top of page

BLOG: Who Guarded the Wall?

Several weeks ago, I hosted Heather Robinson, an author with a recent novel taking place in Roman Britain near Hadrian's Wall. Fast forward several weeks, and another of my Twitter friends became a published author! Alistair Tosh has a passion for Roman history similar to my own, and I was delighted that he accepted my offer to visit my blog page.

This week, he'll be discussing something that I feel I share an interest in--Roman cavalry. Though his work pinpoints the cavalry along Hadrian's Wall, my main character, Marc Antony, was also a cavalryman. My personal love for horses, experience in the saddle, and respect for all things equestrian makes this week's blog especially fabulous for me.

So please allow me to introduce author Alistair Tosh and his newly released novel, Siege--the first novel in his Edge of Empire series!

Read ON, everybody!

Who guarded the Wall?

By Alistair Tosh

Who guarded the Wall? For much of its first 300 years of use Hadrian's Wall guarded the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. In movies such as The Eagle or Centurion we see the Roman foot soldier astride its battlements looking north, spear and shield in hand. But what of the cavalry. Why did most Wall forts include a mounted garrison?

It has been calculated that sustaining a cavalryman with his kit and horse cost 5 times that of an infantryman. Why would the Romans invest so much in them? The answer surely must, at least in part, lie in a symbolic as much as any strategic role.

Cavalry could move at lightning speed, and were highly mobile, making them effective on patrols and as scouts north of the Wall. They made speedy messengers, giving warning of sudden threats and incursions.

They also ensured food security, protecting local farmland and guarding supply trains to the Wall’s outlying forts. But probably most significant, they projected the image of power and renown of Rome and its imperial might. If you have ever seen the Household Cavalry in London or mounted police outside of a football (soccer) stadium you will get an idea of what a Roman turma must have looked like to an Iron Age population.

Outlying forts, north of the Wall, such as at Birrens and Netherby housed specialist, double strength, mixed infantry and cavalry cohorts (milliaria equitata) as well as specialist scouts (exploratores) enabling them to command the local area and suppress any uprising of the local tribes. The effect on the local populace must have been as much psychological as physical.

But who were these cavalrymen? Well they certainly weren’t drawn from the Roman aristocracy as they often were in the time of the Republic. No, the names of their units gives a clear indication that the Romans recruited from all over the empire and mainly from the homelands of its conquered peoples. Germanic and celtic Gaulish units were prevalent, such as the I Nervana Germanorum and the cohors II Tungrorum that garrisoned the fort of Birrens at different times. But regiments from as far away as Spain and modern day Bulgaria and Croatia have also been identified. But as the needs of the empire changed over time individual units often recruited from the local populations. With sons moving into the family business by joining the cohorts of their fathers and grandfathers.

So what was life like for the cavalryman? Well each troop, known as a turma (typically 30 men), were housed in a single barrack block. Trios of men lived at the back of the building with their horses stabled at the front. There were surely few nights that troopers fell asleep without the sound of the snorts of their mounts. Each room had a hearth set against the stable-side wall for warmth and cooking. The decurion, who commanded the turma, lived in rooms at the end of the block along with his family. Troopers ate, slept and kept their weapons and tack in these small rooms. It is also thought that grooms and slaves may have slept in the roof space above.

Training for cavalrymen and their mounts was extensive and intense. If you have seen horses being drilled for modern day dressage you will get the idea, with each trained initially on a long rein to teach the horse basic skills as well as special steps. It is likely that horses were broken and prepared by specialists before being assigned to its rider. They learned to overcome their instinct to flee when startled and to cope in the noise and fervour of combat. The early instruction of the cavalryman would have focused on the basic skills of controlling and riding the horse whilst holding a sword or spear in the right hand and the shield and rein in the left. From there they would have progressed to training to fight as a turma, with unit drills enabling large numbers of men to manoeuvre in battle.

The average cavalryman was well armed and armoured. He typically wore chainmail armour that allows greater movement whilst on horseback. Their weapons consisted of the long cavalry sword often referred to as the spatha. They also had a fighting lance and two shorter throwing javelins. Their shields were a variety of shapes including square and oval, but were usually flat with a steel rim and a rounded metal boss to enable it to be used as a weapon. It is not hard to imagine the damage the charge of even a small unit of auxiliary cavalry could inflict on the largely unprotected bodies of the tribal warriors of the north of Britain.

When researching for my new historical adventure novel ‘Siege’, that focuses on the lives of the men of a mixed Germanic cohort, I was surprised by the amount of detail we now have on the everyday life of a Roman cavalryman. In the story I have worked hard to be faithful to that knowledge and attempted to bring it to life for the present day reader.

The Story of Siege

AD 139.

Lucius Faenius Felix arrives in Britannia to command the First Nervana, a renowned cohort drawn from the homelands of the fierce Nervii tribe. The soldier has been recently cheated out of his ancestral estates - and is still grieving from the mysterious murder of his father.

Along with Cai Martis, a veteran cavalry Prefect, the young officer uncovers news of a conspiracy. The resurgent Novantae, a ferocious tribe led by the determined war-chief, Barra, aim to put the Romans to the sword and win back the province.

Surrounded and cut off by their enemies, Lucius and Cai must lead their cohort through hostile territory. Conquer or be conquered.

The Romans attempt to send a message through enemy lines.

The First Nervana make a desperate final stand behind the walls of their fort.

Did the message get through?

Lucius and Cai know all too well what is at stake. Victory or death.

All About Alistair

Alistair lived in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Torthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his history teacher’s telling of the tale of Burnswark and the Roman siege of the Iron Age hillfort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire series took root.

On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career, firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia.


53 views1 comment

1 Comment

Linnea Tanner
Linnea Tanner
Mar 03, 2022

Thank you for sharing the post by Alistair Tosh about the Roman cavalry guarding Hadrian's Wall. As someone who is fascinated by the Roman occupation of Britain, the author's book, "Siege," sounds like a gripping tale. This is a book I definitely will check out.

bottom of page