Saturday, 27 April 2019

#A2ZChallenge X is for Xystum

X is for Xystum
Theme: Ancient Roman Scotland during the Flavian era

Xystum is an architectural term. ... And I'll confess now that this post actually has little to do with Roman forts in Flavian Scotland, since we know very little about what the interiors of Agricolan-built forts looked like. 

Dictionary Definition of Xystum: It can refer to a wall, alley or open path, promenade or colonnade. It can also refer to an atrium (Roman Courtyard), ambulacrum, or parvis in front of a basilica.

My P for Praetorium and Principia post briefly touched on the design of the Praetorium in a Roman fort but didn’t refer to the colonnade/ Xystum.

Reconstructed villa in Pompei Wikimedia Commons 
There's sufficient evidence from some Roman forts across the Roman Empire, and in southern Britannia, to demonstrate that the central headquarters building, the principia, ideally would have had a colonnaded walkway which mirrored the style of architecture in a domestic Roman villa. The image here may be far more ornate than would have been found in a Roman fort on the periphery of the Roman Empire, but it highlights the main principle of a collonaded walkway providing shade or weather protection. 

Wooden forts in #Caledonia during the Agricolan era may have had wooden columns supporting a covered roof, at least until the principia area was converted to stone, if that took place at all in later Flavian times. 

Roman presence may have withdrawn from central and northern Scotland c. A.D. 86 but the fort at Trimontium was rebuilt in a new Agricolan phase around this time, so perhaps the principia was built in stone with a proper stone colonnaded walkway around the interior, or even also on the exterior! Unfortunately, At Trimontium (Newstead) the layout of the Agricolan forts are confused by later phases of building on the same area.

This site below has some interesting graphics of the interior of a Roman fort. Don't hesitate to click on the interactive areas- you might like what happens! I'm conscious of copyright and haven't used any of the images but they're interesting, so have look.

And this virtual reconstruction video also gives some insights as to what the xystum areas might have been like in permanent and important forts in Caledonia - even if they weren't built in stone till during the Antonine or Severan phases of reconstruction. 

Having written the above, I remembered reading somewhere that Roman Vindolanda didn't seem to have had a colonnaded portico. Vindolanda is just south of Hadrian's Wall and doesn't quite qualify for a Caledonian fort, even though the earliest Vindolanda phases were built during the late Flavian era. I wonder if the Vindolanda style set a precedent for the forts in Caledonia? Or, if forts already built in southern and central Scotland by c. A.D. 86 had also rejected the use of the colonnaded walkway xystum? 

What do you think? Do you know? If you have more information, please point me in the right direction. 

Tomorrow, because it's Sunday, there will be no official #A2ZChallenge post but I intend to post a list of some of my favourite research books for my Roman Scotland studies. 



  1. This was an interesting history and architecture filled post. While I had read a little about xystum way back, I must say that I go back from your blog a bit more enlightened than before.

  2. Good to know the word Xystum and its use in forts. Thank you.
    A to Z participant Narayana Rao Xenogamy (Cross Fertilization) - Evolution of Operations Management

    1. The last letters of the alphabet are the hardest to create an A2Z post! But, yes, it sort of worked for my topic.

    2. You made a nice comment on my blog. Interesting observation. Taylor specifically stated that productivity improvement should not lead to quality deterioration. He wanted special mechanism to be in place to ensure quality. Of course it is now up to us to use the ideas earlier pioneers in useful manner.

  3. I love visiting old architecture. America is only a couple hundred years old, so there is much considered to be ancient. However, my vacation to Turkey was amazing. Walking through structures that had been built almost 2,000 years ago was eye-opening. Then living in China with their 5,000 year history. It's a lot to take in.

    1. I haven't got that far east, Brett, but I love watching TV programmes that are about ancient architecture.


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