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The Romans were skilled builders. It was part of a soldier’s training to learn how to erect camps, which included digging ditches, building ramparts and pitching tents. Other more complex engineering skills came over time. With time, Roman buildings have been lost or damaged due to agriculture, weathering away of stone, rotting of timber, or stones being reused as building materials.
The Roman Army needed to be protected wherever they went against hostile forces, whether this was on the march, small bases for a unit or two, or huge fortresses designed to hold a full legion of nearly 6,000 men.
Types of Army Bases
Archaeologists usually use aerial photographs to identify a camp, as the purpose of this construction was a very short-term defensive position – overnight or for a few days at the most. This means that the buildings, if there were any, were temporary and built of timber or turf, so no traces survive. Their function was to protect against surprise attack while the army was on the move and between permanent bases. More than 290 temporary camps have been found all over Britain, which may have been built for different purposes, such as labour camps or just to train recruits to build camps.
They were normally rectangular (where terrain allowed) and protected by a ditch and a rampart, made of turf, occasionally with some timber support. The entrances in these fortifications were wide gaps, often with a detached rampart and ditch as extra protection, known as a titulum. Camps generally had four gates but this number varied depending on size (the Rey Cross camp had eleven gates). Some camps had timber gates.
Towards the end of a day’s march, an advance detachment would be sent ahead of the main force to scout a suitable location for a camp. It had to be large enough to accommodate soldiers and close to water. When a suitable area was found, the surveyors began to mark out the camp, such as where the main 'roads' would go. Then the army drew up facing the general direction of the enemy. The baggage train was placed inside the area that would be protected while half of the soldiers began digging and the other half stood on guard duty. While the ditch was being dug, the earth from it was formed into a rampart behind. When the rampart was complete every soldier placed two strong sticks into its top to form a sort of fence. The soldiers each carried two of these sticks for this purpose.
The camp was always arranged in the same manner, with everything in the same place. This meant that everyone knew where to go and what to do. Each century was issued with eight leather tents, each capable of holding eight men. This was not enough to sleep the whole century, because sixteen men were always on guard duty at any time. The tents were ten feet square and were pitched in rows, with a large tent for the centurion at the end of the row.
Forts were built when structures more permanent than camps were needed. As the army was constantly on the move during the early years of Roman occupation, there were always new frontiers. Forts were positioned strategically to keep the locals under control, with easy communication and supply lines. Generally, they were built about one day’s march apart (14 to 20 miles) and usually held one auxiliary unit, though some have been found which would hold smaller units, larger units or mixed units. As a rule, forts were used for auxiliary units while fortresses were for legions. Examples include a fort in Caernarfon in Wales.
Forts were usually built of turf and timber with ditches and ramparts for defence. Sometimes, the walls had a base of timber or gravel for solidity. Generally, they were rebuilt in stone when the previous defences needed replacing. When new forts were built in the second century, they were built either wholly or partly of stone. Some forts on Hadrian’s Wall are built half of stone, half of timber. The size of the fort varied depending on the number of men occupying it. They ranged from 2.2 acres for Nanstallan fort to more than seven acres for certain auxiliary forts. Over 300 auxiliary forts have been found in Britain.
A typical fort had its headquarters (principia) in the centre, which was the main location of administrative work. It also housed the shrine (aedes) used to keep statues of the Emperor and the standards of the unit occupying the fort. These were very important and were guarded at all times. On one side of the principia building was the commanding officer’s house (praetorium) – a large, rich and opulent building. On the other side were located granaries (horrea) and possibly a workshop (fabrica). In larger forts only, there would be a hospital (valetudinarium) behind the principia. The rest of the fort would be filled with barrack blocks, stables and storage areas. The Lunt fort, at Baginton near Coventry, has been partially rebuilt to show what a fort would have been like.
They generally had four gates and two ditches for defences as well as the wall. The walls of forts were 15 to 25 feet thick if it was made of turf and timber, while stone walls were generally about seven feet thick. Most forts had towers at the corners and larger ones may have had towers along the sides too. They also generally had at least two defensive ditches around the outside of the walls.
So-called 'Saxon Shore Forts' were also built on the south and east coasts to defend against the Saxons. These included Porchester Castle. They had walls that were probably about seven feet high and very thick, with large ditches and small, heavily defended gates.
A fortress was a large building designed for occupation by a full legion. There were many legionary fortresses throughout the occupation of Britain. These were at Lincoln, Caerleon, Colchester, Usk, Chester, York, Wroxeter, Inchtutil (Scotland), and possibly at Gloucester. The only fortresses that were permanent (in the sense that they were occupied until the end of the Roman period) were at York, Chester and Caerleon. They were built to control a certain area (for instance, the fortress at Caerleon controlled southern Wales, the Bristol Channel and some of the West Country of England).
Legionary fortresses were well defended. A part of the fortress wall remains in York that still stands fifteen feet high and five feet wide – the original height may have been twenty feet. Fortresses contained the same buildings as a fort – commander’s house (the abandoned fortress at Inchtutil also had houses for all the senior officers), hospital, workshops, granaries (each cohort may have had its own granary), and barrack blocks. In addition, most fortresses also had bath-houses for their soldiers to keep clean. These were generally built in stone so as to be fire proof and were usually some distance from the fortress. While the fortress was being built, soldiers lived in labour camps close by, so that they could easily work on the fortress. The standard size of a legionary fortress was about fifty acres.
A vicus is the name of the civilian settlements that developed around forts and fortresses. This was to supply the army with goods and make a good living in the process. The army required many goods (particularly during the early occupation) such as pottery, glass, food and similar. Also, living in a vicus was safer than living elsewhere, especially during times of unrest in the province. If a soldier had a family they would probably have lived in the vicus to his fort, as would traders, some retired soldiers, and various hangers-on. If the vicus was established enough, it could live on even if the fort was abandoned, though generally they were too dependent on the military to be able to survive alone. Often, the vicus was named after the military unit. One example of a vicus which developed into a town is York.
Other Entries in the h2g2 Romans in Britain Series
A Brief History | Minerals | Pottery | Trade and Travel | Agriculture | Art | Trade and Travel | Towns and Villas | The Army | Forts and Fortresses