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.

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    The Foundation of Chesters

    Altar dedicated to Hadrian by the cavalry unit Augusta

    An altar found at Chesters, dedicated to 'the Discipline of the Emperor Hadrian by the cavalry regiment styled Augusta for its valour'. The regiment was the first to occupy the fort at 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’.[1] This cavalry unit would have required 16 stable-barracks, each housing some 32 men and their mounts.

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    Altar wth an inscription by the Sixth Legion

    Inscription dedicated to Emperor Antoninus Pius by the Sixth Legion, who carried out building work at Chesters in the mid-2nd century. It is now on display in the site museum

    The Mid-2nd Century

    The only time in its history that Chesters might not have been a cavalry fort was during the confused years of the mid-2nd century. We do not know whether Chesters was permanently occupied while the Antonine Wall in Scotland was held (AD 142–60). There is, however, evidence of activity at the fort. Inscriptions of the Sixth Legion, who carried out a programme of building work, survive from the period AD 138–61.

    An undated inscription, probably from AD 138–80, was left by the first cohort of Dalmatians, an auxiliary infantry unit.[2] The commander of another auxiliary unit, the first cohort of Vangiones (from the Rhineland), buried his daughter at Chesters sometime after AD 160.[3] It is uncertain whether soldiers of either of these auxiliary units were ever permanently based at the fort.

    Reconstruction of the barracks at Chesters

    A reconstruction of the barracks at Chesters as they may have appeared in about AD 200

    © Historic England (illustration by Mikko Kriek)

    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’).[4] 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.[5]

    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.

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    Aerial view of Chesters Roman Fort

    Aerial view of Chesters, looking west. The civilian settlement lay to the immediate south of the fort, but its remains are not visible and have never been excavated

    The 3rd Century

    The years AD 230–70 were a time of crisis, as civil wars and barbarian invasions destroyed the traditional structure of the Roman army and severed many of the links between the provinces and the Mediterranean. By the 4th century the unit at Chesters was completely rooted in its locality, its manpower drawn from the sons of serving soldiers, since hereditary service was compulsory in the late empire.

    Although there has been no excavation of the civilian settlement at Chesters, evidence from other forts in the north suggests that by the end of the 3rd century the vicus would have been largely abandoned. Occupation was mainly confined within the fort walls, with perhaps only fields outside.

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    The remains of the bath complex inside Chesters Roman Fort

    View of the bath complex inside the fort. It may have replaced the larger baths outside the fort at a later period – its excavation in the 1840s produced many 4th-century coins

    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.[6]

    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.

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    Chesters Bridge Abutment remains

    The remains of Chesters Bridge Abutment on the eastern side of the North Tyne. It was uncovered in the 1860s – the abutment on the fort side of the river is now under water

    After the Romans

    In the early 5th century Britain passed out of the administrative control of the Roman Empire. The unit at Chesters had probably dwindled in size and become increasingly cut off from central authority for several decades. It is uncertain whether the last remnants were removed to serve elsewhere, or whether they were left to fend for themselves. There is no archaeologically recognisable evidence for occupation at Chesters after the early 5th century.

    Whatever afterlife there was among the ruins, there was never again a major settlement at the site. In about AD 675 Saxon builders came to dismantle the remains of the Roman bridge at Chesters to obtain stone for the church at Hexham. Gradually agriculture encroached on the ruins of the fort, although the site was still being quarried for its ready-dressed stone as late as the 18th century.

    Portrait of John Clayton

    Portrait of John Clayton, who helped save the central section of Hadrian’s Wall and conducted excavation at Chesters from 1843 until his death in 1890

    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.

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    Footnotes

      The inscription is in the Chesters Museum, and is published in RSO Tomlin, RP Wright and MWC Hassall, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol 3: Inscriptions on Stone 1955–2006 (Oxford, 2009), no. 3298.
      In Chesters Museum, and published in Tomlin et al, op cit, no. 3300.
      In Chesters Museum, and published in RG Collingwood and RP Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol 1: Inscriptions on Stone (Oxford, 1965), no. 1482.
      In Chesters Museum, and published in Collingwood and Wright, op cit, no. 1463. For the correct dating, see AR Birley, The Roman Government of Britain (Oxford, 2005), 166–7.
      In Chesters Museum, and published in Tomlin et al, op cit, no. 3299.
      O Seeck (ed), Notitia Dignitatum (Berlin, 1876). The reference to Chesters is at Oc. XL, 38 (accessed 4 March 2015).
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