Roman Castra – How Legionaries Built and Lived in their Fortresses

Roman Castra – How Legionaries Built and Lived in their Fortresses

Even the greatest imperial powers in history
cannot expand forever, and are eventually forced to come to terms with consolidation
and defence in order to maintain their realm. The Emperors of Rome adapted to this state
of affairs by stationing their mighty legions on the dangerous frontiers, and around the
more important regions which they ruled – legions which were often stationed in legionary fortresses.
Welcome to our video on Imperial legionary fortifications, how they were constructed
and what life was like for the troops stationed therein. A big thank you to one of our long-time partners
MagellanTV! If you haven’t looked into Magellan yet, you’re missing out on an amazing library
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has different specific history playlists, like Ancient History, Current History, and
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to get a special offer of a one-month free trial!” Like so many other things in the Roman Empire,
the concept of a legionary fortress came into being during the reign of Emperor Augustus
– the founder of Rome’s imperial period. Before this much-needed era of reformation
after the turmoil of the Late Republic, legions had traditionally been raised for specific
military ventures, and were then disbanded after this purpose was complete. Provinces
such as Spain always required a resident army wintering there, due to the fact that the
far-off Roman territories were too far from the heartland to constantly shift men back
and forth. This was also the case with expansive and lengthy military campaigns such as Caesar’s
conquest of Gaul, which necessitated the quartering of legions within the occupied lands.
However, it is only from the time of Augustus onwards that we discover standing armies billetted
in permanent quarters in the Empire’s various far-flung provinces, from Northern Britain
to the distant reaches of Egypt. The first true fortress isn’t known, but we do know
that during the expeditions across the Rhine into Germany during the final years of the
first century BC, fortresses were constructed in enemy territory in order to hold parts
of this wild landscape. This didn’t last long however, and the subsequent disaster
at the Teutoburg Forest led to the Roman military abandoning these fortresses across the Rhine.
Whatever the case, we can speculate that Roman military leaders took these ‘prototype’
fortresses and merged them with legionary practices from centuries gone by, in order
to implement the new defences. Each legion was probably responsible for the
construction of its own home fortress, and could call upon a number of specialists from
its own ranks. This probably included architects, engineers, surveyors, plumbers, roofers, carpenters,
stonemasons and so on. As well as providing skilled experts, the legion in question would
also provide the raw manpower necessary for clearing the chosen building site of unwanted
detritus, and for actually building the fortress. All of this makeshift construction force would
be supervised by the legion’s praefectus castrorum – the ‘prefect of the camp’
– who was an experienced officer promoted after extensive service as a centurion. While
this process led to a relatively standardised fortification design, and it is clear that
there was at least a basic blueprint, no two were totally identical. Most fortresses, for
example, were based on a rectangular perimeter of 20 to 25 hectares. However, there were
outliers: for example, two German legions during the late 1st century AD differed in
that one of them was based in an abnormally small fortress of 16.5 hectares at Nijmegen,
while the other legion had an abnormally large 27 hectare fort at Bonn.
Every fortress had four gateways, one for each of its four sides. The front gate – also
known as the porta praetoria – and the rear gate – known as the porta decumana – were
both half way along the rectangle’s short sides. The longer sides of the fortress were
different, with each of the gates on these edges – known as the portae principales – being
constructed a third of the way down the length. These side gates were known by this name because
they were both connected by the same laterally running road within the fortress itself, which
passed in front of the principia, the function of which we shall discuss in detail a bit
later. For now it’s enough to say that the principia was centrally placed, interrupting
the main road running lengthways and splitting it into two sections.
The part running from the front gate to the principia was known as the via praetoria and
terminated at the via principales, while the rear length – the via decumana – began with
the via quintana – a road running behind the principia. These weren’t the traditional
Roman roads that we know on the Italian Peninsula, and were typically 7 to 8 metres wide, constructed
with gravel over a bed of cobbles. It was tilted slightly outwards with stone-built
side drains, so that any accumulating water would flow off and into the drain, rather
than pooling on the road itself. Normally, the road builders would also add a sewer underneath
in order to more effectively carry waste away from the fortress, making disease less likely
among the troops. The final road ran around the internal perimeter of the fortress behind
its defences, called the via sagularis, and was constructed to facilitate the speedy mustering
of troops. The criss-crossing road system essentially
divided the fortress into five zones: two zones at the front and back known as the praetentura
and the retentura respectively, each of which comprised a left and right zone bisected by
the structure’s roads. This left a singular remaining zone sandwiched between the via
principalis and the via quintana, known as the latera praetorii, or ‘flanks of the
praetorium’, known as such because the buildings here were arranged around the praetorium – the
commander’s residence. The Roman tendency to standardise even extended
to the size of each area, as we can see from archaeological digs performed on roman fortresses
across Europe. In most fortresses, the central zone was two blocks, or as the Romans called
them, scamna, deep, with one fronting onto the via principalis, while the second faced
the other way, onto the via quintana. The retentura was only one block deep in order
to accommodate the lodgings of four cohorts, two on either side of the via decumana, which
the praetentura was two or three deep. Now we’ll discuss some of the key buildings
and features of each Roman fortress, examining how they impacted the lives of everyday soldiers
and their commanders alike. We will start with the legion’s headquarters – the aforementioned
principia. This command building occupied a central position in each legionary base,
and was modelled after the famous Roman forum which existed in most towns of the Imperial
period. A principia was entered through a monumental gate like structure known as a
groma, due to the fact that it was also the position of the reference point for a legion’s
surveyors. Inside the gate was an open, colonnaded courtyard
surrounded by yet another drain, which collected rainwater from the thatched rooftops around
it much like those on the roads. Moreover, the runoff water was often fed into a storage
system, such as the one at Inchtuthil in Scotland which had a capacity of somewhere around 47,500
litres. On three sides of the courtyard were rows of rooms, long thought to have served
as armouries and other storage chambers, while the fourth side was occupied by a long hall,
known as a basilica. This was a place of assembly for the troops, with a tribunal at one end
(and sometimes even at both ends). Its name would come to denote types of church in later
eras. Behind the basilica was a series of offices which flanked the central legionary
shrine, where the revered aquila was kept – the eagle standard – in addition to 59 centurial
standards – signa. It’s clear that this building was an administrative
and financial centre for the legion, and we can see this in multiple examples we have
found inside excavated principia. Standard-bearers of the Roman army often had financial responsibilities,
so in many of the fortresses the floor of its central shrine was elevated in order to
create a strong-room in the basement. Here, the legion’s official funds were kept, in
addition to the savings of individual soldiers. It was essentially an ancient safe vault.
Various clerks and other administrators necessary to keep the legionary cogs turning probably
occupied the other offices, processing various documents, organising logistics and other
routine tasks. One room at Lambaesis in modern Algeria contained
an inscription confirming the excavated room as a tabularium legionis – or ‘records office
of the legion’. On the inscription was a list of staff, including an ‘adjutant’,
a ‘registrar’ and several lower secretaries. In addition to its mundane bureaucratic function,
it’s clear that this building also had religious overtones, which is shown by the frequent
excavations of altars at the old sites of these fortresses. All evidence brings us to
the conclusion that the principia was therefore the main hub of the legion – its religious
centre and its administrative nexus – where its official records were kept and where its
funds were disbursed. Moreover, it was often the actual physical centre of the entire legion,
where a commanding officer could assemble the troops for an address.
Said commander had levels of accomodation which were very different from the massed
barrack blocks of the soldiers. This was known as the praetorium, located behind or beside
the principia. As this was normally the dwelling of a lofty senator of the Roman aristocracy,
or a commander appointed directly by the emperor, the praetorium followed the plan of a high-class
mediterranean villa, bringing all of the luxuries to which such highborn figures were accustomed
to the provinces, which were often far from Rome itself. Because of this, historians often
refer to this building colloquially as the ‘legate’s palace’.
Aside from living rooms and gardens for use by the commander’s family, a praetorium
had to possess servants’ quarters and public rooms, the latter of which served as an area
where a senatorial commander might convene with his officers and entertain distinguished
visitors. Perhaps a legate might enhance his relationship with a pro-Roman Celtic chieftain
in Britannia by inviting the man to dine and bathe in his home, for example, before discussing
business in the Roman manner. Slightly less luxurious but still of a relatively high class
were the domus – or ‘tribune’s houses’ – grouped in an area along the via principalis,
and having a dining room, colonnaded courtyard, and other standard Roman mediterranean designs.
Because every fortress was in effect a self-contained military town containing as many as 6,000
troops, the greater part of its area was taken up by accomodation for the legionaries and
their officers. Despite this, however, many other buildings were usually included for
utility. Large courtyard structures meant for industrial production have been found
at such sites as Exeter and Inchtuthil and, at the latter, excavator Sir Ian Richmond
found a hoard of a million nails and nine iron tyres, buried when the fort was abandoned.
A similarly sized courtyard in the retentura at Caerleon may have also been one of these
industrial workshops, also known as fabrica, as it was associated with lead-working waste
material. Activities in these facilities were practiced
as a side profession by ordinary legionaries with an expertise in specific skills or crafts,
legionaries who were known as immunes. As skilled workers, these soldiers were often
exempt from the back-breaking labour undertaken by their unskilled comrades, such as digging
ditches and patrolling the ramparts. Many of these technical crafts were linked
to the manufacturing or repair of equipment, and were therefore key in enhancing the operations
of a legion as a whole. One papyrus from Egypt confirms the assumption that such activity
must have taken place in large workshops, when it refers to work ‘in fabrican legionis’,
or ‘in the legionary workshop’. Archaeologists have discovered three main varieties of fabricae
– a long, rectangular hall, the double hook or U-shaped building, and the ‘bazaar’
type complex of maze-like interconnected rooms. It is common to find evidence of smithies
within legionary fortresses, but they must have had workshops for leatherworking, woodworking,
glassmaking and other trades. Also universal within the legion’s own town
was the hospital, or ‘valetudinarium’, a building which Hyginus recommends should
be located as far as possible away from the workshops, in order to make sure that recovering
patients get the peace and quiet they need. However, there was no standard position for
a legionary hospital. For example, the buildings at Caerleon, Vetera, Novae and Lauriacum were
in the praetentura, while a site in the latera praetorii was selected at Inchtuthil, Neuss,
Carnuntum and Bonn. The building itself always followed the same
plan: two rows of rooms, separated by a corridor, ran around the four sides of an open, colonnaded
courtyard. Most of the rooms were arranged in pairs of wards flanking a small vestibule,
giving access to the corridor. The vestibule gave the wards a degree of privacy from the
outside world, while the corridor permitted staff to circulate as needed around the hospital.
Even evidence of underfloor heating, known as a hypocaust, was found at Caerleon, while
the hospital at Vetera had small baths and a latrine. Dedications to the health deities
Hygeia and Telesphoros were made at shrines in most hospitals, and it has been speculated
that the entire hospital was a religious monument of sorts.
In a truly Roman fashion, each fortress was provided with a typical hallmark of Roman
civilisation at that time in history: the thermae, or bathing complex, for use of the
troops. These were built from masonry most of the time, even in the ‘turf and timber’
fortress of the early period, almost certainly to reduce the risk of fire spreading from
this building’s massive furnaces, which were used to heat the water. Using stone would
also prevent deterioration from dampness and maintain a constant temperature in the various
rooms. Interestingly, while the thermae did not have
any designated position in each fortress, they were often placed near the hospital,
a fact which emphasizes the connection between health and cleanliness even in the classical
world. As the largest structure in each fortress, the baths also represented a true feat of
Roman engineering, and would probably have been considered a wondrous miracle by many
of the less technologically advanced ‘barbarian’ peoples to whom they were first introduced,
such as the Britons. At Caerleon, the vaulted ceiling of its thermae
stood a proud 15 meters above the floor, and the entire bathing complex covered a huge
hectare in space. In Roman culture, bathing was not only a matter of getting clean, but
also had a recreational and social function, which we will probably discuss in a future
video. The excavator at Caerleon, George Boon, noted an inscription which concisely shows
us a legionary’s philosophy when it comes to his free time: ‘To hunt, to bathe, to
gamble, to laugh, this is living!” In warmer climates such as North Africa and
Egypt, outdoor swimming pools and exercise yards were constructed, while in chillier
climates such as Gaul or Britannia, indoor exercise halls and swimming pools were necessary,
in Chester, for example. The layout of the thermae itself were as follows: a changing
room, followed by three main halls laid out in sequence, beginning with the frigidarium
– or ‘cold room’. It was unheated and usually comprised one or more cold water wash
basins and plunge pools. A thermae’s second room was the tepidarium – or ‘warm room’
– which was moderately heated, while the third was a caldarium, or hot-room, which had a
hot water pool. A bather would progress through the pools at increasing temperatures in order
to induce a cleansing level of perspiration, at which point dirt and grime could be scraped
from the oiled body with a bronze tool known as a strigil. Our series on the Roman armies will continue
all the way to 1453, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed
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100 thoughts on “Roman Castra – How Legionaries Built and Lived in their Fortresses”

  • Kings and Generals says:

    PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Sources do not confirm that, but running around the fortress without your uniform might have been punishable. Don't let the centurions catch you without your uniform:

  • Θανάσης Κεχρής says:

    The Byzantine empire is part of the Roman emperial historical continuance but its undoubtedly a Greek empire.

  • and about a millenium later, tiny, part time armies of brainwashed, dirty peasants, Da Trooth of Da Lawrd and some knights.
    how strange that it was so much later yet so much darker than the best days of Rome. this leaves us with 1 crucial question:
    "what have the Romans ever done for us?!

  • Gunter the penguin says:

    People have been using saunas since ancient times, but I can't for the life of me understand what's so great about them! ( ^ ^ ; )

  • Apart from the roads, aqueducts, order, public health, sanitation, trade, education, irrigation, medicine and wine what have the Romans ever done for us?

  • Who animated the map in the beginning of the video and why was Illyricum made to be in modern day Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine!? 🤣

  • (laughs) I remembered a comic where Romans inspected their new soldiers and they felt unease as the Germanian regiment marched down the street doing the Roman salute.

  • Imperial Roman Legionary of 0-3° century dc with gallic helmet and lorica segmentada (steel plate armour) would face any medieval army

  • What are the titles of your background music. It really blended well with the narration. Never expected to be impressed by the quality. Hope to support you someday when I can spare some "denarios". (Filipino word for Roman currency)

  • I believe that the western part of the empire had lost it's way and his own purpose in the Battle of Frigidus River 394 DC, wich were fought between the christianized byzantine-eastern roman empire under Teodosius and the pagan western roman empire under emperor Eugenius. Well, the eastern romans – byzantine victory had transformed the next western roman generals and emperors into pawns and puppets of Constantinople, wich had significant impact on the germanic barbarian incursion routes (eastern romans often bribed barbarians to attack the western part).

  • Cernismirt Kamennoeserdce says:

    18:33 I saw that hook shaped bronze tool in the starz series "Spartacus", at the ludus of the house of Batiatus, servants spread oil on the gladiators, and remove the grime with that tool

  • Roman army corps of engineers eh?🤔
    As a lad I could remember a lot of GREEK history, but scarcely a word about ROMAN history.

  • Heated floors, pools, spas, and hospitals 2000 years ago, and all of this in a fort alone, giving 5 star treatment to expendable soldiers.

  • Let's not forget there were at least 3 levels of Roman camps and forts: 1) their daily marching camp that they built after marching and dismantled over night, 2) their more permanent forts that they didn't dismantle every day when they were staying in an area for a longer periods such as a few weeks, and 3) their permanent garrison fortresses as mentioned by this article. People often commonly confuse their daily marching camps with their more permanent forts. Their daily marching camps had a small wall composed of wooden stakes that each soldier carried in pairs, and embankments and ditches were just a few feet tall/deep and were only there to delay an attacking enemy. Their marching camps did not have tall wooden walls or tall towers because the stakes were only a few feet high.

    Page 132 of "The Late Roman Army By Pat Southern" by Pat Southern and Karen R. Dixon distinguishes between daily marching camps and more permanent fortifications where the Romans stayed for longer periods – the daily marching camps had simple wooden stakes on top of a relatively low dirt bank and ditch:

    "…in the early Empire the Romans built them, perhaps for a variety of reasons. It is usually said that the army on the march built a camp every night, and this is perhaps true in so far as the soldiers carried stakes (pila muralia) with which to form a palisade on top of a bank of earth, which would be raised up from digging the surrounding ditch and turning the soil inwards. The banks need not have been very high or very wide. This sort of temporary camp, quite insubstantial in archaeological terms, may have differed widely from a more permanent camp….camps still evidence in north Britain may be of this more permanent variety." p. 132

    "Roman Legionary Fortress 27 BC–AD 378" by Duncan B Campbell talks about the evolution of different types of Roman forts – marching camps vs more permanent forts.

    "The Roman army had a long tradition of constructing fortified encampments while on campaign. Simple bank-and-ditch defences enclosed an area criss-crossed by a pattern of streets, dividing the camp into a regular layout…" p. 8

    Page 66 specifically talks about how daily marching camps evolved into wooden fortifications (that most people typically think about) as the legions were garrisoned permanently in an area, and some evolved into stone and brick fortifications over time.

    "From the reign of Augustus (27 BC–AD 14) onwards the Roman Army became a standing force with permanent fortresses distributed throughout the empire. These fortresses developed from the temporary fortifications of the legions on campaign into temporary wooden structures, before finally becoming more elaborate stone fortifications designed to stand the test of time" p. 66

  • Imperial Commander Yue Fei 岳飛 says:

    Always captivating content. Please do the Ming Dynasty or the Song wars against the Jin and the Mongols.

  • There is a reason why many European nations and other countries admired the Roman Empire long after there gone. Another great video by KnG.

  • Baron Von Grijffenbourg says:

    Man.. Even after 15 years of learning and studying the Roman civilisation, I'm still in awe of just how advanced and sophisticated they really were. It's enough to drive a man crazy when you think about where we could have been if the Roman Empire had not fallen. I can totally see them discover steam-power and kick off an industrial revolution 2000 years before it actually happened.
    I mean, they were so close.. They had running water, heated baths and floors, indoor plumbing, etc. There's even an ancient Greek example of a steam powered device. All that was needed was for someone to make the connection! They had everything to make it happen.

  • Stayros Paparunas says:

    When Europe was better with out the Germans….then Huns n sons of Attila like Alaric came to Europe n burnt the Roman empire,science freezed for 1000 years,maybe if Romans keep be the empire now we ll ve colonize the Mars

  • I wait for a future Video about the Battle of the /near the Pontes Longi with Aulus Caecina`s Legions vs Arminius Tribesmen, where Caecina came near to a Varus like desaster

  • Miguel Montenegro says:

    Imagine If Rome was still arround… We would see marvellous buildings. Their thecnique and detail was lost unmatched for many many centuries.

  • the_amazing_rat rat says:

    Hey man! Love the video but there is a small mistake in the map, like uk only the south part of the Netherlands was conquered by the romans, they never got to friesland or any of the other (current) provinces

  • Nothing better as to relax with your people in a sauna,Not the extremly hot type everyone using after sport or in wellness areas. Just warm enough plus fruits and wine, even the lowest roman soldiers seem to had more standart luxery in their camps as a civilian in his free time and his town today… just incredible how retarded most of us living in our "modern" times😗

  • I think this is the first video where I lost interest after 5 minutes. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy you cover parts of history which are rarely talked about, but it was just simply a bit boring for me :). Waiting your next video 🙂

  • Dear Sirs, A mistake in the map showing Europe. In Holland it shows the province of Flevoland which has been reclaimed by the dutch from the sea in the 1950`s.

  • Damn, our soldiers now don't get pools, heated floors or anything close to that level of comfort. Our soldiers deserve better.

  • You now realize that the Temple of the mount in Jerusalem was was really just a Roman Fortress.

    The actual Temple of Solomon was further southwest in Old Jerusalem.

  • I am absolutely delighted by the amount of work you dedicate and the in detail explanations you provide. Please provide more content like this.

  • On your map, you put flevoland, which is that middle part in the Netherlands, however, it only has been raised from the sea for about 70 years now, also, the northern part above the rhine river was never completely conquered by the Romans

  • these videos are…. meh… how about show a battle that took place in a legions camp at least once in a battle…. I come for the battles… so throw at least one in there.

  • I don't want to upset you, but seeing as you're a history channel: you're using the wrong map for the Netherlands.
    That thing in the middle is a man made province called Flevoland, it did not exist in ancient times therefore the roman red on it is silly.

  • Awful….gave up after a couple of minutes of a boring computer sounding voice advertising something called Magellan. Thought I’d be watching a documentary on Roman forts

  • My father is an army officer in my country and its curious how a lot of the topology and architecture program of those roman castras from the principia to the thermae ressembles modern forts and stations where i have visited him.

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