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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds A significant part of the interior of every fort was taken up with barrack buildings. These long buildings were characterised by a series of compartments, or contubernia, with a larger house for a centurion or decurion at one end. Scholars have tended to assume that the first permanent barracks are simply a version of the tented arrangements recorded by ancient writers when they describe armies on campaign. A barrack range would thus be allocated to a century for 80 or so soldiers or a turma for about 32 cavalry troopers, depending on the unit type. In reality, we can see that it wasn’t necessarily quite that simple.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds Many barrack blocks have more space than we think a regular century or turma might require, but this is still a good way to think about the basic layout of these complex buildings. Within the barrack blocks, the organisation of contubernia is further subdivided to allow for an inner and outer room. Both of these rooms, we believe, would have served a contubernium, the basic infantry section of eight men. It’s widely suggested that one of these two rooms was for the soldiers to store their equipment, another for them to sleep in, but it’s quite possible that individual groups adapted their quarters to suit themselves.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds Despite all the barracks that we’ve identified, we cannot speak with confidence about the arrangements of beds or furniture, although the location of hearths is often very clear, archaeologically. For many years, archaeologists wondered where the horses of cavalry soldiers would have been kept. Recent work suggests that the distinctive extended pits found in rooms along one side of barracks sites, such as those found in the southern part of Wallsend Fort, were actually placed there to facilitate the mucking out of horses.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds Extrapolating from the idea that these rooms would have accommodated three small Roman horses each, it appears that we can now see how turma barracks were organised, with three troopers occupying a room with a hearth backing onto the rooms where an equivalent number of horses were accommodated. The barracks were very much the focus of life for the soldiers. There were no separate mess halls for soldiers to eat in, so food had to be eaten there. And, so far as we can tell, there were not normally special armouries either, so equipment had to be cleaned and maintained in the soldiers’ quarters, too. But there’s growing evidence, too, that there was more to life in these barracks than even this would suggest.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds The soldiers were probably not the only people living in the fort. They had servants to be accommodated and families, too. While some of these may have lived beyond the fort walls, it seems increasingly likely, particularly towards the later period, that many actually lived inside the forts themselves, and that surely meant in the barracks. Next week, we’ll be looking at the archaeological evidence for these underrepresented groups, too.

Soldiers and their barracks

A soldier on campaign would have slept in a tent (papillo) made of goat skin, but in more permanent quarters, he would have lived in a barrack block.

Long L-shaped barrack ranges are a familiar feature of Roman forts. A large house which projected out at one end of the block would have housed the commander of the contingent, normally either a centurion (if it was an infantry unit) or a decurion (if cavalry). The soldiers would then have lived in blocks within the barracks. An eight man infantry section (contubernium) would have occupied each two room block, and probably used one room for sleeping and the other for other purposes such as storing equipment.

Cavalry barracks look the same in plan, but their internal organisation was different: one room for three troopers, and back to back with it, another room for three of their mounts. Many first and second century barracks had a veranda where soldiers could sit and work while sheltered from the elements.

In the video we see a reconstructed barracks from the third century, as displayed at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields. You will notice that this particular barrack type does not have a veranda, or a projecting officer’s house, but the internal divisions of the building are similar to those used in earlier periods – a larger quarters for an officer at one end, and blocks of two rooms each running along the rest of the building.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about the internal organisation of Roman barracks, and our ignorance is compounded by the fact that soldiers probably varied their organisation of these spaces. Future excavation work will no doubt help us understand the arrangements better. Crucial clues as to how the occupants lived will come from the study of the remaining structures and the artefacts found within.

The video contains a number of examples of barrack buildings from the frontier zone in an attempt to help understand how they were used. We will talk more about some of the artefacts and their significance later.

  • What do you think the barrack buildings reveal about life in Roman forts?

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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