“Then Romulus, proudly clad in the tawny pelt of the she-wolf who nursed him, will ensure the future of the race, will found the martial walls and from his own name call them Romans. I have no fixed boundaries to their dominions, no fixed term to their rule, I have given them empire without end.” (Virgil, Aeneid 1.275-83)
Britain was occupied and governed by Rome for almost 400 years and Caesar’s conquest of Gaul brought Roman civilisation to the doorstep of the country. The world of warrior kings and peasants, barbaric splendour and primitive squalor that confronted the legions of Rome was in contrast to the very structured and hierarchical system of Roman society. Cicero, in his Letter to his Brother Quintus 1.1.27, describes a “race of people among whom civilization did not just arise” and as Virgil notes, the Romans considered themselves as “masters of the world, the people of the toga” (Aeneid, 1.275-83). Dependent upon its ancient customs and heroes (Ennius, Annales), the Roman state sought to establish protracted peace upon the barbarians (Tacitus, Agricola 1). The term empire derives from the Latin imperium – its fundamental meaning was ‘command’ and up until the end of the Republic, this remained its primary sense. The geographical extent of the Roman empire at its largest, when Hadrian inherited its territory in 117 CE, encircled the Mediterranean, known in Latin as Mare Internum or Mare Nostrum, and included lands which reached as far as northern England and the Rhine in Germany, and in the south and east touched the North African desert, the Nile and the River Euphrates in Syria (Graham, 2015). The communities of the south east of Britain developed dramatically with the use of coins becoming widespread, market centres were constructed and political organisation changed to a more unified state system. Peace and material prosperity was achieved on an unprecedented level as the Roman historian Tacitus refers to in Histories 4.74: “There were always wars until you submitted to our laws”. In such an atmosphere of exuberance, towns grew and wealthy landowners built sumptuous villas for themselves which were adorned with exceptional mosaics and paintings. The Romans were firmly established over the whole of southern and central England by about AD 47 and although the bleak Pennine heartland was a difficult territory to conquer, by AD 79, what is now England and Wales was firmly under Roman occupation (Branigan, 1980). The security of the province of Britannia depended on mighty fortifications and from the 1st century onwards, the Romans maintained a fleet in British waters to guard against pirates and raiders. The only land boundary in the north was defended against the Caledonians first by the Antonine Wall and subsequently by the formidable coast-to-coast bastion of Hadrian’s Wall. One of the greatest changes in lifestyle in many parts of the empire was the growth of cities. Regions with only villages, such as Britannia, inland Gaul and Spain, experienced the largest growth due to the emergence of enormous cities at the top of settlement hierarchy (Woolf, 2012). The Roman remains beside the River Tyne at Corbridge were identified in the 16th century as those of a town named Corstopitum in a list of Roman routes (Hodgson, 2015).
“What man can be so frivolous and lazy that he does not wonder how it has come about, and under what kind of political regime, that almost the entire civilized world has in less than fifty-three years been brought under the sole rule of Rome? These events are unprecedented.” (Polybius, Histories 1.1.5)
“Give ear then, as they say, to a very fine story” (Plato, Gorgias 523a).
The centuries prior to the Roman invasion lowland Northumberland was largely cleared, settled and cultivated by farmers. A generation after Claudius invaded southern Britain in AD 43, the Roman army first penetrated Northumberland in the AD 70’s. Anti-Roman forces took over from the regime of Queen Cartimandua, ruler of the northern Brigantes, in AD 69, after which the Romans resumed their advance northwards under the Emperor Vespasian. The first military activity at Corbridge stemmed from the governor Julius Agricola who set out to invade Scotland and complete the conquest of the island. Corbridge was a key position on the invasion route east of the Pennines. Tacitus tells us that his father in law Agricola “served his military apprenticeship in Britannia” and “got to know his province… never shirked and was always energetic; careless, never” (Agricola 1). The Roman name of Corbridge means ‘hosting place’ in Celtic which suggests a meeting place or centre for the people of south-east Northumberland and the Tyne Valley. Its true name Coria is recorded in writing tablets found at Vindolanda Fort just 12 miles to the west. Starting life as a fort in about AD 86, the site was garrisoned for almost 40 years before the building of Hadrian’s Wall, which began on higher ground to the north, and controlled the Tyne crossing of the main invasion route into Scotland. The last of a series of timber forts was replaced with a legionary supply base in about AD 160 and the town which grew around it remained a vibrant urban centre until its abandonment in the early 5th century. Ploughing had largely levelled the ruins of Corbridge during the 18th century yet the 1906 excavations started to reveal the extent of the town. A pre-Roman building existed at Corbridge as archaeologists discovered a circular gulley in 1952 beneath the remains of the forts. It is believed that this was likely to be the drainage gulley around a timber roundhouse and a smaller structure was found within. Roman baths were found in 1955 at Red House farm which is half a mile west of the present site and was the first Roman occupation. The fort at Corbridge is situated on a gently rounded elevation above the River Tyne 25 miles inland from the North Sea. The Cor Burn valley provides protection to the west of the site with Hadrian’s Wall 2.5 miles to the north. Corbridge commanded the junction of two main Roman roads, the north-south road between Scotland and York (named Dere Street by the Saxons), and the west-east road from Carlisle named Stanegate. What remains at Corbridge represents only the nucleus of the later Roman town with the entire site covering roughly 40-50 acres of the surrounding fields (Hodgson, 2015).
“What you see before you, stranger, now mighty Rome, were grassy hills before the days of Trojan Aeneas… These golden temples grew for terracotta gods, content to live in simple houses built without art.” (Propertius, Elegies 4.1. 1-6)
“Rolleth the stone as he sweateth in toil yet never advanceth?” (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations).
Augustus established the military system which lasted until the third century and the army was composed of two parts. The senior part was a citizen army commanded by a senator of middling status and gradually these legions became a permanent feature of the frontier areas. Soldiers were not limited to just warfare – they were also involved in public building by surveying land and they provided security at customs posts at provincial boundaries. As well as undertaking building work, a soldier was also a skilled carpenter. In 1st century Britain, this involved cutting turf for the ramparts, every soldier was trained to build such ramparts, and timber for the parapet, gates and buildings. Once Roman rule was established, building and maintenance is likely to have been the principle occupation of the army (Branigan, 1980). As “peace between nations was impossible without soldiers” (Tacitus, Histories 4.74), there was never a military formation that could equal the power and efficiency of a Roman legion. Most of the legions based in Britain during the first 15 years of the occupation were split into detachments that, amalgamated with units of auxiliaries and cavalry, garrisoned forts up and down the country. Irrespective of size, all were originally built of timber and turf and within the defences were a headquarters building, a granary, stables and barrack accommodation. The garrison role of the army was established following the end of the conquest wars and the timber and turf forts were gradually replaced by stone. Although almost all fortifications were built in stone from the 2nd century onwards, building was still the work of the legions who added stonemasonry to their long list of skills. Particular achievements of units were very often commemorated with inscriptions and would include the names of commanding officers and the reigning emperor. Such inscriptions detail the restoration and repair of almost every type of military building. There were few places in the empire where it will have been odd to meet a soldier (Boardman, Griffin & Murray, 1986). The vast majority of military units were based on the frontiers with the larger camps of northern Britain, the Rhineland, the Danube provinces and Africa eventually resembling cities, equipped with monumental walls and gates, stone-built amphitheatres, bathhouses and shrines (Woolf, 2012).
“In the beginning the City of Rome was ruled by kings. Lucius Brutus established freedom and the consulship. Dictatorships were taken up from time to time… Augustus took control of the whole state, worn out as it was by civil war, with the First Citizen.” (Tacitus, Annales 1.1)
“Anaximander of Miletus imagined there arose from heated water and earth either fish or fish-like creatures… then at last the creatures broke open, and men and women emerged who were already capable of feeding themselves.” (Censorinus, On Birthdays 4.7.1-5)
Ensuring that there was sufficient food in store to see the troops through the winter was a constant preoccupation of every garrison commander. Large stone granaries were features of every permanent fort – walls were buttressed and the floors raised to keep the contents dry. Papyrus found at the Syrian outpost of Dura Europos reveals that soldiers were collecting and obtaining their staple foods and were not growing it or harvesting it for themselves (Andrews, 2015). The cliche that an army marches on its stomach is a familiar one however, even when not marching, a military unit required a lot of food. The most basic element of the Roman diet was grain and was made into bread or porridge. Also needing to provide grain for cavalry horses and other animals, the policy was to obtain it from within the province where the army was based and also to get supplies as locally as possible (Andrews, 2015). Tacitus indicates that local farmers were expected to provide grain for the army (Agricola 19) and in Britain at least, it appears that this was a form of taxation and the local people were also required to deliver grain to its destination. Both the papyrus from Dura Europos and the Agricola suggest that grain for the troops had to be transported by road so not only were roads an essential component of communication, they were also vital for the efficient supply of grain and other goods to the troops. In remote communities such as northern Britain, roads would be built, largely by the army, connecting regions and locations to make it easier for merchants and traders to reach them. Not only did the troops require essential items, other provisions that made garrison life more comfortable would also be needed. All Roman soldiers needed olive oil, which was considered essential, as a food item but also used in the baths in place of soap and for lighting. The British Queen Boudica says of the Roman army: “they require kneaded bread and wine and oil, and if any of these things fail them, they perish; for us, on the other hand, any grass or root serves as bread, the juice of any plant as oil, any water as wine…” (Dio Cassius 62.5). In Britain and parts of Gaul providing such ‘basics’ would involve long distance transport in comparison to other parts of the empire where supplies of olive oil and wine were locally plentiful.
“A small crop is enough, it is enough if it possible to rest in a bed and lighten the limbs on a familiar couch. How pleasant it is lying there to listen to wild winds” (Tibullus, Elegies I. I.43-46).
“Let’s eat, if you don’t mind. This is the sauce of all order.” (Petronius, The Satyricon and the Fragments)
The granaries at Corbridge are the best preserved of the standard military type anywhere in the Empire and what remains today are likely to be those built under Septimus Severus (AD 193-211). The floors were raised on dwarf walls above a ventilated basement to keep the contents cool and dry with buttresses supporting the thick outer walls. In front of the doors facing onto the Stanegate were loading platforms covered by porticoes – the fine and impressive column bases can be seen at the edge of the road. When the Stanegate was rebuilt at a higher level in the late 3rd or early 4th century, all except the outermost eastern bases were raised and by the late 4th century, the road had risen far above the granary entrances. The west granary is likely to belong to the legionary supply depot of the 160’s when a walled compound surrounded the granaries. Part of this is still visible but all earlier work in the east granary was obliterated by the Severan rebuild of AD 198-209. In about AD 674 there was still upstanding Roman buildings at Corbridge when Saxon masons took stone to build the new church, ordered by Wilfrid Bishop of York, at Hexham three miles away. The crypt of this church was rediscovered in 1725 and many reused Roman stones can be found in the walls. Along with ornate architectural fragments, blocks with tooled decoration from the bridges at Corbridge and Chesters still survive in the crypt along with inscriptions and a slab marking the building of the granaries under Septimus Severus. A significant number of coins found on the site show that the granaries were still in use in the late 4th century, which was then operated by the civil authorities who collected tax in the form of grain (Hodgson, 2015).
“Meanwhile Rome was growing. More and more ground was coming within the circuit of its walls.” (Livy, The Early History of Rome)
“The ancients made the inhabited world round” (Agathemerus, Geography 1.1-2).
The Stanegate forms one of the most recognizable landmarks among the remains at Corbridge. Separating the vast courtyard building, known as Site XI, a fountain and the granaries on its north side from the remains of two legionary compounds to the south. The Stanegate follows what was one of the main roads through the fort, the via principalis, which connected the east and west gates (Hodgson, 2015). Prior to the Roman conquest there were no roads in the modern sense in Britain at all. Forming only artificial ways in the country, log causeways were built in Somerset to connect one settlement with another across a few miles of boglands from about 3000 BC. Apart from one or two timbered causeways in marshy areas, there were no paved or surfaced roads and rivers were the main trade arteries. Some of these routes were gravelled in places and used as secondary roads by the Romans but for the most part, they provided the base of an efficient and comprehensive transport system (Branigan, 1980). A 25ft long scroll known as the Peutinger Table details all the main roads and routes from Hadrian’s Wall to Ceylon with more than 500 towns and relay stations shown and symbols to indicate types of accommodation offered. Originally published in the mid 4th century AD, the Table was designed for the imperial courier service and for high officials. A surviving 12th century copy has the section covering most of the province of Britain missing however, it appears in another document – the Antonine Itinerary which was compiled in the reign of Emperor Caracalla (AD 211-217). More than 6000 miles of major Roman roads in Britain, as well as many more miles of minor roads and local trackways, have been traced from studying the Antonine Itinerary and other ancient documents. Originally built to carry military traffic, the main roads were the supply routes for the garrison forts with other roads that were built to link as yet unconnected towns with one another and intended for civilian traffic.
“Not one of all the people who have drawn maps of the world has set it out sensibly.” (Herodotus, Histories 4.36.2)
“Nero’s architects and engineers did not balk at effects which Nature herself had ruled out as impossible.” (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome)
The great courtyard building (below), known as Site XI since its discovery in 1908, is situated north of the Stanegate and is a square surrounded by ranges. The central area of the fort was later covered by the large courtyard building which belongs to the town and legionary supply depot that replaced the fort. On the west side of the courtyard part of the north range of the principia of the last fort still remains. The principia was the headquarters building of the fort and on the opposite side of the enclosure is the remains of the commander’s house, praetorium. As the courtyard building was never finished, these fort structures were never fully cleared away. The entrance to the courtyard is in the centre of the south range which was divided into rooms that opened onto the Stanegate. Although most of the masonry has been taken for building material over the centuries, the preserved remains are impressive. Huge blocks with heavily rusticated faces are tightly jointed and surmount a fine moulded plinth. Closely paralleled in plan to store buildings at Continental legionary bases and by certain markets in Rome, it is thought likely that it was intended as the forum for a new city of a new legionary fortress. Indicative of an important imperial building project is the quality and scale of the craftsmanship which is clearly evident in the remains at Corbridge. The south range was completed and used but the court was never fully levelled and the upper blocks at the north end of the east range remain undressed. Construction is believed to have begun in the 160’s or 170’s and possibly the Marcomannic Wars on the Danube in the later 160’s was the reason for the abrupt abandonment of its construction (Hodgson, 2015).
“So in expectation and enthusiasm alike I was quite alert, and I studied each feature with some care. I imagined that at any moment the statues and portraits would parade about, that the walls would speak, that oxen and other cattle would prophesy, that the very sky and the sun’s orb would suddenly proclaim an oracular message.” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass)
“The general herd, whom philosophers call the laity, trust Homer and Hesiod and the other myth-makers in these matters” (Lucian, On Funerals 1-9).
On the opposite side of the praetorium in the courtyard enclosure is the remains of the square shrine (aedes). Here is where the standards and the pay chest were kept where it could be protected by the gods. There are vertical slots in its inner wall faces which show where originally a timber structure stood before being encased in stone. Along with a pantheon of Greek and Roman gods, the Persian cult of Mithras was imported to areas of Britain where horned warrior gods and stone heads were still worshipped by the Celts (Branigan, 1980). The Roman civic and military authorities were generally tolerant of the religious practices of the peoples they conquered and where possible, assimilated the gods of conquered territories into their own religious system. While the Romans worshipped numerous gods, the Celtic world consisted of countless divinities and most appear to have been very localised. Inscriptions indicate that some deities were worshipped over a wide area whereas others, such as in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, were known only within a small neighbourhood. The inclusion of these gods in Roman inscriptions indicates that the imperial government made no attempt to suppress these native cults. Many Romano-Celtic temples were built over the remains of Iron Age sanctuaries and most of the British temples of Roman times consisted of circular, square or polygonal shrines surrounded by either a veranda or a covered cloister. The floor was sometimes laid with mosaic with the walls of the shrine generally painted and entrances flanked by imposing columns. As the army was recruited from all parts of the Empire, they brought many new gods to Britain but officially, the legions owed their chief devotion to Jupiter. Each New Year’s Day new altars were dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus with the old altars ritually buried. Essentially a public religion with communal rituals (sacra publica), the interests of the gods always lay in promoting the success of the Roman state and was above all in the business of state, political and military action (Beard & Crawford, 2012).
“The most important respect in which Roman civil society surpasses that of other states seems to me to be how it treats the gods. Among the Romans it is a source of cohesion: I mean their respect of the gods… nothing is treated as more important than this” (Polybius, Histories 6.56.6-8).
“Chaos was first of all, but next appeared Broad-bosomed Earth, sure standing place for all” (Hesiod, Theogony 116-118).
The way we try to understand how societies work remains firmly based in a tradition of political science that can be traced directly back to classical Greece. From the earliest records we know that Rome attributed its growth and success through the virtue of her men and the favour of her gods – as is evident from Roman texts and monuments. Roman prosperity derived from the proper management of relations with their gods and although there were no detailed codes of ethics, the Romans believed their support might be lost by neglecting their cult or through acts of impiety. Most peoples of the ancient world believed in a plurality of gods and paid cult to a number of them. Rituals were designed to establish their wishes and to win divine favour with animal sacrifice almost always involved. There were rituals to mark the departures of generals and their returns, rituals preparing for battle and temples dedicated to a deity following battlefield successes. Reputations could be established through military and political achievements or divine associations and were recorded in literature, family tombs, immortalised in stone in a relief or by the dedication of a temple. The primary function of a temple was religious – it provided a home for a god and a focus for cult practices (Andrews, Fear & Perkins, 2006). The craftsmanship of the legionaries is evident in the quantity and quality of religious sculpture and architectural stonework discovered at Corbridge. After AD 160 Corbridge was the permanent home to two detachments from different legions and an inscription dedication to concordia, or harmony, between these intensely proud detachments indicates that no rivalry existed. A sculpted panel (above left) shows the vexillum (flag) of a detachment of the 2nd Legion and was originally from the west compound principia. The vexillum has a decorated textile banner hanging from a cross-bar, topped by a damaged wreath, and with a carrying handle in the shape of a bird. Vexilla appear on numerous sculptures along Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. The vexillum gave its name to detachments (vexillationes) of soldiers posted away from their parent unit. The relief of a pilaster (above right) bedecked with roses is believed to be from a panel that was once in the west principia. The relief of two goddesses, Fortuna (goddess of fate and chance) and Ceres (goddess of cereal crops) is depicted below. Fortuna stands holding a cornucopia and a rudder, with a globe by her right foot symbolising how she gave plenty to the empire and guided people towards good fortune. Ceres is seated and appears to hold a long flaming torch and a loaf of bread, a reference to her as a corn-mother and as lighter of darkness. This dedication would have been made to ask for a good harvest. Ceres is the Roman name for Demeter and the cult was established on the Aventine Hill in 496 BC. When the city of Rome was under attack from the Etruscans, the city was threatened with famine. The Sibylline Books were consulted and they advised the introduction of the cults of Dionysus and Demeter. Essentially the Corn Goddess, Demeter was the divinity of agriculture (Grimal, 1991). Fortuna was often depicted with a rudder to symbolize that she steered the course of people’s lives and during the Imperial period, each emperor had his own personal Fortuna.
“Next comes the earth, that one part of nature that for her many gifts to us we honour with the name of Mother. She is our realm, as the sky belongs to the gods. She welcomes us when we are born, nurtures us as we grow, and when we are adults sustains us always” (Pliny, Natural History 2.154).
“Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black, And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.” (Clement, Miscellanies 7.22.1)
Discipline in the army life of the Romans was strict to the point of harshness. Centurions carried canes which they appear to have used freely with loss of rank or privileges frequent punishments. Dishonourable discharge meant losing both the shelter of the unit and more important, the grant of land or citizenship on retirement. Cowardice in battle often led to decimation – literally, the execution of every tenth man in the unit concerned with survivors placed on rations (Branigan, 1980). A statue base celebrating the discipline of the emperor (Discipulina) was found at Corbridge which supported a lost statue. Erected by soldiers of the Second Legion, dedications made to Discipulina represented a show of loyalty and adherence to the military virtues through the personification of abstract concepts such as deities. This reminded soldiers that the orders they were following had divine status. Below is a depiction of one of the Dioscuri, the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux. This pair of gods came to be seen as gods of salvation and as patrons of military equipment, especially in association with cavalry. The Dioscuri were the sons of Zeus and in Roman legends, they appeared as participants in the battle of Lake Regillus alongside the Romans. The twins became divine following their numerous adventures and a Temple of Castor stood near the Lacus Juturnae in the Forum Romanum (Grimal, 1991). A relief depicting the sun god Sol wearing a crown of rays riding towards a colonnaded building occupied by one of the Dioscuri has also been found at Corbridge. The scene is thought to have come from a temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus (the Syrian sky god) and indicates how Roman gods could be associated together. Co-existing with the worship of Jupiter alone, the cult of Jupiter Diochenus, and other merged versions of Jupiter, was popular throughout the Roman army. Several reliefs from this temple have survived reused in later Roman work at Corbridge with rich evidence for several other cults with origins in the eastern part of the Empire. From AD 160 the legionaries built a series of classical temples of which ornate architectural fragments were found reused in a 4th century re-surfacing of the Stanegate. These temples were outside the centre of the site and are thought to date to the same period when the bridge across the Tyne was rebuilt as a magnificent stone structure of at least six arches, and when the granaries were rebuilt. The sanctuary of classical temples is believed to have stood in an enclave that included temples to other oriental cults as evidence has been found relating to Panthea-Cybele, the great mother goddess, and Asarte and the Tyrian Heracles, both worshipped according to mysterious occult rites at the Syrian port of Tyre. Other evidence includes several altars that are inscribed in Greek – the language of the Eastern Empire (Hodgson, 2015).
“You will act more wisely if you stop speculating about heavenly bodies and discussing final causes and first causes, spit your scorn at those clever syllogisms, and counting all that sort of thing nonsense, make it always your sole object to put the present to good use and to hasten on your way” (Lucian, Menippus 17-21).
“He put in so many routes and paths, so many corners and nooks and crannies, and made the routes so twisting that when someone thought they were right next to the exit they were furthest from it.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 8 976-986)
South of the Stanegate are two military compounds with the remains of later buildings sunk into the subsiding ground on either side. Most of the area south of the Stanegate was excavated before 1914 but following re-examination in 1936-1943, it was recognized that the enclosures were legionary compounds. The compounds were built to house the legionary detachments based at Corbridge in the 3rd century. The respective principia faced each other down the long vista which was formed by the central east-west street. The cobble foundations of the east compound principia are poorly preserved but indicate a small building for a detachment rather than a full unit – there is no colonnaded courtyard but a mere narrow hall backed by an apsidal shrine flanked by offices. Located behind the principia are the remains of two apsidal buildings. These buildings are thought to be scholae, meeting halls for the unofficial religious associations of soldiers in the Roman army with the smaller building possibly housing a shrine. At the east end of the site are four plots which front onto the Stanegate. These buildings were probably commercial premises or official stores and were left intact for the essential role they played, similar to the granaries and Site XI, in military support. West of the principia are two buildings north of the axial street one of which is thought to have been a workshop. In the late 3rd and 4th centuries all the legionary buildings were replaced, or their uses changed, to suit the needs of the late Roman inhabitants. Originally two towers flanked a gate from the Stanegate to a side street leading to the compounds. On either side of the street is a water tank each being fed by a conduit running beneath the Stanegate from the fountain on its north side. Drains on both sides of the street carried overflow to the river. Two rectangular barrack buildings occupy the west compound each having projecting wings that contained stores or offices. Although only two of these buildings are clearly visible, the compound had five and internally they were divided by a central partition. Many furnaces, tempering tanks and iron slag was found in these buildings leading to the belief that these were the workshops of a legionary depot for the repair and manufacture of weaponry. Excavations indicate however, that the plan of these buildings was much altered during the late 3rd or 4th century when they were no longer used as barracks. The front walls were moved out to align with the fronts of the projecting wings with many new partitions inserted.
“Anything generated must have a last part that is generated, and there is also a point at which the destruction of anything ends” (Aristotle, Physics)
“Thales says that the world is held up by water and rides on it like a ship, and that what we call an earthquake happens when the earth rocks because of the movement of the water. ” (Theophrastus, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’)
Major settlements, forts and towns were supplied with water by aqueducts which brought water from sources often many miles distant. Following the natural contours with a very slight gradient, water in Britain was usually conducted over long distances in an open channel. After impurities had been deposited in settling tanks, gravity distributed water along systems of water pipes that were constructed of timber, lead or tile. Joints were made watertight with mortar and ceramic pipe sections were made with a constricted end to fit into the next piece. Underground and surface drains made of timber or stone took storm water, tanks overflows and waste water out of the settlement and very often, they were designed to flush out latrines on the way. The conduits at Corbridge led towards the slope down to the river. Between Site XI and the granaries to the west is an elaborate fountain (below). Built in the late second or early third century, it was the main public water supply for both legionaries and civilians. An aqueduct channel brought the water from a source to the fountain head via a covered stone conduit that enters the site 70m north of the fountain. The whole was encased in a clay bank which survives today as a grass covered mound. Only the lowest part of a wall facing the Stanegate survives but it would have formed a decorative screen hiding the utilitarian mound behind it. In front of this screen was a structure built to house the spout and was framed by columns and topped by a pediment. The surviving fragments commemorate the 20th Legion as builders of the fountain (Hodgson, 2015). Statue bases, which were later additions, have been found at Corbridge and as communal fountains were a social focus and a civic status symbol, they were often liable to lavish embellishment (Hornblower & Spawforth, 2004). The play of water was an integral part of Roman gardens and the idea of the locus amoenus (pleasant place) was firmly embodied in Roman society. One of the great benefits brought to Britain by the Romans was a proper system of town sewers. Side channels from private and public buildings fed into them and the discharge ran downhill until it emptied finally into the rivers. The supplies of water on a scale unprecedented before the arrival of the Romans were needed to service the public baths, fountains, lavatories and sewer systems they introduced. In most cases, the answer was to build aqueducts and Britain’s undulating countryside obviated the need for huge aqueducts like those in Italy and North Africa (Branigan, 1980).
“Rainfall is the result of the vapour which is sent up from the earth under the influence of the sun.” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 1.6.4-7)
“As soon as the darkness was dispelled and a new sun ushered in the day, I rose from my couch the moment I awoke from sleep, for I was generally buoyed up, and most eager to discover the weird and wonderful features of the place.” (Apuleius, The Golden Ass)
The remains of the succession of forts buried beneath the later town were explored from the 1940’s to the 1970’s and revealed that Fort I was founded in about AD 86 and built of timber, it had posts set in trenches over a metre deep. The Vindolanda Tablets show that Corbridge was an important centre in the AD 90’s when soldier’s from Vindolanda were detached here. Following wars on the Continent at the beginning of the 2nd century, troops were withdrawn from Britain and in about AD 105 Corbridge was burnt down. All forts were abandoned north of the Tyne – Solway isthmus, on which Corbridge lay, and a new fort was built at Corbridge as part of a new frontier line – the Stanegate Frontier. Occupying a key position, the new fort (Fort II) and its buildings were enclosed within a turf rampart, again of timber construction, with posts set in trenches. The emperor Hadrian decided to strengthen the Stanegate Frontier in AD 122 with his great wall. It was once believed that Corbridge was abandoned after new forts were built along Hadrian’s Wall but evidence has instead revealed that the site was modified at this time (Fort III). Although it is not known what military unit was present at the time, the principia was given its stone shrine, the granaries were moved to the east side of the fort and the barracks were rebuilt. Corbridge became the scene of frantic activity in AD 138 when Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian and reversed the frontier policy in Britain. The fort was rebuilt (Fort IVA) within the existing turf rampart and for the first time, stone was used extensively in the main buildings. An inscription shows that some soldiers of the 6th Legion were stationed at Corbridge in about AD 158 and in AD 161, the auxiliary unit Cohors I Vardullorum dedicated an inscription at the fort. The last major modifications were made to the fort at this time (Fort IVB) which included the rebuilding of the barracks in stone. The earliest evidence for temples at Corbridge are building fragments and a dedication of the AD 160’s by the 6th Legion and found reused in the later town. Site XI is likely to date to the same period and combined a warehouse and macellum (market). By the time of the breach of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 180 or 181, Corbridge was already acquiring the character of a town. When the old fort defences were finally removed, it’s possible that the town may even have been given official status as a civitas capital (a regional capital). By the early AD 200’s an extensive civilian town had grown up around the core of the legionary garrison and supply depot. The streets of the town extended into the fields outside the modern enclosure and aerial photographs have shown that these streets were lined with strip-houses, long half-timbered buildings with a narrow street frontage. The inhabitants would have manufactured and traded all kinds of goods from foodstuffs, pottery, glass, jewellery, textiles, leather and provided services from medicine to innkeeping (Hodgson, 2015). The museum at Corbridge has an outstanding collection of artefacts, inscriptions, sculptures and objects from Hadrian’s Wall. Providing a vivid picture of everyday life and work, hundreds of tools and other small objects give an insight into the lives of individuals. The framework of a new town was based upon its street system. There were two roads, laid out at right angles to each other, from which side streets ran off at regular intervals to form a grid of rectangular building plots called insulae (islands). Although all the major towns attempted to follow this pattern, no town in Roman Britain had a perfectly symmetrical street system (Branigan, 1980). Major organized building works took place as late as AD 370 but Corbridge appears to have been rapidly abandoned when Roman administration in Britain collapsed in the early years of the 5th century. Despite the continued removal of stone in the following centuries, the 16th century antiquaries John Leland and William Camden were struck by the upstanding remains and in 1725, Roger Gale described “the circuit of of the walls” as visible. The site was levelled by agricultural work in about 1810.
“Then the cake seller with his varied cries, the sausage man, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation” (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, Volume I).
“You, traveller, who make your way along the path with your foot laced up, halt, I ask you… I traversed the doctrines of Pythagoras and the views of the philosophers, I read the lyric poets and the holy epics of Homer… At the same time I enjoyed diversions and amusements.” (Musa Lapidaria, A Selection of Latin Verse Inscriptions, CIL II 6435)
The longest period of unification the western world has ever known slowly began its demise from the middle of the 3rd century onwards. The garrison of the province of Britain was gradually weakened by the demand for troops on other frontiers and by the removal of units to support the imperial throne. The same period saw the coast under constant threat by raiders from the Low Countries, the Western Isles and Ireland. The great forts that were built along the coast from Brancaster to Portchester, the forts of the Saxon Shore, kept Saxon and Frankish raiders at bay and Hadrian’s Wall secured the northern frontier so even with a depleted garrison, the province remained fairly safe. Simultaneous attacks in AD 367 however saw the Roman army largely powerless before the invaders and for the first time, the fabric of Romanised life in Britain was threatened. Theodosius, the last of three generals appointed in quick succession, drove out the invaders and reorganised defences and improved fortifications. By AD 410 the last of the regular army had departed and so had the Roman administration. After about AD 402, no new imperial coinage entered Britain and after four centuries of an established Roman monetary system, money became scarce and drastically affected the economy. The Roman system of local government was maintained in some towns until the mid 5th century but pestilence and famine brought the final curtain down upon a number of towns. Plagues in the western provinces in the 5th and 6th centuries were referred to by several late Roman writers and the Venerable Bede noted that “a terrible plague struck… and in a short while destroyed so large a number that the living could scarcely bury the dead.” Although Christianity was not Roman in origin, the Church increasingly came to be the vehicle of Roman culture and civic values (Boardman, Griffin & Murray, 1986). The end of the western Empire in AD 476 was an event that no one at the time much noticed yet the centuries of great change following the departure of the Romans still left a legacy which survives to this day. The dramatic history of Roman Britain has left us with remnants of many relics of occupation, road patterns, preserved remains of baths, temples, palaces, villas, walls and forts – some of which have become permanent features on the landscape. The prominent components of its archaeological heritage have seen archaeologists, art historians and social scientists of every kind joining the science of classical antiquity that was first established by the philologists of the 19th century. Conservation is firmly established in law and it is rare for Roman monuments to be threatened with demolition (Woolf, 2012). The sense of excitement in piecing together a great movement through history that has left so many traces in the world we inhabit today remains undiminished.
“I hope my passion for Rome’s past has not impaired my judgment; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater” (Livy, The Early History of Rome).
Felix Qui Potuit Rerum Cognoscere Causas
- Ancient Architecture
- Ancient Monuments
- Antonine Itinerary
- Antoninus Pius
- Archaeologia Aeliana
- Britannia Romana
- Chorographicall Description of the Most Flourishing Kingdomes
- Cohors I Vardullorum
- Cor Burn
- Corbridge Roman Fort
- Corbridge Roman Town
- Dere Street
- Dura Europos
- Emperor Vespasian
- English Heritage
- Hadrian's Wall
- Henry Knowles
- Hexham Abbey
- Historic England
- Itinerarium Septentrionale
- Julius Agricola
- Jupiter Dolichenus
- Jupiter Optimus Maximus
- Legio II Augusta
- Legio VI Victrix
- Leonard Woolley
- Museum Collections
- Pax Romana
- Peutinger Table
- Queen Cartimandua
- Red House Farm
- River Tyne
- Robert Forster
- Roman Fort
- Roman Site
- Sacra Publica
- Septimius Severus
- Sibylline Books
- Stanegate Frontier
- The Corbridge Hoard
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain
- Twentieth Legion
- Venerable Bede
- Via Principalis
- Vindolanda Fort
- Vindolanda Tablets
- William Coulson