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.
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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. The commander of another auxiliary unit, the first cohort of Vangiones (from the Rhineland), buried his daughter at Chesters sometime after AD 160.
It is uncertain whether soldiers of either of these auxiliary units were ever permanently based at the fort.
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.Find out more about Roman Cavalry Forts
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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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 may have remained in the 4th century: the Notitia Dignitatum, a late Roman list of civil service posts and military commands throughout the Roman empire, places them at Chesters. However, the date of compilation for that part of the Notitia covering the western empire is uncertain, so we cannot be sure how long they remained into the late 4th or even the early 5th century.
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.Read a description of Chesters Roman Fort
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.
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.Buy the Guidebook to Chesters Roman Fort