Travel Britain: High jinx on the Roman frontier

Good food, parties and flourishing love lives - Hadrian's Wall wasn't such a bad posting for centurions.
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One of the abiding images of Victorian Britain is of the British army and its wives and children forging out an existence on the North- West Frontier. Perhaps it's no surprise that the Victorians admired the Romans second only to themselves, so it's appropriate that the Roman north- west frontier was here. Hadrian's Wall and its magnificent forts are some of the most splendid remnants of Roman rule in Britain, but there was far more to life than wind-blown strongholds and rain-soaked troops.

The wall was built in the early 120s - AD that is - about 80 years after the Roman invasion, and over the next 280 years it staggered along being occasionally abandoned, reoccupied, and repaired.

Although the Roman army had already been in the area for 40 years or more, there is not much known about warfare on the Wall, aside from occasional references in ancient sources to barbarians crossing the frontier. Generations of troops idled their lives away up on the frontier, nearly all the garrison being auxiliaries, provincials recruited for their special fighting skills and kept in ethnic units.

The tragedy of archaeology is that so much daily ephemera gets lost through decay, but the fort of Vindolanda is an exception. Built originally in the late first century beside the Roman frontier road now called the Stanegate, it was made of timber and earth and constantly rebuilt. Around the year 103 the ninth cohort of Batavians was told to pack its bags ready for transfer to another part of the Roman world and the fort archives were promptly stacked into a bonfire and burnt.

No one who knows northern England will be surprised to hear there was a downpour. The bonfire was put out and wind scattered the documents, written on ultra-thin sheets of wood, across the derelict fort. Over the years the documents were buried under later forts and sealed in a waterlogged level but, fortunately for us, the dynamic excavation policy of Vindolanda's director, Robin Birley, has uncovered many of these records, bringing to life the world of Flavius Cerealis, the Batavians' prefect, his family and his troops a generation before the Wall was built.

It was not, it seems, a hideous world of frozen privation. Flavius's wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, received an invitation to a birthday party from her friend, Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, another commanding officer. She had had a slave or clerk write the invitation but added a note in her own hand, the earliest piece of female Latin handwriting known. Flavius himself was unlikely to care if his wife went off to a birthday party. He was probably out hunting and even wrote to Brocchus to scrounge some spare nets. Not that he needed to go hunting. The surviving documents - now on display at the British Museum in London - list the foodstuffs available at Vindolanda as including garlic, venison, spices, olives, oysters, and even plums.

Some of these goods came by road from Catterick, then called Cataractonium. Octavius, a merchant, bleated in a letter that the roads were in such a rotten state that he didn't want to put his haulage animals at risk, but they weren't the only ones. A strength report of another cohort, this time the 752-strong Tungrians, lists 15 sick, six wounded, and 10 suffering from eye inflammation.

The visible fort at Vindolanda is third- and fourth-century in date but it overlies the wooden fort of Flavius Cerealis. The jewel in the crown at Vindolanda is its astonishing museum filled with the kind of perishables that almost never turn up elsewhere. Leather shoes, clothes, tents and wooden utensils cram the display cases.

Vindolanda is not the only place to meet the people of Rome's furthest corner. In the middle of Newcastle, once itself a fort on Hadrian's Wall and guardian of the Pons Aelius, the Roman bridge over the Tyne, is the Museum of Antiquities.

In here are acres and acres of stone inscriptions which at first sight look rather arid and are reminiscent of tedious school trips. Much the most memorable are the records of the individuals. Aulus Cluentius Habitus left an altar at the temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh on the Wall. On it he made it clear that he was from Larinum in Italy, home of the great orator, politician and lawyer Cicero more than 200 years before.

That little piece of one-upmanship is upstaged by the family tragedy of Aurelius Julianus the tribune, commanding at the fort of Birdoswald far to the west along the Wall. When, at the age of a year and five days, his baby son Aurelius Concordius died, Aurelius Julianus commemorated him on a tombstone which has found its way to this museum.

Another personal tragedy lies across the river at South Shields. Like Vindolanda, this fort stood to the rear of the Wall and acted as another component of the huge frontier machine. Here Barates the Palmyrene (he came from Syria) brought his wife, Regina. There was more to the relationship than meets the eye. Regina was a Catuvellaunian, from the Hertfordshire area, and had been a slave. Barates bought her and freed her, then married her in one of the earliest interracial marriages known. Aged only 30, Regina died and Barates, bereft and distressed, invested in a magnificent tombstone. Regina sits in a deep wicker armchair with her jewellery box and work-basket. Her face is gone, so whether she was beautiful or not we shall never know. We need hardly ask what Barates thought.

No less captivated by the charms of the deceased was Numerianus, a cavalryman based at South Shields. When his freedman, Victor, died at the age of 20, Numerianus splashed out on a tombstone depicting the young man lounging on a couch. Just how close the two were will remain a secret but Numerianus "devotedly conducted" Victor to his tomb.

Oddly, winter can be the most evocative time to visit Hadrian's Wall even if it's not wise to stay out too long. But spare a while to browse in the museums and hear about it from the people who lived there. Perhaps it's all summed up by a single stone at Newcastle, found along the Wall. Its simple commemoration of a lucky escape from the elements reads "FULGUR DIVO[RU]M" - "Lightning of the Gods".

Details on entrance to Vindolanda, or Chesterholm on 01434 344277. There is a 10 per cent discount for English Heritage members. The Vindolanda letters are in the new Romano-British gallery of the British Museum at Great Russell Street, London WC1 (0171-636 1555). The Museum of Antiquities (0191-222 6000) at the University of Newcastle is open all year round from Monday to Saturday between 10am and 5pm and entrance is free. Easiest access is from the Haymarket Metro stop. The South Shields Museum (0191- 454 4093) is free and is open all year round. South Shields Metro station is a 15- to 20-minute walk away.

The writer is author of `Hadrian's Wall: History and Guide' (Tempus 1998, pounds 9.99) and he is presenting a series on Roman Britain. The next episode, on Hadrian's Wall, is on BBC2 on 18 December at 7.30pm.