Did you know that the Roman army had cavalry? And that mounted units were stationed along Hadrian’s Wall, the 73 mile-long north-west frontier of their empire? It’s not often that we get a chance to explore this neglected aspect of Roman military history. But it’s a story that we’re helping to tell in 2017, so we asked two of our experts to tell us a bit more.
Frances McIntosh, Curator of Roman Collections, explains the history of cavalry at Hadrian’s Wall and our preparations for this summer. Kevin Booth, Senior Curator of the North, introduces the atmospheric new installation which you can see at Chesters Roman Fort.
A Brief History Of Cavalry On Hadrian’s Wall
Ask any visitor to Hadrian’s Wall to picture a Roman soldier and they will immediately think of a soldier on foot, with a rectangular shield, sword and spear. Many of the troops along Hadrian’s Wall were infantry soldiers in auxiliary cohorts, however four forts housed cavalry units, called alae. Cavalrymen had different equipment with smaller, circular shields and longer swords so that they could reach their enemy from horseback. They were also paid more than infantry troops so could afford to buy more decorative equipment for both themselves and their horses. The cavalryman and his horse were dressed to impress and well-equipped for their work.
Imposing and fast, the cavalry made effective border patrols and scouts. They were speedy messengers, able to respond rapidly to threats and incursions. Yet they had another function beyond the pragmatic. Cavalry units project splendour and authority – think of the Queen’s Horse Guard today. Horses have symbolised prestige and power for millennia and the image of a cavalryman riding down a barbarian is one of the iconic representations of Roman Imperial might.
Hadrian’s Cavalry Project 2017
The importance of cavalry to the Roman army and Empire is often neglected when we think about Hadrian’s Wall. But this year, as we mark two important anniversaries for Hadrian’s Wall, we’re part of the Hadrian’s Cavalry project, which puts Roman cavalry back in the spotlight.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the inscription of Hadrian’s Wall on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of the very first World Heritage Sites to be created. And it is also the 1,900th anniversary of the accession of Hadrian to the Roman Imperial throne.
Hadrian’s Cavalry is an Arts Council England funded project, in which English Heritage is one of 5 partners hosting exhibitions at 10 museums along Hadrian’s Wall. Three of our museums are involved: Corbridge, Housesteads and Chesters.
Each exhibition at our sites was approached differently, taking into account the Roman history of the site, and the space available. For instance the smaller museum at Housesteads meant we have created just one, striking case display of 30 spearheads representing the charge of a cavalry troop (Turma). At Corbridge, where a town flourished for more than 200 years, the exhibition focuses on the image of the horse in the Roman world. It brings together objects from Richborough in the South and Edinburgh in Scotland. Our highlight piece is the painted, full-size, replica tombstone of a cavalryman who died at Corbridge in the 1st century AD.
Chesters Fort was occupied by Spanish cavalry troops, the Ala II Asturia, and so it is here that we have delved deeper into the practical nature of living with and caring for 500 horses. We’ve placed panels in the cavalry barracks, where 30 men and 30 horses shared one barrack block, living in close quarters. And outside in the south west corner of the fort, there is a new sensory art installation – which Kevin will explain more about.
Cavalry 360˚: Bringing Horses Back To Chesters
Chesters Roman Fort today is a tranquil and beautiful place set in a quintessential English landscape where pasture and woodland flank the wide North Tyne. Around 1,600 years ago though, it was a different atmosphere entirely. Imagine a Turma of Roman cavalrymen galloping down the valley side, hooves striking stone as they trotted over a substantial stone bridge, and entering the fort from the East. Inside is a place teeming with life. It’s noisy, smelly, bustling and busy, and almost bursting as 500 men and horses find accommodation within its rectangular footprint.
It can be difficult to make a connection between the preserved walls of the Roman cavalry fort (the most extensive in Britain) and the powerful mounted troops based here.
Other aspects of the Hadrian’s Cavalry project have exhibited remarkable cavalry artefacts from across Europe, or carried out experimental archaeological research in the guise of entertaining re-enactments. As a Curator and archaeologist I was drawn to the monument and the relationship our visitors have with it. My interest was to communicate the archaeological and historical fact of the 500 strong cavalry Ala but to find a mechanism to do this in a creative, sensory, way: I wanted to put the horse back into the fort.
Over the autumn of 2016 a number of artists were approached to submit concepts for creating that sense of presence. The brief was not prescriptive, but welcomed challenging creative and imaginative responses. In November 2016 the panel selected NEON, an award winning design practice specialising in unusual, unexpected and playful landscape interventions.
Cavalry 360˚ is a bespoke piece of work designed to connect visitors with the environment. It is vast: at 12 metres diameter and 3.5 metres tall the installation is unlike anything ever created on the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site. Yet it is also graceful – and mesmeric. 32 wind driven turbines are arranged in 16 pairs – the number of barrack blocks in the fort. Each pair drives 30 beaters representing a cavalry Turma within each barrack. As the wind rises and falls combinations of turbines, each like a running horses, generate an ever changing equine rhythm.
Erected over four days in early July with fabricator Jerry Caesar, the team had no sense as to exactly what the impact would be. As we released the break on each of the 32 turbines the effect was a revelation. Curious visitors approached to enquire, then simply stare and smile. Immediately the work gained new definitions: a henge, an arena and, memorably, by one young American visitor a ‘literal circle of sound!’
Cavalry 360 is a unique installation that brings a new dimension to our relationship with the Roman fort. It will be fascinating over the next three months to see how visitors respond to the work.
Experience Hadrian’s Cavalry This Summer
Chesters Roman Fort
The Cavalry 360˚ installation will be at Chesters Roman Fort until October half term 2017. The site is open daily until then. You’ll find full details of prices and opening times here.
On Sat 19 & Sun 20 August, witness the Return of the Romans at a spectacular re-enactment which will include military displays and the sights, sounds and smells of a living camp. Throughout the summer holidays we’re also running Hands On History: Archaeology Detectives workshops, which gives kids the chance to uncover clues to the site’s history when you visit the site.
Corbridge Roman Town
Explore the role and daily life of the Roman cavalry in our exhibition at Corbridge Roman Town. You’ll see how the Romans depicted the horse in stone, pottery, metal and glass, and our recreation of a full size cavalry tombstone. There are also hand crafted horse sculptures by Corbridge First School.
Find out more about visiting Corbridge Roman Town
Housesteads Roman Fort
The Roman cavalry was a formidable force, armed with equipment to protect the Roman Frontiers and project the power of Imperial Rome. This small installation in the museum at Housesteads evokes the strength and speed of cavalry.
Find out more about visiting Housesteads Roman Fort
For more information about what else is doing on at Hadrian’s Wall over the summer, visit the Hadrian’s Cavalry website.