The Stanegate Frontier: Life in Roman Britain Before Hadrian's Wall

Vindolanda site showing the fort and vicus. The Stanegate road is the linear feature just to the north of the site.

During the Roman Army’s push into the north of the British Isle (AD 60-84) a road was established which connected the narrow part of northern England between the Tyne and Irthing Valleys. Although the Romans would have had a name for this road which is lost to us we now know it by its old English name as the Stanegate Road (meaning ‘stone road’). The road ran from the Roman fort at Corbridge (Corstopitum or Coria) in the east to the Roman fort at Carlisle (Luguvalium) in the west. It traversed through natural gaps formed by the valleys and was different from most Roman roads as it followed the easiest gradient instead of a straight path as most Roman roads do.

 This strategic roadway was used for the movement of troops and the delivery of supplies and was guarded by forts every 14 Roman miles (13 modern miles or 21 km) along its length which has been argued to be the equivalent of one days march for a Roman soldier. These bases not only included the start and end point but also the forts at Vindolanda and Nether Denton.

After campaigning into what we now know as Scotland, the Romans retreated to the line of the Stanegate road sometime between AD81-117. New fortifications at Newbrough, Magna (Carvoran) and Brampton Old Church were established along the road at half day marching intervals. During this time, fortlets were also built at Haltwhislte Burn and Throp. More small fortlets might have been regularly spaced across the frontier but there is insufficient evidence to confirm this. There is also some speculation that the road continued past Corbridge to the port of South shields and more conclusive evidence that the road carried on to Kirkbride in the west. These new defences established along the road created the first defended military frontier in the area (fig 1). 

Figure 1. Map of the Stanegate Frontier

Not many of the Stanegate forts have had extensive research carried out on their remains. At Carlisle excavations have revealed that it was established around AD 72 during the initial push by the Romans into in to northern Britain. At Corbridge a fort is thought to have been established in AD 84 and at Vindolanda by AD 85 (at the latest). At Nether Denton limited pottery evidence has indicated a similar foundation around AD 85. Newbrough and Carvoran have uncertain date due to lack of excavation. Brampton Old Church, Haltwhistle Burn and Throp have revealed Trajanic pottery helping to date these forts/fortlets.

Due to the continuing excavations at Vindolanda and its amazing preservation, many details about life on the frontier can be revealed. The early wooden forts at Vindolanda which date to the time of the Stanegate Road are preserved due to anaerobic or oxygen free preservation. The lack of oxygen means that many objects do not decompose and are preserved just as the Romans deposited them. Here, there is a unique glimpse into what life was like on this frontier nearly 2000 years ago (fig 2).

Figure 2. Excavations of the anaerobic levels in 2015. The white tags mark upright wooden posts and the wattle and daub wall can be seen.

Among the objects are the largest surviving written archive from Roman Britain, including military strength reports, supply lists and personal correspondence. The writing tablets are thin sheets of wood about the size of a modern postcard written with cursive Latin and they reveal some interesting social aspects of Vindolanda’s past. It is not possible to share all of the texts here but by looking at just three tablets we can start to uncover the secrets of the past.

In March 1973, Robin Birley found the first small slivers of a writing tablet. After taking it to specialists it was decided to try infrared photography which revealed the Latin cursive script. The first letter was a personal correspondence regarding a parcel which arrive at Vindolanda. The translation is as follows: ‘……I have sent you … pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants …’. This tablet captured the public imagination and gives us an insight into daily life. First, this person, possibly a soldier, was receiving mail/parcels from someone, possibly his mother but this remains a mystery. Also the tablet tells us that the Romans were wearing underpants and socks, probably to help them stay warm on the frontier (fig 3).

Figure 3. Vindolanda first writing tablet found in 1974

The tablets also have quotes from the classics, most notably from the works of Virgil but possible other quotations have been found. Those found so far appear to have been transcribed as writing exercises, by both children and adults. At Vindolanda, around AD 100 someone was in the possession of major Roman epic poems from which the exerts have been transcribed and therefore more of the text could be found in the future. The first quotation found was from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book IX, Line 473. The line of text starts out very well but towards the end it loses focus. Someone has added the letters seg, probably short for segniter, or ‘sloppy work’. Two other quotes has been identified from Virgil, another from the Aeneid and one from the Georgics (fig 4).

Figure 4. Writing exercise tablet from Virgil’s Aeneid

Perhaps the most memorable letter is the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Vindolanda’s commanding office Flavius Cerialis (AD100-105).  Severa invites Lepidina to her party on September 11th ‘to make my day more enjoyable by your presence’. It also greets her husband and her sons. Most of the letter has been written by a professional scribe but in the corner there is a private salutation written in Severa’s own hand ‘I will expect you, sister. Farewell sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper and greetings’. Sister and brother did not necessarily mean a blood relation but are used as greetings to a close friend. This short script is the only surviving writing of a women from Roman Britain and one of the oldest in Western Europe. This tablet also give us a unique window into life. Although we do not know if Lepidina went to the party, we do know that this was a possibility and that high status women were not only present on the frontier but had leisure time to visit other women. Also from the letter, we know that their children were present and that there was literacy among at least some women (fig 5).

Figure 5. Birthday party invitation

The foundations for a frontier system in the north of Britain were established on the Stanegate and the road continued to be the main highway during the building and occupation of Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. Sites like Vindolanda and Magna continued to be occupied throughout the Roman occupation and excavations at Vindolanda have revealed post Roman occupation and probable use of the Stanegate. St Cuthbert (c AD 634-687) is known to have used the Stanegate on his travels to Carlisle and many others would have done the same. Over the years the road eventually fell into disrepair and was replaced after the Jacobite uprising and subsequent sacking of Carlisle in 1745. Some sections of it can still be seen and travelled like the section which still runs to the north and west of the Vindolanda site.

Barbara Birley is Curator at the Chesterholm Museum, Northumberland. You can find out more about the museum by visiting their website