Although Hadrian's Wall was the official end of the Roman Empire, it was not the limit of the advance into the north. Forts, roads and the Antonine Wall were built in an area that was to become a buffer zone between the conquered and unconquered peoples. This was the area the Romans chose to confront any invader and bring them to battle, before they could penetrate the prosperous areas south of Hadrian's Wall.
There were several important forts and strong points established by the Roman army in the area north of the wall. These fall into three categories.
Those built prior to the wall during the initial period of invasion, such as:
- Birrens - Blatobulgium (meaning 'the granaries') 81 AD.
The fort was built near the Mein Water to guard the road from Carlisle north into Scotland. The fort pre-dates the building of Hadrian's Wall, was originally 16,800 square metres and was enclosed by an earth and stone wall, protected by four to six ditches. During the building of Hadrian's Wall, the fort was enlarged to 20,000 square metres. There is evidence of a possible vicus1 to the northern side of the fort. The base was originally the home of the first cohort of the Nervana Germanorum equitata mlliaria, a cavalry unit, and there is also evidence of occupation by the VIII and the XXII legions.
- Neatherby - Castra Exploratorum 80 AD.
The fort is located ten miles north of Stanwix. The Latin name means 'fort of the scouts', and, although established in 80 AD, it was rebuilt in 120 AD by the Legion II - The Augusta. One of the first garrisons of the fort was the First Cohort of Nervian Gauls. There was a small settlement established outside the fort.
Those that were built during the 'construction' period of the wall:
- Bewcastle - Fanum Cocidi 120 AD.
The fort is located seven miles north of Birdoswald. The Latin name means the shrine of the God Cocidius. This is a very unusual hexagonal fort, built with stone-faced turf-and-timber walls. It was another fort built by the Legion II - The Augusta; the first garrisons of the fort were the First Cohort of Dacians from Romania and Moldova. There were two signal towers set up to provide contact with the wall. The first on the road to Birdoswald was three miles to the south at Barrons Pike, the second two miles further south was at Robin Hood's Butts.
The last group were those that were built after the 'construction' period of the wall:
- Risingham - Habitancum 189 AD.
Located south of the River Rede and on the eastern side of Dere Street. The fort was first built to guard the river crossing and support the Antonine expansion north of Hadrian's wall, under the orders of Emperor Severus. The original fort was rebuilt in stone in 206 AD, with gates in the northern, southern and western walls. It was usually garrisoned by 1,000 foot and horse troops. There was a bath-house built within the walls of the fort, and a small trading and service settlement developed nearby.
- Learchild - Alavna 204 AD.
Dere Street continues to Chew Green, the Devil's Causeway continues to the north east to the Alavna fort. This fort was built on the southern side of the River Aln, and was a large fort of 44,500 square metres and built to a withstand determined attack. The garrison was made up of 2,000 mixed foot and horse troopers.
- High Rochester - Bremenium 216 AD.
The fort at Bremenium is sited south east of Dere Street, with substantial stone walls enclosing an area of 18,400 square metres. The walls are protected by ditches and have three strong gates to the north, south and eastern sides. The garrison was again mixed foot and horse, which seemed most common north of the wall. Patrolling and scouting were among their regular duties. There are also several 'marching camps' in the area surrounding the fort.
- Chew Green - Marching Camps
Marching camps were not permanent; they were banks enclosed by ditches, with wooden walls with gates and watchtowers. They would be built by a legion at the end of a day's march to provide shelter for the troops whilst moving through hostile territory. The enclosed area was used to set up the legion's tents and house the legion's supplies.
This last group may have been part of a system of rebuilding that coincided with the construction of the Antonine Wall. It is important to remember that these forts were not the only Roman bases north of Hadrian's Wall, just the most effective protecting the roads north.
Access Points - Roads And Distances
Accessed by road from Halton Chesters Fort Onnum (11).
The north eastern road Dere Street to
- Risingham Habitancum 14 miles.
- High Rochester Bremenium 25 miles.
- Chew Green 33 miles.
The northern road The Devil's Causeway to
- Learchild Alavna 32 miles.
Accessed by road from Birdoswald Fort Camboglanna (6).
A north eastern local road to
- Bewcastle Fanum Cocidi 7 miles.
Accessed by road from Stanwix Fort Uxelodunum (4).
The northern local road to
- Neatherby Castra Exploratorum 8 miles.
A north western spur leads off to
- Birrens Blatobulgium 10 miles.
It is thought that those forts built or refurbished during the period of the building of the wall provided a protective screen for the builders. All the forts could be reached by reinforcements from the wall in 12 hours if necessary.