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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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Chapter 2

 p1  Chapter I


The Camps of Classical Writers and British Examples

The military works of the Roman era in this country consist of fieldworks or camps, raised during the campaigns against the natives; forts to hold secure what the sword had won; frontier defences, and the fortifications of towns. The first were of a temporary nature. Of the second, many ceased to be occupied when the natives peaceably acquiesced in the new conditions. The frontier defences were maintained to the end, as upon them depended the security of the country; and equally necessary were the walls of the towns to ensure their safety in civil troubles. Broadly speaking, these military works may be divided into 'temporary' and 'permanent.'

It is well known that during an expedition the Roman army in its best period never halted — not even for a single day — without making an entrenched camp or castra, a word used only in the plural form. The judicious choice of situations for camps was a distinguishing mark of good generalship. Of Agricola it was saida that "no general had ever shown greater skill in the choice of advantageous situations, for not one of his fortified posts was either taken by storm or surrendered by capitulation." These encampments varied greatly in size. Some were large enough to accommodate an entire army, or a large portion of one; smaller ones served as advanced or exploratory posts; and smaller still, to keep open the communications of the army with  p2 its base. All these fieldworks were of slight construction, consisting essentially of a rampart or breastwork formed of turves or of the upcast from a ditch, the enclosed space containing the tents and baggage of the soldiers. When the camp was intended to last some time — to serve for winter quarters, for instance — the defences were strengthened with palisades and even with towers of timber, and huts of timber or turf took the place of tents.

The Camps of Classical Writers

Of the writers who treated of the art of castrametation as practised by the Romans, and whose works have come down to us, two stand pre-eminent for the fullness of their descriptions: Polybius, the friend of the younger Scipio, in the second century before our era; and the author of a treatise, De Muni­tionibus Castrorum, who is usually called Hyginus, and who probably lived about the time of Septimus Severus (A.D. 193‑211). It should be mentioned that the camps of these writers were intended for the accommodation of whole armies (about 20,000 men in the case of Polybius, and almost double that number in the case of Hyginus); whereas most of those which remain in this country are much smaller.

The Polybian camp was simple and symmetrical. The site being selected by a company sent in advance of the army, the position of the general's tent — the praetorium — was fixed upon and was marked by a small flag, and from this point the whole plan was developed. Through it, a straight line was drawn in the intended direction of the camp, and at a certain distance this was crossed by another at right angles. These two lines were termed in the language of the Roman land-surveyors the decumanus maximus and cardo maximus, respectively, and they served as the base-lines from which the general outline and internal divisions were determined. The resultant figure was a square, 2150 Roman feet each way, bisected in its 'length' into two equal divisions by the decumanus maximus, and in its breadth, or, as the surveyors said, in its 'depth,' into two unequal divisions, by the cardo maximus. These lines marked the positions of the chief thoroughfares and of the openings or gates in the rampart through which they passed. The  p3 transverse road, which from its importance and superior width was known as the via principalis, coincided with the latter of these two lines. The praetorial square occupied the middle of its side next the nearer rampart of the camp, and from its entrance stretched the main longitudinal road, the via praetoria. A number of minor ways contributed to divide up the interior into rectangular plots for the tents, and around all, within the rampart, was a clear space or intervallum, 200 ft. wide, which facilitated the drawing up of the troops in marching order. The rampart itself was usually formed of the upcast from the ditch which constituted the outer line of defence.

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Fig. 1. — Plan of Polybian Camp

Polybius mentions neither the number nor the names of the gates. We incidentally learn, however, from Livy and other  p4 ancient writers, that they were normally four, and were known as the portae principales (dextra and sinistra), the porta praetoria, and the porta decumana or quaestoria. The first two were those through which the via principalis passed, hence were the lateral gates of the camp; the third — the porta praetoria — faced the direction the army was going, and so was the front gate; while the last was the back gate. But the identification of these two gates on the plan of the camp is uncertain. According to one view, the porta praetoria was the nearest gate to the praetorium, that is, the one behind it; according to another, it was the gate towards which it looked. The latter seems to be the more reasonable view.

Such a camp was for a consular army consisting of two legions. If the necessity arose for two of these armies to be encamped within the same lines, Polybius provided that two such camps should be applied back to back with the intervening ramparts suppressed, the result being an oblong enclosure with six gates.

During the three centuries or more between Polybius and the treatise attributed to Hyginus, great changes took place in the Roman military system, and, as might be expected, the Hyginan camp reflected the altered conditions. To us, this form of camp is of peculiar interest, as our Roman camps and forts are more akin to it than to that of Polybius.

The lay-out of the Hyginan camp agreed substantially with that of the Polybian, as a comparison of the two plans will show. We observe in both the same rectangular arrangement and bilateral symmetry, the transverse via principalis with central praetorium abutting upon it, the longitudinal via praetoria, and the four gates. But the general form of the Hyginan was an oblong with the corners rounded off; the intervallum was greatly reduced in width; the praetorium was lengthened, pushing forward the via principalis; and the via quintana, instead of crossing the front part of the camp as of old, was placed behind the praetorium. The chief difference, however, between the two types, lay in the altered disposition of the troops and in the smaller space they occupied, as may be gathered from the broad fact that, while the later camp was somewhat smaller than the earlier, it accommodated nearly double the men. The difference is all the more significant when it is noted that the accommodation  p5 for the officers had increased threefold, a change which reflects the altered status of the common soldier under the Empire.

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Fig. 2. — Plan of Hyginan Camp

The two transverse roads divided the Hyginan camp into three well-defined segments, of which the praetentura lay to the front, and the retentura to the back, while the middle segment contained the praetorium and its latera, in which were quartered the general's bodyguard.

In Josephus' Wars of the Jews (book iii. chap. v.) we have a graphic sketch of a Roman camp, in which are interspersed those little details which mark it as the description of an eye-witness.  p6 It is especially interesting to us, for he wrote about the time that the earlier camps and forts were constructed in this country.

After describing the discipline and fortitude of the Roman soldiers, he passes to their procedure when in an enemy's land: "They do not begin to fight till they have walled their camp about; nor is the fence they raise rashly made or uneven; . . . The camp is foursquare by measure, and carpenters are ready in great numbers with their tools to erect their buildings for them. As for what is within the camp, it is set apart for tents, but the outward circumference hath the resemblance to a wall, and is adorned with towers at regular distances, where, between the towers, stand the engines for throwing arrows and darts, and for slinging stones, and where they lay all other engines that can annoy the enemy, all ready for their several operations. They also erect four gates, one at every side of the circumference, and these large enough for the entrance of the beasts, and wide enough for making excursions, if occasion should require. They divide the camp within into streets, very conveniently, and place the tents of the commanders in the middle; but in the very middle of all is the general's own tent, in the nature of a temple, insomuch that it appears to be a city built on the sudden with its market-place and place for handicraft trades, and with seats for the officers, superior and inferior, where, if any differences arise, their causes are heard and determined. The camp and all that is in it is encompassed with a wall round about, and that sooner than one would imagine, and this by the multitude and the skill of the labourers; and if occasion require, a trench is drawn round the whole, whose depth is four cubits, and its breadth equal."

Roman Camps in Britain

The remains of the entrenched fieldworks in Britain represent one of the less known branches of the archaeology of the era. They are almost invariably slight and meagre, and there is considerable uncertainty how far we can rely in their case upon rectangular form as an index of Roman work. It is known, for instance, that rectangular entrenched enclosures were raised in pre-Roman times in this country. Then few, if any, of our  p7 supposed Roman camps have been subjected to the spade, and it is doubtful whether their exploration would yield conclusive evidence at all, as the chance of meeting with objects lost during a brief occupancy would be small indeed. It is obviously less a question of excavation than of the systematic study of their visible features and dimensions, correlated with the progress of the conquest, and little has been done in this direction. Again, there is evidence that the Roman armies sometimes made use of British camps, and even occupied them for considerable lengths of time, to judge from the number of Roman relics that have been found in several of them.

Still, in spite of these difficulties, it is highly probable that most of our rectangular, or, more strictly speaking, four-sided, entrenched enclosures, especially the larger ones, are really of Roman origin. The remains of these are very unevenly distributed. They are mostly found in the less cultivated regions of North Britain and Wales, whereas throughout the lowlands of England they are rarely seen. This uneven distribution is mainly due to the unequal advance of agriculture. Some that were noticed by writers of a century or more ago can no longer be discerned, and it is generally found that the lands on which these were situated have since been cultivated. That the remains should have succumbed to the plough is not surprising; for it is evident from the more perfect existing examples that their earthworks were never on the bold scale of most of the undoubted prehistoric ones. Hence their absence from the more cultivated lowlands of England is no proof of their original sparseness there; nor that the earlier Roman generals relied less upon entrenchments than their successors in the west and north.

The examples that remain vary much in size. Some even exceed the dimensions of those described by Polybius and Hyginus; while at the other extreme are the small posts that may have served to keep open communications between the army in the field and its base, or, if near a road, to protect the labourers who constructed it. For the present, we shall disregard these smaller works.

Of the disposition of the troops in the larger camps we know nothing, as only the worn-down entrenchments remain; hence only in their outlines and in the position and the nature of the entrances can we compare them with the castra of the  p8 classical writers, and in many instances the agreement is very close. Some of these fieldworks more nearly correspond with the Polybian proportions than with the Hyginan; but as no two quite agree in shape and size, the Roman generals apparently followed no fixed rules in these respects. These British examples appear to have had the rounded corners of the Hyginan camp; on the other hand, the gates of the series in Scotland which have been attributed to Agricola have the straight traverses of the Polybian.

The Scottish examples are certainly the most interesting, and it is fortunate that they were carefully surveyed by General Roy1 a century and a half ago, when they were in a better state of preservation than at present. These surveys, with their notes, still remain the standard work on the subject.

Whether the camps with the straight traverses, described by Roy, were all raised by Agricola during his Caledonian campaigns, need not detain us. It is sufficient to observe that as far as can be judged from his plates and text, they closely resemble one another, and that to his observant eye they all had the impress of one design and period. His profile of the rampart and ditch of one of these camps, Re‑dykes, appears to be typical of the series.

It will be observed that while all these camps are more or less oblong, they differ considerably in size, and some are very irregular. In Fig. 3 A and B are shown the plans of two of the more perfect, one at Towford, a highly symmetrical camp, and Raedykes, the most irregular of the series. It is probable that these irregularities are due to configuration of the sites, and the obliqueness of some of the plans to a faulty setting out of the main lines. The entrances given on the table are those which can still be traced; but only in the two camps named above, and Raedykes, do they represent the original number — six. A comparison of the positions of the existing entrances in the other camps leaves little room for doubt that most, if not all (with the exception of two of the Chew Green group), had the same number similarly placed — one at each end, and two on each side. The six entrances recall the double Polybian camp — the two consular camps combined in one — but they have not arisen from the same cause, as most of the camps are much  p10 smaller than the single one of Polybius. Of the Chew Green group, No. II alone has the linear traverses; the other two apparently have unguarded entrances, and probably should not be classed with Roy's Agricolan series.


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Fig. 3. — Examples of Roman Camps in Britain. All except D, after Roy
(800 ft. to 1 in.)

The following is a list of these so‑called Agricolan camps described by the General:—

Camp. Entrances. Length
Ardoch I, Perthshire 2 2750 1900 130 Irregular oblong
Grassywalls, Perthshire* 1 2800? 1950 127 Oblique oblong, irregular
Battledykes, Forfarshire 5 2970 1840 118 Irregular oblong
Raedykes, Kincardineshire 6 2200 1700 86 Very irregular oblong
Ardoch II, Perthshire* 4 1910? 1280 58? Long oblong, regular
Lintrose, Perthshire 1 1850 1200 58 Regular oblong
Kirkboddo, Kincardineshire* 6 2250 1050 54 Long oblong, regular
Cleghorn, Lanarkshire 3 1740 1300 52 Oblique irregular oblong
Tassiesholm, Dumfriesshire 0 1800? 1300? 52? Regular oblong
Lockerby, Dumfriesshire* 2 1750 1300 51 Oblique oblong
Cannelkirk, Berwickshire 1 1700? 1250? 50? Rhombic, regular
Kiethick, Forfarshire 1 ? 1300 ? End of oblique oblong camp
Towford I, Roxburghshire 5 1700 1060 42 Long oblong, regular
Chew Green I, Northumberland 1 1030 920 22 Short oblong
Chew Green II, Northumberland 1 1000 600 16 Long oblong
Re-dykes, Aberdeenshire 4 900 650 10 Rhombic
Towford II, Roxburghshire 3 970 440 9 Long oblong, regular
Chew Green III, Northumberland 3 500 475 6 Nearly square

The areas given on the table are only approximate, being based upon the measurements of Roy's plans, some of which are partial restorations,2 and others are not quite correct as to scale. If we eliminate the last seven camps, which are of very diverse sizes, we have three large camps ranging from 118 to 130 acres each; seven smaller ones from 50 to 58 acres each; and an intermediate one, Raedykes, of 86 acres. It looks as though these sites had some relationship to one another in their accommodation for the soldiery. We do not know what to deduct for the  p11 intervallum and the streets between the rows of tents; but if they were of similar width in all, as probably they were, the deduction would be relatively greater in proportion to the area in the smaller camps, leaving a space available for the tents in the larger camps about treble that in the smaller, and double that in Raedykes.

Since Roy's time other camps of his Agricolan type have been observed. Maclauchlan surveyed eight or nine small ones along the line of the Wall of Hadrian, ranging from 180 to 390 ft. in length, most of them with four entrances. Two were discovered and trenched at Haltwhistle Burn by Messrs. J. P. Gibson and F. G. Simpson in 1908.3 They had rounded corners and a single entrance on the south side. The larger was 458 ft. by 250 ft., with a V‑shaped ditch, 4 ft. wide and 2 ft. deep, and a small rampart about 8 ft. wide on a foundation of turves, which were heaped up in front, the material above being the upcast of the ditch. Behind the rampart and about 11 ft. from the ditch was a smaller V‑shaped ditch. The traverse was of the same construction with a similar external ditch. The smaller camp was 280 ft. by 135 ft., and its defensive lines were similar to those of the larger camp, but it differed in having an annexe on the south with an entrance on its south side.

In the table on the next page, all the examples are from Roy, with the exception of those at Pigwn and Ratby. These camps differ among themselves too much to be regarded as the works of one general, or perhaps of one period. They differ from Roy's Agricolan series in several respects. They are more symmetrical in shape. They are, as a rule, smaller. But the chief points of difference are the number, distribution, and character of their entrances.

Camp. Entrances. Length
Pigwn I, Breconshire 4 1452 1254 42 Oblong, regular
Pigwn II, " 4 1254 966 28 "     "
Dealgin Ross, Perthshire 4 1000 950 21 Nearly square
Chew Green I, Northumberland 1 1030 920 22 "     "
Rey Cross, Westmorland Many 870 870 18½ Square.
Kreiginthorp, " Many 870 870 18½ "     "
Birrenswark I, Dumfriesshire Many 900 670 12 Narrow oblong
Ratby, Leicestershire Many 930 550 11 "     "
Birrenswark II, Dumfriesshire 2? 1000 300 "     "
Chew Green, Northumberland 3 500 475 5 Nearly square
Pickering Moor I, Yorkshire 3 370 360 "     "
Pickering Moor II, Yorkshire 3 750 225 Long and narrow
Pickering Moor III, Yorkshire 4 400 450 Square, with an annexe with two entrances

Taking the number and distribution of the entrances first: At Dealgin Ross (Fig. 3 F), there are four, one about the middle of each end, and one on each side, but nearer one end than the other. Three entrances remain in each of the Pigwn camps (D), but almost certainly there were originally four with a similar distribution. One only is to be seen in the largest Chew Green camp (C); but in a camp of this size there must have been more, and its nearly square form suggests four. The next four camps are remarkable for the large number of their entrances,  p12 and their unequal distribution. Rey Cross (E) appears to have had eleven, three on three sides, and two on the fourth. Kreiginthorp had probably more, as there are four on one side and two on the opposite side, the remaining sides having apparently three each. The unequal distribution at Birrenswark I and Ratby is even more marked, each having three entrances on one of the long sides, and only one on each of the other sides. The original number of gates in the second Birrenswark camp is doubtful. The third of the Chew Green and the first of the Pickering Moor groups are squares of similar size, with three gates each. The latter group is remarkable. Its second camp is long and narrow with three gates on one of the longer sides; and the third is square, like the first, with four entrances, one opening into an extension or annexe of similar size and with two external entrances.

The entrances of the two Chew Green and the Ratby camps are apparently simple unguarded openings. Those of Kreiginthorp have the straight traverses of the Agricolan series; while the traverses of Rey Cross and the two Birrenswark camps take  p13 the form of round or oval mounds. The entrances of the remaining camps of the table differ altogether from any we have considered. In the second of the Pickering camps the openings are covered by curved guards or traverses, which are joined to the rampart at one end, the advantage of the arrangement being that the defenders on the traverse were not isolated, but could pass at will to and from the rampart. At Pigwn these guards are internal, instead of external. Roy shows the entrances of the third of the Pickering camps with both external and internal guards, and those of Dealgin Ross with one external and two internal guards.

The camps referred to in the two tables furnish several interesting examples of the successive occupation of the same site. That a well-chosen site should again be selected by an army on its return, or by another marching along the same line, is natural enough. There would be the old camp ready for re-occupation. How often a camp may have been thus used we cannot say. But it must have occasionally happened that the second comers were fewer or more numerous than the first; and in such case the rule seems to have been to make an entirely new camp. In the Pigwn camp, for instance, the smaller and presumably second camp is quite distinct from the larger, and is within it. The two at Ardoch are more remarkable, for not only are they distinct, but they intersect one another, and the constructors of the second, whichever it may have been, did not trouble to level those portions of the first that lay within the new camp. The Chew Green group is a still more remarkable example of successive occupation. It is puzzling why the older entrenchments were not utilized, at least in part. If, as in another instance, the Pickering camps were raised successively, as they appear to have been, why should not the first have sufficed for the later comers, for there is little difference in their sizes? The only instance of the utilization of a portion of the old lines is at Towford (Fig. 3, A), where we have a smaller within a larger camp, and so arranged that for two of its sides the lines of the second were utilized.

Several of the camps have been enlarged like the smaller Haltwhistle camp, apparently to provide accommodation for additional troops. At Kirkoboddo there is an extension about 350 ft. square, with one external entrance, at the south-east  p14 end of the camp; and we have already referred to a similar extension of one of the Pickering camps.

The usual situation for a camp was moderately high ground near a river or a brook, especially where the bank was steep. The actual site was generally tolerably level, or had only a gentle slope; occasionally, however, the ground was very uneven, as at Raedykes, where the camp took in a small hill.

In turning over Roy's plates, it will be noticed that several of his 'Agricolan' camps have associated with them small strongly entrenched posts. At Lockerby, such a post occupies the higher ground about 1000 ft. to the south-east. It is square, with an internal diameter of about 110 ft., and two entrances. At Tassiesholm, there is one of similar shape and size, but with a single entrance, on the higher ground 260 ft. to the south-east. At Ardoch, a smaller one is constructed on the inner side of the south-east rampart of the larger camp. At Cannelkirk, the extremity of a spur of the high ground on which the camp is placed has been strongly fortified by lines of entrenchment across the neck. One considerably larger than any of the above lies within the north-east side of the largest of the Chew Green camps. Besides these, Roy refers to several isolated examples, notably Kaims Castle near Ardoch, with one entrance, and another at Glenlyon, with two.

These posts ranged from about 60 to about 160 ft. square internally. From their careful and strong construction, it is reasonable to think that they were intended for a more or less protracted occupation. That their use was to keep open communications and to overawe the conquered territory is equally reasonable. Those which were associated with the large fieldworks were, with little doubt, constructed to hold a small detachment left behind by the army when it resumed its march.

The camps and small posts which have engaged the reader's attention are only a few out of the large number of quadrilateral enclosures which are known in Great Britain, and of which many or most are presumably Roman. Dr. Christison gives a list of some ninety examples of these in Scotland alone;4 and although he doubts or discredits the Roman origin of many of them, it is significant that they are confined to the Lowlands and the eastern counties from the Firth of Forth to Aberdeenshire, just  p15 the regions where the Roman arms penetrated. Most of the examples he gives are rectangles ranging from 75 to 300 ft. externally, which from their small size may be regarded as posts or outposts. The indistinct traces of small camps may be observed here and there in the vicinity of our Roman roads; the Kreiginthorp and Rey Cross camps, for instance, are on the road from York to Carlisle. The Ordnance Survey sheets are strewn with a large number of camps that are either called Roman or are indicated as such by the style of the lettering; but this attribution rests in many cases upon no better evidence than the popular opinion of their respective neighbourhoods.

As stated in the opening paragraph, the subject has not yet received the careful and comprehensive attention it deserves. But if the admirable scheme of the committee for recording ancient defensive earthworks, appointed by the Congress of  p16 Archaeological Societies, is generally acted upon and carried out, it will provide a magnificent basis for comparative and systematic study, which will place the identification of Roman camps upon a firmer basis and throw much light on the movements of the Roman armies in the conquest of Britain.

A notable example of the Roman adoption and modification of a native camp is Hod Hill, in Dorset (Fig. 4). Here the Romans cut off an approximately rectangular portion within the north-west corner, utilizing the old lines for the north and west sides, and completing the enclosure by their own on the south and east. About the middle of each of the latter sides is a straight entrance, the south one having an oval traverse and probably the east one had a similar traverse that has disappeared. An entrance was cut through the north-west angle of the old lines, and the middle entrance on the east side of the oppidum is also Roman. The remains were partially destroyed many years ago, when many Roman relics were found, including coins ranging from Augustus to Trajan.

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Fig. 4. — Plan of Hod Hill Camp, Dorset.
(500 ft. to 1 in.)

Little is known of the defences of the alleged Roman camps beyond what can be gathered from the visible features. In the supposed Agricolan camps they consist of a single ditch and rampart of small proportions, together rarely exceeding some 24 or 26 ft. in width, and presumably the latter consists of the upcast from the former. In many of the camps of our second table the defences are bolder and wider; and still more so in the small posts, some of which had several lines of entrenchment.

The excavations at Birrenswark in 1898 proved that the defences of the two camps were from 40 to 60 ft., according to the slope of the ground; and that the rampart rested upon a thin layer of clay, the soil above being the upcast from the ditch, with here and there traces of brushwood bonding. The face of the rampart was generally covered with rough pitching, but this was more noticeable in the south camp, in which also were the remains of pitched roads, showing that it can hardly be classed as a mere fieldwork. These camps lie at the foot, on opposite sides, of an isolated hill, on the top of which is a large camp of British type. The lower camps were linked together by a circumvallation that enclosed the hill, and on the west side of this circumvallation are the remains of a strongly entrenched triangular post, and on the east, those of two less strongly protected enclosures. It  p17 would seem that these lower fortifications were Roman siege-works, and that when the hill-fort was captured, the south camp continued to be held for a time to prevent the re-occupation of the former, but not sufficiently long to yield many relics of the occupation.5

The statements of classical writers show that the Romans had several methods of constructing their fieldworks. Hyginus, for instance, directs that the rampart "in the more exposed parts should be built of sod or stone, whether rock or rubble. A breadth of eight feet is sufficient, and a height of six feet, and there is made a small breastwork." Where the soil is sandy or stony, he recommends an earthen mound. Vegetius, who wrote about a century and a half later, also refers to the wall of squared sods, and recommends it where only a hasty and slight fortification is required; but where the ground is loose and sods are not available, he recommends a ditch, 5 ft. wide and 3 ft. deep, with an agger formed of the upcast. Where, however, a fierce attack is expected, he directs that the soil of the rampart should be confined between two rows of stakes; and be further protected by stakes pointing forwards. It will be observed that a ditch was not essential; and this explains the statement of Josephus that "if occasion require, a trench is drawn round the whole, whose depth is four cubits and breadth equal." Two forms of ditch are noted by Hyginus, the 'fastigate' or V‑shaped, and the 'Punic,' with the outer side perpendicular. In any case the result of time and decay would leave only a gentle rise for the rampart, with or without a slight hollow marking a ditch, and only excavation can prove their form and construction.6

The Author's Notes:

1 Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain.

2 Especially those marked * in the table.

3 The Roman Fort at Haltwhistle Burn, 47.

4 Early Fortifications in Scotland.

5 Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot. XXXIII, 198.

6 Chapter III.

Thayer's Note:

a Tacitus, Agricola, xxii.2.

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