The Antonine Wall was a Roman fortification made predominantly of timber and turf that stretched the neck of modern day Scotland, from the Firth to the Clyde.
Although its occupation was brief (142-164 and then briefly between 208 and 211), for a time this wall served as the farthest north, physical border of the Roman Empire.
To maintain this far-flung frontier, the Romans placed strong garrisons in regularly spaced out forts. These garrisons consisted almost-completely of auxiliary (non-Roman citizen) troops, hailing from regions as far away as Syria.
Below are 8 auxiliary units that served on Rome’s northernmost frontier during the 2nd century AD.
1. First Cohort of Hamian archers
The forefathers of these auxiliaries may have come over to Britain during the first invasion of Britain in AD 43. This First Cohort consisted of 500 skilled archers who originated from Hama in Syria.
Records show that it served at Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall and during the Antonine period, it served at the fort at Bar Hill. After Roman troops withdrew back to Hadrian’s Wall it was probably deployed at both Housesteads and again at Carvoran.
2. First Cohort of Tungrians
The First Cohort of Tungrians originated from what we call today Belgium and consisted of a force of some 1,000 infantry. It was also found on Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh.
The Tungrians were also based at the Roman Forts of Cramond by the river Forth and Castlecary on the Antonine Wall. It was later based during the 3rd century onward at Housestead’s on Hadrian’s Wall.
3. First Cohort of Baetasians
This unit of 500 comprised of the First Cohort of auxiliary soldiers and came from the area we know as the Netherlands. Before being sent north to the Antonine Wall there is an inscription that suggests they served in the Manchester area.
On being moved north the records show that this unit was at Old Kilpatrick on the western end of the Antonine Wall by the River Clyde, and later at Bar Hill. On the withdrawal south this unit was sent to the Cumbrian coast and relocated to Maryport.
4. Second Cohort of Thracians
This unit can be traced from having being at Mumrill’s Fort on the Antonine Wall. Known as the Second Cohort this was a mixed unit of both cavalry and infantry. These soldiers came from what we call modern today Bulgaria.
Other records and inscriptions show they also served later on the Cumbrian Coast at the fort named as Moresby.
5. Fourth Cohort of Gauls
The Fourth Cohort of Gauls come from modern day France. It was a mixed auxiliary force of cavalry and infantry soldiers, with a unit strength of some 600. Again these auxiliary troops may have come to Britain during the invasion of AD 43.
Records and inscriptions reveal it being at Castlestead’s fort on Hadrian’s Wall and at Vindolanda. It moved north to the Antonine Wall where it was stationed at Castlehill Fort. It was from this fort we know the name of the Roman commander, one Pisentius Lustus, who had an altar made to honour the Parade Ground Goddesses.
The final record shows it back serving at Vindolanda.
6. First Cohort of Vardullians
This was a unit that came from the north of Spain, (Hispania Terraconensis) raised as the First Cohort of Vardullians, with a field strength of some 1,000 men.
One of the earliest locations along the Antonine Wall was that it was at the fort at Castlecary. However, because of the units size it must also have been stationed at other forts.
One other source suggests that it also served in North Africa, as pottery from North Africa has been found along sites on the Antonine Wall. So it is highly likely that some of the troops probably came from the campaigns of the war in Africa.
Other sites where this unit served were on forts along Hadrian’s Wall as well as being at High Rochester and Cappuck in the Borders area.
7. Sixth Cohort of Nervians
Another of the most famous units of auxiliary infantry were the Nervii, some 500 strong who came from modern Belgium. They were known as the Sixth Cohort of Nervians. Julius Caesar enlisted these soldiers into the Roman Army after he witnessed their military powers.
Their headquarters on the Antonine Wall was at the fort called Rough Castle in Stirlingshire, where the unit raised an altar to commemorate victory, after their part in building the fort principia (central plaza). During their time at this fort, the Nervii was under the command of a Roman officer from the XX Legion, named Gaius Flavius Betto.
This Sixth Cohort of the Nervii can be traced to Hadrian’s Wall, where they based at Great Chester’s Fort.
8. First Cohort of Batavians
Although evidence is unclear, there are inscriptions from an altar at Castlecary Fort on the Antonine Wall that there was a unit of Batavians, who originated from the area we call the Netherlands today.
It was recorded as the First Cohort of Batavians, a mixed auxiliary unit of both cavalry and infantry. The Cohort served under Agricola, during his engagements in Scotland (late 1st century AD).
The Cohort is also known at sites along Hadrian’s Wall, such as Carrawburgh.
Veteran of the British Army John Richardson is the founder of the Roman Living History Society, “The Antonine Guard”. The Romans and The Antonine Wall of Scotland is his first book and was published on 26 September 2019, by Lulu Self-Publishing .