There is a surprising amount of physical remains which can tell us about the life of a Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall. There are the foundations of buildings; personal belongings, and even letters from the soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall themselves.
All the forts on Hadrian’s Wall have been excavated, and each reveals yet more archaeological evidence. In the following essay, I will explain what we know about various things that affected a soldier’s way of life, and how we know it.
Clothing: One of the items of clothing that has been found most often at Roman sites has been their sandals (1). Most of these were found at Vindolanda, as the leather is preserved very well in the boggy ground. They are hobnailed for grip and to make them hardwearing.
The most hardwearing, and therefore most commonly found, item of clothing of a Roman soldier was his armour. Firstly, there was the main piece covering the torso, the Lorica. The legionaries usually used the Lorica Segmentata (2), which consisted of lots of overlapping metal plates, joined together by leather hinges. It was laced up at the back, so a friend would be needed to help. As the metal sheets were very thin, they could easily cut the neck of the legionary, so a scarf was worn. The auxiliaries wore a much simpler armour called the Lorica Hamata (3), which consisted of lots of interwoven links of metal, all made of Iron. This was much less effective, and shows how much less important the auxiliaries were seen to be.
Both the Legionaries and the Auxiliaries used helmets (4), which had cheek pieces and ridges above the face for protection from sword blows, as shown to the left.
When not in armour, Roman soldiers wore casual, simple clothes, including trousers and a top.
Diet: The soldiers’ main food was bread, which supplied them with Carbohydrates, as they did not have rice or potatoes. They ground the grain themselves, on small hand-powered grinders, and then cooked the bread on small fires. We know that they also ate fish, oysters and various meats including deer and wild boar because the remains have been found in several places including Vindolanda. A rather obscure thing that we know they ate was fish sauce, as this was included in an account of foodstuffs found on a tablet in Vindolanda. Also in these tablets were details of wine and beer supplies, although the soldiers are more likely to have drunken water for most of the time, especially as wine would be expensive to import.
Leisure activities: We know that Roman citizens worldwide enjoyed hunting and fishing, as it is a particularly common scene on mosaics, wall paintings (5) and pots. This was not, however, confined to the citizens, but the soldiers also participated in these sports, as we know because of pots found in Corbridge.
Another important past time of the Roman soldiers was bathing. Outside all the Roman Forts on Hadrian’s Wall there are the remains of the baths (6), such as those shown left. Baths were an extremely important part in the social life of a Roman soldier, as they were for talking as well as washing.
Gambling was another past time of the Romans we know about, from dice that have been found in Roman forts (7).
Finally, we know that at least some of the Roman soldiers were literate, and wrote letters home to their families and friends. The letters have been found in the form of thin wooden filings, written on with ink (8).
Religion: Religion was an extremely important part of Roman life, and subsequently there are a number of remains that tell us about the importance of religion to the Roman soldiers.
Near Carrawburrough, on Hadrian’s Wall, there are the small remains of the Temple of Mithras (9). This may not seem particularly special, but the significance is that Mithras was a Persian God, which shows that there was a lot of convergence between the beliefs of different nationalities within the legions, and more likely, auxiliaries.
This convergence is shown again by the existence of the remains of fourth century church outside Vindolanda. This also shows the conversion of the Romans at about this time to Christianity.
Fighting and training: A large proportion of the spare time of the Romans soldiers was taken up by training. There is a large amount of surviving evidence for this. For example, at Vindolanda a horse skull was found, with a ballista bolt imbedded in it, and a number of square holes the size and shape of ballista bolts. This indicates that the skull was used for target practice. Also, wooden swords twice the weight of actual swords have been found at a number of Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall, once again for skill practice and sword arm muscle-building.
For practice, a number of small forts were built near Hadrian’s Wall, and were never actually used. Once again, this is purely for training.
Finally, the simple fact that Hadrian’s Wall was erected at all, and that it still stands after 2000 years, testifies that the Roman’s must have put a lot of expertise and practice into it.
Social life: Although it was forbidden for soldiers to marry, a number of them did, and the evidence of this is in the small villages that sprang up outside all the forts, in which the families lived.
The most significant evidence of a Roman soldiers’ social life on Hadrian’s Wall is provided by the private letters found at Vindolanda. One, for example, is an invitation from the wife of a Roman commander on Hadrian’s Wall to a friend to celebrate her birthday (10). This shows that important people, at least, were allowed friends and family to visit, or live with, them.
To conclude, the Roman’s seem to have settled into their new homes in Britain very well, and managed to find a number of ways to make their lives enjoyable. Residential buildings found are all set out in the Mediterranean lifestyle, however, showing that perhaps they did not adapt completely.