Two Roman cavalrymen by an open fire - copyright Ben Blackall

Cavalry barracks

The cavalryman paid a deposit for his horse and would keep very close watch over it. From the remains of Chesters barracks, we know that three men would live in one room, close to their horses. Most forts could accommodate 500 men and horses.

Cavalry at Vindolanda

Over 1,400 fragments and full documents have been unearthed at Roman Vindolanda. They reveal cavalry lived here alongside alongside the infantry auxiliary soldiers. Horses and cavalry equipment used by officers, scouts and messengers have also been exacavated.

To this day evidence is still being found in ongoing excavations,. These range from written documents to amazing artefacts such as armour worn by the soldiers and horses.

Soldiers and officers as well as men, women and children made Vindolanda their home. There would have also been mounts for officers, for carts and work and horses for messengers and scouts.

Evidence from the excavations show at least three garrisons were stationed at Vindolanda:

  • part-mounted 9th cohort - military unit - of Batavians from the Netherlands (c. AD 95–105)
  • 1st cohort of Tungrians from Belgium with a detachment of Vardullian cavalrymen from Northern Spain (c. AD 105– c.130s)
  • a new but unknown force in the 4th century

The men of Vindolanda

Mascius the Decurion graphic

Mascius the Decurion

Nationality: Batavian (Netherlands)

Decurion Mascius sends a letter to his Commanding Officer Cerialis. This was possibly written when scouting beyond the frontier. He writes 'my fellow soldier have no beer - please order some to be sent.'

Tagomas the Standard Bearer graphic

Tagomas the Standard Bearer

Nationality: Vardullian (northern Spain)

Tagomas is mentioned in two tablets. The first is an account for 'the messmate of the standard bearer Tagomas'. The 'messmate' is very probably his girlfriend or common-law wife.

In the second tablet he is purchasing lances, a common weapon of the cavalry.

Veldedius, groom to the Roman Governor of Britain graphic

Veldedius, groom to the Roman Governor of Britain

Nationality: Unknown

An offcut near a piece of horse's head armour was inscribed with 'promised to Veldedius'. Find out more in Cavalry armour.

The names and information are based on evidence from the archaeological excavations and from the Vindolanda Tablets.

Cavalry at Arbeia

In the late second century the Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort housed a mixed unit of infantry and cohors equitata - cavalry. There would have been about 120 cavalry soldiers and 480 infantrymen.

In 2000 two of the barracks for the cavalry were excavated. There were nine apartments. Each had accommodation for three soldiers at the back and a stable for three horses in front. There was a larger house and stable for the officer at one end.

The excavations uncovered pieces of equipment belonging to the men and their horses. These included:

  • fragments of horse harness
  • elements of the soldiers’ weapons and armour
  • loose loops from ring-mail, possibly left by a soldier repairing his armour
  • fragments of horse harness heavily decorated with studs
Horse's harness under excavation - copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Excavating a horse's harness

This photo shows a fragment of discarded horse harness under excavation. The decorative copper alloy studs are still in position.

Plan of Arbeia fort

B6 and B8 show the location of the cavalry barracks. This was where pieces of horse harness and military equipment as found during excavation.

The stables had long rectangular pits for collecting urine. The adjacent soldiers’ rooms were heated by open fires against the walls.

Cavalry barracks at Carlisle?

The first fort the Romans built at Carlisle probably had cavalry. This is suggested by the plan of where the soldiers lived. This shows both men and horses housed in the same building.

Roman soldiers lived in two rooms that ran across a building. Written sources show that forts with cavalry garrisons had a covered pit in the front room to hold horse urine. This feature has been used to identify the presence of cavalry at forts where there is no other evidence.

The excavations of the forts in Carlisle only revealed a small part of the buildings that housed the soldiers. Urine pits were identified in the front room of two pairs of rooms. Later building in the same area did not allow more details to be seen.

Stanwix, the largest fort on Hadrian's Wall

Stanwix, near Carlisle, was home to the largest and most prestigious auxiliary cavalry unit in Britain. The cavalry fort was called the ‘high fort’, Uxelodunum, by the Romans. It as positioned on a platform above the river Eden.

The fort is located almost centrally in the Hadrian’s Wall system when you include the Cumbrian west coast defences.

The commander of the fort was the highest ranking officer on Hadrian's Wall. The garrison was one of three cavalry-only forts. It was the only one that housed 1,000 troops rather than the more usual 500. This was known as the ala Petriana.

The fort covered 3.96 hectares and had an exercise ground of another 3.15 hectares. Together they would have covered just more than seven rugby pitches. All that remains of the fort in Stanwix today is a low rise in the churchyard showing the south-west corner of the fort and lines of stones in a hotel car park.

3D Dedication slab for a lost cavalry drill hall

This sandstone slab was found at Netherby, Carlisle and has been dated to 222 AD. Click the image to zoom in and examine it closer:

Translation: "for the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Pius Felix Augustus, pontifex maximus, with tribunician power, consul father of his country, the First Aelian Cohort of Spaniards, one thousand strong, part mounted, devoted to his Deity and majesty, built a cavalry drill hall, long since begun from the ground, and completed it under charge of Marius Valerianus Salvius, tribune of this cohort in the consulship of our Lord the Emperor Severus Alexander Pius Felix Augustus."

Victor says...

Cartoon of Victor the cavalryman"I share a room with two fellow soldiers. We have to keep all our kit with us and it's bit crowded, especially as our three horses live in the front room!"

Discover more

Uncover more about Rome's elite horsemen in our Hadrian's Cavalry section.


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