Vindolanda, The Green Zone Of Ancient Rome.

by Daniel Russ on December 16, 2014



A castrum was a Roman auxiliary garrison. Vindolanda was such a fortification south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England near the current day town of Bardon Mill. Since the 16th Century, Britains have been aware of the ruins of this place. However in the early 19th century an altar was discovered there and a Reverend Anthony Hedley saw the promise of more and supervised an excavation.  There were many named for this place but the Roman name for the garrison was Vindolanda.


Vindolanda housed many auxiliary troops, first Gallic troops around 40 AD. Then British auxiliaries around 100 AD, then Batavians and Nervians in the second century and third century AD, all in the service of Rome, and specifically the 4th cohort of Gauls. The garrison was first built before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. There were many layers of fortifications as foundations steadily sank into the clammy anoxic soil. The first version had wood and turf construction. Then in the first century AD there was a wooden addition built on top of the first iteration. Finally a brick and stone version was built over the site in the third century AD. It was 15 feet high and 9 feet thick.


Various other domiciles were built around the fortification in the three centuries that Vindolanda exited.  A vicus, or self governing village was built west of Vindolanda that probably housed people who handled the affairs of the Roman government and the economic needs of the fortification- not unlike a municipality. There was also a butchery, and a storage facility.. After the third century AD, when a larger stone fortification went up the vicus was abandoned. Archeologists conjecture that it was probably too vulnerable to the British tribes fossicking around in the woods for Romans to ambush.


The Birleys.

Eric Birley was an archeologist who purchased the grounds in the late 19th century and has been uncovering the treasure trove of historical findings there with his family for a half century or more.

.One of the great discoveries made were thinly shaved wooden slats that were written upon. These were the letters soldiers were writing home and the letters they received in return from families. These documents are still today found and pulled from the thick muddy environment and laboriously cleaned by hand and treated with methylated chemicals to preserve the writing.


VindolandaA Variety Of Roman Artifacts

These findings, and the artifacts like jewelry and over 3000 shoes and thousands of other artifacts paints a picture of the life of these soldiers.
They wrote home and asked family for money and supplies. “My dear mother, I have not received a letter from you in a few months and I wonder why. I am here alone and I miss my brother and my mother. I need money and tunics, not just for me but for three of my friends. I pray to the gods that I hear from you soon.” I remember the soldier who confronted Rumsfeld during a revealing interview when he asked “Why do we have to up armor our own vehicle?” Rumsfeld famously answered “we go to war with the army we have, not necessarily the army we want.”

.The  baths at Vindolanda were often inundated with prostitutes and a way to blow off steam (excuse the pun, both of them). The soldiers caroused, bothered each other, and gambled. The Birleys have uncovered not only dice, they discovered loaded dice.

.Imagine: loaded dice in the Roman Empire over 2000 years ago.


Claudia-Severa-inviting-her-friend-Sulpicia-Lepidina-to-her-birthday-party-Vindolanda-tablet-291Birthday Invitation. Claudia Severa Invites Sulpicia Lepidnia


.A vicus is a small self sufficient village. There was one near the fortification. It was not the only small village found near Vindolanda. When an army of paid men go somewhere, commerce follows. Often these garrisoned men had their families live nearby. And leatherworkers, woodworkers, metal smiths, horse handlers, and doctors and cooks and plumbers. All the things that today’s garrisoned soldier require were made available by merchants. The Centurions had their families inside the walls of the castle. One commander’s wife had a rather aureate room with her own bath, and a large collection of shoes, and silk scarves and fine perfumes from around the world.

Life was hard enough that the soldiers needed something that took the edge off of the hard existence their were living. Not so surprisingly the Birleys discovered the remains of what looked like a brewery also built near the fort. Beer my friends, is a nectar always in need.

As happens in battle, soldiers are hurt, thusly there was a hospital of sorts filled with tools for opening wounds, pulling arrow heads out and even amputation. The Birleys have found evidence that alcoholic beverages were not just used by the soldiers but by the surgeons. They spiked the brew with opium, so the medieval procedure was at least not totally barbaric. (Excuse the second pun).

The fortress was always under attack from local tribesmen who wanted the invaders out of their lands. The wall built across the continent was a typical, if not extraordinarily typical, feat of Roman combat engineering. It is redolent of the Green Zone which housed the essential leadership of the US occupation of Iraq.


steve-campbell-vindolanda-roman-shoe-2One of 3000 Roman Shoes Found At Vindolanda

What is singular about this, is the similarity the lifestyle, the letters home, the medicine, the Fort Apache mentality these men suffered. The fortification was thorn in the side of Britains who took umbrage at the occupiers. Yet it survive sand thrived for about three hundred years. As the Roman Empire waned so did the fort and the fortunes of its occupiers.

It remind us that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Oh my. Plus ça change plus ça la même chose.


Sources: Dawsons, BBC, Vondolanda Foundation, Discovery Channel


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