The Roman fort was an extremely well designed complex. Around the world, throughout the Roman Empire, forts have been found that all look very similar. Indeed, all along Hadrian’s Wall, which I will be focusing on in this coursework, the same pattern is followed. They all covered approximately 20 – 25 hectares, and had three main streets passing through them. There were some chief buildings in the centre – the principia (headquarters); the praetorium (commanding officers living quarters); valetudinarium (hospital, and only found in the larger forts), and the horrea (granaries). Around the edge were all the contubernia (barracks). Also in the fort were sometimes a bathhouse, toilets and a religious shrine.
A good example of this fixed pattern was Vindalanda fort, of which a model is shown to the left.
To answer the question, I must understand the practical function of a Roman Fort. There are several of these. One of obvious ones was to hold troops. The mighty Roman army needed a place to stay, and so they either stayed in existing forts, or built new ones specially.
Another important use was as a strategic position from which to launch attacks on enemy territories, or as a defensive unit in case of attack. Also, forts might have been used to store valuable things temporarily such as taxes or loot from attacks. Due to the considerable number of troops they held or supported (up to 1,000), they had to have large, well-designed food stores.
It was imperative for all of the above uses that it was well defended, and therefore the defensive structures of the forts were a large feature in the design of forts.
To hold the thousand troops that the forts sometimes were built to hold (the forts held auxiliary troops, and an ala was 1,000 men), large numbers of barracks were needed, such as the rows of them at Chesters, as shown to the left. The barracks were usually at both ends of the fort, as shown in the model of Vindolanda, with about ten in each fort. Each building would hold one ‘tent’ of men, which consisted of eight people. Therefore, an average fort would hold 80 common legionaries, plus officers in the centre of the fort in special buildings. The barracks have doors at just one end, and had no under floor heating systems. However, it is likely that there would have been a small brazier in each one.
To enable the forts to carry out their possible function of storing valuable goods, a strong hold was built into every fort. It was usually in the centre of the fort to protect it from attack, and was built underground. It would have had just one narrow doorway so as to be guarded easily; it would have stored all the pay for the legionaries as well as any other plunder. The strong hold from Chesters is shown to the left. This is a particularly well-preserved example, and it is easily possible to imagine how easily just a few soldiers could have defended this.
If the fort was being used as a base for an attack, or just if a century was staying there, huge supplies of food would be needed. To satisfy this need, huge granaries were built in every fort. There were usually two of these huge buildings, each built to a very exacting design. The floors were supported on stone pillars to allow air to circulate underneath and to prevent damp, a problem that could be very serious in Northern Britain especially. Also to stop the problem of moisture, there were overhanging eaves to dispose of the rainwater. This air circulation also served to keep it cool in the summer, so the corn would not explode. As well as storing corn, these granaries also stored other foods such as cured meats and barley. However, the corn was the main diet of the legionaries, in the form of bread.
Also necessary in case of attack was a hospital for the wounded. Little is known of the Roman hospitals, but they were situated in the centre of the fort, with a large ward and several small rooms for supplies and operations. However, hospitals were only found in the larger forts.
In terms of actual defences for the fort, there was a wall surrounding the entire camp, plus watchtowers and guardhouses at the gates. The fact that there were 80+ men inside would itself insure that the fort would extremely well defended. There were two types of fort early on in the Roman Empire, the turf forts and the stone forts. Turf forts simply consisted of a steep, high bank of soil, topped by a wooded fence and a path for soldiers to patrol. Around this was a series of ditches and embankments, designed to slow the enemy down as they advanced, to make them vulnerable to fire from archers or other projectiles.
At each of the gates (there were two main ones, and two small), there were thick gates make of wood, possibly with metal studs, which could be shut very quickly in case of attack. The holes in the ground in which the gateposts were still survive, showing the extremely good engineering skills of the Romans.
On either side of the gates, there was a guardroom, so legionaries could watch everyone who went through, so taxes could be imposed or criminals caught. Forts were usually on a road, so to get past you had to go through it.
In this essay I have run through all the main features of Roman forts which enables them to fulfil there practical functions, but I have not explored whether it was efficient. We can tell that the Roman Fort was efficient by the fact that they survived so long, and the Roman Empire ruled over a huge empire for many hundreds of years.
To conclude, the Roman Forts were designed and built extremely well to fulfil all of their practical functions, to a maximum possible efficiency.