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Legions & Auxiliary Units
During its time of occupation, the Antonine Wall was a highly militarised zone, with around 6,000 – 7,000 troops stationed along the Wall.
This was about the same number who defended Hadrian’s Wall, twice the length of the Antonine Wall. The Wall was built mostly by men from three different military ‘legions’, career soldiers who had committed to the army for a period of twenty-five years.
Once the Wall was completed it was garrisoned mainly by auxiliary troops, with small detachments from the legions. Auxiliaries were men drawn into the army from across the Roman empire, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force. They were not Roman citizens.
We know of at least eight different auxiliary units who served on the Wall from countries as far off as Syria. Most of these men were foot soldiers, with only a small number of cavalry located at Castlehill and Mumrills. Most of our information on particular units comes from the carvings on distance slabs and altars which specifically mention the names of legions and auxiliary cohorts.
Roman legions contained about 5,000 men, mostly foot soldiers who were organised into ten cohorts, each of about 480 soldiers. All were Roman citizens, who served in the army for twenty-five years. They were not supposed to marry, but many did, and their families often lived outside the fort in the vicus. On retirement, they had the choice of a land grant or a sum of money, and most stayed in the area where they had been stationed.
Each legion was commanded by a Legate (legatus legionis). He was a nobleman and member of the imperial Senate, with a second-in-command Tribune (tribunus laticlavius). Five additional tribunes from lower noble families rounded out the primary officers. Third in command, however, was a former centurion serving as Camp Prefect (praefectus castrorum), with fifty-nine centurions under him. Each centurion commanded a ‘century’ (centuria) of eighty men and was responsible for day-to-day discipline and order.
Legionaries were equipped with short stabbing swords, daggers and javelins. They had helmets, rectangular shields and either segmental plate armour or chainmail for protection. Beneath this they wore a woollen tunic and, on their feet, leather boots which had hobnails hammered into the sole.
Three legions were stationed in Britain during the Antonine period: the Second Legion, the Sixth Legion, and the Twentieth Legion.
At this time, the Second Augustan Legion (legio II Augusta) was headquartered at the fortress at Caerleon (Isca) in South Wales. The legion arrived in Britain in AD 43 and remained in the country into the 4th century, when records disappear. Men from the legion were involved in the building of both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, and five distance slabs document their Antonine Wall building activities. The symbols of the legion were the Capricorn (half-goat, half-fish) and Pegasus (flying horse); these can be seen on some of the slabs.
Distance Slab of Second Legion, Duntocher. © Hunterian Museum
Inscriptions on distance slabs show us that members of the legion were involved in constructing a number of Antonine Wall forts, such as Bar Hill, Cadder and Balmuildy. At Castlecary, soldiers of the Sixth and Second Legions dedicated an inscription to Fortuna within the fort bath-house. At Auchendavy fort a fragmentary building inscription has been found, along with four altars dedicated by a centurion from the Second Legion, Cocceius Firmus, and two legionary tombstones.
The Sixth Victorious Legion (legio VI victrix) was based at the legionary fortress at York (Eboracum). The legion first arrived in Britain around AD 120, and remained into the 4th century, when records disappear. The legion was involved in the building of both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, and five distance slabs document its Antonine Wall building activities.
© Hunterian Museum
In addition to its role in constructing the frontier, the legion was present in some way at a number of Antonine Wall forts. The Sixth Legion was involved in building work within the fort at Croy Hill, and further evidence of an altar and a legionary tombstone indicate that there was probably a legionary detachment living at the site.
A detachment was probably also stationed at Westerwood, as an altar has been found here dedicated to Silvanus and the Heavens by Vibia Pacata, the wife of one of the Legion’s centurions, Flavius Verecundus. The Sixth Legion is also represented at Castlecary, where soldiers of both the Sixth and Second Legions dedicated an inscription to Fortuna within the fort bath-house. Two altars at the site were also dedicated by soldiers of the Sixth Legion, suggesting that there was probably a legionary detachment located at the fort.
The Twentieth Victorious Valerian Legion (legio XX Valeria victrix) was headquartered at the legionary fortress at Chester (Deva). The legion was stationed in Spain, on the Danube, and in Germany before coming to Britain as part of an invasion force in AD 43. The Twentieth Legion was instrumental in suppressing Boudicca’s revolt and remained in Britain through the 3rd century, after which records disappear. The legion was involved in the building of both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, and at least eight distance slabs document its Antonine Wall building activities.
Distance Slab, Hutcheson Hill © Hunterian Museum
In addition to its role in constructing the frontier, inscriptions reveal the legion’s presence at a number of Antonine Wall forts. Inscriptions at Bar Hill and at Bearsden record building work within the forts. A centurion from the Twentieth Legion, Gaius Flavius Betto, is recorded in an altar from Rough Castle fort as the (temporary?) commander of the Sixth Cohort of Nervians.
The legions were supported by auxiliary troops, men drawn into the army from across the Roman empire sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force. Auxiliary soldiers were not Roman citizens, but were granted citizenship once they retired. This also extended to any children they may have had – like legionaries they were not supposed to marry while in service, but they too may have had families living in the vicus.
At least eight different auxiliary units served on the Antonine Wall from countries as far off as Syria. Units were usually formed in one region and then almost immediately moved far across the empire, perhaps in order to reduce the chances for a local rebellion. Auxiliary units were typically composed of troops with a shared ethnic identity, commanded by Roman citizen officers.
Auxiliaries were equipped with long slashing swords, bows, spears and slings. They had helmets, oval shields, and chainmail or leather cuirasses to provide protection. Beneath this they wore a woollen tunic and, on their feet, leather boots which had hobnails hammered into the sole.
Inscriptions provide a valuable way of tracking the movement of particular units and, from these, we know that many remained in their assigned provinces for centuries, with soldiers often retiring within the province where they had served rather than in their original homeland. Over time these ethnically-formed units took on new recruits from their service area, creating situations where native Britons served alongside soldiers from far-flung regions.
Auxiliary units provide a particularly fascinating view into cultural and social integration across and beyond the Empire: they were certainly ‘Roman’ as an essential part of Rome’s military structure, but they clung on to particular ethnic identities and traditions from their homeland before its incorporation into the Roman empire.
First Cohort of Baetasians
The First Cohort of Baetasians (cohors I Baetasiorum quingenaria peditata civium Romanorum ob virtutem et fidem) was an auxiliary infantry unit of 500 men from the modern-day Netherlands. An early inscription from Manchester suggests that they were based there before moving north to the Antonine Wall. On the Wall, the unit is referred to in inscriptions from the forts at Bar Hill (below) and Old Kilpatrick.
© Hunterian Museum
Following the Roman withdrawal from the Antonine Wall, the unit was relocated to Maryport on the Cumbrian Coast south of Hadrian’s Wall. In the 4th century, there is a record of the unit’s final known location at the Saxon Shore fort of Reculver in Kent.
First Cohort of Hamians
The First Cohort of Hamians (cohors I Hamiorum quingenaria peditata) was an auxiliary unit of 500 archers from Hama in northern Syria. The unit may have been part of an invasion force in AD 43, and this is the only known unit of bowmen in Roman Britain. The cohort is known from Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall and was later stationed at the Antonine Wall fort at Bar Hill. Following the Roman withdrawal from the Antonine Wall, the unit was once again located at Carvoran and was probably also present at the Hadrian’s Wall fort at Housesteads, where an uninscribed tombstone features the image of an archer.
First Cohort of Tungrians
The First Cohort of Tungrians (cohors I Tungrorum milliaria peditata) was an auxiliary infantry unit of about 1000 men from modern-day Belgium (Gallia Belgica). The unit is known from the Vindolanda writing tablets to have been based there in the late 1st century AD, and later left a building inscription at Carrawburgh fort on Hadrian’s Wall.
© Hunterian Museum
The unit is also known from inscriptions at two sites in Scotland: the fort at Cramond and at Castlecary (above) on the Antonine Wall. The inscription from Castlecary records building work within the fort, but it is unknown if the unit formed part of the garrison once the fort was completed; it is possible that the cohort was split between the forts at Castlecary and Cramond. Later, in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, the unit was based at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall.
First Cohort of Vardullians
The First Cohort of Vardullians (cohors I Vardullorum milliaria peditata) was an auxiliary infantry unit of about 1000 men from modern-day northern Spain (Hispania Terraconensis). The unit is known from a number of forts across northern Britain, with the earliest known location at Castlecary fort on the Antonine Wall. The fort at Castlecary was too small to have held the full cohort, though, and it has been suggested that part of the unit was stationed elsewhere—possibly in north Africa.
Pottery of North African style has been identified at several sites along the Antonine Wall, and it is possible that this originated with African recruits accompanying the First Cohort of Vardullians after their return from war in Mauretania.
We know that that the unit was present at Corbridge, on Hadrian’s Wall between the forts at Rudchester and Halton Chesters, at Cappuck in the Borders region, High Rochester in Northumberland and at Lanchester in County Durham. The inscriptions at High Rochester are dated the latest (in the 3rd century), and this may have been the unit’s final post.
First Tungrian Wing
The First Tungrian Wing (ala I Tungrorum) was an auxiliary cavalry unit of 500 men from modern-day Belgium (Gallia Belgica). Military documents from Chester and York record the unit’s presence in Britain during the early 2nd century. For at least part of the Antonine Wall’s functional life between around AD 140-60, the unit was stationed at the Wall’s largest fort, Mumrills, where an altar to Hercules Magusanus was dedicated by Valerius Nigrinus, an officer in the unit.
Second Cohort of Thracians
The Second Cohort of Thracians (cohors II Thracum) was an infantry and cavalry auxiliary unit of about 500 men from modern-day Bulgaria. The unit is known from a tombstone at Mumrills on the Antonine Wall which commemorates the life and death of Nectovelius, son of Vindex, a Brigantian (from modern-day northern England) who died after nine years of service with the unit.
This cohort is also known from multiple inscriptions from the Cumbrian Coast fort at Moresby.
Fourth Cohort of Gauls
The Fourth Cohort of Gauls (cohors IV Gallorum quingenaria equitata) was a mixed auxiliary unit of about 600 men from modern-day France (Gaul). The unit may have been part of the force that invaded Britain in AD 43, and it is known from inscriptions at Castlesteads fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Risingham, and Vindolanda, as well as Castlehill fort on the Antonine Wall. At Castlehill, the unit’s commander Pisentius Iustus dedicated an altar to the Goddesses of the Parade Ground and to Britannia. The unit’s final known service was at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall.
© Hunterian Museum
Sixth Cohort of Nervians
The Sixth Cohort of Nervians (cohors VI Nerviorum) was an auxiliary infantry unit of about 500 men from modern-day Belgium (Gallia Belgica). The unit saw service on both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, with inscriptions at the Hadrian’s Wall fort of Great Chesters and at Rough Castle fort on the Antonine Wall. At Rough Castle, the unit dedicated an altar to Victory and recorded their construction of the fort’s headquarters building (principia). The altar inscription notes that for part of the time the unit was stationed at Rough Castle, it was commanded by a centurion from the Twentieth Legion named Gaius Flavius Betto.
Unknown Cohort of Baetasians or Batavians
A fragmentary inscription on an altar at Castlecary fort has been interpreted as referring to a cohort of Baetasians or Batavians, both from the modern-day Netherlands. This may refer to the First Cohort of Baetasians, already known to have been present at Bar Hill and Old Kilpatrick. Alternatively, this may be evidence for the First Cohort of Batavians (cohors I Batavorum), a mixed auxiliary unit of infantry and cavalry who are known to have served in Agricola’s campaigns in Scotland during the late 1st century and at sites along Hadrian’s Wall, including the forts at Carvoran and Carrawburgh.