History of Housesteads Roman Fort
Lying midway along Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain, and one of the best-known from the entire Roman Empire. It was built within a decade of AD 122, when work on the Wall began, and was garrisoned by an 800-strong infantry regiment until the end of the 4th century. Excavations have revealed major buildings, defences and the civilian settlement outside its walls.
The Building of the Fort
There is little evidence for pre-Roman activity at Housesteads. The first Roman presence is evident in the broad foundation of Hadrian’s Wall along the north edge of the escarpment, and in a turret (no. 36b), one of a regular system of towers and small forts (known as milecastles) along the line of the Wall. The turret now lies within the fort walls.
The building of the fort began before either the Wall at Housesteads or milecastle 37 to the west was completed. The presence of a cremation burial in the north-west corner of the fort suggests that the timespan between the two building phases may have been more than a year: Roman burials were always outside forts and settlements, so this cremation must pre-date the construction of the fort. Work on the Wall at Housesteads, at a narrower gauge, was resumed once the fort walls were complete.
By the end of Hadrian’s reign (AD 138), the great Wall was complete, and Housesteads was one of 15 forts and part of a total garrison of nearly 10,000 men along its length. The surviving plan of the main buildings and barracks dates largely to this time.
Within four years of Hadrian’s death, however, his successor, Antoninus Pius (r.138–61), began the construction of a second wall (the Antonine Wall), across the Forth–Clyde isthmus in central Scotland. It is often thought that Hadrian’s Wall was then abandoned, but recent excavations from Housesteads found no evidence for this.
Although most of the Tungrians are indeed known to have occupied Castlecary Fort on the Antonine Wall, it seems that part of the garrison may have remained here. An altar to Jupiter and the god Cocidius from Housesteads, dedicated by soldiers of the Second Augustan Legion said to be on ‘garrison duty’, may date to this period.
The End of Roman Rule
Towards the end of the 3rd century the barrack accommodation within the fort was radically transformed, and the settlement outside largely abandoned. The fort’s defences also underwent major refurbishment at the same time. The effective size of the garrison is likely to have been reduced, and many of those previously living outside the fort may have retreated within the defences for security.
The last-known inscription, dating to about AD 300, is a fragmentary text to ‘the emperors’. It may belong to a new monumental storage building (building 15) constructed beside the main east gate. A final reference to the garrison appears in an early 5th-century Roman list of military commands and civil service posts throughout the empire, known as the Notitia Dignitatum.
READ MORE ABOUT HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
About the Author
James Crow is Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Housesteads Roman Fort.