Roman Soldiers on the Frontier : Tough or Tedious?

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall : Britannia’s northern frontier

The Roman Frontier? We Brits immediately think of Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall to defend the empire against painted marauders (the Picts or picti) from the barbarian north.

We imagine their life was cold and wet and miserable. Some of them certainly sent letters home to Rome to ask for warm woollen socks. Clearly northern Britannia was not a place for short tunics and sandals.

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall: not exactly warm and cosy?

On the German frontier, the weather was warmer than Britannia, especially in summer. Short tunics and sandals would have worked just fine.

But guarding a frontier against a potential enemy — who (mostly) didn’t attack — was probably 99% boredom.

So how did the soldiers fill their time?

Roman soldier 1st century AD on the frontierFrontier life for Roman soldiers in Germania

Especially in the early days of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Romans kept pushing the northern frontiers on mainland Europe further out. So the soldiers would have been campaigning. But expansion didn’t last. The loss of the Varus legions in AD9 confirmed that and the Rhine became the effective frontier. It was much more defensible than the Elbe to the east.

On duty, soldiers would have spent their time training, patrolling and, especially, doing a lot of building. Soldiers even manufactured their own bricks and tiles. It was important to promote the Roman way of life in the new provinces and Roman soldiers built to last.

Roman building crane replica Xanten, frontier townTheir engineering was superb. This is a replica of a Roman building crane, seen against the background of the reconstructed amphitheatre in the Xanten Archaeological Park, on the Rhine, north of Cologne.

Roman walls and towers Xanten, frontier townThe Romans built to impress and, in these German reconstructions, we modern people can appreciate the impact their forts and towns would have made.

In the reconstruction of the Xanten walls shown right, hedges have been planted between the defensive towers to reduce reconstruction costs. The original would have had walls and upper walkways throughout, as shown in the right-hand part of this picture.

The wall, at 6.6 m high, provided an excellent view for the defenders.

Road and sewers and temples

Roman water infrastructure Xanten, frontier townAnd, of course, the soldiers put in the infrastructure of main roads, water supply and sewers first. Shown right is part of Xanten’s original Roman system. Compare the human figure at the far end to the diameter of the pipe!

Roman north gate exterior Xanten, frontier townThe way through those huge walls was intimidating, too.

Each of the wooden doors in the massive North Gate at Xanten had a portcullis on the outside. The windows and the angles in the upper storey made sure that soldiers inside could see, and if necessary attack, anyone approaching below. The interior of the gate was a statement, too. Impressive?

Roman north gate Xanten, frontier town

Xanten North Gate, interior view

Roman harbour temple part reconstruction Xanten, frontier townXanten was founded by the Emperor Trajan in 98/99 AD, as Colonia Ulpia Traiana — Roman emperors did like to name places after themselves, didn’t they?  😉

Xanten’s surrounding walls were 3.4 km long. There was plenty of room inside for buildings essential to the Roman way of life — the amphitheatre, the public baths, the forum, and the capitol.

There were subsidiary temples too. The harbour temple, shown left, is a part-reconstruction.replica painted capital Xanten museum

If this was a subsidiary temple, what was the main temple like? Magnificent, certainly, and probably not the stark white that we normally expect to see. In the Xanten museum, there is a reconstruction of how a capital might have been painted.
Imagine what Xanten would have looked like, if the whole settlement had been decorated that way…

Life inside the walls on the frontier

Recontructed Roman and German clothing 2-3rd c AD

Reconstructions: 2nd-3rd century AD German (left) & Roman (right) clothing

Roman soldiers on the frontier expected to live to Roman standards. Initially, the local area in Germania could not provide all that was needed, so essentials like wine, olive oil and cereals were imported from Italy, Spain and France.

replica Roman amphorae barrelLuxury goods like bronze and glass vessels, and even furniture, were imported from the Mediterranean. Eventually, local industries supplied many of the soldiers’ needs. The glass from the Cologne area came to be highly valued.

Roman life shown at Saalburg

For those with wealth, life could be luxurious

If they had time on their hands, the soldiers could spend their pay in one of the taverns on the base, or in one of the brothels that inevitably sprang up. Or perhaps they could while away a few hours watching poor beasts being put to death in the amphitheatre? Or gladiators fighting? (The gladiators — especially the ones on the lucrative circuit to the outposts — would normally survive their bouts. Their owners had a lot invested in them and the gladiators had other engagements to fulfil.)

Roman amphitheatre, Trier, Germany

Roman amphitheatre, Trier, Germany

A luxurious life. And death.

Xanthen cavalryman death monument, frontier townXanthen death monument, frontier townBut death was always around the corner. Soldiers often died young, before they had put in enough service to gain Roman citizenship and a grant of land.

Their ashes were buried in some style, usually, but always outside the city walls. There are many altars and memorial tablets dedicated to the dead and they are usually beautifully and carefully fashioned, like these.

And religion, too

statue Saalburg fort entrance, frontier The emperor was worshipped as a god. It was usually one of the soldiers’ first acts, when setting up a new permanent fort, to put up a statue of the emperor. When the German Kaiser had the Roman fortress at Saalburg reconstructed at the end of the 19th century, he put up just such a statue (left) outside its main gate. (The inscription he added is rather more about the Kaiser than the Roman Emperor, sadly).

Very recently, in 2009, archaeologists found part of an equestrian statue — possibly of Augustus — at the bottom of an 11m deep well at Waldgirmes, on the east side of the Rhine. It may date from as early as 4 BC when the empire was still expanding there. It’s thought that, as the Romans had been forced to retreat, they were attempting to conceal the statue so that it would not be desecrated. This is the stunning head of the horse, made of gilded bronze.

gilt bronze horse head Waldgirmes 4BC

Bronze horse from Waldgirmes, 4BC ?

It goes to prove that the Romans didn’t always win. Sometimes, they had to retreat, fighting for survival. And there is one later, rather touching example of this, from about the 4th century AD. It’s a memorial to a Roman soldier who died, on the far shore of the Rhine, fighting to defend the small enclave of Deutz, on the east bank, opposite Cologne. You can see that the inscription was hurriedly done. The carving is rude but the message is clear, and deeply felt.

death stone inscription Deutz 4th c AD

Tombstone for Viatorinus, 4th c AD

In translation, it says: “The Protector Viatorinus served for thirty years. He was killed by a Frank in the land of the barbarians near Divitia-Deutz. The deputy commander of the Divitian garrison erected this monument.”

So the life of the Roman soldier might have been tedious, and occasionally cushy, but it was often tough. And it could also be pretty short.

Joanna Maitland, author


6 thoughts on “Roman Soldiers on the Frontier : Tough or Tedious?

  1. lesley2cats

    I want to go and see Xanten. I think a lot of us tend to think of the Roman Empire as only applying to us in Britannia, and it’s fascinating to find out about the other areas. Of course, I’ve got the great source about Gaul that is Asterix…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m with you re Asterix 😉
      But you should visit both Xanten and Saalburg, Lesley. I didn’t have space to say much about Saalburg (reconstructed by the Kaiser) but it’s essentially a whole Roman camp, with buildings. The scale is phenomenal. This is the Saalburg drill hall as it would have been. Useful so those poor Romans didn’t have to drill in the rain, eh?
      Saalburg Roman drill hall reconstruction

    1. Joanna Post author

      Glad you liked it, Alison, and the pics. I have loads. Both Xanten and Saalburg are fascinating. I know that Brit archaeologists don’t believe in reconstruction but the effect is fantastic for amateurs like me. [Sorry I can’t do the Latin in response. My O-level was a loooong time ago]

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