History of Chesters Roman Fort
Chesters is one of a series of permanent forts built during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. The cavalry fort, known to the Romans as Cilurnum, was built in about AD 124. It housed some 500 cavalrymen and was occupied until the Romans left Britain in the 5th century. Pioneering excavations in the 19th century exposed the structures visible today. These excavations yielded one of the best collections of inscriptions and sculpture on Hadrian’s Wall.
The Foundation of Chesters
In the original plan for Hadrian’s Wall (begun in AD 122) there were no forts on the Wall itself. Within two years, however, the decision was taken to add 15 forts to the line, to be manned by units of auxiliary troops (those who were not citizens of Rome). The earliest of the new forts straddled the Wall, lying half to its north and half to its south. This was the case at Chesters, where the ditch that fronted the Wall was filled in and a recently built Wall turret demolished to make way for the fort.
A Hadrianic inscription shows that the unit stationed in the new fort was the 500-strong ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata – ‘the cavalry regiment styled Augusta for its valour’. This cavalry unit would have required 16 stable-barracks, each housing some 32 men and their mounts.
The Second Asturians at Chesters
An inscription confirms that by AD 178–84 at the latest the fort was once again occupied by a cavalry unit, the ala II Asturum (‘the Second Asturians’). The Asturians, originally raised in northern Spain, were to have a long association with Chesters, remaining there until the end of the Roman period.
The accommodation at the fort was completely rebuilt for the Asturians, probably in the later 2nd or early 3rd century. The visible barracks are part of this rebuilding. There was not enough room inside the fort for 16 such barracks, suggesting that the number of subdivisions (turmae) of the unit was reduced to 12 or 14 by the early 3rd century. An inscription of AD 286 possibly refers to symmacharii (allied irregular troops), suggesting that the Asturians may have been supplemented by another unit.
As at all Roman forts in northern Britain, the period AD 180–250 was the heyday of both the fort and the sprawling civilian settlement (vicus) lying outside the walls. The vast majority of the inscriptions from the site date to this time, recording building projects, declarations of loyalty to the emperor, religious ceremonies, and burial of the dead.
Chesters in the 4th Century
By AD 300 the traditional Roman practice of carving inscriptions had mostly ceased, so we have no written records for the history or daily life of 4th-century Chesters. Materially the soldiers were much poorer than their high-imperial predecessors. The soldiers were increasingly paid in kind, but coins were still widely used and the soldiers continued to receive some cash payments.
Despite these changes, the Second Asturians seem to have garrisoned the fort as before. The Notitia Dignitatum, a list of civil service posts and military commands throughout the Roman empire compiled in the early 5th century, lists the Wall garrisons and still places ala II Asturumat Chesters.
It is not possible to reconstruct a detailed plan of the fort in the 4th century. But there was still room for 12 barracks and therefore presumably 12 turmae (about 360 horsemen). There is therefore no reason to think that the 4th-century garrison was drastically reduced in numbers from its 3rd-century level.
John Clayton and Chesters
In 1796 Nathaniel Clayton bought the estate. He had the ruins levelled to form a park between his mansion and the river. His son John Clayton (1792–1890) succeeded to the property in 1832. John Clayton is one of the most important figures in the 19th-century archaeology of Hadrian’s Wall, and the present-day appearance of the site is almost entirely due to excavations he conducted from 1843.
Clayton died in 1890 and the last major excavations at Chesters were carried out by his nephew, Nathaniel George Clayton, between 1890 and 1895. Nathaniel also began the site museum, opened in 1896, to house the extensive collection of antiquities discovered by John Clayton at Chesters and elsewhere along the Wall. In 1954 the fort, and the Wall and baths to its east, were placed in the guardianship of the Ministry of Works. Its successor body, English Heritage, now cares for the remains and administers the museum together with the Trustees of the Clayton Collection.
About the Author
Nick Hodgson is Principal Keeper of Archaeology for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. He is the author of the English Heritage guidebook to Chesters.