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Soldier's lives - military routines

Vindolanda and its setting


Forts and military life

The fort plan

Soldier's lives - military routines

Soldiers and builders

Manufacture and repair

Transport and supplies

Diet and dining


Birthdays and gods



Reading the tablets

about this exhibition

The tombstone of Flavinus, standard bearer 
                    of the cavalry unit the ala Petriana. The depiction 
                    of the cavalryman riding down a barbarian was a favoured tombstone 
                    relief for Roman auxiliary cavalry troopers

Click on the image for a larger version.

Image details:

The tombstone of Flavinus, standard bearer of the cavalry unit the ala Petriana. The depiction of the cavalryman riding down a barbarian was a favoured tombstone relief for Roman auxiliary cavalry troopers

Image ownership:

© Roger Tomlin

The reference to six wounded soldiers in the strength report (154) is perhaps the nearest the tablets let us to any fighting between the Roman army and the Britons. Whether these wounded men are the victims of a skirmish rather than a traffic accident is not known. In fact the Britons are almost completely invisible in the tablets, the most obvious exception being a memorandum on their fighting capabilities. This might be an intelligence report, an assessment of their suitability for recruitment, or perhaps advice from a departing garrison commander to his successor (164).

'... the Britons are unprotected by armour (?). There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.'

Such information was probably based on first-hand experience but other news could be gathered by spies and scouts. 162 makes a possible reference to such a spy, an arcanus. A late Roman author Ammianus Marcellinus refers to the activities of spies in Britain, their duties being 'to circulate over a wide area and report to our generals any threatening movements among the neighbouring tribes'.

Although, disappointingly, the tablets lack direct reports of battles or wars, they have allowed important deductions to be made about the way the Roman army controlled conquered territory. Soldiers did not remain in fixed strongpoints, venturing out only en masse to engage the enemy, but were constantly on the move through the landscape. The critical document is tablet 154, which records the whereabouts of the members of one unit, the first cohort of Tungrians, on 18th May of an unknown year. Of the 752 soldiers, the majority, 456, were not at Vindolanda. Most were at Corbridge, perhaps for training, perhaps being gathered for a campaign. 46 soldiers were attending the governor as bodyguards. Smaller numbers of other centurions and soldiers were posted at other unknown locations, perhaps installations along the Stanegate. They might perhaps have been deployed to administer the census, a task to which a very fragmentary tablet refers (304).

Exceprt from Tablet 154

Total 752 inc. 6 centurions
Singulares 46    
Coria 337 inc. 2 centurions (?)
Londinium 1 centurion (?)
... 6 inc. 1 centurion
... 9 inc. 1 centurion
... 11  
... 1  
... 45  
Total 456 inc. 5 centurions
296   inc. 1 centurion
Of whom there are:    
Unfit 31    
Healthy 265 inc. 1 centurion

The number of soldiers, 752, is a little less than would be expected for the largest type of infantry cohort (cohors milliaria). The centurions number six rather than the expected ten. Perhaps the unit was in the process of expansion from quingenary to milliary, but perhaps being under-strength was the norm. The officers are also distributed unevenly, only one centurion left at Vindolanda with 296 men, and three others seemingly dispatched with very small numbers of soldiers. This strength report may relate to exceptional circumstances, but documents from other parts of the empire also suggest that the subdivision of units was common. Perhaps parts of other regiments were brigaded with the main Vindolanda garrison. The presence of individuals from more than one unit is often attested; for example when the ninth cohort of Batavians was the main garrison individuals from the third cohort also seem to be present. Often fort plans do not fit the neat model for garrisoning units of standard type but also suggest splitting and combining of different units.

A constant and reliable feed of information was necessary to allow local commanders this flexibility in organising their forces. Optiones, junior officers, regularly submitted a report of standard type that all 'were present and correct', a document type (127) first known from Vindolanda. 154 illustrates the strength reports that might be compiled concerning units as a whole. There are similar documents known from other parts of the empire, some rather more formal summaries submitted on the last day of the month or year. Units are likely to have transmitted such reports to the governor, commander-in-chief of the army of each province. Co-ordination with units beyond Vindolanda also depended on the availability of information. Plenty of documents attest to Vindolanda's links with other garrisons, especially letters between prefects, as well as with a regional authority, the centurio regionarius at Carlisle (250). Even if there are no letters directly to or from the governor, the references to him in other correspondence imply the maintenance of close relations (225, 248). The tablets' very existence is perhaps the most significant information that Vindolanda adds to our understanding of Roman military operations. The maintenance of close communication through documents gave much more flexibility in meeting an enemy numerically superior but lacking the information advantage.

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