Friday, 26 April 2013

Walls R US

W is for Walls

Who built them, and what did they build?

Continuing my A to Z Challenge theme of Celtic/Roman Britain AD 71 – 84…

When thinking about walls in the context of Roman Britain we tend to think of the larger structures- Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall - but both of those came well after the era of my theme which is AD 71 -84.

The walls I’m referring to in their own way, I believe, are actually more impressive. Evidence is being uncovered as we read of more and more Roman Marching Camp walls.

Detecting the walls of the Roman Marching Camps, during the time that pre-dated the first aerial surveys, depended on there being reasonable amounts of ditch and ramparts still undamaged for archaeologists to inspect and measure. The acreage the walls covered indicated how many Roman soldiers would have been housed at that particular time.

Aerial surveys have greatly increased the knowledge of the camp structures since then, and other more recent geo-physical techniques add to the data.
Unity was the topic of my last blog post and that subject overspills into this post for the letter W. The Roman Army ethos was team work, and a superb example of this was creating their own little barrier at the end of a long march.  

Why did the Romans build these temporary walled camps in hostile territory? Some of the camps were only inhabited for an overnight stay, some for a few days, and perhaps some were for durations lasting a little longer. The rampart walls of the camp undoubtedly served as a barrier to prevent surprise attack from marauding Celtic tribes who were not enamoured of the Roman Army barging in to their territory, but there were other impressive reasons for sequestering themselves behind the soil ramparts.

Keeping up the morale of the troops was incredibly important; keeping them fit and strong; and keeping them feeling secure was paramount. After a long march of some 12- 20 miles in hostile territory, the last thing you might think the Roman command structure would have been doing was working the men even harder. Regardless of unfavourable weather conditions those camps were built; creating the walls the most important work involved. Keeping the troops well drilled, and honing their discipline was psychologically important as well as strategically. 

What did the troops have to do before they fed and bedded down for the night? It's imagined that they did the same in northern Britain as Roman troops did elsewhere in the Empire. Polybius, a Greek historian, wrote a good account in the second century BC of how a typical Roman marching camp was set up. 

Whenever the army on the march draws near the place of encampments, one of the tribunes and those of the centurions who are in turn selected for this duty go ahead and survey the whole area where the camp is to be placed. They begin by determining the spot where the consul’s tent should be pitched... and on which side of this space to quarter the legions. Having decided this, they first measure out the area of the Praetorium (command centre). Next they draw the straight line along which the tents of the tribunes are set up, and then the line parallel to this, which marks the starting-point of the encampment area for the troops. In the same way they draw up the lines on the other side of the Praetorium.... All this is done with little loss of time and the marking out is an easy task, since all the distances are regulated and are familiar. They then proceed to plant flags; the first on the spot where the consul’s tent is to stand, the second on that side of it which has been chosen for the camp, a third at the central point of the line on which the tribunes’ tents will stand, and a fourth on the parallel line along which the legions will encamp. These latter flags are crimson, but the consul’s is white. The lines on the other side of the praetorium are marked sometimes with flags of other colours, sometimes with plain spears. After this they proceed to lay out the streets between the various quarters, and plant spears to mark each street. The result is that when the legions on their march have arrived near enough to get a good view of the site, the whole plan quickly becomes familiar to everyone, as they can reckon from the position of the consul’s flag, and get their bearings from that. Everyone knows exactly which street and in which part of that street his tent will be situated, since every soldier invariably occupies the same position in the camp.

(Historia VI 41)

If what Polybius has indicated was replicated in Britannia - or something simpler yet similar - then after the interior area was set up, the vallum (walls of the temporary camp) would be built beyond the intervallum, a sizeable margin area of around 200 feet. This empty space served as a safety zone, an area which was beyond the reach of arrows or spears. It could be used as an access route around the whole camp to avoid treading amongst the tents, and could have been used for drill practice. The evidence found in northern Britain indicates a similar organisation in the layouts of the temporary camps and the permanaent forts, the designs standard and made according to basic rectangular or square patterns. 

While some soldiers stood guard around the area for protection, others who would have been on rotation for this duty created the walls. The shovels, or entrenching tools  the men carried on their furca (carrying pole), would be used to dig a trench. The excavated soil was piled up behind them and towards the interior of the encampment to create a rampart which they strengthened with the cut sods of earth and the sudes (wooden stakes) which had also been carried on the furca. Depending on the terrain and the amount of men the wall might take a couple of hours to set up. The walls served as a defensive barrier but the encampment could also be used to retreat to after engagement with enemy Celts. 

The temporary camps were set at feasible walking distances apart and the exploratores (scouts) along with a tribune, or other skilled officer, would choose a site depending on the local water supplies. A source of fresh water for the troops was critical to that choice, as was suitable field grazing for the horses of mounted patrols and any pack animals involved in the campaign.

The temporary camps were used as places for strategic planning and for easily transporting necessary supplies.  

The map at left shows those camps that have been identified as Roman ...and there may well be others as yet unidentified.

The building of walls for temporary camps do feature in my curent WIP- my sequel to THE BELTANE CHOICE set in Celtic/Roman Britain AD 71-84.

If you look at the white squares on the map - the Agricolan ones - then those are the ones I'm writing about!

The walls went up...but I'm so glad they didn't take them down or I wouldn't be able to use W is for WALLS!




  1. As I was reading I just kept thinking, "Wow,these temporary camps were not temporary at all." To think they created them so long ago and we are still uncovering them, I just love it.

    Lucy from Lucy's Reality

    1. Hi Lucy. I'm just amazed that so much can be known about those thousands of Roman soldiers marching northwards in Britannia!

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