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From Aug 2006 - Nov 2013 WeDig provided a live forum for diggers & fans of Vindolanda. It has now been mothballed and will be maintained as a live archive.

Here you will find preserved 7 years of conversation, photos, & knowledge about a site many people love. Vindolanda gets under the skin. (Figuratively and literally as a volunteer excavator!) It's a place you remember, filled with people you remember!

Thanks for 7 great years!



In terms of its primary mission—preserving the state it served—the Roman army may be considered to be the most successful military organization in history. The Roman military managed, often despite grave odds, to maintain a Roman political entity from some time in the 8th century BCE up to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century CE, a span of some 2200 years. Like the polity it served, the army evolved radically: from a force drawn from the subjects of a small city-state kingdom, the Roman military adapted itself to meet the challenges presented by other Italian peoples, then that of overseas enemies, and finally to the centuries-long mission of defending a world empire.

In its beginnings the army was apparently little different from that of other Italo-Etruscan city-states, fighting in the Greek phalanx formation which was the dominant, successful model of the time. The phalanx was composed of men wealthy enough to equip themselves with a full ‘hoplite panoply’: circular shield, long spear (approximately 9 feet), cuirass, helmet and greaves. Such a formation relied upon mass and close formation to destroy its foes. Its members used the long spear as the primary weapon; a sword was used in the event that the soldier’s spear was destroyed.

Servius Tulliusaccording to legend, reigned 578 BCE-535 BCE, the sixth and penultimate Roman king, reorganized the citizenry into five classes according to wealth; this allowed him to reorganize the army as well, the wealthiest class (the ‘first class’) being fully equipped in ‘hoplite’ gear, and the least (the ‘fifth class’) providing a sling as their sole weapon, and operating in support of the phalanx.

The next reforms are historically attributed to Marcus Furius Camillus in the early fourth century BCE, but it is probable that the army had already been evolving to meet the requirements of fighting Italian hill peoples. While a phalanx was well-suited for combat on relatively flat ground, it lacked the tactical flexibility effectively to fight against looser formations in rough terrain. Whether formally instituted by Camillus, or originating in an organic fashion, the more-or-less familiar legionLat. legio, ‘levy’ makes its first appearance around this period. Both Roman citizen forces and allied’allied’ forces were contributed by Rome’s Italian allies under stipulated treaty agreements units were organized in similar fashion.

The ‘Camillan’ legion continued the division by economic class which had typified the earlier ‘phalanx’ in the sense that individuals were required to supply their own equipment; however, the old ‘hoplite panoply’ was discarded in favour of a new organization. The legion was organized into three principal classes of infantry:

Hastati: composed of the youngest, least experienced men, possibly identical to the old ‘second class’, these troops formed the front line (where they could gain experience quickly; quite likely, given Roman pragmatism, these troops, while valuable, were relatively also more expendable than the remaining two, more experienced classes!). They were equipped with a breastplate, helmet, shield, sword and javelins and supported by detachments of javelinmen. If hard-pressed, the hastate retired, leaving the fighting to the…

Principes: the ‘principal’ men of the legion, veterans in the prime of life and military experience. Probably of the old ‘first class’; equipped similarly to, or perhaps better than, the hastati. These units formed the backbone of the legion. If the principes, too, were forced to withdraw, they could fall back upon the support of the…

Triarii: These were the oldest and most experienced veterans, and like the principes probably also derived from the old ‘first class’. Unlike the hastate and principes, however, they triarii were equipped in the old-style hoplite panoply, and their long spears formed a final defense behind which the hastate and principes could rally. The phrase ‘down to the triarii’ denoted a particularly desperate state of affairs.

The remaining two categories, the rorarii and acensi, likely represent the old third, fourth and fifth classes and acted as light-armed troops.

The ‘typical’ battle would begin with the light-armed troops harassing the enemy using slings and javelins. The hastati would then charge, engaging the enemy at close quarters. Should the hastati fail to break the enemy the line of principes, a few yards behind, would move forward in support. If the hastati were driven back, they would retire through the line of principes, who would then confront a tiring enemy front with a new line of fresh, highly experienced troops. More often than not, this sufficed to break the enemy. The triarii remained in reserve, both as an ultimate defense and as security for the rear of the legion.

The hastati, principes and triarii were organized into centuries of roughly 60 men plus light troops; two such centuries formed a maniple, the basic maneuver unit of the Camillan legion. The maniples could move forward, or retreat, in a style similar to that of the modern platoon or company.

The chief differences between the legion and the earlier phalanx were thus:

Troops no longer fought as closely ordered spearmen (except the triarii) but as swordsmen, providing greater ability to maneuver across broken ground;

The phalanx relied upon one massive shock delivered by a close-order mass of men; should the phalanx ‘stall’, there were no tactical reserves; the legion could deliver multiple attacks utilizing fresh lines, while allowing tired troops to recover in relative safety.

The Camillan legion—three main infantry lines supported by light troops—was highly successful throughout the Punicthree wars, spanning the period 264 BCE-146 BCE, fought against Carthage, located near modern Tunis, Tunisia and Macedonian wars; its organization was so flexible that, even following the various defeats inflicted by Hannibal, it could be utilized by imaginative Roman commanders to defeat the great Carthaginian himself. A ferocious discipline; an emphasis on unit tactics rather than individual glory; tactical flexibility; and a remarkable ability to withstand enemy pressure meant that even mediocre commanders could secure victory.


By the time of Marius157 BCE-86 BCE; consul an unprecedented seven times and a brilliant military commander; one of the ‘New Men’, and thus an outsider in senatorial circles, a series or Roman military disasters had seriously depleted the pool of available property-owning manpower capable of equipping itself. Marius proposed a radical innovation: levy troops by allowing the capite censi—the ‘headcount’ proletariat who owned no property—to enlist, the State supplying their equipment. This effectively broke the ‘stakehold’ which the property-owning soldier had in the Roman Republic; the headcount soldier, while every bit as formidable as his property-owning predecessor was dependent upon the State for his equipment; and upon retirement, he was to be allotted land and a pension by the State as well. Thus, a relatively profitable, secure career was opened to masses of men for whom little or no opportunity for advancement had previously existed. Unsurprisingly, ‘headcount’ armies rapidly became the norm; unfortunately, the Senate was not thrilled about expending money on land, pensions and equipment. Equally unsurprisingly, the soldiers tended to look to their commanders for these bounties, effectively transferring their loyalty from ‘Rome’ to their particular commander. The stage was set for the Roman Revolution, which saw the Republic give way to the Principate.

Marius introduced several further innovations: the maniple of 120-160 men was replaced by the cohort, comprised of three maniples, or nominally 480 men. A legion then consisted of ten such cohorts, plus a small cavalry detachment. Within each cohort arms and equipment were standardized, doing away with hastate, principes and triarii. Each man was issued a mail shirt, short sword, two throwing spears, a dagger, helmet and shield. The standardization of both equipage and units made the legion that much more flexible; while each cohort fought in close order (as the earlier maniples had); the cohort itself provided a larger tactical unit which could provide greater reinforcement capability than an earlier maniple.

Marius reinforced the move toward a long-service professional army by issuing the legions with their own ‘eagle’, invested with religious significance, and representing the soul of the legion. To lose the eagle was a disgrace, and the legion would do anything to prevent such a catastrophe. On a lesser scale, cohorts were issued with their own insignia. Last and not least, Marius did away with the cumbersome baggage trains that had carried the earlier property-owning soldiers’ personal effects; instead, ‘Marius’ Mules’—the legionaries themselves—now carried all their own equipment, thus making the legion a more mobile force. The Marian legion remained the norm until the late third century CE.


Writers from antiquity refer to the ‘checkerboard’formation, which is commonly thought to mean two or three lines of cohorts, each line having a cohort-size space between the flanks of its constituent cohorts, with the cohorts of the next line covering the spaces in the preceding. In this thesis, the second or third line cohorts could move up to fill the gaps if the first line was under pressure. For those of us who’ve watched ‘Spartacus’ this formation will be quite familiar.

However, this thesis is not very practical. First, the Camillan legion fought in a series of lines; there is no attestation that the Camillan legion left gaps in its line. More importantly, no enemy, especially those who fought in looser order, such as the Gauls, would politely maintain the order of their own line by failing to move into such gaps. It is quite certain (to this writer, in any case) that an opposing line of enemy troops equipped with sword or spear would quite naturally have flooded into the gaps between cohorts, effectively surrounding each cohort in the first line on three sides. We would expect such an occurrence to be mentioned in Caesar’s Commentaries, if nowhere else, or in Polybius at the time of the Camillan legion. Indeed, such a formation would have been uniquely dangerous, allowing an undisciplined or tactically flexible enemy a remarkable advantage. By the time any ‘second-line’ cohort was called to move forward, its designated space would be occupied by enemy forces—hardly a prudent tactical doctrine in an army renowned for prudence and practicality.

The alternative explanation is that cohorts did indeed fight side by side, much as the infantry of other armies did, but that the approach to battle was characterized by a looser formation within each cohort. The checkerboard was formed, in this model, by offsetting the files of men (a file being the ‘front to back’ row of eight men, each of whom shared a tent), such that, looked at from above, the first rank would consist of a man forward, then the man to his right would be three feet back; the man to HIS right forward; the next, back, etc. On approach to battle, a simple step or two forward by the ‘offset’ files would result in a coherent force, each man holding a three foot frontage (the standard). The benefit of such a checkerboard lay in the fact that it gave each man more room to maneuver, especially in difficult terrain, while preserving the overall integrity of the unit. Such formations are in fact used today on military parade grounds, moving from open to closed order, and back again.

Quite clearly two, or even three, lines of cohorts were deployed; the first line would bear the initial fighting; reinforcements could be filtered in from fresh cohorts in the second line, or more appositely, the second or third lines could function as a reserve, the cohorts being available for deployment on the enemy’s flank or to exploit local successes made by the first line. And during lulls in the fighting, when the two side’s front lines might draw apart momentarily, entire cohorts could be committed, the tired men they replaced filtering back to the rear as and how they could. The Marian legion retained the tactical flexibility of the Camillan, with the added benefit of larger tactical units which could be assigned their own missions (as is seen in Caesar’s Commentaries, eg). The legion’s essential structure thereafter changed little until the early 4th century CE.


During the Republic the legions were augmented by allied cavalry forces, and by ‘specialist’ units recruited for their unique skills: slingers from the Balearic Islands, for example; these non-legionary forces were collectively known as auxilialiterally, ‘helpers’. Under the Empire such units were set up on a permanent basis rather than being recruited for a given campaign, and as such the auxilia became long-service troops alongside the legions.

The auxilia—including those which formed the Vindolanda garrison—were not composed of Roman citizens (though citizens could join, and generally commanded the auxiliary cohorts), but most typically were drawn from a specific region of the Empire, quite often initially as a levy on a conquered tribal grouping, and their tactics and equipment were different from those of the legions. In essence, the auxilia, as their name indicates, were present to assist the legionary forces by providing lighter infantry support (a tactical distinction preserved to the present day), and/or specialist functions. For example, the Batavia tribal group originating on the Lower Rhine were renowned as strong swimmers capable of crossing water obstacles in full gear.

Such forces were organized as single cohorts of either 480 men (analogous to the typical legionary cohort) or on occasion as a ‘thousand-strong’ (milliary) cohort, though actual strength was invariably less. Cavalry were organized as ‘wings’ (alae) and were considered to be elite regiments.

While legionary cohorts were typically located in one or two bases, at least during the Principate, auxiliary cohorts were used to provide garrisons for individual forts: at Vindolanda, Tungrians and Batavians, both from the lower Rhine region, supplied a cohort at different times, while a cohort ‘of Gauls’ held the fort for most of the site’s occupation.

In practical terms, the legions provided both the main force against external enemies, and also—often overlooked—possessed a geographically concentrated, heavier force capable of overwhelming the auxilia themselves, should such an unhappy outcome be required. In their origins the auxilia were often comprised of conscripts from defeated enemies, so were not regarded as being as trustworthy as the legions, composed of Roman citizens. Equally important, the auxiliary forces acted as a powerful vehicle for Romanization: two decades of service to Rome, speaking Latin, living far from one’s homeland, and surrounded by military discipline, did much to create a soldier who became, in effect, Roman. And indeed, at the conclusion of his service the auxiliary received the citizenship; which meant that any sons could then join the legions proper.

The imperial government made conscious efforts to deploy auxiliary forces well away from their old homelands; the potential for troops stationed where they’d been raised, and then trained in Roman military methods to rise up against the Romans themselves (cf the Batavian Revolt) meant that units were typically sent to locations in which they had no local attachment (at the outset) and in which any isolated uprising could be quickly quelled by other, loyal units. Thus, following the conquest of Britain, British forces are seen on the Rhine and Danube—but Hadrian’s Wall is garrisoned by men from the modern Low Countries, Spain, etc. This state of affairs doubtless led to the famous passim comment from one of the Batavian garrison at Vindolanda about ‘wretched little Brits’; clearly he and his fellow soldiers were emphatically NOT part of the local tribal culture.


Under Augustus, legionary service was standardized at 16 years of active service and four years of lighter duty, upon completion of which the retiring soldier would receive a cash settlement and a plot of land. This was raised to 25 years’ service at a later date, presumably to make up for difficulties in gaining new recruits. Auxiliaries served for 25 years, and were then given Roman citizenship and a cash settlement.

Legionary training involved constant, intense exercise and repetition: physical conditioning included running, marching in full kit, swimming, jumping, etc. while arms and tactical drill were carried out with dummy equipment weighing more than the actual sword or shield. The Roman ideal was to make their drills as much like ‘bloodless battles’ as possible, so that an actual battle would be in essence a ‘bloody drill’.

Auxiliary training, though less well attested, probably followed rather similar lines, though auxiliary forces were not trained in the engineering techniques in which the legions were so skilled. It is likely that, in keeping with the need for the legions to be able to defeat auxiliary forces if needed, such knowledge was deemed to be too great a potential threat in the hands of the auxilia.

Garrison towns tended to grow up alongside fixed posts, supplying the soldiers with wine, women and song, as well as various other amenities. Unsurprisingly, retired veterans often made their homes near the fort in which they’d served, and their sons might sign up to the same unit, resulting in a high degree of local continuity among many garrisons, extending over centuries in many cases. Inevitably, too, many units, both legionary and auxilia, whose origin lay elsewhere in the Empire became ‘nativized’ as their men formed families with local women—and of course their offspring were ‘locals’ in the truest sense of the term.

Along Hadrian’s Wall the demarcation between auxilia and legion is very clear: all the Wall’s forts (including Vindolanda) were manned by auxilia whose origin lay in other provinces; legionary forces are concentrated in three bases well to the rear, from which the legions could deploy to meet both internal and external threats.

Page created by Eric Jacobson