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Two vicus questions for anyone in the know
Topic Started: Jul 15 2008, 04:16 PM (777 Views)
SacoHarry
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Hey all. Wondering if anyone can shed light on a couple things. First, did the western ditch outside SF II get completely backfilled and built over at some point? I remember digging within a vicus building with Sandy a few years ago that was built on the infilled ditch. If the whole thing got infilled, does that say something about what the army thought of the chances of attack?

Also, do I remember right that the vicus died out near the end of the 3rd C? Did that have anything to do with Carausius pulling away Wall troops? (Is it even possible for the archaeology to say yea/nay to that?) I could see vacancies within a walled fort suddenly looking very appealing when half the garrison defending you has up and vanished. Was the death of the vicus gradual or all at once? And why didn't the army recut a ditch outside the fort for protection afterward?

Eagerly awaiting insight!
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SacoHarry
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I think you're right on. The vicus in the 3rd C does look to have encroached right up close to the fort walls. No clear line of sight from the fort to the fields beyond. There was obviously little fear of any kind of big assault on the fort itself. Then at the end of the 3rd C, it does seem like the site was abandoned or mothballed for some years. When it was regarrisoned in the 4th C, very few of the buildings outside the fort were still used. Most were probably demolished for building materials to shore up the fort defenses.

Part of it can be explained by a big shift in Roman politics happening at this time. In the 3rd C, Rome still protected its borders by massing its good troops at frontiers and sending them forward to fight, rather than waiting to be attacked. The whole philosophy was that a fort wasn't a "stronghold" for defense as much as a base for attack.

That changed in the 4th C. Frontier forts became defensive. There were too few good troops to man them along the entire frontier. So frontier forts came to be used as "speed bumps" -- meant to slow down the advance of an attacking enemy. The main body of skilled Roman soldiers was kept far back from the front lines in a central spot. Thus, they would be more able to go quickly to wherever they were needed rather than being tied up at, say, Carlisle when an attack was happening at Newcastle. It helps explain why the quality of the buildings in 4th C forts is often shoddy. The folks there were no longer well-bred fighters; they were expendable "cheap" troops, meant to be dispensible and, to be blunt, disposable. And their forts went from being a base of operations to a defensive stronghold, needing clear views in all directions and heavily fortified walls.

In that light, the archaeology of Vindolanda kind of falls into place pretty nicely!
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SacoHarry
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Your summary's right on, from how I understand the latest archaeology.

There hasn't been a lot of modern excavation on other vicuses along the Wall. There's evidence for vicus buildings at many sites, but little proper excavation. However, much work was done at Housesteads, and again it suggested that their vicus went out of use about AD 270. And work at Birdoswald in the 1990s found similar dates for the end of the vicus there. At least for now, there's no evidence of any extramural settlement surviving into the 4th C.

In addition to all the changes in resources, politics, and enemy organization, 4th C Wall garrisons were smaller than their 3rd C counterparts. In the 3rd C, a cohort like Vindolanda's would have numbered about 500 troops. In the 4th C, that would have been down to about 250-300 troops. So 4th C Wall forts had a lot of vacant space. Perhaps it was just the most logical & natural thing to demolish the external town and move the people inside the protective walls of the fort. There's evidence of this at Vindolanda. And it's actually one of the big things they're trying to discover over the next few years -- the extent to which the military and the civilian elements interacted and intermingled. It'll be fun to see what they come up with!
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