles in Gallia Narbonensis. There is every reason to believe that other frontier forts across the Empire were equally well served and supplied.

Clearly there was a level of unit administration and bureaucracy in organizing the supply and transport of consignments of goods. Other evidence points to sub-divisions of the cohort and even individuals all taking care of their needs. The century of Africanus (its centurion), based at Vindolanda, had its own quernstone, which must have been used to prepare the flour for the century’s bread. Quernstones are common finds on military sites, and indeed on all Roman sites. At Haltwhistle Burn, close to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman military mill was powered by a channel cut across a bend in the river, the outflow driving a waterwheel which turned the millstones. Similar mills were built into bridge abutments on the Wall itself at Chesters and Willowford, and must have been operated by army personnel to help feed the garrison. Ovens are also found, usually near the defences, and located at a safe distance from the barracks and other buildings because of the fire risk.

At Newstead, during Agricola’s governorship, the tribune Attius Secundus had his own amphora, which had come originally from southern Gaul and contained three modii of unknown contents.50 Gaulish samian ware is especially common on Roman military sites and soldiers were sometimes keen to identify their own bowls, dishes and other vessels. In the vicus outside the fort at Papcastle (Cumbria in north-west Britain), Senecio marked his name on the base of a samian bowl which seems then to have been passed on successively to a Cato and a Tertius.

Soldiers could help themselves from the stores of the local communities where they were based. This was not supposed to happen, but it certainly did. The locals were unlikely to be able to fight back. Sometimes the Roman authorities showed some consideration. According to Frontinus, the emperor Domitian ordered in 83, during his German war, that compensation be paid for any crops planted by the Cubii tribe which were on land enclosed by the new Roman fortifications. It was in this way, he said, that the emperor’s justice ‘won everyone’s allegiance’. However, since Frontinus wrote this down the following year, while Domitian, gradually emerging as a jealous and paranoid individual, was still emperor, it is fairly obvious he was treading carefully and probably exaggerated the emperor’s generosity. The general Avidius Cassius was a ruthless disciplinarian and had zero tolerance for troops who took advantage of civilians. He ordered any soldiers caught stealing by force from provincials to be crucified immediately.

Even Rome was not immune. Maximinus I (235–8) allowed his men to steal from the land surrounding the city. Civilian settlements of every type throughout the Empire were susceptible to Roman troops helping themselves. The village of Blagoevgrad (Skaptopara in Thrace) found itself ravaged by soldiers stationed in two camps nearby. Their depredations were ruining the village, and outraging the inhabitants, who felt they had dutifully paid their taxes and should not be subjected to any more costs. Of particular appeal to the soldiers were the village’s hot springs. A fair was held in the town, as was a market, the latter taking place several times annually with a special tax-free fortnight in October. Fortunately the villagers had a means of solving their problem, or so they hoped. One of them, a soldier called Aurelius Pyrrus, owned land there but also served in the Roman army in a praetorian cohort in Rome. With his help, the villagers filed a petition to the emperor, Gordian III, on 16 December 238. Gordian instructed them to take their case to the provincial governor; this Pyrrus did, delivering a speech on the village’s behalf. Unfortunately, we do not know what happened next. But Gordian could hardly be blamed for delegating the case. In December 238 he was a month shy of his fourteenth birthday.

For all the training, organization and garrison building, and the effort poured into building infrastructure and sourcing food, the Roman army was supposed to be a fighting machine. Its reputation came down in the end to the ability to fight and win victories. Paradoxically, like armies throughout history, success often derived from the painful lessons caused by defeat, whether thanks to a lack of morale and training, poor leadership or bad luck. Tacitus was at pains to point out how intractable a foe the Germans, for example, had continued to be.56 Rome’s history was littered with the tales of terrible defeats. But in the end the Roman army demonstrated that what mattered was not what went right, but how it coped with disaster.


  1. Pingback: THE ROMAN ARMY – LIVING OFF THE LAND II – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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