• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Night Watch: Hadrian's Wall in the Dark Ages

There has always been the assumption that Roman Britain became post-Roman (or “sub-Roman”) the moment it was denuded of Roman troops (by leaders such as Constantine III) in the continental paroxysms of the late western empire. But arguably most of the limitanei remained in place long after Roman rule ended. Even the commanders (praepositi) loitered and transformed themselves from agents of empire into leaders of warbands.

In many ways the northern frontier had been an old-fashioned creature even in the fourth century when the dux Britanniarum had units under his command that retained names typical of the Principate. Marvellously, most of them had been stationed in Britain since the late second century. Indeed, in many cases they were even located at the same fort that the (much later) Notitia Dignitatum recorded.

The army occupied forts – often in isolation – but sometimes as part of towns such as York, Catterick and Carlisle. In the past sizeable vici had sprouted alongside them but most of these were abandoned by the early fourth century. As the centuries wore on, forts began to use their buildings rather eccentrically (compared to the traditional functions). The principia (the HQ), for instance, was subject to metalworking and butchery. The praetorium was subdivided or converted into a church. The barracks were altered so that they offered small chalets rather than shared accommodation. Stone barns (food was clearly no longer arrived in bulk) were transformed into rubbish dumps. And granaries were often replaced with large timber halls (as at Birdoswald).

In the early sixth century, defences (consisting of earthen banks with stone or timber revetments) were still being refurbished on the initiative of locals. At Houseteads, Birdoswald and Vindolanda for instance the earthen banks constitute corrections to the stone curtains that had slumped or collapsed over the centuries. Occupation of these sites is confirmed by Latin stones such as the Brigomaglos and Riacus ones at Vindolanda, as well as others at Brougham, Castlesteads and Carlisle.

Church structures are probable at many fifth-century sites too (the chief clues being apses, altars and artefacts marked with Chi-Rho symbols and other motifs), as is the presence of Anglo-Saxons (given the evidence for furnished inhumation, cremation and the prevalence of cruciform brooches). Indeed, Anglo-Saxon texts often contain references to Roman sites. The “Ahse,” for example, where locals went to meet St Cuthbert in the saint’s vita is almost certainly Aesica, the Roman fort of Great Chesters. Wallbottle, too, was an estate possessed by the Bernician elite.

The provincial capital at York was almost certainly inhabited. There is lots of evidence of feasting, for instance, and the construction of the Anglian tower in the sixth century demonstrates that its inhabitants were concerned enough to refortify parts. No doubt because the countryside had remilitarised: hillforts, for example, were scattered between the Tyne-Solway and Forth-Clyde and included Dumbarton Rock, Castlehill, Dundonald, the Mote of Mark, Edinburgh Castle, Traprain Law, Bamburgh and Yeavering Bell.

All of which begs the question as to what daily life looked like for the average Quintus locked into a local territorium (estate). First of all, it’s better to dispel notions of North African cads or other olive-skinned Meds when envisioning Quintus as by the late fourth-century the average soldier – culturally speaking at least – had more in common with the natives than peoples south of the Po. As limitanei the troops were paid mainly in kind with only the occasional prospect of donatives. So it becomes easy to imagine a scenario in which formal payment in kind becomes blurred with the patronage of the commander.

Then insert halls full of rambunctious feasting into your mind’s eye. There seems to have been a feasting culture at all of the forts. The aforementioned timber hall at Birdoswald is probably just the best surviving relic of Beowulf’s culture. At the legionary principia in York the heaps of pigs bones attest to high-status consumption. A slaughterhouse was also excavated at the praetorium in Binchester. These forts had become disconnected from the imperial centre; they had become seats of lords or senior knights, men who could defend their estates and who expected high-status privileges in return.

Neighbouring forts either forged alliances with others to create larger units or attempted to go it alone. In this new environment the old divisions (Romans vs Picts vs Scots) became outdated and if not irrelevant at least muted. Alliances could be made and broken on a whim with anybody. And in this relative anarchy (with little centralised authority) the communications and exchange networks shrunk, a fact that increased the importance of the Church (which had itinerant clergymen and missionaries at its disposal). Indeed, it was probably the resources of the Church at York that secured its significance in the North rather than some sort of hangover of antiquated prestige from the earlier Roman period when it was the presumed seat of the dux Britanniarum.

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