10 must-see Roman Forts in Britain
The following is our view of the top ten roman forts in Provincia Britannia.
Provincia Britannia, today known as Roman Britain, was a province of the Roman Empire from 43AD to 409AD, spanning at its height in 160, the southern three-quarters of the island of Great Britain. Roman officials departed from Britain around the year 410AD, which began the sub-Roman period (5th–6th centuries), but the legacy of the Roman Empire was felt for centuries in Britain.
1 : Vindolanda
Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort (castrum) just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. Located near the modern village of Bardon Mill, it guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. It is noted for the Vindolanda tablets, among the most important finds of military and private correspondence (written on wooden tablets) found anywhere in the Roman Empire.
A vicus, a self-governing village, developed to the west of the fort. The vicus contains several rows of buildings, each containing several one-room chambers. Most are not connected to the existing drainage system. The one that does was perhaps a butchery where, for health reasons, an efficient drain would have been important. A stone altar found in 1914 (and exhibited in the museum) proves that the settlement was officially a vicus, and that it was named Vindolanda.
2 : Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort is an archaeological site, the remains of the Roman fort Mediobodgdum, located on the western side of the Hardknott Pass in the English county of Cumbria.
The fort was built on a rocky spur giving a superb view over the River Esk in both upper and lower Eskdale, and protecting Hardknott Pass. At an altitude of 800 feet, it isn’t the highest fort in the Roman province of Britannia, the highest fort is Epiacum, also in Cumbria.
The ruins have been commonly known in recent times as Hardknott Fort or Hardknott Castle, but are identified from the Ravenna Cosmography as the Mediobogdo fort or more correctly Mediobogdum.
Built between about 120 and 138, the fort was abandoned during the Antonine advance into Scotland during the mid-2nd century. The fort was reoccupied around 200 and continued in use until the last years of the 4th century. During this time, an extensive vicus developed outside the fort. The Roman garrison here was a detachment of 500 cavalry of the 6th Cohort of Dalmatians from the Dalmatian coast.
3 : Housesteads Roman Fort
Vercovicium, now known as Housesteads Roman Fort, was an auxiliary fort on Hadrian’s Wall, in the Roman province of Britannia. Its ruins are located at Housesteads in Northumberland, England.
In the 2nd century AD, the garrison consisted of an unknown double-sized auxiliary infantry cohort and a detachment of legionaries from Legio II Augusta. In the 3rd century, it comprised cohors I Tungrorum, augmented by the numerus Hnaudifridiand the cuneus Frisiorum. The Tungrians were still there in the 4th century, according to the Notitia Dignitatum. By 409 AD the Romans had withdrawn.
The fort was built in stone around AD 124, soon after the construction of the Wall began in AD 122. Vercovicium was built overlying the original Broad Wall foundation and Turret 36B. The fort was repaired and rebuilt several times, its northern defences being particularly prone to collapse. A substantial civil settlement (vicus) existed to the south, outside the fort, and some of the stone foundations can still be seen, including “Murder House”, where two skeletons were found beneath an apparently newly laid floor when excavated.
4 : Porchester Castle (Roman Fort)
The strategic importance of Portchester has been recognised since at least the 3rd century when a Roman fort was established on the site of the later castle. Though it is uncertain exactly when the fort was constructed, it is thought that it was built by Marcus Aurelius Carausius on the instructions of emperor Diocletian between 285 and 290.
It was one of several forts built along the British coast in the period to combat raids by pirates. Portchester was probably a base from which the Classis Britannica, the Roman fleet defending Britain, operated. It is the best preserved Roman fort north of the Alps. Although the Roman army retreated from Britain in the early 5th century, it is unlikely that the fort was ever completely abandoned, although its use continued on a much smaller scale. The The D-shaped towers are typical of 3rd-century Roman forts. The Roman defences were integrated into the medieval castle of the later castle.
5 : Segedunum
Segedunum was a Roman fort at modern-day Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, England, UK. The fort lay at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall (in Wallsend) near the banks of the River Tyne, forming the easternmost portion of the wall. It was in use as a garrison for approximately 300 years, almost up to 400AD.
The Roman wall originally terminated at Pons Aelius (Newcastle upon Tyne). Work began at Pons Aelius in 122AD and proceeded towards the west. Subsequently, in about 127AD, the wall was extended further east, possibly to protect the river crossing at Pons Aelius. A four-mile section of the wall east from the fort of Pons Aelius, passing through present-day Bykerand ending at the new fort of Segedunum was built. The new section of wall was narrower than the sections previously built, being 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 m) on a foundation of 8 feet (2.4 m). Sometime round about 400AD the fort was abandoned.
6 : Gariannonum – Burgh Castle
Burgh Castle is the site of one of several Roman shore forts constructed around the 3rd century AD, to hold cavalry as a defence against Saxon raids up the rivers of the east and south coasts of southern Britain; and is located on the summit of ground sloping steeply towards the estuary of the River Waveney, in the civil parish of Burgh Castle, in Norfolk. This fort was possibly known as Gariannonum, although the single record that describes it as such may also mean the Roman site at Caister-on-Sea.
The fort is roughly rectangular measuring (internally) approximately 205 m (673 ft) by 100 m (330 ft). The walls on the north, east, and much of the south side are largely intact, standing at a height of approximately 4.6 m (15 ft) and measuring up to 3 m (9.8 ft) thick at the base. They have a core of mortared flint rubble and an external and internal facing of prepared flint and red tile or brick in alternating bands.
Coin and pottery evidence on the site indicates that the occupation of the fort dates from the mid-3rd century AD, with Roman occupation continuing up to the early 5th century AD when the integration of Roman and Saxon traditions appear.
7 : Cilurnum
Cilurnum or Cilurvum was a fort on Hadrian’s Wall mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum. It is now identified with the fort found at Chesters (also known as Walwick Chesters to distinguish it from other sites named Chesters in the vicinity) near the village of Walwick, Northumberland, England. It was built in 123 AD, just after the wall’s completion.
Cilurnum is considered to be the best preserved Roman cavalry fort along Hadrian’s Wall. There is a museum on the site, housing finds from the fort and elsewhere along the wall.
The site guarded a bridge carrying the military road behind the wall across the River North Tyne at this point, whose abutments survive. It was a cavalry fort at its foundation, for retaliatory raids into barbarian areas north of the wall, then given over to infantry later.
Hadrian himself encouraged the “Cult of Disciplina” amongst legions stationed at the wall, and an early inscription on an altar dedicated to Disciplina, found in 1978, indicates the earliest known military presence was a wing of cavalry, ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata (“named Augusta because of its valour”). Inscriptions have also been found showing the First Cohort of Dalmatians and the First Cohort of Vangiones from Upper Rhineland in Germany were also stationed here.
8 : Londinium Roman Fort
The roman fort of Londinium (City of London, England) was built around AD120 just north-west of the main settlement. It covered around 12 acres and was almost square in size and 200m along each length. As Londinium grew, the fort was later absorbed into the defensive wall that surrounded the city.
The fort could house up to 1000 men and provided suitable barracks for all troops stationed in Londinium. However, a century later the site was decommissioned and buildings dismantled as the military situation in the southern edge of Britannia had become more secure. Whilst the walls have been added to over various phases in London’s history, the forts northern and western ages still remain visible along with bastion towers and one of the gatehouses.
9 : Segontium
Segontium is a Roman fort for a Roman auxiliary force, located on the outskirts of Caernarfon in Gwynedd, north Wales. It probably takes its name from the nearby River Seiont, and may be related to the Segontiaci, a British tribe mentioned by Julius Caesar. The fort was founded by Agricola in 77 or 78 AD after he had conquered the Ordovices. It was the main Roman fort in the north of Roman Wales and was designed to hold about a thousand auxiliary infantry. It was connected by a Roman road to the Roman legionary base at Chester, Deva Victrix. Unlike the more recent Caernarfon Castle alongside the Seiont estuary, Segontium is located on higher ground giving a good view of the Menai Straits.
The original timber defences were rebuilt in stone in the first half of the 2nd century AD. An inscription on an aqueduct from the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus indicates that at that time it was garrisoned by Cohors I Sunicorum, which would have originally been levied among the Sunici of Gallia Belgica.
10 : Isca Augusta
Isca Augusta (or Isca Silurum) was a Roman legionary fortress and settlement, the remains of which lie beneath parts of the present-day village of Caerleon on the northern outskirts of the city of Newport in South Wales.
The Brythonic name Isca means “water” and refers to the River Usk. The suffix Augusta appears in the Ravenna Cosmography and was an honorific title taken from the legion stationed there. The place is commonly referred to as Isca Silurum to differentiate it from Isca Dumnoniorum and because it lay in the territory of the Silures tribe. However, there is no evidence that this form was used in Roman times. The later name, Caerleon, is derived from the Welsh for “fortress of the legion”.
Isca became the headquarters of the 2nd Legion Augusta in about AD 75, when Governor Sextus Julius Frontinus began the conquest of Roman Wales. They built a large “playing-card” shaped fort with initially a timber palisade which was later replaced in stone. The interior was fitted out with the usual array of military buildings: a headquarters building, legate’s residence, tribunes’ houses, hospital, large bath house, workshops, barrack blocks, granaries and an amphitheatre.
By the 120s, detachments or vexillations of the legion were needed elsewhere in the province and Isca became more of a military base than a garrison. However, it is thought that each cohort still maintained a presence at the fortress.