Commanding the Wild West of the Roman Empire

Who mastered Roman Britain?
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Commanding the Wild West of the Roman Empire

When we consider the ancient Roman army we often imagine rank after, well-ordered, rank of legionaries. Their polished armour glistening as the stormtroopers of the empire faced off against yet another barbarian horde. But keeping standing armies continually in the field was cripplingly expensive. So how was order maintained in the wild and untamed northern lands of Britannia?

Anyone who has holidayed in Cumbria or the Southwest of Scotland will be familiar with their bare rolling mountains, long stretches of sandy beaches and deep glens with silver waters rushing through them. They are stunning and peaceful areas to visit on a family holiday. However, two thousand years ago these lands looked and felt very different.

Much of those mountainous regions would have been covered with dark and dense woodland. The Forest of Galloway as an example was huge, even today, after much deforestation, it still covers 97,000 hectares. The long coastline was wild and difficult to watch over and continually prey to raids from the tribes of Ireland a short hop across the Hibernian sea. Neither were there many roads, other than those built by Agricola in his campaigns in the north whilst governor. Or later constructed to support the northern militarised zone that had Hadrian’s Wall at its heart.

For the answer we can look to a period much closer to our own and one in which someone of my age will be familiar with from the many Western, cowboy movies featured on TV on Saturday nights in my boyhood. This was long before the era of Netflix and satelite channels. Picture John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers or John Ford in Fort Apache. The U.S. Cavalry were the horse-mounted force that operated out of remote forts in the western United States. They covered vast ranges of territory, operating between scattered and isolated forts.

This is in effect how the Roman army maintained order against the ever restive celtic tribes. However, instead of the Arapaho, Lakota and Cheyenne they would have faced the Novantae, Brigantes and Selgovae amongst others. Forts were positioned, in hostile regions, often well beyond the fixed borders of the empire. Their garrisons were able to operate largely independently and had significant contingents of cavalry. Examples of such fortifications have been identified at modern-day Maryport, Vindolanda, Birrens and Netherby.

But the Romans were not considered to be exceptionally good horsemen. Indeed whilst cavalry would play an important part of Legionary tactics, it was considered secondary and would remain the weakest part of the Roman Army until the very late Imperial period. Not so in northern Britannia.

But who were these cavalrymen? Well they certainly weren’t drawn from the Roman aristocracy as they often were in the time of the Republic. No, the names of their units give a clear indication that the Romans recruited from all over the empire from the homelands of its conquered peoples. Germanic and celtic Gaulish units were prevalent, such as the I Nervana Germanorum and the cohors II Tungrorum that garrisoned the fort of Birrens at different times. But regiments from as far away as Spain, modern day Bulgaria and Croatia have also been identified. However, as the needs of the empire changed over time, individual units would mainly have recruited from the local populace. With sons moving into the family business by joining the cohorts of their fathers and grandfathers.

It seems evident that the lands both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall were at times restive, if not in down right conflict, with the Roman administration. Whilst auxiliary infantry troops had an important role in keeping the peace, their deployment became increasingly localised in nature, especially in the later centuries of the empire. It was the mounted troops that had the pivotal role in commanding the north.

Sustaining a cavalryman with his kit and horse cost 5 times that of an infantryman. Why would the Romans invest so much if they were not an important and valuable asset? The answer surely must, at least in part, lie in both its strategic and symbolic roles.

Cavalry could move at a rapid pace and cover great distances quickly. They were highly mobile, making them effective on patrols and as scouts both north and south of the Wall. They made speedy messengers, giving warning of sudden threats and incursions. They also ensured food security, protecting local farmland and guarding supply trains to the Wall’s outlying forts. But, probably as importantly, they projected the image of power and renown of Rome and its imperial might. If you have ever seen the Household Cavalry in London or mounted police outside of a football (soccer) stadium you will get an idea of what a Roman turma must have looked like to an Iron Age population.

Outlying forts, north of the Wall, often housed specialist, double strength, cohorts (milliaria equitata) as well as specialist scouts (exploratores) enabling them to command a significant geographic area and suppress any uprising of local tribes. The effect on the local people must have been as much psychological as physical.

So what was life like for the cavalryman? Well each troop, known as a turma (typically 30 men), were housed in a single barrack block. Trios of men lived at the back of the building with their horses stabled at the front. There were surely few nights that troopers would fall  asleep without the sound of the snorts of their mounts accompanied by the smell of hay and dung. Each room had a hearth set against the stable-side wall for warmth and cooking. The decurion, who commanded the turma, lived in rooms at the end of the block along with his family. Troopers ate, slept and kept their weapons and tack in these small rooms. Grooms and slaves may have slept in the roof space above.

Training for cavalrymen and their mounts was extensive and intense. If you have seen horses being drilled for modern day dressage you will get the idea, with each trained initially on a long rein to teach the horse basic skills as well as special steps. It is likely that horses were broken and prepared by specialists before being assigned to its rider. They learned to overcome their instinct to flee when startled and to cope in the noise and fervour of combat. The early instruction of the cavalryman would have focussed on the basic skills of controlling and riding the horse whilst holding a sword or spear in the right hand and the shield and rein in the left. From there they would have progressed to training to fight as a turma, with unit drills enabling large numbers of men to manoeuvre in battle. I suspect a training regimen that would have been familiar to the troopers of the unfortunate 7th Cavalry and their notorious general.

The average cavalryman was well armed and armoured. He typically wore chainmail that allows greater movement whilst on horseback. Their weapons consisted of the long cavalry sword often referred to as the spatha. They also had a fighting lance and two shorter throwing javelins. Their shields were a variety of shapes including square and oval, but were usually flat with a steel rim and a rounded metal boss to enable it to be used as a weapon.

It is not hard to imagine the damage the charge of even a small unit of auxiliary cavalry could inflict on the largely unprotected bodies of the tribal warriors of the north of Britain.

When researching for my historical adventure novels ‘Siege’ and ‘Hunt’, that focuses on the lives of the men of a Germanic cohort, a real life regiment based at Birrens in the second century. I was surprised by the amount of detail we now have on the everyday life of a Roman cavalryman. In the stories I have worked hard to be faithful to that knowledge and attempted to bring it to life for the present day reader.

Alistair Tosh is the author of Eagle and the Wolf –  An Edge of Empire Omnibus: Books 1 & 2

Eagle and the Wolf: An Edge of Empire Omnibus: Books 1 & 2 by [Alistair Tosh]