Romans in Cumbria



Along the line of Hadrian's Wall there were 16 forts, not counting temporary encampments used as overnight camps (marching forts) or as bases for the building of roads, permanent forts and the Wall itself.

There were other forts along the line of the Stanegate (an early Roman road built by Agricola from Corbridge in Northumberland to Kirkbride in Cumbria), and along the line of Roman roads in the rest of the Cumbria, marking the nodes of conquest and administration. In all, and apart from the 16 Wall forts, there are about 20 other known Roman fort sites within the boundaries of the county of Cumbria.

All of these forts were built to the same basic design, which was prescribed in Roman military manuals and used all over the Empire for many centuries. Literally hundreds of them were built by the Army.

This basic design required that the perimeter of the fort should be a wall, usually of stone, outlining a "playing card" shape i.e. rectangular with rounded corners. The fort area varied with the location and purpose of the fort - larger for a legionary fort, smaller for a frontier fort manned by auxiliaries. Outside the perimeter wall were ditches, the depth and section of which was prescribed. If the fort was protected by some natural feature e.g. located on top of a hill, or accessible only up a steep slope, a single ditch would suffice. But where the terrain was relatively easy to cross, several ditches would be dug alongside each other. A good example can be seen at Whitley Castle on the Maiden Way near the town of Alston in Cumbria.

A fort usually had four gates, one each in the centre (or nearly so) of each side. Between the two gates in the (usually) shorter sides ran a street (the Via Principalis or Main Street), and this was crossed about halfway along its length by a shorter street leading to that gate in a longer side which gave access to the Roman road forming part of the local network of communications. Opposite the main gate and at the heart of the fort was the Headquarters Building for the fort garrison.

This was a long single story building flanked by two single story wings enclosing an open space in a corner of which was a dais from which the commander could address his troops assembled in the open space. The Headquarters building housed the garrison strong room and administrative offices; and a space in the centre of the long arm, directly facing the main gate, housed the altar(s) and the garrison standards.

The second largest building in each fort was the Commandant's house. The Commandant would invariably be a (perhaps the only) Roman citizen of upper-class rank, and his house was disproportionately large compared with the other structures, provided many separate rooms, was usually centrally heated by underground channels for steam or hot water, and with tessellated floors.

The fort also contained barracks, stables, granaries, workshops, a hospital, latrines and other buildings commensurate with the size and function of its garrison. Each gateway was flanked by guardrooms, and at each of the rounded corners of the fort was a turret. Behind the perimeter wall inside the fort was a walkway along which the sentries on duty could patrol.

Outside the fort, but only a short distance from it, would be the baths (normally a hot-room and a cold-room with a tepid-room between them, plus as often as not a cold plunge bath); the garrison parade ground where routine and ceremonial drills and exercises could be held; and, as time went by in the life of the fort, a vicus (village) where soldiers' wives and families, local trades-people, shops, inns and doubtless other amenities were located.


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