Roman Marching Camps

by Daniel Russ on April 20, 2011

Vercovicium, A Roman Marching Camp In England

The outpost supply and harbor system is a military concept created by the Romans. They were the first real empire to put in place forward operating bases deep in occupied territory. Once the Romans had to occupy Gaul and return to quell uprisings they also needed a place to retreat to when they were overwhelmed in the field, and a place to house and feed the men, the horses and a place to keep siege weapons since they were so hard to transport. The system itself is often referred to as the Roman Marching Camp. There are about 400 or so that have been found well within the extended footprint of the Roman Empire from central Asia in the East to Britannia in the West, and from Gaul in the North and North Africa to the South. Many were discovered after aircraft appeared, as the outlines were adumbrated into the environment and only visible from the air. The Roman Marching Camps, like so many other new discoveries about the past became evident in the twentieth century when we learned to fly, and pilots began noticing rhomboid outlines of all sort in the ground and around structures that had been around for centuries. Most are delineated by a rampart of a defensive wall, and there is evidence in side of quarters for men, communal kitchens, food storage and accommodation for cavalry, and finally repair shop where blacksmiths kept body armor functioning.

Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in the 4th century describing the trench surrounding the Marching Camp: “After the ground is marked  out by the proper officers, each Centurion receives a certain number of

Roman encampment in Epping Forest, Essex, 1876. Map of a Roman encampment dating from 52 AD at Ambresbury Banks, in Epping Forest.

feet to entrench. They then arrange their shields and baggage in a circle around their colors and without other tools than their swords and shields, they dig a trench nine feet or eleven feet or thirteen feet across. If they really feared their enemy the trench would be eighteen feet wide.”

One cannot understate the success of the combat engineering the Romans performed that made the empire powerful. Marching Camps were one of these tools the Romans used that Hollywood and storytellers leave out. Prior to attacking the Nervii in Gaul and destroy them, Ceasar sent pickets ahead to reconnoiter for Marching Camp locations. The Romans left enough troops to discourage foragers. That said, when the Romans marched into battle, they traveled with what they needed to fight, not what they needed to live. Tents, sleepwear, extra clothing, personal effects of all sorts and food were all left back so the legionnaires could attack unfettered by a supply-train. The Nervii fared better than the Romans expected and they almost overwhelmed VIIth and XIVth Legions. Caesar had both legions form a giant square and it quickly restored their moral. He writes: “The two legions (XIII and XIVth) hich were guarding baggage train at the rear having received news that the battle wasn’t going well, had quickened their pace and were now on top of  hill where the enemy could see them; and Labienius who captures the enemy’s camp, and from the high ground from whence he stood and he could see  what was going on in ours , sent the Xth legion to the rescue.”

So the Roman Marching Camp was also a place to station reserve forces. The camps themselves were made from the earth around them, stones, local timber, dirt, and turf. The engineers who made them sere called Immunes because they were exempt from regular duties.

 

 

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