A garrison fort at the northern edge of the Roman Empire

The Roman fort of Vindolanda sits alongside Hadrian’s Wall close to the town of Hexham in modern day Northumberland. It is situated central to the northern defences of Roman Britain and is sited in a stunningly beautiful location, but one that can be harsh and unforgiving during winter. A posting to this wall at the far northern edge of the Roman Empire must have seemed like a punishment to those sent to watch and defend this volatile border, especially so for those troops who may have come from the warmth and sunshine of the Near East or North Africa.

Vindolanda fort as it would have been in its heyday

Evidence suggests that the first fort was built here around AD 85, some twenty two years after the Roman conquest of the southern part of Britain. The first fort would have consisted of turf embankments and timber walls, only later were they replaced in stone. This was a very turbulent time in the Roman occupation, as the year before, in AD 84, the great Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola had defeated the Caledonii of south-eastern Scotland at Mons Graupius, a place presumed to be in the region of Inverness, but nobody can be certain.

Vindolanda – the name derives from a local term meaning ‘white lawns’ – was rebuilt in stone around AD 120 onwards, when the frontier wall itself was constructed by the Legions of Emperor Hadrian. This wall is still an impressive feature in the landscape today, even after centuries of stone robbery and weathering. When it was newly built it must have been awe inspiring, and to the Picts on the wrong side of the wall, jaw dropping. When in use, the wall was painted white to make it stand out even more. It was meant to be an impressive statement of Roman power, permanence and might, and it would have left nobody in any doubt of that fact.

The Guardians of the Watchtowers

Contrary to what many people believe, the Roman Army did not consist only of Romans but drew its forces from all over the Empire, in the same way that the British Empire did thousands of years later. Vindolanda was never in fact garrisoned by a Roman Legion; rather it was the base for various Auxiliary forces.

From what is currently known, during the earliest days of the fort it was occupied by the 9th Cohort of Batavians, who had an establishment of some one thousand men. These were a people who hailed from what is now Holland. The period AD 97-103 also saw the fort occupied by the 3rd Cohort of Batavians, another 'quingenary' unit approximately 500 strong, as well as a detachment of cavalry from the Spanish Ala Vardullorum.

In AD 105, the Batavians were sent to the Dacian wars in modern day Romania and were replaced by the 1st Cohort of Tungrians, a Germanic people from the modern Dutch/German border region. Upon completion of the wall, the Tungrians moved to occupy another wall fort at Housesteads and were replaced at Vindolanda by another military unit.

A reconstruction of the original timber defence's from outside

A reconstruction of the original timber defence's from inside

It is not known who replaced the Tungrians or when, but soon after AD 212, Vindolanda was occupied by the 4th Cohort of Gauls, who came from what is now northern France. They were a part-mounted unit about 500 strong. Other Cohorts certainly served at the fort, including Nervians. There were also detatchments from the Verdulli and some representation from the Legions. This is not a comprehensive list though, as there were almost certainly other regiments whose names and ethnicities remain unknown.

A faithful reconstruction of a piece of Hadrian's Wall at Vindolanda

A faithful reconstruction of a piece of Hadrian's Wall at Vindolanda

Beyond the End of Empire

The story of Roman Britain did not come to a sudden end in AD 410 as is often supposed, that is just a convenient date for historians. There had been a gradual decline since the middle of the fourth century which accelerated as the century progressed, and the barbarian invasions of Roman territory in Europe caused economic chaos and eventual collapse in the Empire.

By AD 400, the vibrant cities of Britain had already been abandoned as trading centres and they began to crumble and were often reclaimed by nature. After the abandonment they had been replaced by smaller towns and local production, but even these failed during the first half of the fifth century. By the end of that century, urban life in Britain was a thing of the past. It took centuries to re-emerge from the baleful darkness of post-Roman Britain.

Life at Vindolanda carried on after AD 410. In fact around the year AD 400, a Christian church was erected on the site as Christianity was now the only official religion of the Empire. Additionally, again sometime after AD 400, a general stores building and a granary had been converted to living accommodation. This strongly suggests that in such uncertain and dangerous times, none were safe living outside the walls of the fort in the old civilian Vicus that surrounded it. Being born around AD 400 was definitely one of life's short straws, and the generations that followed would know only uncertainty, strife and war.

During the fifth and sixth centuries the fort was still occupied, along with a number of other wall forts. There was government at this time, and the people fought to keep out the northern Picts, but it probably had no stable central control and it too collapsed under the weight of barbarian incursions. Those in the fort were doubtless descendants of the last garrison, who over time became the local leaders and strongmen, no longer beholden to Rome but hanging on to the last vestiges of its culture and traditions.

By the end of Empire in Britain, the Garrison of Vindolanda would have been mostly drawn from the local population. Long gone was the stipulation that soldiers could not serve in their home locations and that fact alone would have tied the men to  the local area, and given the garrison a reason to stay and fight for their families and kinsfolk.

The Darkness After the Light

By around AD 500, Roman Britain was well and truly dead and many technologies disappeared. The art of building in stone was lost as was the knowledge of making concrete. Cities and towns were forgotten and the magnificent Roman infrastructure decayed and collapsed. The decline was catastrophic and heralded in centuries of economic woes, invasion, warfare and a pathetic patchwork of petty kingdoms. 

Only in the tenth century did the people of the old Roman province of Britannia begin to emerge once again as one people, but this time it was with a new language, culture and traditions. Latin was now the sole preserve of the church and in many ways, so was the very core of classical civilization.

Rome never died in the east, it simply morphed into the Byzantine Empire with its capital at the mesmeric city of Constantinople. Whilst the light of civilization was extinguished in the Western Empire, it burned ever brighter in the east, until it succumbed to the forces of Islam in the 15th century.

The address for Vindolanda for those wishing to visit is - Chesterholm Museum, Bardon Mill, Hexham, Northumberland, NE47 7JN. I would highly recommend a visit and hopefully you will have better weather than I had on my last visit  during the awful soggy summer of 2012.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr