Posts from the ‘History’ Category

Dominating forests and surveying swamps speculations on why the Romans chose Bagington

My two previous posts have been about the ancient landscape of Britain.  I have discussed the preeminence of water and all the pervasiveness of the forests which were the dominant features of ancient Britain.  Modern Britain is very different.  Our country is criss-crossed with good roads, we need not fear ambush from lawless bandits, we do not have to stick to the high ground to avoid swamps and the unhealthy atmosphere.

This often makes it hard to really understand why our ancestors built where they did.  Baginton in Warwickshire is a strange, lovely little place out of the way and overshadowed by Coventry.  Not the kind of place where you would normally expect to find a Roman fort.  The Romans were pro-active with their defensive strategies so building the fort in such a nice place means that at sometime in the past Bagington must have been a more, robust, place to live.

But there is much more to Baginton that first meets the eye.  Just down the road and across the river from the fort are the remains of two prehistoric barrows – somebody having approved planning permission to drive a bypass through them kind of ruined the archaeology – on the other side of the river is the remains of a small fortified manor house, then a quarry made into a lovely garden, then the remains of Baginton Hall which was burned down in the late 19th century, a series of medieval fish pools around which the fields bear the imprint of the medieval serfs who toiled on the land.   So clearly there is something about Baginton, some unseen factor that makes it important in so many different ages.

I think that the position of the fort can be best explained by the Coventry road which runs through Baginton, it seems to be an very ancient road elevated over the landscape following the contours until it dips down to a bridge over the Sow and then onto Coventry.

This makes the fort extremely important strategically.  It was constructed in the  years following Boudican revolt when Agricola was engaged in measures to  reduce the forces of the Britons.  Lunt fits into this strategy of reduction as it controls the Coventry road, the crossing of the Sow and a major route in and out of the Forest of Arden.  From this position the Romans were able to bring up resources and supplies, prevent resupplies to the celts holding out in the forest whilst at the same time providing a safe retreat for soldiers policing the forest seeking the fugitives.  At the fort we have a fantastic model of the site in the sixty first decade which features a group of Roman soldiers bringing prisoners into the fort… to assist the Romans with their enquires which I speculate was a regular occurance during the sites twenty year life span.

This is of course speculation.  It might be based on observation, the use of my powerful intellect (ha) and reflective conversations with my colleagues but the thought processes, the strategic considerations and the planing that led to the fort being built at Baginton has been lost in the mist of time.  By the time of the Dacian war all of the soldiers who had been based at the Lunt, who had survived his service, would have retired and soon be coming to the end of their lives and as they passed certain knowledge of the Lunt passed away with them.






Soldiers building a road

Surely a mistake in the colour coding here. The severed heads, by their context, have to be  Dacian – and should have RED hair.  Should we associate these images with a head-hunting cult as suggested in previous posts?  I doubt it in this case. The troops here are legionaries,  which means they are all bona fide Roman citizens – and there is a purpose to this grisly display. It says “Men at Work.. Do Not Disturb”.  But if they are disturbed they are ready for you. Note the close proximity of helmets and shields.

Here we see construction work in an active warzone being undertaken while wearing body armour. I have done jobs in the construction industry involving hard manual labour. I also wear Roman body armour on a regular basis as part of my job at the Lunt. I would hate to have to combine the two!

Simply moving about and projecting the voice for two  hours , while wearing this stuff, is an exhausting  experience.  Of course, I am a modern softie – not of the hardy peasant stock these men were.  Yet even for them, this work, especially in high temperatures, must have been punishing. As we  learned  recently at the Fort, their stamina and endurance are held in awe by the toughest soldiers in the British Army of today….

Reflecting on Robs comments and Roman Citizenship: Warning Might not make much sense

Manumission from barbarian into citizen was the social innovation of Rome. The Greeks moved the other way from being tolerant of barbarians to mistrust of the otherness. Carthage similarly produced a two tier society of elite and plebs with no possible movement between the two. During Hannibal’s rampage around Italy states allied to Rome remained largely loyal because they were bound to Rome by the privilage of citizenship, in contrast the Carthaginian states were vulnerable to defection and treason because they did not share in the good fortunes of their imperial masters. I agree with Rob that it was probably out of reach for anyone outside of Italy but in Italy it was of incredible value to the Roman state. The Romans were quite right to be wary of extending citizenship, particularly to the Gauls and their kindred, citizenship was a line demarcation in the sand , which in the eyes of the ancients, divided the animal from the human. In law you could do awful things to barbarians and nobody would bat an eyelid, they could be taxed, their legal position was uncertain and the punishments were abominable. In contrast the citizen could join the army, was exempt from certain taxes and enjoyed a privileged position in law. St Paul is the prime example of citizen enforcing his rights. We often wonder how the Romans could put people to death in the arena in hideous ways, we forget that these people were not citizens and so we not, in Roman eyes, people. It is in our Human Rights era an absolute paradigm shift, now a foreign terrorist has the same rights as a British citizen an impossible situation in ancient Rome where a barbarian might be seen as on the same legal level as a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto.
I suspect that Caesars actions in Gaul were criticized because he citizenised unreconstructed Gauls as a political move rather than a true manumission. By doing so he might have been perceived to devalue the system and devalue the status of the citizen. Something that he certainly did as Dictator when he ushered in the age of Empire.

With regards to the sausage clearly it is a ubiquitous foodstuff but the point is that it was associated with the Germans and in an unstable age the Emperor wanted the reset the empire to a Roman pattern and expel non-classical influences. Which begs the question why did he allow Christianity?

Head hunting Gallic Auxiliaries Trajan’s Frieze Scene 5

At the Fort we have a wonderful frieze (over 100 feet long) showing a colourised version of part of Trajan’s Column inRome.  Here’s another scene from it.


All the Roman soldiers shown here are auxiliaries (infantry and cavalry). The interesting point to note is the extreme shortness of their tunicas and mail shirts. As someone only too used to wearing the mail “lorica hamata” I feel well qualified to make a few comments on this.

None of the mail shirts worn by auxiliaries on the column show shoulder- doubling.  This doubling can be clearly seen on the image of yours truly depicting a member of the Fort garrison. The extra thickness of mail on the shoulders was a vital protection against attack by slashing weapons. It was copied from the Gauls in the time of Caesar and rapidly adopted by the late Republican legions. It is surprising to find its absence on the Column, depicting events around 100 AD. Facing up to the murderous Dacian falx would make shoulder -doubling  very very important.

The other odd thing here is that extreme shortness I mentioned a few lines ago. The cavalrymen would indeed have worn a short hamata, as it was necessary for them, as riders, to have freedom from the hips down. The same does not apply to the infantry.  The more protection the better – and one of the great advantages of the flexible mail shirt is that it gives good protection to the rather vital area of the crotch, which a “lorica segmentata” (as worn by legionaries) leaves wide open. My mail shirt ends halfway down the thigh, completely covering groin and rump. You feel safe in it.

It definitely leaves me wondering whether the designers and sculptors of the Column had ever actually seen a soldier in a mail shirt. If the men were not wearing their “femenalia” – the tight (eye-wateringly tight it appears) knee breeches – the Column would be a spectacle of mass indecency.

Poll to settle discussion point – without having to resort to a knife fight!!!

Listen to the arguements and then you decide.  The Lunt staff are intelligentsia in their own lunch breaks and often pretend to have ideas of their own!  No seriously we all are keen historians who love debating and discussing history.

Rob and I disagreed about the importance Britain to the Romans and need your help!  Please vote to tell us what you think.

First Robs muttering

I don’t think the Romans needed Britain at all. I think that in the long-term The Empire probably made a net loss from Britain in financial terms. It was a perennial drain on the resources of the Army. Two or three legions had to be permanently stationed here, massive defensive works had to be built and maintained, an expensive Fleet had to patrol the Channel…… the list goes on. Its true that Britain held useful mineral resources – lead, silver, copper, iron, even a little gold – but these needed huge investment in the necessary mining infrastructure. In agriculture the Romans laboured mightily to improve output to a level where, for brief periods, Britain was an exporter of grain – mainly used to help feed the Legions on the Rhine. Transport costs were always high, however efficiently agriculture was organised.
I think the reason they came – and the reason they stayed – was a matter of prestige. Pure and simple. Rob

Now my insightful observations

Well I disagree. Britain was important to the Romans and afforded significant advantages. It may have made a net loss financially but strategically it was worth all the money they wasted on it. This is demonstrated by their investment, their military commitment and even the war they fought to regain the province at the end of the British Empire period. In contrast Dacia was abandoned after the death of Constantine the Great showing that the Romans were quite happy to abandon unprofitable provinces, and that Britain wasn’t one of them.The strategic importance of Britain was in the control of Northern Europe. The fleet based in Britain was essential for policing the North Sea. Without this base Angle pirates would have not been tackled at their source but would have been able to pirate about the Atlantic at will.
Next the military commitment in the country was a reminder to continental powers that if they were looking at migrating across the boarder they soon would be fighting a war on too fronts. They took on the role of a fleet in being .
Finally if Britain was important for ensuring that it was not a haven for terrorists and insurgents who would cause problems for the Romans on the continent as the Belgians did during Julius’ campaign. The resources of Britain needed to be in hands of the Empire so that they did not fall into the hands of their enemies.


Trajans Column Scene Three



Emperor interviews a prisoner as the artillery advance

Emperor interviews a prisoner as the artillery advance

The cart (or chariot) mounted  “scorpion”  (similar to the working re-construction at the Fort) was known as a “Carroballista”. Each would be crewed by a contubernium of eight men, (represented here by just two soldiers), and drawn by two mules. Some versions were bigger, carrying larger catapults, on four-wheeled carts, drawn by armoured horses.

The tantalising question here is – how were they used? Were they simply being transported to a theatre of operations in this manner? Or were they used in a tactical sense? In other words, were they directed to different positions in the course of a battle as need arose. If used in this way – and the images on the Column clearly indicate the crews manning their machines on the move  – then we are witnessing the use of Flying Artillery, sixteen centuries before its “introduction” by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. It is shown here providing flanking fire to support an advance by the Legionary infantry.

Does anyone know of any detailed reference to this fascinating weapon in ancient sources? The Carroballista appears several times on the Column. Caesar never mentions it. Neither does Josephus. I wonder if it was first used in the Dacian War?

What historical event would you attend if you were able to time travel?

I would go to the Celtic camp the night before the last battle between Boadicea and Paulinus.  I know it is morbid but at that impossible moment it seemed that the golden age of heroes had returned.

A generation after the invasion and subjection of the country by the Romans things were looking poor for the celts.  They were being taxed, they were paying for a temple in honour of Claudius who had conquered them and their land was being confiscated by the Romans for a veteran colony.  Then the Romans broke their word to Boadicea, took her land, raped her daughters and whipped her.  They sowed the whirlwind and it broke on them.

The Celts rose up, united for the first time in generations to avenge the honour of a wronged queen.  They had put tax collectors, administrators and other grey people to the sword then given the collaborators and quislings a robust talking to.  Then they fell on the veterans destroying them and the towns of London and Colchester.   Paulinus returned from Anglesey to discover his province on the verge of disaster.  He decided to advance towards the rear with the celts on his tail.

Days later the two sides faced each other on a lost battlefield ready to fight in the morning.  The night before the celts celebrated.  They drank, they boasted, they sang and dreamed that their world would change.  They imagined that with the destruction of this last Roman Army they would usher in new golden age, of heroes, of honour and pride and manliness and all the things that the Romans had taken from them.

Little did they imagine that their leaders were already squabbling amongst themselves, that the Romans had chosen this battlefield to end forever the freedoms of the Celts and that after the battle the Romans would engage in retributions that would put an end to celtic dreaming forever.

The battle began between a 120,000 strong celtic force and 25,ooo Romans who in the course of the battle destroyed the celts leaving 80,000 dead on the field compared to 400 Roman fatalites.

But that is the morning now anything could happen till the morning I would like to share those impossible dreams, that passion for honour and freedom.  Till the break of dawn I would share the dreams of a vanquished people.

This post is mirrored in a later post where I imagine seeing the moment when Romans won the battle against the Celts in the face of impossible odds.

The Trajanic Frieze at the Lunt Fort

The great Column of Trajan, which still stands in Rome, has long been recognised as a primary source for the study of the Roman army, its methods and equipment. Yet it is a very difficult monument to actually view.  As the viewer stands at ground level the great limestone drums of the Column soar into the air, carrying the spiral of writhing sculpture with it. Take binoculars!

As if the height of the upper spirals was not difficult enough for the viewer, even the lower levels can be difficult to interpret, because the sculpture on the Column (along with that of nearly all Roman triumphal architecture) has lost its colouring. To most it therefore seems like a seething undifferentiated mass of bodies.

The Frieze at the Lunt Museum, which runs round the whole space, has restored colour to the story – and provides an excellent way for us to approach and study this mighty edifice, which tells us so much about the Roman army at the very height of its power.  Unfortunately though, because the Frieze is above eye level, many visitors “underlook” it. I therefore thought that a selection of scenes from the Frieze could be usefully displayed here, along with notes on two levels – first for our younger/casual readers, and then for those interested in the details.

The Frieze provides much to chew over, and naturally I hope that others will chip in with their insights. Its important to bear in mind that our Frieze only reproduces part of that majestic spiral in Rome – which itself does not present a narrative of the Dacian War, rather an episodic treatment – more like “Scenes from the Dacian War”.  The actual course of Trajan’s war is poorly documented, and how we wish that Trajan’s own writings had survived!

So, here goes with the first scene…………

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