Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.


By far the most famous defensive barrier in the Roman Empire; served for nearly 300 years as one of the major dividing lines between Roman Britain and the barbarians of Caledonia. With the exception of the Wall of Antonius, built just to the north, the Wall of Hadrian was unique in all of the imperial provinces. Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in 122 A. D., and work was begun by Platorius Nepos, governor of Britain, who completed it around 126. The wall extended some 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend (Segedunum) to Bowness-on-Solway (or the Solway Firth). It was intended not as a formidable bastion but as a base from which Rome’s presence could be maintained. Roman troops, mainly auxiliaries, manned its turrets and were to fight any large enemy force in the field while keeping watch on the frontier. In the event of a direct assault, the defenses were only adequate, perhaps explaining the collapse of Roman power in Britain from time to time.

The original plans were probably drawn by Hadrian. The barrier was to extend some 70 miles and be made mostly of stone, 10 feet thick, while the rest would be constructed of turf, 20 feet thick. The turf wall was completed, but the stone sections had only just begun when the plan was extended several miles to ensure that the barrier covered the area from sea to sea. Further, the stone portions were to be only 8 feet thick, instead of 10, and approximately 20 feet in height; the turf portions, 13 feet high. Forts were distanced some 5 miles from each other, with so-called mile-castles spread out every Roman mile, connected by watch-towers. Two ditches were dug. The one in front was approximately 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, designed for defense and V-shaped. The ditch behind the wall has caused considerable archaeological debate. Called the Vallum (trench), it was straight and flat-bottomed, 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet across at the bottom, fortified on both sides by earthen walls (but then filled in). Scholars have speculated that it was once used for some other, non-military purpose.

Until the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142, Hadrian’s Wall was the only frontier marker in Britain. With the Antonine Wall in the north, its importance decreased briefly until 180, when the Antonine Wall was destroyed. In 196-197, Clodius Albinus took with him every available soldier in Britain for his bid for the throne, thus allowing the wall to be ruined, Septimius Severus repaired it from 205 to 207. Peace was maintained until the late 3rd century A. D., when the chaotic situation in Roman Britain following the deaths of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus brought the Picts down from Caledonia, Constantius I launched a restorative campaign but throughout the 4th century barbarian inroads put pressure upon the wall as Roman influence diminished. More invasions poured over the wall, only to be repulsed by Count Flavius Theodosius in 369. The last garrison on the wall withdrew around 400 as the barrier became a monument to Rome’s past.


A typical Roman fort of the Imperial period was shaped like a modern playing card, with two short sides and two long sides, and rounded corners. This is the evolved version of a Roman fort, since the earlier fortified camps of the early Empire were not so regularly shaped and were not generally designed as permanent bases for troops. The fort and supply depot at Rödgen in Germany was ovoid in shape, and while the fortress of Haltern was more regular in plan, it does not compare with the later permanent forts of the Empire.

Typically, early Roman forts were built of earth and turf ramparts (called murus caespiticus), topped by a timber breastwork, with access by timber gateways with towers on either side. There were usually interval towers ranged along the walls and at each corner. Forts were usually surrounded by one or more ditches, shaped like a letter V but with an aptly labelled “ankle-breaker” drainage channel at the bottom. The Romans usually took this drainage feature seriously, judging by the number of excavations that show that the ditch had been cleaned out and squared off. In the second century AD from the reign of Trajan onward, when the majority of forts had become permanent bases rather than semipermanent ones while the provinces were pacified and Romanized, forts and fortresses were generally, but not universally, built of stone. In some cases this meant refronting existing forts by cutting back the turf rampart, and in others building in stone from the outset.

Depending on the type of unit stationed in them, forts varied in size from 0.6 hectares for the small numerous forts in Germany and Dacia, to 20 hectares for a legion. There were a few double legionary fortresses such as Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Mogontiacum (modern Mainz, Germany) until the failed revolt of Saturninus, who gathered the combined savings of his legionaries to attempt a coup against the Emperor Domitian. After this, Domitian decreed that no two legions were to be housed together.

The internal arrangements of fortresses and forts was on the whole standardized, but with regional or local variations. The center range usually housed the headquarters building (principia), flanked by the commander’s house (praetorium) and the granaries (horreae). There were four main streets within the fort, and the orientation of the fort was taken from the direction that headquarters faced. The road running across the fort in front of the headquarters was the via principalis, with its two gates labeled for the right and left sides (porta principalis dextra and porta principalis sinistra). The road that connected the principia to the front gate (porta praetoria) was the via praetoria, and behind the headquarters another road, the via decumana, ran to the rear gate (porta decumana).

In several forts archaeological evidence shows that there were other communal buildings, for example the workshop (fabrica) where metalworking, woodworking, and repair of equipment and weapons would take place. There was also a hospital (valetudinarium). It should be acknowledged that from the ground plans alone, the workshops and the hospitals might have been confused, each consisting of small rooms off a central courtyard, but in a few cases medical instruments have been found, which strongly supports the label “hospital.” The forts on Hadrian’s Wall at Wallsend and Housesteads, and the fortresses at Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Novaesium (modern Neuss, Germany) are among examples where hospitals have been found. The majority of the buildings inside the fort would be the barrack blocks. For the infantry in legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts, barracks were normally laid out with ten rooms subdivided into two parts, one for sleeping and eating and one for storage, each room accommodating eight men, and therefore housing one complete century of eighty men. A verandah ran the full length of the ten rooms, and at the end of the barrack block there was usually a suite of rooms for the centurion. Cavalry barracks were different, reflecting the organization of the turma. From the evidence at the fort at Dormagen on the Rhine, and Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall, it seems that the men and their horses were housed together. In at least three of the Dormagen stable blocks, there were double cubicles, with soakaway pits in those along one side, and hearths in those on the other, indicating that men and mounts shared the blocks (Müller, 1979; Dixon and Southern, 1992).

Roman Watchtowers

There is no real consensus as to what such monumental linear boundaries as the walls in northern Britain or between the Rhine and Danube in Germany were for and how they functioned. Almost as puzzling are cases where Roman soldiers were distributed in very small detachments, often less than ten men, manning watchtowers, constructed in lines following roads or along ridges. Such deployments seem to make little sense if the primary aim of the Roman army was to defend the provinces since any serious attack would surely have overwhelmed these weak defences.

Neither the view of the Roman Empire during the Principate as essentially defensive, nor the view that it was aggressive and still hoping to expand, explains properly what the army was actually doing. Mattern has recently suggested that the defensive-offensive distinction is anachronistic, and that we should view Roman foreign relations more in terms of concepts of honour and power. The theme of her book was essentially the ideology of empire, and it did not really explain how the army operated or whether or not its activities were effective. The shift in emphasis was very useful, for it is important to understand how the Romans conceived of their relations with other peoples, and it is within this framework that we should attempt to understand what their armed forces were actually doing.

For all the insights generated by this debate, the question remains of whether or not the Romans developed something which could reasonably be described as grand strategy. As with so many labels, there is a tendency for each contributor in the debate to provide his own definition for this term, making it easier to prove that the Romans either did or did not have one. The term was created in the twentieth century, and most of the definitions employed by modern strategic literature assume the existence of institutions and ideas utterly alien to the Roman Empire. For most modern states the ideal of international affairs is peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. Each state is considered to have a right to govern itself in its own way and by its own laws. In the modern world war is the anomaly, shattering the natural state of peace. For many societies in the ancient world the reverse was true, and peace was an interruption of the normal international hostility. The Romans were inclined to think of peace as the product of an enemy’s utter defeat, hence the verb `to pacify’ (pacare) was a euphemism for `to defeat’.

Peaceful coexistence with other nations, and most of all former enemies, was never a Roman aspiration. In some way we must relate our understanding of Roman ideology to the reality of military deployment in the frontier zones, many areas of which were constantly occupied for centuries on end. It is therefore worth considering the army’s deployment in these areas and trying to reconstruct what it was doing. In doing so we must try to look at the fringes of the Roman Empire from both directions.

Raiding does appear to have been endemic in the tribal societies of Spain, Britain, Gaul, Germany, Thrace, Illyria and Africa. Caesar claimed that the Helvetii migrated to occupy lands which would give them more opportunity to raid their neighbours (B Gall. 1.2).We are told that German tribes tried to keep a strip of depopulated land around their borders as a protection against enemy raids. This was also a measure of a tribe’s martial prowess and thus a deterrent to attacks. The Belgian tribes grew thick thorn hedges as boundary markers that were intended to delay raiding groups. They may also have been a sign that crossing them would be met with force, and it was probably no coincidence that Caesar’s army had to fight a battle at the Sambre soon after passing such a barrier (B Gall. 2.17, 6.23). The archaeological record of weapons burials in many regions of Europe confirms a picture of societies in which martial symbols were very important, and it is implausible to suggest that many Celtic tribes were not warlike warrior societies.

Our sources inevitably only report raids carried out on a large scale, usually by thousands of warriors. Only well-established leaders in reasonably united tribes could ever have mustered such forces. The warriors in many societies were strongly independent, choosing whether or not to join a leader who proclaimed that he was to lead a raid. Most raiding bands were probably much smaller. Even Ammianus, who provides far more detailed accounts of activities in the frontier provinces than any earlier source, never specifically mentions groups of fewer than 400 marauders. The distribution of Roman troops in penny packets to man lines of watchtowers might make a lot more sense if they were facing raids by equally small or smaller groups of warriors. The distinction between warfare and banditry blurs at this level, but there are many hints that small-scale violence was common in the empire.

Conspiracy Theory

The British security situation deteriorated in the 360s. At the start of the decade we are told that `savage tribes of the Scots and Picts, who had broken the peace that had been agreed upon, were laying waste the regions near the frontiers’. Worse followed in 367, when a crisis known as the `barbarian conspiracy’ unfolded. Raids by Franks and Saxons targeting Gaul, and Picts, Attacotti, and Scots striking Britain brought devastation and suspicions of collusion. In Britain, one high-ranking Roman commander was slain and another, by the name of Fullofaudes, was `cut off by enemy ambush’. Fullofaudes was a dux, and therefore quite possibly the dux Britanniarum responsible for the Wall zone. His fate is not clear, but potentially he, too, was killed. Meanwhile, the attackers were `ranging widely and causing great devastation’ as far south as London, while scores of surviving Roman soldiers aggravated the catastrophe by deserting. In response, a force perhaps 2,000-strong under the command of Theodosius – the father of a future emperor with the same name – was dispatched from the Continent.

By the time Theodosius arrived, the enemy forces had splintered and were seeking out booty. To restore the situation, his soldiers adopted tactics once considered borderline banditry. They `secured beforehand the places suitable for ambushing the savages’, rather than – so far as we can tell – fighting setpiece battles. This approach proved provident and, after the danger had passed, Theodosius is credited with protecting `the frontiers with watch-posts and defence works’, and disbanding a group referred to as the areani. Its members reportedly ranged far and wide to gather information, making it likely they were a late incarnation of the Wall’s intelligence-gathering apparatus. If so, they expose an inherent danger of such outfits, as the areani were reportedly turned by the enemy and bribed into betraying Roman secrets. That assumes, of course, they were not simply singled out as a convenient scapegoat for a spectacular military catastrophe.

Although we do not know whether the 367 invaders directly targeted the Wall garrisons, or sought to bypass them, the killing of one senior Roman commander, and ambushing of another, emphasises that the attackers were powerful enough to inflict serious losses. There is no sign in the written sources that the Roman forces in Britain could have salvaged the situation without aid from overseas. If securing booty was the attackers’ principal aim, attempting to bypass the Wall garrisons would have an obvious appeal. Theodosius’ strengthening of the frontier defences may be relevant here. There is no sign of major upgrades to the Wall, but a chain of fortifications was raised along the north-east Yorkshire coast at around this time. These small installations are recognisable as a variant of a fortification type popular on the Continent and comprise stout stone towers set within high masonry ramparts boasting projecting bastions. Creating such a cordon could fit with the 367 conspirators simply sailing past the Wall and landing to its south. One complication is that the garrisons of these new coastal stations are unlikely to exceed about eighty soldiers, which would leave them wellsuited to counter small-scale incursions, but powerless to repulse a fullblown invasion. They do, though, perfectly match the implication of the western coastal forts at Maryport and Lancaster: it was securing the shore that warranted heightened protective measures during this era. Even so, this developing threat may be partially attributable to Hadrian’s Wall curtailing overland raiding so effectively it incentivised striking by sea.

Religious practices were also changing during the final decades of Roman Britain. At Corbridge, temples were torn down after 370, with elements reused in the road. Offerings at Coventina’s shrine seemingly cease sometime around 388, while broken fragments of superstructure were reportedly found in her well, which would fit with a deconsecration ceremony analogous to those sometimes found in fort headquarters buildings. This suppression of longstanding ritual sites can presumably be attributed to Christianity. With occasional exceptions, official tolerance for the religion had grown since Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge. In 391, an edict made sacrifice illegal and closed the temples. The degree to which Christianity penetrated the Wall communities remains unclear, and some see the military garrisons as bastions of the old gods. However, the evidence for a military uptake of Christianity seems reasonably good. A few overtly Christian objects have been found, perhaps most obviously those bearing the chi-rho emblem. This device superimposes the first two Greek letters for Christos and is sometimes set within a circle. On such occasions it evokes a six-spoke wheel, which would surely have elicited knowing smiles from any remining adherents of the Celtic sky god. Recent excavations at Maryport revealed a cluster of graves, some of which might have a Christian origin. These lay near an enigmatic concentration of large pits, many of which contained earlier altars reused as packing to support sizeable timber uprights for some sort of monumental structure erected during the twilight of Roman control. As this complex occupied the highest point of the local topography, it was presumably intended to be as visible as possible. Churches are suspected within South Shields, Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Birdoswald forts, while Christianstyle gravestones are known at Vindolanda and Maryport. Although these memorials probably date to the century or so after the end of Roman Britain, if Christianity was being practised by the descendants of fort garrisons, it seems reasonable to propose that the religion took root during the Roman era.

Magnus Maximus, an important commander in Britain and possibly another dux Britanniarum, is known to have been baptised in 383. He is also credited with successes against the Picts and Scots, but in 383 was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Maximus initially proved a proficient usurper, and successfully took Gaul and Spain, before invading Italy in 387, where he was captured and executed. It is likely that his continental adventures were powered in part by troops withdrawn from Britain. Thereafter, pressure on the island continued to mount. In around 398, reinforcements were sent against perils including a sea that `foamed with hostile oarsmen’. Less than a decade later, the army in Britain mutinied in 406 or 407, setting up a succession of usurpers as the situation on the Continent steadily deteriorated. In around 409, it was either invaders from beyond the Rhine frontier or perhaps even a desire to remove unwelcome military units brought in by the army that sounded the death knell for Roman Britain. Zosimus records that they `made it necessary for the inhabitants of Britain and some of the nations among the Celts to revolt from Roman rule and live on their own, no longer obedient to Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms, and braving danger for their own independence, freed the cities from the barbarians threatening [or billeted in] them’. While this passage implies that Roman Britain came to a neatly defined end, archaeology demonstrates the reality was less clear cut.

Rather than the Wall garrisons being withdrawn and the forts abandoned around 409, evidence for continued occupation is mounting. The classic sequence was teased out at Birdoswald during Tony Wilmott’s trailblazing 1987-1992 excavations. There, important changes to the two fort granaries began c. 350, when the subfloor spaces in the southern structure were filled in, while its northern counterpart collapsed at around this time. That the refurbishing of the southern granary marks a shift from storage to highstatus activity is implied by what is probably either a foundation or abandonment deposit: a gold earring, glass ring, and silver coin of 388-395, found near hearths. The last two continue the round objects theme, while the earring is hexagonal, but features a decorative scheme vaguely evocative of wheel spokes. Sometime afterwards, a new floor surface was laid on top, before the south granary was seemingly abandoned in favour of a timber building inserted into the shell of the northern granary. This was, in turn, superseded by a sizeable timber hall, which stood on postpads. Wilmott observed that the adapted granaries are explicable as venues where the unit commander could address his troops, while the final timber edifice resembles an early medieval chieftain’s feasting hall. The chronology fits this, with the adapted southern granary probably not abandoned until 420, the first quasi-timber structure lasting to perhaps 470, and the timber hall standing until 520 or later. This puts us over a century beyond the end date of Roman Britain. Crucially, though, no break in occupation was detected at the fort. Instead of marching away, the Roman garrison seemingly stayed put, gradually mutating from a regular army unit into an early medieval warband.

The centre cannot hold

The Wall changed immensely over the course of the 4th century. Failure to upgrade the military posts with cutting-edge new defences left them resembling relics from a bygone era. But inside, change was underway. Fort layouts designed to reinforce a hierarchy stretching all the way to the emperor, and hold storage and workshop facilities commensurate with sophisticated long-distance supply lines, were morphing into something new. Ruined or redundant monumental architecture could be quarried to patch humdrum but essential structures, such as defences and roads, or surrendered to industry, thereby helping to tackle the immense logistical challenges associated with becoming more self-sufficient. This shift surely involved local producers in the vicinity of forts supplying more goods for the military market, suggesting close links with rural communities. Currently, we can only see hints of this, but in the west, it is likely that some late Roman sites south of the Wall were successors to longstanding settlements with prehistoric origins. In the east, the endurance of Local Traditional Ware also supports a degree of continuity. A chronic reduction in overseas imports, and indeed products from southern Britain, robbed Wall life of a distinctive facet over the course of the 4th century. Yet transitioning to regional supply probably enabled soldiers to weather the early-5th-century turmoil. Rather than the end of Rome’s financial and material support forcing an abandonment of the forts, local suppliers offered a lifeline. In turn, the protection fort garrisons could extend provided an incentive for rural producers to nurture this relationship.

Severing links with Rome spelled fundamental change for existing power structures. No longer were unit commanders beholden to a distant dux, probably based in York, who was in turn just another cog in the imperial hierarchy. Instead, individual unit commanders would have had greater autonomy than ever before. Even this development, though, seemingly has its roots in the later 4th century. If the refurbishment of the southern granary at Birdoswald was designed to create a venue where a commander could address his men, it marked an important shift from the arrangement in previous centuries. Once, such gatherings occurred in the headquarters building, beside the unit shrine and the trappings of imperial power. The new arrangement at Birdoswald would have increased the focus on individual commanders. By this reading, the eventual shift to a timber feasting hall symbolises how regular military commanders gradually transformed into early medieval chieftains. The end of Roman authority over the Wall, then, was not accompanied by an evacuation of the heavily armed soldiers manning its forts. Instead they remained, to become part of the region’s future.


This war will support itself

Cato the Elder instructs his men to take what they need

The impact of the Roman army on the environment was gigantic, at least by the standards of the ancient world. The construction of forts and fortifications was only the start. Peacetime activities also included participation in significant mining and engineering projects, often involving soldiers in supervision and management.

The arrival of the Roman army in a frontier zone, especially a temperate area where trees were widely available, automatically resulted in colossal quantities being felled and prepared. Clearance must have been undertaken on a grand scale. Each turf and timber fort required vast amounts of wood for building and maintenance; felling and transporting it was a task so arduous that it helped provoke a mutiny in AD 14 amongst the forces in Germany. The army also required wood for day-to-day heating, cooking and metalworking. The military extraction of iron ore in the Weald of south-east Britain, for example, meant there was a constant and huge demand for charcoal for the smelting furnaces.

When Agricola’s legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Scotland was abandoned and cleared away c. 87, around 900,000 iron nails of various sizes that had been prepared for the fort were buried in a pit 12 ft (3.66 m) deep to prevent the local tribes from reusing them for weapons. Pottery and glassware were smashed up and buried, but evidently melting down the nails and taking the iron away was thought too much trouble. They bear witness to the effort and logistics involved in mining, smelting and working the iron, as well as transporting it to the site either in pigs or as finished products. This kind of usage meant long-term management – the constant rotation of areas of woodland, making usable timber available within a reasonable distance rather than operating on a slash-and-burn basis, which was fine for conquest but hopeless for permanent garrisons. The legionary fortress of Caerleon may have required 370 acres (150 ha) of woodland to supply enough timber for the initial construction alone, and more for maintenance. A unique wooden writing tablet found at the fortress in a context dated to c. 75–85 seems to mention the collection of materia, ‘building timber’. A squared beam found in a Roman quay in London had a branded inscription of a cohort or ala of Thracians which had probably been responsible for felling it; the beam had perhaps been reused from a military building. An inscription from the Rhineland, dated to 214, records that a vexillation of Legio XXII Primigenia was involved in the gathering of timber. Although the Romans made some use of coal, they seem primarily to have relied on timber for furnaces. Estimates based on the small private bath-house at Welwyn suggest that a 58 acre (23 ha) area of managed woodland was needed to provide the fuel for just one small domestic facility. Based on floor area comparisons alone, that could mean that Caerleon’s legionary baths needed over 13,800 acres (5,600 ha) of woodland to keep them running, unless coal was used instead – which in that case was a real possibility, because there were plentiful sources in the area. Either way, a legionary fortress must have depended on vast supplies of local fuel. However, estimates are based on so many imponderables and unknowns that it is impossible to do more than conclude that the requirements must have been enormous and time-consuming, and probably also had a serious impact on the local environment. This may explain why Caerleon’s baths had fallen into disuse by c. 230, long before the rest of the fortress.

When forts or frontiers were consolidated in stone, the Roman army became involved in quarrying on a similarly grand scale to the gathering of timber. Quarrying not only produced stone for building but also limestone which could be burned to create concrete and mortar; both were used in vast quantities in Roman stone construction, especially in the major buildings of a permanent fortress. Legio I Minervia had a lime-kiln depot at Oversheim, about 18.5 miles (30 km) from the fortress at Bonn. Caerleon’s fortress baths were built using lime obtained by using furnaces fuelled by local coal to burn limestone quarried in the area.

Some of the best-attested quarries are in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall. They include the so-called ‘Written Rock of Gelt’, where a number of soldiers took time out to inscribe their names on the quarry face, probably as a quality control measure. One announces:

A detachment of Legio II Augusta. The working face of Apr[ilis?] under the charge of the optio Agricola.

This, and perhaps some of the other inscriptions, then belong to a rebuilding of the wall under Septimius Severus, by which time it was almost eighty years old. One of the reasons was that the Wall had not initially been well built. Although it was dressed with facing stones, the core was made of rubble and mortar. As a result of water ingress and frost, both common problems in the area, some of the facing stones had fallen off and the core had started breaking up. The survival of some of the quarry faces and cuttings made by the frontier garrisons still show how laborious and intensive the building and repair work was, as well as the visible impact on the landscape. In one of the upland sections of the wall at a place now known as Limestone Corner, the rock proved too much even for the normally indefatigable Roman army. They used water and wedges to split apart vast chunks of rock and then lifted some of the blocks out. Others proved more resistant and the work was abandoned. Today some of the blocks still lie in what was supposed to be the wall’s forward ditch, and the wedge holes can be seen.

The Hadrian’s Wall quarries were exploited for military installations. Apart from settlements outside the Wall forts, there were few civilian contexts in the area in which masonry was needed. In more heavily settled regions, it is not usually possible to know whether soldiers working quarries were doing so to fulfil the army’s own infrastructure needs or to meet the demands of cities or civil engineering projects (either of which soldiers could have been working on). The soldiers of Legio IIII Scythica, quarrying at Arulis near Belkis on the Euphrates, usefully recorded their presence for us not only by inscribing their names but also making dedications to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Silvanus, for whom some created carved niches. One soldier carved ‘Aurelius Carus to Silvanus’. Two standard-bearers of Legio IIII, Julius Aretinus and Julius Severus, and a trumpeter called Rabilius Beliabus, banded together to make a dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus Silvanus the Preserver. In Egypt an inscription recorded ‘Annius Rufus, centurion of Legio XV Apollinaris, commander of the marble works at Mons Claudianus under Trajan, the Best Emperor’, referring to a state-controlled quarry that supplied marble and granite for imperial projects. Auxiliaries also found themselves assigned to the quarries in Egypt. Ammonios, a member of Cohors II Thracum, had worked in the quarries and died in service around 143.

The manufacture of ceramic products was almost invariably carried out on-site, or within a few miles at a specialized military works depot. Legio X Fretensis had such a depot dedicated to the production of tiles and pottery at Bin Ya’nei (Jerusalem). Far too fragile and cumbersome to be moved in quantity any distance, tiles were needed in huge numbers to roof timber and masonry buildings in fortresses and forts, and for heating systems. It was also illegal to carry a weight in excess of the equivalent of about fifty roof tiles in a wagon. The resources needed (clay, temper, water and fuel) were generally available in most locations. Legio XX’s manufacturing depot at Holt, about 7.5 miles (12 km) from the fortress at Chester, included kilns, workshops, baths and barracks.

Since tiles survive well, even if broken, they are particularly good evidence for how the Roman army made sure its possessions were clearly labelled. Wooden dies inscribed with the abbreviated name of the legion or unit were made and stamped into many of the tiles found at the sites of Roman military bases across the Empire; for example ‘LEG I ITAL’ for Legio I Italica, based at Novae in Moesia Inferior by the Danube. Such stamps are anonymous and merely name the unit. This was not enough for ‘Julius Aventinus, a soldier in Cohors I Sunicorum’, an auxiliary unit known to have been in Britain between 122 and 198–209. Aventinus wrote his name elegantly into a wet tile that had not yet dried and been fired above the stamp LEGXXVV, for Legio XX Valeria Victrix. The tile was found at the legion’s depot at Holt. It would seem that at least part of the auxiliary cohort had been detailed either to work at the depot for the legion or to collect a consignment of tiles for a military building somewhere in the region.


Each legion had 120 cavalry, according to Josephus, writing about the Jewish War in 67. Whether this number was invariably the case is unknown because this is the only reference we have to a legion’s cavalry contingent, the equites legionis, in the first to third centuries. Not enough is known about legionary fortress plans to conclude whether provision was always made for this many mounted troops. Auxiliary infantry cohorts with a mounted component (a cohors equitata) had either 128 or 256 cavalry, depending on whether the unit was quingenaria or milliaria in size. There were also the auxiliary cavalry regiments (alae) with 512 or 768 troopers. The result was that as much as one third or more of the whole auxiliary force was mounted, which in could have meant 75,000 or more in Hadrian’s reign, let alone horses for the servants of the individual troopers, pack animals, and making good losses from war, disease and accidents. Another estimate suggests around 110,000 horses and 60,000 mules were needed for the whole army including the fleets. Accommodation in cavalry forts included the ‘stable-barracks’, where men and horses shared the same building. Horses and other animals also had to be constantly replaced, adding to the logistical complications and manpower needed to manage them.

Obviously therefore, horses were a very important part of the Roman army and were needed in huge quantities. When, during his war against Mithridates, Sulla laid siege in 87 BC to Mithridates’ puppet ruler Aristion in Athens and to the port of Piraeus, he needed 10,000 pairs of mules to help operate his siege engines; all the animals obviously had to be fed and watered. The figure is obviously rounded but gives an indication of the scale.

The mounted soldiers who fought with these horses and took care of them had to be highly trained, skilled and experienced. Not surprisingly, such careers tended to involve specialization. Marcus Ulpius Crescentinus, born in the frontier province of Pannonia Inferior, served for 26 years in the Ala Brittonum, then the Ala Praetoria, and rose to serve in the emperor’s equites singulares Augusti before his death at Rome. Gaius Cominius Commianus must have been especially talented. He was recruited at the age of sixteen as a trooper in the Ala Brittonum but died aged only twenty at Budapest (Aquincum) in Pannonia Inferior.

The value of an exceptional horse to the army, and the prestige of riding it, was recorded in a story attributed to the reign of Aurelian. During his rule, it was said, a horse had been captured from the Alani tribe or some other enemy which could run 100 miles a day for as many as ten consecutive days. The animal was not especially large or handsome, but the soldiers assumed that Probus, then serving as Aurelian’s general, would help himself to it. Probus allegedly dismissed such a notion on the basis that a horse which could travel so far was better suited to someone interested in retreat. He ordered lots to be drawn so that the horse could be allocated to one of his men. By some strange coincidence there were four other soldiers called Probus in the army, and although the general’s name had not been thrown into the urn it was the name Probus that kept being drawn out. The soldiers insisted that he take the horse. The story is an intriguing one but unlikely to be true, at least for the most part. The biography of Probus was not written down until well into the fourth century and belongs to the unreliable Historia Augusta series.

Horses were the most prestigious and the most militarily essential, but far from the only animals to be found on military sites. On the evidence of bone remains, cattle dominated by as much as two-thirds the total number of animals at a fort or fortress, followed by pigs, with sheep or goats the least common. These animals must on the whole have been kept in the vicinity and managed for slaughter and consumption. There were other bones from animals like deer, hare and wild boar, which were hunted for sport and food.


The most essential resource of all was water. Building a fort next to a river might seem to solve the problem of maintaining a convenient water supply. In fact the colossal effort involved in moving quantities of water uphill made it a hopelessly unrealistic solution beyond the provision of small amounts for drinking. Housesteads fort on Hadrian’s Wall relied in part on the local heavy rainfall and a system of tanks that caught the run-off, channelled a constant flow through the fort latrines and disgorged the waste into the vicus outside. Aqueducts were the only reliable means of supplying water, which involved locating a source of water at a greater height and bringing it into the fort or vicus through a combination of raised channels, open leats and buried pipes. Where aqueducts could not be built, or would take too much time, the only alternative was to rely on wells which had to be dug throughout the fort and beyond, such as at the Saalburg fort in Germany.

A cavalry regiment’s requirements were even greater than those of an infantry cohort. An aqueduct was built for (and probably by) Ala II Asturum at Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall between 180 and 184. Since the fort had been commissioned almost sixty years previously, the works must have supplemented existing arrangements or replaced an older system. The water supplied the fort, its vicus settlement, and the substantial military baths and accompanying latrines, located down the slope from the fort towards the river Tyne into which all the waste was channelled. In 216 at Chester-le-Street an unknown cavalry regiment built an aqueduct to supply a bath-house built at the same time, while at South Shields an aqueduct was built for Cohors V Gallorum in 222. Military expertise in this area meant the army was also used to construct aqueducts that served civilian communities, for example in Judaea.

After water came food, but there was a tradition of admiring commanders who encouraged reliance on basic meals. It was all part of the Roman tradition of venerating tough, self-disciplined men of the old school. When travelling round the Empire, Hadrian followed the example of Scipio Aemilianus and restricted himself to ‘camp food’, made up of bacon, cheese and vinegar. Onasander, in his manual of advice for a commander, said it was good practice for a general to live off the enemy’s land to avoid causing damage to his friends and allies. In peacetime food was a major consideration. In war food could occasion a crisis. In 216 BC the Roman garrison at Casilinum (near Capua) in Campania, Italy, was under siege by Hannibal. The Roman troops’ position became desperate as starvation set in. They started by using hot water to soften the leather on their shields so they could eat it. They also consumed rats or any other animals they came across, as well as digging out any plants they could find. The Carthaginians ploughed up the grassy soil round the town to destroy any plants. The Romans responded by sowing turnips, the idea being to show the enemy that they were confident of surviving the siege indefinitely. This enraged Hannibal who thought he was now going to have to wait while the turnips grew. Eventually Hannibal, a man who normally never agreed to terms, had to accept the soldiers offering a ransom for their freedom. More than half the garrison survived. A story emerged recounting how one of the garrison found a rat (or a mouse) and sold it to another man for 200 denarii, only to die of starvation himself while the other man lived.

The Second Punic War provided the Romans with the opportunity to learn the importance of integrating supply chains into a campaign. In 212 BC Hannibal, who was then ravaging Italy, enticed Capua into withdrawing from its alliance with Rome. The city was promptly besieged by a Roman army supported by a grain depot at Casilinum to the north, a fortified river route to the west, and the newly fortified port at Puteoli. In 205 BC, when Scipio put together an army and fleet to sail from Sicily to North Africa to defeat Carthage, the logistics were placed under the charge of a praetor called Marcus Pomponius. ‘Food for 45 days, of which enough for 15 days was cooked, was put on board.’ A remarkable 45 days’ worth of water for the men and the cattle was also loaded onto the ships. Livy was unable to find out for certain how many men were in that army, discovering estimates that ranged from 10,000 infantry and 200 cavalry to 35,000 in total. If we take the lowest estimate, then based on the monthly corn allowance of 64 lb (29 kg; see below), for 45 days each man would have needed around 97 lb (44 kg) of corn. That equates to 441 tons (448 metric tonnes) of corn alone for an army of 10,200.

Of course, one solution was to make sure the army lived off the land as much as possible as Onasander recommended. The notoriously parsimonious and ruthless Cato the Elder led a campaign into the Iberian Peninsula in 195 BC. Realizing it was the time of year when harvested grain was on local farmers’ threshing floors, he told the contractors who would normally have sourced and bought grain on the wider market to go home. ‘This war will support itself,’ Cato said. His decision next to ‘burn and lay waste’ the enemy’s fields might have been a rash one, but the gamble paid off. Cato had spotted an opportunity, but it was not one that could be relied on. In 171 BC, during the Third Macedonian War, fighting seems to have been suspended in the late summer so that the armies could gather corn. Perseus, the Macedonian king, had his men threshing in the fields, while the Romans threshed in their camp.

Keeping any army properly supplied and fed also relied on order. In 110 BC, during the Jugurthine War in Africa, the lazy and ill-disciplined soldiers of the army commanded by Postumius Albinus took to selling their grain rations and bought bread on a daily basis rather than make it themselves. In between times they and the motley crew of camp followers they had accumulated spent their time robbing local people, and helping themselves to cattle and slaves. These they sold to the traders who tagged along in their wake in exchange for luxuries like imported wine. The new general, Caecilius Metellus, had to sharpen up discipline quickly and force the soldiers to live off official supplies.


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.

The End of Roman Britain I


In AD 378 the Romans suffered a catastrophic defeat at Adrianople where two-thirds of their eastern army was destroyed. Troops had to be brought from the west, which included those in Britain. In addition provincial barbarians led by their own kings and chieftains filled the ranks. In Britain there were campaigns against the Picts and the Scots led by Magnus Maximus, a Spaniard, who had been with Theodosius in Britain in AD 367–9 and had been sent back to organize the province’s defences. He was successful in these campaigns but was resentful that he had not been promoted to higher office. In AD 383, making himself popular with the troops and taking advantage of their resentment against Gratian, he got himself acclaimed emperor. He left for Gaul, taking with him a large number of troops from Britain, probably from some of the forts in Wales and the northern Pennines that were now abandoned. When he arrived in Gaul, he was joined by some of the troops in Germany. Gratian confronted him in battle but many of his troops deserted to Maximus so that he was forced to flee towards the Alps. Maximus sent his cavalry officer Andragathius after Gratian, who was caught and killed, and forced Theodosius (the son of Count Theodosius and emperor of the east since 379) to accept him as emperor in the west, where he proved his worth by holding Gaul against the barbarian invasions. This did not satisfy him and he invaded Italy in AD 387 driving Valentinian, who still had vestiges of his rule there, out of Italy to seek refuge with Theodosius in Constantinople. Theodosius was then forced to intervene and a decisive encounter took place in AD 388 at Aquileia where Magnus was defeated and executed. In AD 394 Theodosius had to intervene again in Italy in order to counter an invasion of the Goths. In this he was successful and managed to unite the empire, but he died in January 395 and the empire was divided between his two sons, Honorius and Arcadius, both already acclaimed Augustus. Honorius took the western empire, reigning from AD 395 to 423, a considerable length of time for an emperor, but over that time he had to face a series of crises, some of which affected Britain and included its loss as a province.

Gildas, writing in the sixth century AD, indicated that Magnus had removed so many troops from Britain that the Picts and the Scots were able to raid Britain in huge numbers. The Irish made raids along the west coast from Cumbria to Wales. They attacked inland as far as Wroxeter and then began to settle in Wales, possibly as a result of military weakness due to the removal of troops from this area. Legion XX had probably been withdrawn from Chester about this time, as was Legion II Augusta from Caerleon. Small garrisons of auxiliaries seem to have remained in some forts in Wales, including at Forden Gaer and Caernarfon, but it would seem that the Picts, unchallenged, raided as far as the south coast.

Gildas said that the Britons, ‘promising unwavering and whole-hearted submission to Roman rule, if only the enemy could be kept at a greater distance’, continually implored Flavius Stilicho, a Vandal general, to send an expedition to help them. He was married to Theodosius’s niece Serena, and was the power behind the throne of the young Honorius. By now the Roman military command was relying on the support of those barbarians who had once been despised. Large companies of Franks and Alamanni had become part of the army in the west and barbarian names were now common in civilian and military commands. Many of these barbarian groups cooperated on a purely cash basis, and the Romans had to accept this partly because of their own shortage of manpower and partly because the Roman nobility declined to give either money or potential recruits from their estates. This, however, resulted in a certain tension, as the Romans were never able to have full confidence in these new mercenaries and allies.

Claudian, Stilicho’s court poet, indicated that Stilicho ‘had a care’, which ensured ‘Britain should not fear the spears of the Scots nor tremble at the Picts’; according to Gildas, Stilicho did send help (a ‘legion’) with the result that many of the invaders were killed, which seemed to provide some respite. Possibly some troops were still able to provide a defence. He also reported that another mission was sent to help Britain but as he also mentioned that the Britons were ordered to build a wall ‘from sea to sea between cities, which happened to have been placed there through fear of the enemy’, it is not clear if his accounts are accurate. The wall referred to must be Hadrian’s Wall and the ‘cities’ are presumably the forts. The original building of the Wall had been lost in antiquity and Gildas was probably trying to explain when it was built. His statements might be explained by crude inscriptions found in the Wall, which indicate that construction units were provided by the civitates of the Durotriges and the Catuvellauni. These may have been fighting units transferred to the north to repair the frontier and reinforce its garrison.

Rome, however, was more concerned with other barbarian invasions. The empire was being menaced elsewhere and in AD 401 more troops, mostly from the forts in Wales and the Pennines, were withdrawn to help stop the advances of Alaric, leader of the Visigoths. From then on there were successive withdrawals so that Britain was denuded of troops, which led to more attacks on Britain. Irish attacks on the south coast by the Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages, may be dated to AD 405 but before that there is evidence of the destruction and burning of villas in the Somerset and Gloucestershire regions, probably by Irish raiders. Keynsham villa was burned about AD 378, Kings Weston about AD 384; and Atworth, Box, Colne, North Wraxall and others in those areas suffered the same fate.

St Jerome, writing about AD 415, stated that Britain was a ‘province fertile in tyrants’, and this seems to have been the case. There were a succession of usurpers of which the first was Marcus, who was elected by the army in AD 406, but within a year he had been deposed and killed. In AD 407 Gratian, described as ‘a citizen of Britain’, was elected and as quickly dispatched. The army then elected a soldier, who took the name Constantine III, probably believing that this name would help him to achieve the empire. The fifth-century historian Orosius said that he was ‘elected from the lowest ranking soldiers, solely because of the hope attributed to his name and not because he had achieved any honour’. He proved, however, to be an effective military leader. Despite the previous withdrawal of troops he was able to take even more troops from Britain, possibly attracted by booty and adventure, and crossed with them to Gaul.

Events, however, had overtaken the empire. On a bitterly cold 31 December 406, when the Rhine was frozen, a vast number of Alans, Sueves and Vandals crossed the river and spread across northern Gaul. Constantine took advantage of this, quickly established an administration in Gaul, and then began to bring the invaders under control. He was not entirely successful but it was sufficient to ensure his authority. He then sent his son Constans and his general Gerontius south to invade Spain. By AD 408 Spain was in his grip. He had won support because he realized that the best chance of defending the west lay in strong government in Gaul, Spain and Britain. Honorius, in AD 409, also accepting the inevitable, recognized the validity of Constantine’s rule, proclaiming him as Augustus and seemingly agreeing to a united Gallic–Britannic province with Constantine as a legitimate emperor.

Problems in Italy were to devastate this arrangement. In AD 410 an alliance between Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, and Honorius broke down. Alaric led his force into Italy and sacked Rome, with his Gothic troops doing the greater damage. Alaric died the next year but this did not spare Rome as his brother Athaulf led another army into Italy leading to confusion and tumult which resulted in Honorius’s loss of confidence in Stilicho and his subsequent execution. Meanwhile Constantine was losing control of events in Gaul. He had recruited barbarian troops into his army but, when German barbarians crossed into Gaul, they failed to oppose them, instead concentrating on plunder. Constans’s troops in Spain also got out of control. He blamed Gerontius who promptly rebelled and supported a soldier, Maximus, as a rival emperor. He allied himself with barbarian invaders who captured and murdered Constans. They then moved into Gaul at the same time as Constantine, wanting more power, was leading his forces into Italy. Hearing this Constantine returned to Gaul but was besieged in Arles by Gerontius. At the same time the Burgundians invaded Gaul with the intent of settling there.

Constantine’s empire was disintegrating and his British forces were losing faith in him. Whether he knew it or not there were also serious attacks on Britain, which led to the Britons withdrawing their support from Constantine. Zosimus described them as ‘throwing off Roman rule and living independently, no longer subject to Roman law and reverting to their native customs and setting up their own administration as well as they could’. This indicated that they expelled the Roman administrators, which was to have serious consequences later.

Zosimus said that Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, bidding them to fend for themselves, which implies that they had appealed to him for help. Any attempt to help was now out of Constantine’s control. Honorius’s army advanced to Arles, defeated Gerontius’s forces who were besieging the city and forced Constantine to surrender. Constantine was executed and Gerontius escaped to Spain where some of his troops, hearing of his defeat, besieged his house. Realizing there was no escape and yielding to the entreaties of his wife he beheaded her and committed suicide. This Gallic Empire had now been destroyed.

Honorius seemed to have made no attempt to bring Britain back under Roman control. He had no troops available to do this and was concerned with containing events in Gaul where the real power was in the control of the Burgundians and the Visigoths. In fact, Procopius, a sixth-century historian who was prefect of Constantinople during Justinian’s reign, said that the Romans were never able to recover Britain, which from then on remained on its own, subject to various usurpers (tyrants).

It would seem therefore that from AD 410 the Britons had to rely on their own precautions against any raiders. Direct Roman rule in Britain had ceased to exist, brought on by a succession of rebellions against the central authority. There was no withdrawal of Roman authority. Britain had gradually withdrawn from Rome. Britain, on the extreme north-west of the Roman Empire, may never have been fully assumed into that empire possibly because the whole population have never been fully Romanized. Celtic tribal authority was allowed to continue when towns became civitas capitals. Britons in remote areas continued to follow their own way of life. It was in the towns and the villas that people had become most attracted to conditions that seemed to offer a better way of life.

Towns hoped that stout walls would protect them; their citizens might raise a militia or hire mercenaries. That this was possible for some towns is shown by a visit of Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to Verulamium in AD 429. According to the Gallic cleric Constantius of Lyon, Germanus had been sent to Britain to counter the Pelagian heresy. This has been spread by Pelagius, a Briton, who decreed that man was responsible for his own actions and by his own free human will and God-given nature would determine his own salvation. This was in direct opposition to St Augustine’s view that man was utterly dependent on the divine will and the grace of God, because the frail nature of his being makes him unable to achieve grace and salvation by himself.

The Pelagian heresy gained a strong hold on the upper classes in Britain and it may have been this belief that helped them to take matters into their own hands for their defence – to exercise, in fact, free will. After Germanus’s arrival his preaching seemed to have checked further spread of these heretical opinions. He then visited the shrine of St Alban at Verulamium to hold an assembly, which suggests that the town then had some form of government to organize this. This is confirmed by the fact that he healed the daughter of a man having tribune power, that is, a man having military leadership in the Roman sense. Shortly after, Germanus won a victory over a raid by the Picts and the Scots, by leading the Britons into battle and urging them to cry ‘Alleluia’ at the moment of attack, an action which went back to the Celtic custom of shouting a battle cry when they attacked enemy forces. Constantius also states that Germanus made a second visit to Britain in AD 437 but, as he was involved in mediation in Amorica at that time, this visit seems unlikely.

The End of Roman Britain II


Yet Saxon raids continued. The Yorkshire signal stations came under attack at least twice, Huntcliff and Goldborough being savagely destroyed. Hadrian’s Wall ceased to function as an effective barrier. Forts remained in use but each may have organized its own defence. The soldiers had always been paid in coinage sent from Rome that then filtered through the population as goods were bought outside the forts. Coins from Roman mints began to cease after about AD 402. This cessation of money being sent from Rome or from the mints may have been because transporting coinage may have become too difficult and risky when crossing Gaul. Cash was also required elsewhere in the empire and Stilicho may just have stopped payments, believing it was a waste to send coinage to Britain. Local mints did not supply coins either because of the lack of good metal or because of difficulties in production. Whatever the reason the lack of coins particularly affected the civilian settlements round the forts. These had an artificial economy kept going by the pay of the troops. When monetary contact ceased the inhabitants drifted away, leaving only a handful of people to occupy the forts for defence or shelter, hence the lack of settled communities round the forts. After AD 407 Britain existed on coins already in existence or on barter. Military groups would probably seize supplies where they could. Army units would hold together for security and companionship but any military force under direct Roman military control was disintegrating.

The situation may have resembled that described in Noricum by Eugippius in The Life of St Severinus during the AD 470s. When coinage ceased to arrive, military units disbanded and left their posts. A neighbouring king then crossed the Danube and took over military control of the Romanized towns and the population, organizing them into defensive groups. If the same thing happened in Britain when coinage did not arrive, soldiers would leave their posts. Towns and villa owners in Britain may then have hired soldiers for protection as happened in other parts of the now disintegrating empire. These may not have been regular Roman troops. Instead troops in legions and auxiliary forces were being increasingly replaced by barbarians or by mercenaries, who were employed as foederati (warriors from barbarian tribes who fought in exchange for a subsidy). These may not have been paid but have received grants of land in return for military service.

Some form of town life probably continued in most cities. London and the former coloniae – York, Gloucester, Lincoln, Colchester – have remained as towns, while some forts such as Chester and Exeter were now civilian towns. Even smaller towns such as Dorchester-on-Thames and Catterick survived. Some did not. Wroxeter and Silchester were abandoned and Verulamium moved its site to centre on the shrine of St Alban. What form of town life remained is uncertain. Deposits of dark earth in towns such as Canterbury, Gloucester, Lincoln and Winchester have been suggested to be evidence of farming in the centre of what was once a thriving urban area. These patches may, however, be evidence of collapsed buildings as they are full of pottery, bone and charcoal. Refugees fleeing into the towns would have made camp in any abandoned buildings, moving on when conditions became too disgusting, a feature noted in towns that have been partially destroyed in recent centuries. In Cirencester, debris analysed in the amphitheatre suggested that people had once gathered there for shelter. In London the great basilica had been abandoned; the quays, not maintained, had crumbled. The city, once the largest north of the Alps, had gradually contracted and, although some people lived in its ruins, excavations have proved that the Saxons preferred to live to the west of the city in what is now the Aldwych and Covent Garden areas.

Gildas suggested that it was not only town life that had disintegrated. Potential conflict of interest was based on the defence of food supplies, for large-scale agriculture had been abandoned: ‘So the Britons began to attack each other and in their efforts to seize some food dipped their hands into the blood of their fellow countrymen. Domestic turmoil worsened, foreign disasters resulting in no food except that which could be obtained by hunting.’

Villa owners continued to work their land as and where they could. Some owners probably moved to what they thought was the safety of the towns. Others continued to live in crumbling buildings. Rooms, which once were highly decorated to the pride of their owners, were now used for other purposes – a corn drier was put in a bath wing at Atworth (Wiltshire), fires were lit on the floors of the living rooms at Ditchley (Oxfordshire). At Lufton (Somerset) a hearth was built on a fine mosaic and an oven was carved into a floor in another room. The collapse of the Witcombe villa can be noted by roof tiles used as a floor and fires being lit on mosaic floors. There was now no satisfaction in keeping up a Roman lifestyle. Either their owners had given up the effort or squatters had taken what shelter they could. Life was now a struggle for existence.

Central administration had broken down. Local landowners were reluctant to take high office because of the cost. There was no longer a pride in being part of the governing structure. The expelling of Roman administrators during Constantine’s reign in Gaul meant that the network of central authority had been rejected and men with experience of high office were lacking. Few men wished to take up office because of the cost and the responsibility. This meant that local arrangements had to be made, differing from place to place. The fact that Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, ordering them to take measures on their own behalf, was merely a form of words; he assumed the cities were still in existence and well-managed but he had no knowledge that was the case.

It might be argued that Britain, lacking official contact with central Roman authority, began to break into its tribal areas. Tribal disputes may explain the appearance of linear earthwork defences. The Wansdyke could be explained as a frontier between the Durotriges and the Dobunni. Bokerley Dyke would have separated the Durotriges from an advance by the Belgae or vice versa. The Fleam Dyke, with a probable date of AD 350–510, marked the boundary of the borders of the Catuvellauni and the Iceni, and Beecham Dyke and the Foss Dyke also protected the Iceni in the fen area. Grim’s Dyke, north of London, would have protected the capital from attacks from the north. These might be expected to protect areas from attacks by the Saxons.

There were, however, other problems. Raids by the Picts and the Scots were becoming far more frequent. They came first as raiders and then as settlers. The Britons were forced to seek help from the Saxons against the Picts and the Irish, and the earliest Saxon settlements may have been at the invitation of the Britons to give protection. Traditionally the date of the arrival of the first Saxons, as given by Bede, basing his work on Gildas, is AD 449. Archaeological evidence has proved that settlement had occurred well before that date. A group of Saxon settlements south of London may have been linked with a group placed there to guard the city.

Possibly these raids and settlements forced the Britons to make one last attempt to get the central Roman power to supply aid. Gildas said that a message was sent to Agitius, consul for the third time, ‘in the following terms, “to Agitius come the groans of the Britons … the barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea drives us back to the barbarians; between these two we are either slaughtered or drowned.” Yet for all these pleas no help was forthcoming.’ This can be dated to AD 446 and refers to Aetius, who was then the leading military man in the army of Rome. He was credited with defeating Attila and his Huns in AD 451, only to be stupidly murdered by the Emperor Valentinian in AD 454, who thus lost control over his army.

Britain also had new rulers. Gildas mentioned a proud tyrant, whom Bede identified as Vortigern, a Celtic name meaning ‘High King’. Nennius, in his History of the Britons, also mentioned him and he may have been born about AD 360 and died in the late AD 430s. Nennius said that the Saxons, under their leader Hengist, came to Britain as exiles and that they were welcomed by Vortigern, who allowed them to settle on the Island of Thanet in return for military assistance. Unfortunately an agreement that they should be paid and fed broke down. In addition, Vortigern fell in love with Hengist’s daughter, married her and gave the district of Kent to Hengist as a bride price. Whatever the truth, Vortigern seems to have been unable to prevent the Saxons from landing. Forty boatloads were mentioned and more arrivals meant that the Saxons soon spread across the land.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle confirms this story, stating that Vortigern (Wurtgern) invited Hengist and Horsa and their warrior bands to Britain to provide protection again warrior bands roaming the country. It may be argued that Hengist and Horsa are not the actual names; as nicknames they both indicate ‘horse’. Whatever the case, the Chronicle said that they accepted this invitation but then set up their own kingdom in Kent holding the area by defeating the Britons at battles at Aylesford (AD 455), where Horsa was killed, and at Crayford (AD 456). They apparently came as foederati, indicating that they had obligations with subsequent rewards to guard Britain. Gildas said that they were given generous amounts of food but complained that these rations were not enough, saying that if they were not increased they would break the treaty. Soon they took up their threats with actions.

From then on Saxon penetration of the island seemed inevitable. Gildas mentioned the arrival of Aelle in AD 477, who founded the kingdom of Sussex, defeating the Britons at the Battle of Anderida (Pevensey) in AD 491. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that in AD 495 Cerdic and Cynric landed in the West Country and founded the kingdom of Wessex. These accounts of the invasions are very speculative, especially as the Chronicle stated that landings were in two or three ships. It would have been impossible for such few men in these ships to win decisive battles. Nevertheless, they indicate some folk memory and it would be futile to deny that the country soon succumbed to Saxon invasion and settlement. Some Saxon settlements have been found as far inland as Dorchester-on-Thames. Possibly these were founded by men hired as foederati.

One name that emerges from the history of this time is Ambrosius Aurelianus, also called Arthus. Little is known of this man and his history has become irrecoverably entwined with medieval legend and romance so that it is difficult to untangle fact from fiction. As King Arthur, he was immortalized by Sir Thomas Malory in the fifteenth century in his work Le Morte d’Arthur, with an elaborate account of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, thus intermingling fact and fiction. The historical Ambrosius was a warrior, probably trained in Roman military tactics, who led mounted bands of Britons against the Saxons. The Historia Brittonium called Arthus Dux Bellorum, reminiscent of a Roman military title. He was associated with twelve battles and probably led mounted horsemen, well trained, who could easily rout a force of foot soldiers. Eight of these battles took place at fords where foot soldiers would be at a disadvantage. These victories culminated in a last great battle, about AD 500, at Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus), an unidentified site but probably somewhere in the south-west. Gildas said that ‘after this there was peace’ and about AD 540 spoke of ‘our present security’.

This, however, was merely a respite because soon the Saxon conquest was renewed. By AD 600 most of Britain had been divided into Saxon kingdoms. The Saxons did not attempt to emulate Roman customs and institutions, and it would appear that the Britons had not so assimilated Roman institutions that they wished them to continue. The Anglo-Saxons imposed their own law, language, political systems and material values on Britain. Roman Britain, whose official contact with the Roman Empire had ended about AD 410, merged irrecoverably into Saxon England.

Tota Italia I


When hostilities with the Samnites ceased in 304 BC, Rome’s grip on peninsular Italy was already becoming tight. Roman arms had been carried into the Sallentine Peninsula (the heel of Italy), and a Roman garrison had been installed, if temporarily, as far north as Perusia in Etruria. New Latin colonies dominated northern Campania, the Liris Valley, western Samnium and the Samnite-Apulian frontier. Old enemies had been bullied into accepting further long periods of truce or scared into requesting treaties of alliance. For example, in 308 BC Decius Mus coerced Tarquinii into provisioning his consular army and accepting a new truce of forty years’ duration. He also cowed Volsinii by storming some of her outlying fortresses and she was forced to seek annual truces to avoid further incursions. It is notable however, that Mus and subsequent Roman generals were unable or unwilling to capture major fortified cities like Volsinii. Fabius Rullianus’ incursion into Umbria in 310/9 BC had stirred up considerable resentment. A further victory over the Umbrians is ascribed to Rullianus in 308 BC, but it seems more probable that it was Mus who soundly defeated the Umbrian army that had mustered at Mevania. More Umbrians were taken captive than were killed in the battle and that level of resistance only prompted the Romans to think of further conquests in the region. A treaty of friendship was promptly negotiated with Ocriculum, which was strategically located in the very south of Umbria at the confluence of the rivers Tiber and Nar. In 303 BC both consular armies were sent into southern Umbria to deal with ‘bandits’ and scored a victory in, of all places, a complex of caves. Ocriculum was clearly on side when, in 300 BC, the Romans embarked on the siege of nearby Nequinum, located in the lower valley of the Nar. Eventually captured in 299 BC through a combination of tunnelling and treachery by Fulvius Paetinus (it is uncertain if he is the same man as the suffect consul of 305 BC), the town was promptly colonized and renamed Narnia, after the river. Nequinum, reminiscent of Latin nequam, meaning ‘worthless’, ‘bad’ and so forth, sounded ill-omened to Roman ears. With a strong ally in Camerinum to the north, and a major ‘bridgehead’ at Narnia in the south, the Umbrian states rightly feared further Roman expansion. The Romans were also busy fighting the Sabines, whose territory lay between northeast Latium, the Aequan country and Umbria. It was becoming clear that Rome would not be satisfied until tota Italia, all Italy, was under her control.

Rome’s behaviour immediately following the Samnite peace in 304 BC was a clear indicator of her intentions. War was declared on the Aequi, now located in the upper valley of the Anio and to the north of the Fucine Lake. Bands of Aequan warriors had fought for the Hernici and Samnites, probably on a mercenary basis, but the Aequi as a whole had not been allied to the enemy. In fact, the Aequi as a nation had probably not fought in any major war since their ejection from Latium, but the Senate had found the necessary excuse to continue the work of extermination that had been carried out so ruthlessly in 388 BC. In 307/6 BC work began on Rome’s second great strategic highway, the Via Valeria, running east from Rome it would eventually terminate at lofty Alba Fucens, above the Fucine Lake, at the eastern edge of the Aequan country. This was the perfect location for a colony to dominate the very centre of Italy. Having not fought on any great scale for almost a century, the Aequi dared not meet the Roman invaders in open battle and instead took to their hill-top forts, but the legions were unstoppable: forty hill forts fell in fifty days and no mercy was shown to the defenders. The neighbouring tribes – Marsi, Paeligni, Marrucini and Frentani – were shocked at the speed of the conquest and quickly patched up new treaties with Rome. The Vestini followed suit in 302/1 BC.

Alba Fucens was duly colonized in 303 BC with no fewer than 6,000 adult males, the most powerful yet of Rome’s new Latin foundations, and with a huge territory that included country confiscated from the Marsi. The Marsi duly revolted but were soon forced into submission by Valerius Corvus (302/1 BC). The desperate Aequi continued to resist the Roman occupation, providing old generals such as the Ploughman (in 302/1 BC) and the Raven again (300 BC) with easy victories; Bubulcus took less than week to complete his campaign. By 299 BC the resistance of the Aequi had come to an end, and a swathe of their territory in the upper Anio region was reorganized as ager Romanus and assigned to the appropriately named voting tribe Aniensis. In c. 298 BC a remnant of the Aequi, known by the disparaging diminutive Aequicoli, were ousted from the town of Carseoli. Lying on the new Via Valeria half way between Latium and Alba Fucens, it was re-established as a Latin colony with 4,000 adult male settlers.

Consolidation of the middle Liris was achieved by re-establishing Sora as a Latin colony (with 4,000 adult male colonists), and Arpinum was incorporated into the ager Romanus, its inhabitants becoming citizens without the vote. As we have seen, Anagnia was annexed in 306 BC, and the territory of Frusino was added to the ager Romanus either in that year or in 303 BC. Along with the annexations in the Aequan country (to which should be added Trebula Suffenas) and the establishment of the voting tribe Terentia on former Auruncan land, directly-ruled Roman territory dominated west-central Italy. By 290 BC ager Romanus would run in an unbroken belt across the peninsula, but before that was achieved Rome had to defeat a grand coalition of Italian peoples led by the resilient Samnites.

The Early Years of the Third Samnite War

As readers will have noticed, ancient Italy was a frighteningly violent land. Just as the Romans fought to drive the Volsci and Aequi from Latium, those peoples now threatened with Roman domination would not give up without a fight. For example, in 302/1 BC the aged but agile Valerius Corvus slaughtered rebellious Etruscans from Arretium and Rusellae as well as Marsian malcontents. Various Etruscan city-states were to prove troublesome for the next forty years, either individually or in alliance. The Samnites sought to exploit this resistance and cement new alliances.

The Etruscans and Umbrians were threatened not only by the Romans, but also by the Gauls. The Gallic peoples of the Po Valley and Adriatic coast found themselves under pressure from a new wave of Gauls crossing the Alps. Gallic incursions into the peninsula were now as much concerned with conquering new lands for settlement as with the acquisition of plunder. In 299 BC Gauls, probably Senones, invaded northern Etruria, but through negotiations and bribes they were actually persuaded (perhaps in part by the Samnites) to ally themselves with the Etruscans, and instead of pillaging Etruria they marched further south and raided the ager Romanus. This caused the Romans to look for allies in the north. The Picentes, whose territory lay between Umbria and the Adriatic Sea, had long been subject to the violent attentions of the Senones who occupied the northern marches of Picenum, and readily entered into alliance with the city well known for her hatred of the Gauls. The Picentes informed the Romans that the Samnites had also been courting them. Between 297 and 296 BC the full extent of the new Samnite alliance became clear: the League had won over Apulians, Umbrians, Etruscans, Senones, Sabines and perhaps part of the Marsi. One suspects that the Picentes chose Rome over the Samnites in 299 BC because the latter had already entered into negotiations with the despised Gauls.

The Third Samnite War broke out in 298 BC, but not because of the Samnites’ machinations in the north of the peninsula. In order to bolster its military strength the Samnite League first attempted to persuade the Lucanians to join it. The Lucanians, briefly allied to Rome at the start of the Second Samnite War, were quickly persuaded by Tarentum to renounce that alliance, but appear to have played little if any part in the long conflict. As we have seen, Lucania was subject to a punitive Roman incursion in 317 BC and it has been suggested that a contingent from Posidonia helped the Samnites to defeat Iunius Bubulcus near Bovianum in 311 BC. However, the Lucani appear to have taken advantage of the Samnites’ preoccupation with Rome to extend their power into the deep south of Italy and threatened the Greek cities of Magna Graecia. The rapprochement with Tarentum did not last, and in 303 BC the Tarentines called on the aid of their mother city, Sparta. However, the Spartan prince Cleonymous was more concerned with establishing his own kingdom than with defending the lands and interests of Tarentum, and the Tarentines turned against him. Prior to the split with Tarentum, Cleonymous had defeated the Lucanians and it may have been then that the Samnite League first made its approach. The ambassadors were rebuffed and the Samnites decided to bring the Lucani over by force. The Lucani then remembered their old friendship with Rome and appealed to the Senate for aid. The consuls of 298 BC, Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus (meaning ‘a Hundred Misfortunes’) and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus drove the Samnites from Lucania and raided the south of Samnium. Interestingly, Centumalus inflicted two defeats on the Samnites by means of ambush:

When Fulvius Nobilior was leading his army from Samnium against the Lucanians, and had learned from deserters that the enemy intended to attack his rearguard, he ordered his bravest legion to go in advance, and the baggage train to follow in the rear. The enemy, regarding this circumstance as a favourable opportunity, began to plunder the baggage. Fulvius then marshalled five cohorts of the legion I have mentioned above on the right side of the road, and five on the left. Then, when the enemy were intent on plundering, Fulvius, deploying his troops on both flanks, enveloped the foe and cut them to pieces.

The same Nobilior on one occasion was hard pressed from the rear by the enemy, as he was on the march. Across his route ran a stream, not so large as to prevent passage, but large enough to cause delay by the swiftness of the current. On the nearer side of this, Nobilior placed one legion in hiding, in order that the enemy, despising his small numbers, might follow more boldly. When this expectation was realized, the legion which had been posted for the purpose attacked the enemy from ambush and destroyed them.

Nobilior (‘the Most Noble’ or ‘Oustanding’) was an additional cognomen of Marcus Fulvius Paetinus, the consul of 255 BC who was famous for his role in the sea battles of the First Punic War, but he did not fight the Samnites and the cognomen has been erroneously retrojected onto his relative, the consul of 298 BC. The detail about the legionary cohorts is erroneous; Frontinus, a Roman general of the first century AD, imagined that the legions of the Samnite wars were organized like his own, in cohorts rather than maniples. Note also the misunderstanding concerning the identity of the enemy, here Lucanians, but the passages are of great interest in demonstrating a Roman consul using classically Samnite tactics against the Samnites, and probably also indicative that he preferred not to meet them in formal battle. That impression is strengthened by another anecdote in Frontinus concerning ‘Nobilior’ = Centumalus:

Fulvius Nobilior, deeming it necessary to fight with a small force against a large army of the Samnites who were flushed with success, pretended that one legion of the enemy had been bribed by him to turn traitor; and to strengthen belief in this story, he commanded the tribunes, the primi ordines [senior centurions] and the centurions to contribute all the ready money they had, or any gold and silver, in order that the price might be paid the traitors at once. He promised that, when victory was achieved, he would give generous presents besides to those who contributed for this purpose. This assurance brought such ardour and confidence to the Romans that they straightway opened battle and won a glorious victory.

That the Samnites were in high morale and the consul needed to motivate the legionaries in such a dubious manner, suggest that the Romans were not immediately successful in the first year of the Third Samnite War. The battle accounts of Livy often suggest that the Romans had to do little more than to turn up to win a battle, but that is far from the reality. Frontinus, like Livy, imagines the Samnites having legions. Considering that the Samnites fought in maniples with similar armament to the Romans and other Italian peoples, it is not impossible that the largest regiments of the armies of the Samnite League were organized in a manner similar to the Roman legions. In fact, we know from an inscription of the late fourth or early third century BC that the Marsi used the Latin word legio to describe their military units.

At least one of the consuls of 298 BC also saw service in the on-going and rather desultory Etruscan War, perhaps defeating the army of Volaterra in the field but unable to take the strongly fortified city. News of fresh Etruscan musters reached Rome during the consular elections for 297 BC, but come the opening of the campaigning season, reports from Nepet, Sutrium and Falerii suggested that the Etruscans would not, after all, take to the field and the new consuls attacked Samnium. The patrician Fabius Rullianus and plebeian Decius Mus were consular colleagues for the second time, a sure sign of political alliance. Rullianus began his campaign at Sora and pillaged his way towards Tifernum (in the Montagne del Matese) but his route of advance is uncertain. Rullianus’ scouts detected a Samnite ambush in the area of Tifernum. According to Livy, the Samnites ‘had drawn their forces up in a secluded valley and were preparing to assail the Romans from above once they had entered it.’ Rullianus put his army into a defensive hollow square formation (agmen quadratum) and halted short of the ambush site. Realizing that they had been discovered, the Samnites came down to fight a regular pitched battle. Rullianus’ son Gurges (‘the Glutton’ or ‘Insatiable’) and Valerius Maximus, son of the Raven, opened the fighting with a cavalry charge, perhaps hoping to scatter the Samnites while they were still forming their battle line, but the Roman squadrons were repulsed and they withdrew in shame and played no further part in the battle. Prior to engaging with the infantry, Rullianus ordered his legate Scipio Barbatus to take the hastati from the First Legion (the first time Livy identifies a legion by its numeral) and to find a way around the enemy army’s position and attack it from the rear. This tactic won the battle. The Samnites stubbornly resisted Rullianus’ main body of infantry and the consul had to bring up his second battle line to prevent the first from being overwhelmed, but when Barbatus’ hastati suddenly appeared behind them the Samnites panicked and attempted to escape. They were under the impression that a second full Roman army was bearing down on them. Livy reports with some disappointment that relatively few Samnites were killed or taken prisoner. The 3,400 dead and 830 captured are a fraction of his usual casualty figures and have the ring of authenticity; records of numbers killed and captured were certainly made and sent to the Senate in dispatches. Commanders would also be keen to discover if they had killed enough to earn a triumph (5,000 enemy dead was the requirement in later centuries). However, the figures may derive from the plausible invention of one of Livy’s sources. As we are not told of their release or execution, it is most likely that the captives were sold or kept by the Romans as slaves. The vastly expanded ager Romanus and colonial territories required slave labour to work in the fields while the peasant soldiers were on campaign.

Meanwhile, Decius Mus boldly advanced from the territory of the Sidicini to the vicinity of Malventum, the capital of the Hirpini. Mus did not, however, fight the Samnites. He instead intercepted an Apulian army before it linked up with Samnite forces. Once again, Livy’s casualty figure is low; he reports only 2,000 Apulians killed.

Mus and Rullianus spent the next four months devastating parts of Samnium, although where exactly is not revealed, concentrating on terrorizing the rural population and destroying farms and crops and herds, but the extent of their devastations is probably exaggerated. Rullianus captured the only notable town. The garrison of Cimetra (its location is uncertain) proved insufficient to save it from the consular army. Of the almost 3,000 defenders, 930 were killed and the rest were added to Rullianus’ haul of captives. Rullianus returned to Rome to oversee the election of the consuls for 296 BC, but Mus wintered with his army in Samnium. The imperium of Rullianus and Decius was prorogued for six months, allowing the latter to continue his work of devastation in 296 BC. Livy asserts that this activity forced a Samnite army, which had apparently refused to engage in battle, to withdraw completely from Samnium. Livy creates the impression that the Samnites had to go elsewhere to find food supplies, but in reality the main Samnite field army led by Gellius Egnatius had no interest in Mus: it was marching to link up with the new allies in Etruria. It is conceivable that Mus was mostly confined to his winter camp and that he, rather than the Samnites, refused to engage in open battle. One wonders if Mus’ winter camp was even in Samnium; perhaps it was located in Apulia or Lucania. Tellingly, once Egnatius had departed, Mus took the opportunity to lead his army on a plundering expedition. Three towns were stormed – Murgantia, Romulea and Ferentinum. They were stripped of valuables, including people. The latter town was clearly not the Hernican settlement and it is conceivably an error for Forentum in Apulia. Maybe it had sided with, or been occupied by the Samnites. If Livy’s Ferentinum is in fact Forentum, the otherwise unknown Murgantia and Romulea should also be located in the same general area. However, it may be that there was a Ferentinum located elsewhere in Samnium. Duplicate place names were not uncommon. For example, towns called Ausculum were to be found in Picenum and in Apulia, and there was a Teanum in the Sidicine country and another in Apulia.

Proconsul Rullianus did not return to Samnium in 296 BC. He was called instead to settle disputes among the new Lucanian allies, who were not a unified nation; some might have preferred to side with their Samnite kin, but the presence of Rullianus’ army persuaded them to stay loyal to Rome.

The consuls of 296 BC were Appius Claudius and Volumnius Flamma Violens. They had a mutual dislike of each other but were forced to co-operate to combat the worrying presence of Gellius Egnatius in Etruria. The Samnite general’s route to Etruria is uncertain. He may have passed through the Marsian country, but in order to rendezvous with his allies in the north (Egnatius is identified by Livy as the mastermind of the grand coalition), he had could not avoid crossing Rome’s territory or that of her allies, which stretched from coast to coast. He must have then crossed Sabine and Umbrian territory and entered Etruria from the Upper Tiber Valley, perhaps in the vicinity of Perusia.

The consuls advanced into Etruria and established a camp close to where Egnatius was ensconced, probably Perusia. Livy tells us that Appius’ consular legions were numbered I and IV, and were accompanied by 12,000 allies. Flamma’s legions bore the numerals II and III and were supported by 15,000 allies; it is uncertain why he had 3,000 more allied troops than his colleague. This is the first time Livy identifies the numerals of all four consular legions and is a rare occurrence of him admitting to the presence of the allies (socii). The allies outnumbered the legionaries (18,000 in total), but many of the socii could have been drawn from the new Latin colonies. In later centuries the ratio of allied to Roman citizen troops varied from one-to-one to two-to-one.

The size of Egatius’ Samnite force is not revealed. He was initially joined by Etruscan contingents (reported by Livy) and probably also by Sabine levies (suggested by the elogium of Appius). There were daily skirmishes between the camps but neither side emerged en masse to offer formal battle. Eventually, a general engagement did develop when some foragers being led by Egnatius were intercepted. Livy reports a Roman victory, but he admits Egnatius held his ground, and the situation for the Romans became so desperate that Appius dramatically vowed a temple to Bellona, the goddess of war, if she would grant the Romans victory. According to Livy, 7,800 of the enemy were killed and 2,120 taken captive. These were substantial losses (almost 10,000 in total), but despite their ‘victory’ the consuls were unable to oust Egnatius from Etruria and more Etruscans soon joined him. The Romans too must have suffered very significant casualties and the outcome of the battle was probably indecisive.

When the prorogations of Fabius Rullianus and Decius Mus came to an end, possibly in mid-summer, they had to return to Rome and disband their armies. They appear to have achieved little in the course of their extended campaigns; neither was awarded a triumph. Volumnius Flamma was assigned the Samnite theatre, leaving Appius Claudius with the unenviable task of containing Egnatius’ ever-growing army of anti-Roman confederates.

With the proconsular armies disbanded and Flamma still in the north, Samnium was temporarily unattended and Campania exposed. The Samnite general Staius Minatius took full advantage, leading a major incursion down the valley of the Volturnus. The ager Falernus and the Auruncan country were pillaged. Thousands of captives were taken, crops and vines destroyed and herds driven off. There was panic in Rome; Egnatius was still undefeated and Minatius’ incursion, almost to the Auruncan border with Greater Latium, recalled the catastrophic situation in 315 BC, when the Samnites charged through the pass of Lautulae and seized Tarracina. However, Minatius’ army was concerned with plundering and not with occupation. The Samnites made no attempt on Cales or any other Roman strongholds. Virtually unopposed in the countryside, Minatius became careless. Unaware that Flamma had rushed south, the Samnite raiders were intercepted as they left their camp on the Volturnus and headed for home. Almost 7,500 captives were freed, a mass of plunder recovered and Minatius himself was captured along with his warhorse, but despite reports of significant Samnite losses (6,000 killed, 2,500 captured), one suspects that a substantial part of the army made good its escape simply by abandoning the slaves, cattle and less portable plunder, and the Romans may have been forced to abandon their pursuit when the Samnite vanguard returned to support the main body of the army. A period of thanksgiving was declared in Rome. It is notable that, despite this success and the apparent victory in Etruria, no triumphs were awarded in 296 BC; the Senate and consuls realized that their successes were little more than holding actions. The real battle was yet to be fought.

Tota Italia II

Appius Claudius was hard-pressed in Etruria. He sent increasingly gloomy dispatches to the Senate in Rome reporting that Egnatius continued to receive reinforcements, most notably from the Umbrians and the Gauls. The existing confederate camp was too small to contain the Four Nations, as Appius dubbed them, and a second had to be established. This news, coupled with the scare in northern Campania, prompted the Senate to enforce an emergency levy. This went far beyond the usual conscription of iuniores. Seniores and even freedmen (that is slaves who had bought their freedom or been released by their masters) were formed into cohorts, each of three maniples, to act as reserves and for the defence of the city. The decision was also taken to guard the Via Appia and approaches to Latium from future raids by the establishment of colonies at Minturnae, where the road crossed the mouth of the Liris, and at Sinuessa (founded in 295 BC). However, these were not large-scale Latin colonies, but small Roman citizen colonies. Despite the fact that a citizen colony required only 300 adult male settlers who would retain their superior Roman status, volunteers were in short supply:

The tribunes of the plebs were assigned the task of obtaining a plebiscite directing Publius Sempronius [Sophus] the praetor to appoint three commissioners (triumviri) to conduct the colonists to these places. Yet it was not easy to find men who would enrol, since they regarded themselves as sent, not to settle on the land, but to serve almost as a perpetual outpost in hostile territory.

Despite the gloomy mood in Rome, life went on as before. The aediles (junior magistrates) were busy prosecuting moneylenders and fining those who were exploiting public land for grazing (indicative of the scale of recent conquests). The curule aediles, the brothers Gnaeus and Quintus Ogulnius, used the possessions seized from the convicted to fund lavish adornments to the shrines on the Capitol. These included a bronze statue group of Jupiter being carried in a chariot drawn by four horses, but more notably they commissioned a statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf to be set up by the sacred fig tree (ficus Ruminalus) associated with Romulus on the Palatine. This demonstrates the belief in the well-known, but probably only fairly recently developed, foundation myth that Rome was established by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars. The tale has the essential elements of the Sacred Spring – Mars’ sacred wolf is elsewhere found as a pathfinder animal, for example of the Hirpini, and the Twins go on to form a war band and carve out a territory in Latium. The Romans were probably aware of the Samnites’ belief that they had been led out of the Sabine country by a bull sent by Mamers/Mars, but the Romans could better that boast by asserting they were in fact, through Romulus, the children of Mars and therefore divinely favoured.

The Battle of the Nations

The consuls elected for 295 BC were the old partners Fabius Rullianus and Decius Mus. Both consuls were to take their armies into Etruria and attempt to defeat Egnatius but, to Mus’ annoyance, overall responsibility for the command was assigned to the more experienced Rullianus and this made for friction. Volumnius Flamma’s imperium was prorogued for a full year and he would continue the war in Samnium. He retained the command of two legions. Appius Claudius, who was still in the field, was elected praetor and recalled to Rome to oversee the administration of the city in the absence of the consuls. He might also be called on to organize its defence.

The seriousness of the military situation facing Rome is indicated by the number of experienced military men who were made propraetors and given imperium, thus allowing them to command armies, despite them having held no magistracy in the previous year. Postumius Megellus and Fulvius Centumalus were charged with guarding the northern approaches to Rome. Megellus’ army was positioned not far from Rome in the ager Vaticanus, that is, the land on the far bank of the Tiber including the Janiculum. Centumalus was sent into the Faliscan territory where his army could straddle the important routes into Etruria and Umbria. Scipio Barbatus was also propraetor in 295 BC, but it is uncertain if, like Megellus and Centumalus, he was given imperium by the Senate and People of Rome. It is possible that he was originally attached to Rullianus’ army as a legate and subsequently imbued with imperium by the consul to enable him to command a legion independently of the consular army. If so, this would be the first example of a consul using his powers to invest a private citizen (admittedly a consular) with imperium.

There were nine legions in service in 295 BC. As noted above, Flamma continued to command two legions, possibly his consular legions but we cannot be certain. Megellus and Centumalus had at least one legion apiece. Rullianus could have raised two new legions but he chose to enrol only one with an unusual double complement of cavalry; Livy reports this legion had 4,000 infantry, probably rounded down from the standard 4,200, and 600 equites. The consul also took over the legions of Appius Claudius, which had wintered on the Umbrian frontier. Mus’ consular army had the usual complement of two, presumably newly levied, legions.

Appius Claudius established his winter camp at Aharna in Umbria, just across the Tiber from Perusia. The camps of Gellius Egnatius and his allies were close by and Appius’ outnumbered army was confined to its camp. Early in 295 BC Rullianus and Mus arrived with their three legions and 1,000 select Campanian cavalry; it is uncertain if these were Roman citizens from the north of the region, allies from farther south, or a mixture of both. The 12,000 allies attached to Appius’ consular army may have spent the winter of 296/5 BC at Aharna, but it is possible that they were dismissed in the autumn of 296 BC. In the precarious military situation Rome needed more troops than ever before, but she could not risk alienating the allies by keeping them away from their homes for too long. Fresh contingents of Latins and other socii probably accompanied the consuls. At the subsequent Battle of Sentinum there were more allied troops than Romans but we remain ignorant of the exact number.

If at full strength, the nine legions would have contained 40,800 men, including Rullianus’ 300 extra equites. The total contributions of the allies, including those in the armies of the proconsul and propraetors, would have at least equalled, and probably exceeded, the number of legionaries. Thus in this critical year Rome had 80,000 to 100,000 men in the field, and more in reserve.

In 296 BC Appius’ legions bore the numerals I and IV, but when Rullianus assumed command they were renumbered. At Sentinum, Rullianus’ legions had the numerals I and III but we cannot be certain that both were the regiments originally enrolled by Appius, as one may be the legion with extra cavalry that Rullianus recruited from volunteers in Rome. Scipio Barbatus’ imperium allowed him to assume command of one of Rullianus’ three legions and take it over the Apennines to defend Camerinum, Rome’s key Umbrian ally. This legion had the numeral II.

The circumstances that took Barbatus and the Second Legion to Camerinum are uncertain. Egnatius certainly moved his army into Umbria, maybe with the intention of forcing Camerinum to join him, or simply to let his plunder-hungry troops sack it, but Barbatus got there before him. A possible scenario is that the consuls received intelligence of Egnatius’ intention, but for some reason their armies were unable to march, so Rullianus made Barbatus propraetor and invested him with imperium. Barbatus then made a rapid march over the Apennines with legio II and established a camp in the vicinity of Camerinum. The consuls followed up when they able to do so.

The propraetor was probably the first of his branch of the Cornelii clan to bear the famous cognomen Scipio. It is conceivable that he took the name when elected consul; a scipio was a staff that signified magisterial rank. His other cognomen tells us that he was bearded (barbatus). The elogium inscribed on his sarcophagus declares that the bearded propraetor was as handsome as he was brave, but caution was the better part of valour when Egnatius’ host loomed into sight. We do not know if Barbatus’ small army included allies, but it was clearly no match for the great forces arrayed against it. Fearing his camp would be overrun, Barbatus abandoned the position and made for a hill sited between it and Camerinum. The hill would be easier to defend, but the wily Egnatius anticipated the Roman general and had already sent troops to occupy the summit of the hill. Barbatus failed to send scouts (exploratores) ahead to reconnoitre the position. His troops ascended the hill and found themselves face-to-face with Samnite and Gallic warriors. The rest of the confederate army swarmed up behind the Romans. Barbatus, the Second Legion, and any allied cohorts he had, were trapped.

Meanwhile, Rullianus and Mus were following up with their consular forces. As they neared Camerinum, Gallic horsemen rode up to taunt and harass the Roman marching column. The Senonian troopers had freshly severed heads impaled on their spears or hanging from their horses’ tack. It is uncertain how long Barbatus and his small army were trapped on the hill, but when the consuls appeared the legion was almost destroyed and the propraetor was surely anticipating death or ignominious capture. Luckily for Barbatus, Egnatius withdrew his troops before they were in turn trapped by the new Roman army. The Samnite general then marched to Sentinum, some 50 miles to the north and made ready to give battle. The Four Nations were again divided between two camps, the Samnites and Senones in one, and the Etruscans and Umbrans in the other. Egnatius planned to engage one consular army with his Samnites, and the Senones would fight the second. While the Romans were fully occupied, the Etruscans and Umbrians would emerge from their entrenchments, skirt around the embattled armies and capture the lightly defended Roman camp located 4 miles away, thus leaving the legions and allied cohorts with nowhere safe to retreat to and vulnerable to attack from the rear. Egnatius may have hoped that this would be enough to cause the Roman army to surrender or flee. Livy informs us that deserters from Egnatius’ army brought news of this plan to Rullianus and the consul therefore sent orders to Megellus and Centumalus to leave their positions above Rome and invade the territory of Clusium in Etruria. This diversionary attack has the effect of persuading the Etruscans to hurry back home. They do not feature in Livy’s account of the Battle of Sentinum (the principle account), nor do the Umbrians, some of whom may have opted to aid the Etruscans (more natural allies than Samnites or predatory Gauls), while other Umbrian contingents, seeing the coalition weakened, chose to depart to their home towns.

Livy makes it very clear that the consuls were concerned about the great size of Egnatius’ army. Unfortunately its actual strength is not reported by Livy or any other source, but it was probably the largest army yet assembled in Italy. One wonders, therefore, if Rullianus’ (and perhaps also his colleague’s) plan to draw off the Etruscans was actually underway before deserters apparently brought news of Egnatius’ dastardly plan. Fulvius Centumalus was especially well placed to march up the valley of the Tiber, or through the Ciminus, to threaten Clusium, once the stronghold of Lars Porsenna. Centumalus’ time in the Faliscan country had not been without incident. Even with the propraetor’s army on their territory, Rome’s perceived weakness encouraged some Faliscans to take up arms and they made an incursion into neighbouring ager Romanus, but Centumalus caused the enemy force to disperse by a simple ruse:

When a force of Faliscans far superior to ours [an exaggeration] had encamped in our territory, Gnaeus Fulvius [Centumalus] had his soldiers set fire to certain buildings at a distance from the camp in order that the Faliscans, thinking that their own men had done this, might scatter in hope of plunder.

Centumalus must have reached the territory of Clusium before Megellus and began the work of devastation. It seems that Megellus arrived to take over this task, allowing Centumalus to march on Perusia and intercept the Perusine and Clusian forces that had returned from Sentinum. The Etruscans were defeated, losing 3,000 men and 20 of their sacred military standards.

The consuls were keen to bring the Samnites and Senones to battle. It was not certain that the propraetors would defeat the Etruscans or that the Umbrians, or even more Gauls, would rejoin Egnatius. Even in its reduced state, the consuls wondered if they had enough men to defeat the army of the Samnite general. For two days the consuls sent troops to harass the enemy. The troops involved would have been cavalry and light infantry, that is, soldiers suited to skirmishing and hit and run tactics. The Samnites and Senones responded in kind, neither side winning any real advantage but, as the consuls intended, Gellius Egnatius was suitably provoked and on the third day he led all of his troops from his camp and offered battle. The Battle of the Nations, as it became known, was at hand; Romans, Latins and Campanians facing Samnites and Gauls.

The actual location of the battle in the territory of Sentinum is uncertain. There is a suitable plain immediately to the north of the town. A small river, now called the Sanguerone, cuts through the centre of the plain. Egnatius’ army fought in two divisions. If the battle was fought on this plain, the river might have separated the divisions and the opposing consular armies.

Gellius Egnatius drew up his Samnites on the left wing of the confederate army. Samnite cavalry, although not mentioned by Livy, presumably covered the left flank of their infantry. The Senones formed up on the right, with a very substantial cavalry force protecting their right flank; the infantry on the right flank of any army were vulnerable because this was their unshielded side. Assuming that the Sanguerone separated the Gauls and Samnites, the watercourse protected the unshielded side of the Samnite infantry.

On the Roman side, Rullianus took up position on the right opposite the Samnites with his First and Third Legions. Decius drew up the Fifth and Sixth Legions on the left against the Senones. The Campanian cavalry are reported only on the right flank with Rullianus, but it may be that the 1,000 troopers were shared by the consuls and divided into two alae (wings). Unless the legion annihilated at Camerinum was the regiment raised in Rome with the double complement of cavalry, Rullianus should have had 300 more equites than his colleague. However, mountainous Samnium was not cavalry country and it is probable that more Gallic cavalry confronted Mus, and Rullianus could have transferred some of his horsemen to Mus.

The positions of the Latin and allied forces at Sentinum is unclear. In Livy’s account all of the fighting is carried out by the legionaries and Roman and Campanian equites. Livy does refer to subsidia, that is, reserves, being brought into action at a critical stage of the battle. These reserves may be the allied cohorts, drawn up behind the legionary battle lines, but the allied cohorts were organized into maniples and interchangeable lines of hastati, principes and triarii, and so could have formed up on the flanks of the legions. Livy’s reserves would then be legionary and allied triarii, and the allied cavalry turmae would have reinforced the Roman and Campanian troopers on the wings.

If the four legions at Sentinum were up to strength, Rullianus and Mus had 16,800 legionary infantry and 1,200 or 1,500 equites (18,000 – 18,300 in total). The force of Latins and allies, perhaps including the 1,000 Campanians, is said to have been greater than the number of Roman troops. We should recall that Appius Claudius and Volumnius Flamma had a total of 27,000 allied soldiers with them in Etruria. It would not be unreasonable to assume that a similar number joined Rullianus and Mus and this would bring the size of the Roman army up to c. 45,000, but the situation was different to that of 296 BC. There were three other Roman armies in the field, all requiring allied contingents, and it may be that the number of allies at Sentinum was only slightly greater than the number of Roman troops, and a total figure of less than 40,000 may be appropriate.

As noted above, Livy does not report or estimate the size of Egnatius’ army at Sentinum. He does relate, with considerable disdain, that some of the sources he consulted put forward a grossly exaggerated total for the enemy army:

Great as the glory of the day on which the Battle of Sentinum was fought must appear to any writer who adheres to the truth, it has by some writers been exaggerated beyond all belief. They assert that the enemy’s army amounted to 330,000 infantry and 46,000 cavalry, together with 1,000 war chariots. That, of course, includes the Umbrians and Tuscans who are represented as taking part in the battle. And by way of increasing the Roman strength they tell us that Lucius Volumnius commanded in the action as well as the consuls, and that their legions were supplemented by his army.

An army of this size would be impossible to provision or manoeuvre. However, if the number of enemy casualties, prisoners and fugitives that Livy records is accepted as reasonably accurate, the combined total suggests that Egnatius had at least 38,000 soldiers and the consuls’ concerns about the size of his army, even without Etruscans and Umbrians, probably indicates that he had considerably more warriors at his disposal. The total number of troops at Sentinum was probably in excess of 80,000 and may have been as great as 100,000. According to Diodorus, Duris of Samos put the number of enemy casualties at 100,000, perhaps another gross exaggeration but possibly a reflection of the total size of the forces engaged.

The pivotal engagement in Rome’s conquest of Italy was probably fought in April 295 BC. It was usual for generals to lead their armies out of their camps at dawn and, considering the vast numbers present, it must have taken some time to arrange the soldiers into battle lines. Something extraordinary happened as the Italian armies faced off:

As they stood arrayed for battle, a deer, pursued by a wolf that had chased it down from the mountains, fled across the plain and between the two battle lines. The animals then turned in opposite directions, the deer towards the Gauls and the wolf towards the Romans. For the wolf a space was opened between the ordines, but the Gauls killed the deer. Then one of the Roman front rankers (antesignanus) called out, ‘Where you see the animal sacred to Diana lying slain, that way flight and slaughter have shaped their course. On this side the wolf of Mars, unhurt and sound, has reminded us of the race of Mars and of our founder Romulus.’

This was clearly a sign from Mars, progenitor of the Roman race, and Mus’ legionaries were elated by the portent of the Gauls’ demise. It is, of course, extremely doubtful that a wolf chased a deer between the armies, but it is likely that the Romans saw a wolf that day and it was taken as a good omen. It is also possible that the Gauls, immediately prior to engaging the Romans, sacrificed a deer. Such battlefield sacrifices, carried out before the front rank, were not unusual in the Ancient World. If something went wrong with the ceremony, the opponent observing it would take heart knowing that the gods did not favour their enemy.

Rullianus’ strategy was to stand firm and absorb the charges of the enemy. When the Samnites inevitably tired he would launch a decisive counter-charge. He believed that the same tactic would defeat the Gauls: ‘They are more than men at the start of a fight, but by the end they are less than women!’ He had presumably attempted to convince Mus to adhere to this strategy, yet the other consul was desirous of accomplishing victory more quickly and gloriously and, inspired by the omen of the wolf and the deer, led his maniples forward in an impetuous attack.

The maniples of hastati would have closed with the Gauls at the run (impetus), pausing only momentarily to hurl their pila, roar their war cry (clamor), and draw their swords. The centurions and soldiers in the front would have surged ahead, aiming to batter down Gallic warriors with the bosses of their shields, force their way into the ranks and set to work with their cut-and-thrust swords. The soldiers in the rearmost ranks of the maniples would follow up more steadily in good order, drumming weapons against their shields, shouting encouragement to their comrades and perhaps lobbing pila over their heads and into the ranks of the enemy.

But the Senones resisted fiercely. They too were armed with pila-like missiles, which must have thinned the ranks of the attacking Romans, and their long swords could hack through shields and armour. The two sides were evenly matched in fury and prowess and the infantry action gradually waned. We may presume that Mus called up the principes to relieve or reinforce the hastati, but when they too failed to break the Senones, the consul looked to his cavalry to hasten victory. Riding from turma to turma he exhorted the mostly rich and aristocratic troopers: ‘Yours will be a double share of glory if victory comes first to the left wing and to the cavalry!’

The cavalry on the left wing would have moved forward to protect the flank of the advancing infantry, but until now, there was no all-out cavalry assault. Mus attached himself to the bravest turma (perhaps actually his mounted bodyguard) and led two charges against the Gallic horse. The first charge drove the Gauls back and the second scattered them, exposing the unshielded right flank and rear of their infantry, but the Romans were unable to exploit the opportunity. The war chariots of the Senones had been held in reserve behind the battle line. The sudden and unexpected counter-charge panicked both horses and riders, and the Roman cavalry fled in disorder as the clattering chariots pursued them. Mus was unable to halt their flight, and the fugitives appear to have swept past the flank of their own infantry. The charioteers broke off their pursuit and turned instead on the vulnerable infantry, driving into the intervals between maniples and ordines. Many of the antesignani, that is the hastati or principes in the leading battle line, were trampled down. The Gallic infantry took advantage of the chaos and attacked.

With the cavalry in flight and the leading battle line of infantry almost overrun, it seemed that the Roman left might collapse. If the left fell, Rullianus’ wing would surely also succumb and with it Rome’s hard won conquests in Italy. Decius Mus decided that the time had come for him to follow the example of his illustrious father: he would ride to his death as a devotus and through his own sacrifice bring about the destruction of the enemy. Livy has him utter: ‘Now I will offer up the legions of the enemy, to be slaughtered along with me, as victims to Tellus [Mother Earth] and the divine Manes [gods of the Underworld].’

Livy informs us that throughout the battle Mus kept the pontifex, Marcus Livius Denter, close. Such a senior state priest was necessary to lead a devotus through the correct ritual. That Mus had Denter by his side at all times suggests that his decision to perform devotio was not spontaneous. The consul’s heritage must have led to expectations that he too would perform devotio if the situation facing Rome became desperate and Sentinum was such an occasion. It is likely that he informed Rullianus of his intention to devote himself if his initial tactics failed. The legionaries and allies would have been told as well. If they were not prepared, they would most likely panic at the sight of the consul being cut down.