A Glimpse of Life at the Roman Fort Vindolanda

A fictional account of what life may have been like at a Roman fort in the first century A.D. By Deb Bennett, PhD, for EQUUS magazine.
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Editor's Note: The following is a fictional account based on real archaelogical findings at the site of a Roman cavalry fort built nearly 2,000 years ago in northern England. For more on the excavation and it's equine-related artificats, see the article "Vindolanda" in the March 2006 issue of EQUUS magazine.

Nineteen hundred years ago, a Roman soldier named Messicus stood guard duty upon the ramparts of a timber-built fort in what is now northern England. It was a fine, clear day in early summer, with a light breeze promising to freshen as the day progressed.

Early-morning sun lit the eastern sky, but glistening dew still whitened the prospect of meadowland and small fields of ripening wheat and barley that Messicus could see as he gazed to the north. Some hundred feet below him and clearly visible lay a long stretch of the most important east-west highway of the region: the ancient Stanegate Road.

The Road formed the reason for the existence of the fort that Messicus called Vindolanda. From this stronghold, the Romans could monitor traffic and, more importantly, collect tolls and taxes from merchants, freight-haulers and travelers. From the middle of the first century A.D., when Roman armies under the Emperor Claudius had first invaded Britain, the strategic as well as the economic importance of the Road had been obvious.

Thus, in about the year 85, Roman soldiers under the command of officers and engineers erected a fort surrounded by a strong wooden palisade, in appearance not unlike the cavalry forts of the Frontier West. With imposing and well-guarded gates at all points of the compass, and capable of housing about 1,000 men, Vindolanda became a place of lasting importance in the Roman occupation of Britain. Through some eight phases of rebuilding--the last three of which were in stone--Vindolanda was continuously manned for more than 400 years.

In Messicus's time, Vindolanda was home to a "part mounted" unit, the Ninth Cohort of Batavians, Dutch soldiers under the command of one of their own princes, a man whose Latinized name was Flavius Cerialis. Like many noblemen, Cerialis's favorite pastime was hunting, and Messicus knew that Cerialis had ridden out before dawn that very day with a dozen huntsmen drawn from his company. Their absence caused Clodius Super, the Duty Centurion, to shift Messicus to a guard post overlooking the front gates. Of this he was glad, for it was easier by far than labor with the construction detail, the sound of whose iron shovels, axes, saws and hammers came up distinctly from below.

"Hurry up, you unmentionable slugs!" shouted the beefy Clodius from beneath his red-crested helmet, and Messicus, turning his eyes once again to scan the Road, winced in sympathy with his messmates.

As the sun rose higher, traffic on the Road began to move. Messicus could pick out Saco the drover with his team of mules, bringing in a wagon-load of goat-hides, wagon axles, tools and--more importantly to Messicus and visible at the back of the wagon--several barrels of Celtic beer. There too was Lucco, the regimental swineherd, cane in hand, prodding his charges downslope to forage for tasty acorns in the woods. Messicus could hear the grunting and squealing of the pigs, the lovely continuous bubbling of the stream splashing in the valley below and, from behind him, the metallic ring of hammer on anvil as Taurinus, the regimental blacksmith, commenced work for the day.

Though it seemed a peaceful morning, Messicus nevertheless squinted his eyes to scan for enemies on the horizon. The Romans' most dangerous foes, the unconquerable and warlike Scots, lived to the north. To create a buffer against attack, all the terrain within sight of the fort had been designated as a prata territoria or "military zone." Patrolled by scouts on foot and horseback, this area also served as grazing ground for the large herds of cattle, sheep and goats owned and maintained by the Roman army.

From his guard tower on the fort wall, Messicus could also survey the flat parade-ground which lay to the west. There, immediately after dawn muster, Masclus the Captain of Cavalry had ridden out with a troop for morning maneuvers. Though he couldn't hear them, Messicus could see the 60-man squadron forming up, splitting and re-joining in a dozen different patterns. They vaulted on and off their horses' backs and, one by one, they galloped past a row of cow-skull targets fixed on poles, hurling lances and firing arrows, honing warlike skills. Indeed, it was the Batavians' prowess on horseback that had so impressed the Romans that they had offered them the chance to enter the Roman army as auxiliaries, with the inducement that, after the normal 25-year period of enlistment, those who survived could become land-owning citizens of the Empire.

Shifting his gaze to a point closer by, Messicus let his eyes run along the wattled rooftops of a village huddled near the west ramparts of the fort. Smoke rose from about 50 huts and long, barracks-style buildings as women, many of whom were the common-law wives of enlisted men, lit morning fires.

Messicus could smell the day's rations--beef and barley--stewing in the pot with vegetables and seasoning, but to pick out this pleasant odor required him to ignore the stench reeking from a point right under his nose--the deep ditch surrounding the fort. Half-filled with a sluggish flow of water and some 10 feet deep, the ditch was primarily intended as a defensive earthwork. But as the village inn, the brothe, and the officers' guest lodge and their kitchens--as well as the tannery, the slaughterhouse, the glue-maker's premises and the butcher shop--all backed up onto the ditch, it became a convenient place to dump refuse of every description. Old shoes, offcuts from leather hides, dead dogs, used bedding and floor matting, broken cooking pots and crockery, spoiled food and the knackered carcasses of cattle, pigs, sheep and goats all piled up in the ditch, there to putrefy. Truly, mused Messicus, any traveler on the Stanegate Road would know that he was approaching the fort miles before it actually became visible.

The sharp sound of brazen trumpets drew Messicus's thoughts back to his duty. Instantly coming to stiff attention, he observed the return of the Commandant Flavius Cerialis and his hunting party. The quarry this day had been red deer, the European equivalent of American elk, and the chase had evidently been a long one: The dog-pack, tongues lolling, straggled far behind the mounted hunters. Even Cerialis's magnificent part-Oriental stallion--a gift to him from Neratius Marcellus, Governor of Britain--looked blown. But the wide-spreading rack of antlers sagging from beneath a leather tarp strapped over a stout pack-mule told Messicus that the hunt had nevertheless been successful: There would be venison in the officers' mess tonight.

Messicus knew that as summer turned to fall, Cerialis's quarry would shift from deer to wild boar. In winter it would be a campaign against the marauding wolf pack whose tracks could be seen in the snow, while in the spring it would be the daintier pleasures of hawking doves or netting swans.

Vindolanda's massive wooden gates creaked on their iron hinges as guards swung them wide to admit Cerialis and his attendants. Their horses' hoofs clattering on the stone-paved street, the riders advanced as far as the Commandant's residence. Brass bits and metal-studded leather harnesses jingled as the men dismounted, while the dogs, finally catching up, crowded around.

"Ho, Candidus," Messicus heard the commandant shout to a house-slave. "Go and find Alio, our regimental veterinarian, and bring him here; my horse has strained a leg in the exertions of the hunt. Brave boy," he said, turning to run his hand along the magnificent curving neck of the flame-red stallion, "like a good Roman soldier, you don't yield to anything."

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