History

Domestic Violence on Hadrian’s Wall

How a pair of skeletons at Housesteads Fort reveal the brutal side of everyday life in Roman Britain.

A Roman stone relief showing a tavern scene
A Roman stone relief showing a tavern scene © The Art Archive/Alamy

SCENE OF A CRIME

In the 1930s, Professor Eric Birley and a team of archaeologists made a gruesome discovery during their excavations of Housesteads Roman Fort, on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

Below the floor of a building in the civilian settlement or vicus, just outside the fort, they found two skeletons. This macabre find may be one of the first instances that we know of domestic violence and murder in Britain.

Housesteads Roman Fort
Housesteads Roman Fort

HIDING THE EVIDENCE

One skeleton was of a man with the tip of a knife in his ribs, and the other, more fragmentary, was probably of a woman. They had been buried in the clay floor underneath the rear room of what was probably an inn, and then concealed under a clean layer of clay.

In Roman Britain most people – apart from infants – were buried outside settlements, whether they were military forts, towns or farms.

The archaeologists who found the burial had little doubt that it was evidence of a criminal act. Beyond their assertion, though, we can merely guess what terrible things might have happened here. No further study of the bones using modern techniques is possible, since they were subsequently lost.

Reconstruction of the fort and civilian settlement at Housesteads in the early 3rd century
Reconstruction of the fort and civilian settlement at Housesteads in the early 3rd century © English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

‘ROARING AND RIOTING’

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the fort at Housesteads would have been surrounded by a bustling, lively community of perhaps 500 people, including traders, merchants and innkeepers.

In these civilian settlements the soldiers who manned the fort and defended the borders of Roman Britain could spend their hard-earned cash keeping themselves entertained during their leisure time. Such places became hotbeds of gambling and crime – and there is certainly evidence from Housesteads that this was so.

One of the houses excavated next to the south gate of the fort may have been an inn, and crude dice for gaming were found there. A furnace at the rear of another Roman house was probably used to counterfeit coins.

Centuries later, the writer Rudyard Kipling imagined that the settlements next to the forts along Hadrian’s Wall formed a ‘roaring and rioting town’.

Dice for gaming and counterfeit coins excavated at Housesteads
Dice for gaming and counterfeit coins excavated at Housesteads

BLACK AND BLUE

Violence was never far away for Roman soldiers, even outside the forts and camps. The Roman poet Juvenal describes in one of his satires how it is better not to admit that ‘your smashed-in teeth, swollen face black and blue with bruises and the one eye left to you which the doctor is doubtful he can save’ resulted from being beaten up by a soldier. Otherwise ‘you will make enemies of the cohort’ and risk a worse beating next time.

Given the grim nature of life on the Wall, perhaps the discovery at Housesteads is not particularly surprising, however unusual its domestic, surreptitious circumstances.

Drawn from the English Heritage Red Guide to Housesteads Roman Fort, by James Crow

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