Maintaining order in Roman Britannia’s vast militarised zone
The original vision for my ‘Edge of Empire’ series of novels was to write stories that focussed on the lives and adventures of two protagonists from a single Roman auxiliary infantry unit. It was to be set in the north of the province of Britannia and in the wilder, unconquered lands beyond its boundaries. But as I buried myself in the research phase I was continually surprised by what I discovered. Ultimately I gained a greater understanding of the Roman way of doing things and quite fundamentally changed the approach to my stories.
For much of its first 300 years of use Hadrian’s Wall marked the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. In movies such as The Eagle or Centurion we see Roman foot soldiers astride its battlements looking north, spear and shield in hand. But the Wall was not the-be-all-and-end-all of the north’s defence. What is less understood, at least to me, is that the Wall was really a focal point for a much larger militarised zone that stretched from Lancaster in the south to forts like Blatobulgium and Trimontium well into what is now modern day southern Scotland (I’m ignoring the period of the Antonine wall for simplicity).
It seems evident that the lands both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall were at times restive, if not in down right conflict, with the Roman administration. Whilst auxiliary infantry troops had an important role in keeping the peace, their deployment became increasingly localised in nature, especially in the later centuries of the empire. It was the mounted troops that had the pivotal role in commanding the north.
When researching for my historical adventure novel ‘Siege’, that focuses on the lives of the men of a Germanic cohort, a real life regiment with a mixture of infantry and cavalry. I was surprised by the amount of detail we now have on the everyday life of a Roman cavalryman. In the story I have worked hard to be faithful to that knowledge and attempted to bring it to life for the present day reader.
Most forts in the militarised zone included a cavalry force within their garrisons.
It has been calculated that sustaining a cavalryman with his kit and horse cost 5 times that of an infantryman. Why would the Romans invest so much if they were not an important and valuable asset? The answer surely must, at least in part, lie in both its symbolic and strategic roles.
Cavalry could move at a rapid pace and cover great distances quickly. They were highly mobile, making them effective on patrols and as scouts both north and south of the Wall. They made speedy messengers, giving warning of sudden threats and incursions. They also ensured food security, protecting local farmland and guarding supply trains to the Wall’s outlying forts. But, probably as importantly, they projected the image of power and renown of Rome and its imperial might. If you have ever seen the Household Cavalry in London or mounted police outside of a football (soccer) stadium you will get an idea of what a Roman turma must have looked like to an Iron Age population.
Outlying forts, north of the Wall, such as at Birrens and Netherby housed specialist, double strength, mixed infantry and cavalry cohorts (milliaria equitata) as well as specialist scouts (exploratores) enabling them to command a significant geographic area and suppress any uprising of local tribes. The effect on the populace must have been as much psychological as physical.
But who were these cavalrymen? Well they certainly weren’t drawn from the Roman aristocracy as they often were in the time of the Republic. No, the names of their units give a clear indication that the Romans recruited from all over the empire from the homelands of its conquered peoples. Germanic and celtic Gaulish units were prevalent, such as the I Nervana Germanorum and the cohors II Tungrorum that garrisoned the fort of Birrens at different times. But regiments from as far away as Spain and modern day Bulgaria and Croatia have also been identified. But as the needs of the empire changed over time individual units would mainly have recruited from the local populations. With sons moving into the family business by joining the cohorts of their fathers and grandfathers.
So what was life like for the cavalryman? Well each troop, known as a turma (typically 30 men), were housed in a single barrack block. Trios of men lived at the back of the building with their horses stabled at the front. There were surely few nights that troopers fell asleep without the sound of the snorts of their mounts accompanied by the smell of hay and dung. Each room had a hearth set against the stable-side wall for warmth and cooking. The decurion, who commanded the turma, lived in rooms at the end of the block along with his family.Troopers ate, slept and kept their weapons and tack in these small rooms. It is also thought that grooms and slaves may have slept in the roof space above.
Training for cavalrymen and their mounts was extensive and intense. If you have seen horses being drilled for modern day dressage you will get the idea, with each trained initially on a long rein to teach the horse basic skills as well as special steps. It is likely that horses were broken and prepared by specialists before being assigned to its rider. They learned to overcome their instinct to flee when startled and to cope in the noise and fervour of combat. The early instruction of the cavalryman would have focussed on the basic skills of controlling and riding the horse whilst holding a sword or spear in the right hand and the shield and rein in the left. From there they would have progressed to training to fight as a turma, with unit drills enabling large numbers of men to manoeuvre in battle.
The average cavalryman was well armed and armoured. He typically wore chainmail armour that allows greater movement whilst on horseback. Their weapons consisted of the long cavalry sword often referred to as the spatha. They also had a fighting lance and two shorter throwing javelins. Their shields were a variety of shapes including square and oval, but were usually flat with a steel rim and a rounded metal boss to enable it to be used as a weapon.
It is not hard to imagine the damage the charge of even a small unit of auxiliary cavalry could inflict on the largely unprotected bodies of the tribal warriors of the north of Britain.
Alistair lived in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Torthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his history teacher’s telling of the tale of Burnswark and the Roman siege of the Iron Age hillfort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire series took root.
On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career, firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.
Thank you for such a fabulous guest post. Good luck with the new book.