Facts about Roman Forts

Discover how the Roman invaders constructed their many strongholds around Britain.

When the Romans invaded Britain, they monopolized native strongholds. As time passed, they built base camps that allowed their armies to travel safely through the country. At first they fortified these camps with timber, then from the 2nd Century AD they used stone.

The Romans were expert builders and had perfected the art of masonry by creating a revolutionary new material that was known as “opus caementicium’ – a concrete made of rock, rubble or ceramic tiles. Walls were built by placing mortar and stone in large wooden frames, and the result was a facing that has endured centuries. Opus caementicium was regarded as an innovative discovery, enabling the Romans to create complex structures such as the arch and the dome.

Engineers built their forts on modified terrain -often choosing the summit or the side of a low hill, near a river or stream. Roman strongholds were built by a specialist corp that included a chief engineer; much of the manual work was undertaken by soldiers. Officers known as metatores were sent to mark out the ground for an encampment, using a graduated measuring rod known as a decempeda.

Each fort was erected with a wide ditch, and also included a stockade or defensive barrier made of timber posts or stone. The Romans used the residue earth from the ditch to create a rampart. While tradition dictated that each fort had four stone gateways, it was equipped with watchtowers that could reach an impressive nine metres (30 feet) high.

Facts about Roman FortsThe fort worked on many levels – it served as a barracks, hospital, workshop, granary and stables. Every structure included a main street that ran unimpeded through the camp. In the centre was a parade yard and a commander’s headquarters.

The Romans placed great emphasis on cleanliness, and so sanitary conditions were especially important. Forts had public baths and private latrines, consisting of rows of seats situated overa channel of running water. Drinking water, meanwhile, came from wells.

A soldier’s life

The buccina (a type of trumpet) marked the start of every new day. The soldiers were highly disciplined – military aspirations and a strict code of honour dominated their lives. They practiced sword fighting, hand-to-hand combat and military manoeuvres. Roman soldiers endured a gruelling regime that included running, swimming and marching over long distances. The day of a soldier could be divided into phases that revolved around ‘the watch’. There were a series of eight, three-hour watches, known as the ‘vigilia’, and each change of watch was signaled by the buccinator (buccina player). Sometimes soldiers were ill or sustained injuries, so the Romans instituted a permanent medical corps and hospital in the fort. The fort could also act as a trading station where vendors sold crafts, animals and food. It was here that liaisons, both romantic and political, were established.

Roman FortRoman Forts facts

Gods of War – We can learn a lot about the Roman religion by looking at portable altars found at forts. British finds include images of Minerva, the goddess of righteous warfare.

The hospital – This was a rectangular building that could house up to 60 wards. Hospitals are thought to have contained small hearths, used for the sterilization of instruments.

Cleanliness – Large forts had bath houses in the central area of the camp. Places of relaxation and gambling, they often contained an altar dedicated to the goddess Fortuna.

The games continue – The Romans erected amphitheatres near forts; the most famous British one was at Caerleon. Combat between humans and animals was viewed here.

On parade – Soldiers adhered to several official festival days. The most important festival was at the beginning of the year, when they renewed their oath to the Emperor.