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Vindolanda units and their origins

Vindolanda and its setting


Forts and military life


Vindolanda units and their origins

Officers and men, families and traders

The Britons


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Map of northern Gaul in the Roman period

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Map of northern Gaul and neighbouring areas in the Roman period

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© Ancient World Mapping project (with modifications)

One exaction imposed by Rome on many conquered peoples was to contribute manpower to the Roman army in the form of auxiliary units. The names of units were taken from their tribes or provinces, revealing the patterns of recruitment. Names of the units stationed on Hadrian's Wall reveal how widely Rome recruited its auxiliary regiments, from Spain, Gaul, Germany, the lands along the Danube, Asia Minor, Syria and North Africa.

Both of the principal units identified at Vindolanda, the ninth cohort of Batavians and the first cohort of Tungrians, were recruited from northern Gaul, in a mixed area of 'Germanic' and 'Celtic' peoples, languages and material culture. The Batavians came from the region close to the mouth of the Rhine, in the south of the Netherlands around Nijmegen (Noviomagus), the Roman period capital of Batavian territory. Batavian tribesmen were perhaps recruited by Caesar in the mid first century BC and there was certainly an ala Batavorum by the time of Augustus. They also contributed soldiers to a mounted bodyguard to emperors from Augustus to Nero. Their horsemanship was legendary: the historian Tacitus reports that the men of one unit could swim the Rhine while keeping hold of their arms and horses and retaining their formation.

Eight Batavian infantry units were brought to Britain in AD 43 in the army of conquest . They were withdrawn in AD 66 and led a major revolt against Rome in the political and military turmoil following the death of Nero in AD 68. With the end of the revolt, Batavian units once again participated in the renewed conquest of Britain in the later first century AD.

The Batavians enjoyed an unusual relationship to Rome, being spared taxes in return for a substantial contribution of manpower. Of all the Gallic tribes they contributed the highest numbers to the Roman army, on one estimate one son from every household served. Unusually for auxiliary units, they were perhaps commanded by their own nobles rather than Roman officers. The commander of the Vindolanda garrison, Flavius Cerialis, may be one such noble. In a letter to be published in volume III a soldier addresses Cerialis as rex, 'king'. This may allude to his aristocratic position but it might be simply a subservient form of address.

The Tungrians' homeland is to the south of the Batavians, along the middle stretch of the river Meuse in modern Belgium, their territory centred on Tongeren (Atuatuca Tungrorum). It is not clear when Tungrian units were first raised, but recruitment had certainly begun by the time of the Batavian revolt as a Tungrian unit took part. Both Batavian and Tungrian units were also at Mons Graupius.

After service at Vindolanda the ninth cohort of Batavians took part in Trajan's Dacian campaign and was afterwards stationed in Raetia (southern Germany) until the end of the Roman period. The first cohort of Tungrians stayed at Vindolanda for part of the second century, and by the Severan period had moved the short distance to Housesteads, where it is attested in many inscriptions. Later garrisons at Vindolanda were drawn from other Gallic units.

Present also at Vindolanda were soldiers from other units, including cavalrymen from one of the Vardullian cohorts, recruited in northern Spain, and legionary soldiers.

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