On Campaign

In addition to their weapons, wrote Flavius Josephus in the late first century, Roman infantry on campaign carried ‘saw and basket, axe and pick, as well as strap, reaphook, chain, and three days’ rations, so there is not much difference between a soldier and a pack-mule’. Active service involved sustained and gruelling work: fighting was usually a rare event. A wide swath of ground had to be cleared in front of the advancing army; rivers had to be forded or bridged; swamps safely negotiated. Each night, a camp had to be built.

B/w photograph of tents, a detail from Trajan's column.

Campaign tents made up of leather panels, a detail from Trajan's Column.
© Author's collection

Surveyors went ahead of the army to choose the camp site and mark out its perimeter. When the main body arrived each man knew exactly what he had to do: some mounted guard, some constructed prescribed sections of the ditch and rampart, some pitched tents, some looked after the animals, some gathered water and firewood, and some prepared a meal for themselves and their comrades.

Photograph of pieces of leather tent, from Newstead.

Photograph of wooden tent pegs, from Newstead.

Leather tent panels from Newstead.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

Wooden tent-pegs from Newstead.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

Each contubernium or eight-man section was provided with a leather tent. Fragments of these, and wooden tent-pegs, have been found at Newstead and elsewhere. Ten such tents, set in a row with a space in front of each for weapons, baggage, and a pack-mule, made up a century. A larger tent at the end housed the centurion and his staff. Centuries and cohorts were arranged in much the same way as in permanent forts. Other tents were provided for specialist staff and a large marquee was placed in the centre of the camp for the army commander.

Photograph of Roman pick-axe.
Photograph of Roman turf-cutter.

Much activity in the field involved building roads, bridges, and forts. Most of this work was done by legionaries. Their main tools were the dolobra (pickaxe) (above left), the turf-cutter (above right), the shovel, and the basket. With little more than these simple tools legionary craftsmen could build a fortress such as Inchtuthil or a frontier like the Antonine Wall.


above, left and right © SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

right © Author's collection

B/w photograph of Romans building a fort, from Trajan's Column.

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