History Explorer: The Roman army in Britain

Nige Tassell and Dr Mark Lewis visit Caerleon in south Wales, home to the remains of a Roman garrison, to explore the everyday lives of legionaries...

Roman amphitheatre in Caerleon, Wales. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

On a grey-ish Wednesday morning in October, the sleepy town of Caerleon, just a handful of miles north of Newport, isn’t showing too many signs of life. A small gaggle of kids on their half-term holiday are riding their bikes slowly around the town with little purpose, while an unaccompanied black labrador takes advantage of the absence of traffic to nonchalantly wander across the high street.

It wasn’t ever thus. Rewind almost two millennia and Caerleon – or Isca, as it was known at the time – was the epitome of hustle and bustle, a centre of enormous and constant activity. For it was here, right where the town now stands, that a vast Roman garrison was established in c75 AD, home to the mighty Second Augustan Legion. With more than 5,000 men stationed on the 50-acre site, the fortress was the base from which the Romans could control this stretch of what is now south Wales.

Hoard of finds

As sleepy as it is on this particular day, Caerleon wears its Roman heritage with immense pride – and very visibly. Visitors can visit the excellent National Roman Legion Museum with its fascinating hoard of finds – everything from cremation pots and carpentry tools to lead baggage labels and a coffin made entirely from Bath stone. Just down the road are the fortress’s extensive and state-of-the-art baths, excavated in the 1970s, while the curious can also investigate the original barracks. The jewel in the crown, though, is the amphitheatre just beyond the garrison’s walls, the best preserved example in all Britain.

As the senior curator of Roman archaeology at the museum, there is no better guide to the town’s past life than Dr Mark Lewis, who is keen to explain why the Romans made such a formidable base in this particular spot. “Its location was key, with huge tactical and strategic importance. It was at the lowest crossing point of the river Usk and also controlled a major north/south route up the Usk Valley. Not only could the entire region be maintained, but it could also be supplied by sea – massively important for such a huge military base as a legionary fortress.”

Today, the site is equally important for historians and archaeologists. “There were only around 30 legions in existence in the Roman world at any one time and one of those – the Second Augustan – was permanently based here for more than 200 years. As such, it’s not possible to study the Roman army – especially the legionary army – without studying the archaeology of Caerleon.”

Those two centuries were relatively peaceful, thanks to the secure grasp the Romans established over the occupied locals. “To hold that iron grip, Wales became a militarised zone and Caerleon commanded the southern militarised zone with a network of auxiliary forts. Roman roads were placed between the forts, enabling the soldiers to police the area, marching up and down while keeping an eye on people’s movements and what they were up to.

“The native population, the conquered people, had no political rights or status. There would probably have been a mutually imposed separation; they were an occupied people and the Roman army was the occupier. Each would have kept to themselves, like any militarised zone today.”

Located just inside the fortress’s walls are the remains of four barrack blocks of 12 rooms, each fronted by a veranda. Excavated in the 1920s they remain, beams Lewis, “the only Roman legionary barracks you can see in Europe, and confirm the hierarchy within the legion”. Each 80-soldier century was under the command of a centurion and, while the foot soldiers slept eight to a modest room, the centurion would enjoy a more comfortable living space, quite possibly even with his own private latrine.

The wage gap

The differences were also stark when it came to wages. “A centurion was paid 15-20 times more than a legionary,” explains Lewis. “It’s not double, it’s not treble. It’s 15-20 times more!” Not that legionaries didn’t have the opportunity to better their lot. They could become immunes, soldiers who had particular skills, such as building or carpentry. They could attain the status of standard-bearer or even become the optio, the centurion’s trusted second-in-command. The administratively astute might rise to become a tesserarius, who assisted the centurion and optio with record-keeping and guard duties. “But,” continues Lewis, “it would be a mix of skill, stamina, expertise and longevity if you wanted to get on. And a bribe probably wouldn’t hurt.”

The duties of the humble legionary though, particularly in peacetime, were many and varied – anything from sentry duty and wood chopping to food preparation and animal husbandry. There would also be daily military training. For instance, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to practise crossing the adjacent river Usk in full armour. “The army had to be battle-ready,” comments Lewis. “It was once famously said that their training sessions were like battles – and that their battles were just like bloodier training sessions.”

But the soldiers of Caerleon needed to relax too. Aside from spending their downtime at the vast bath-house, entertainment was offered at the amphitheatre, usually on special occasions, such as the emperor’s birthday or the anniversary of the legion’s founding. The arena would have hosted typical Roman fare, usually physical encounters that ended in the death of either gladiator or beast.

The amphitheatre retains an extraordinary presence on the landscape, its stone walls now topped by grass where a timber-framed structure would have once stood. “We’ve lost two vaulted entrances,” says Lewis, “but how it looks today is pretty much how the stonework was in Roman times.” Clearly visible are the pens that held the animals captive before they were released into the arena. One larger chamber is home to two benches where “gladiators probably sat and made one last representation to Nemesis, the goddess of divine fate and retribution, before they left through the doorway to meet their fate in the arena, whatever it might be”.

Arthur’s round table

The amphitheatre was excavated during the 1920s by the husband-and-wife team of Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler, thanks to sponsorship by the Daily Mail; the paper was attracted by the hot interest in archaeology created by Howard Carter and his Tutankhamun discoveries. Until then, it resembled what Lewis describes as

“a grassy bowl in the landscape, a hollow”, which the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth had attached to Arthurian legend. Until the 20th century, it had been known as ‘Arthur’s round table’.

Although Caerleon’s Roman riches were only really revealed with the excavations of the last century or so, its ancient history didn’t go unacknowledged.

“The memory of Caerleon’s past was never lost, because ‘Caerleon’ means ‘fortress of the legion’. A ‘caer’ in Welsh is the same as a ‘chester’ or a ‘caster’ in English – meaning a military camp. It was never forgotten that this was the site of a Roman legion, but by the mid-19th century, the walls were being robbed for building stone and inscriptions were even being broken up to mend roads of Victorian Caerleon. So local philanthropists and academics thought this must stop and raised money to build a little museum to, as they put it, ‘save from the destroying hand of time the valuable relics of bygone days’.”

As Lewis points out, the subsequent finds excavated from underneath modern Caerleon have been so rich and unparalleled because of the town’s comparative diminutiveness. Unlike Chester or York, a large city hasn’t been built on top of this once-great fortress. And our guide is eager for much more to be revealed about what lies beneath.

“We don’t know everything. Every time we put a spade in the soil or undertake geophysical surveys here in Caerleon, the story actually changes slightly. It’s through the archaeological record that we limp forward. There is much that we still don’t understand. I estimate that we’ve probably seen a thousandth of one per cent of the archaeology of this fortress. Most of it is still to be discovered.”

Dr Mark Lewis is senior curator of Roman archaeology at the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon. Words: Nige Tassell.

The Roman army: five more places to explore

1) Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter)

Where Roman finds are on show

There are extensive Roman finds on display here. Exeter is the former legionary base of the Second Augustan Legion and the site of a legionary bathhouse (currently not on display) of a similar design to the legionary fortress baths at Caerleon, which were built later by the same legion.

Visit rammuseum.org.uk

2) Chester Roman Amphitheatre (Chester)

Where a great Roman landmark lies

The county seat of latter-day Cheshire was the legionary base for the Twentieth Victorious Valeria Legion, as well as being home to another great legionary amphitheatre. Discovered in 1929, the partial excavation reveals the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain.

Visit english-heritage.org.uk

3) Yorkshire Museum (York)

Where Constantine became emperor

Known in Roman times as Eboracum, this legionary base, initially founded by the ninth legion and later occupied by the sixth legion, was where Constantine the Great was first proclaimed emperor in AD 306. The Yorkshire Museum hosts an ongoing exhibition, Roman York: Meet the People of the Empire.

Visit yorkshiremuseum.org.uk

4) Museum of London (London)

Where a Roman gift can be seen

The legionary presence in London is quite strong, especially for the Second Augustan Legion that later made its slow passage to Caerleon via the south coast of England. See the famous sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull which was gifted to the Temple of Mithras in Walbrook, London by Ulpius Silvanus of the Second Augustan Legion.

Visit museumoflondon.org.uk

5) National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh)

Where the Antonine Wall is recorded

Among the museum’s Roman holdings is the Bridgeness distance slab which records the portion of the Antonine Wall constructed by the Second Augustan Legion. The wall, stretching between the Firths of Clyde and Forth, was home to 17 forts and controlled and patrolled by up to 7,000 legionaries.

Advertisement

Visit nms.ac.uk