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The Role of Women on Hadrian’s Wall

Posted:
19 August 2016
Posted By:
Frances McIntosh
Categories:
History Uncovered, Things To Do

Hundreds, if not thousands, of women lived on and around Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman period. They are often forgotten in our view of this military installation, so in the run up to Hadrian’s Wall Live (English Heritage’s weekend of live Roman action on 3 & 4 September 2016) we asked Frances McIntosh, Curator of Roman Collections, to explain more about their lives.

Military wives of the Roman army

Many Roman women on Hadrian’s Wall were the wives of soldiers – even though ordinary Roman soldiers could not legally marry until 197 AD, 75 years after Hadrian’s Wall started to be built.

We don’t know her name, but this tombstone of Cornelius Victor, found at Vindolanda and on display at the Clayton Museum, Chesters Roman Fort was commissioned by his wife.

We don’t know her name, but the wife of Cornelius Victor commissioned this tombstone, which was found at Vindolanda and is now on display at the Clayton Museum, Chesters Roman Fort.

When Septimius Severus (Emperor 193-211 AD) lifted the ban on marriage, it meant that the wives and any children of soldiers were officially recognised by the army. Centurions and other officers always had the right to marry, but as we often find mention of wives and children dated before 197 AD, we know that soldiers often married ‘unofficially’ before the ban was lifted too.

Roman families at Hadrian’s Wall

It was not only wives who followed the soldiers to their postings. Any women who were dependant on soldiers may have chosen to live on the frontier rather than rely on money sent home. This could include wives, daughters, sisters or mothers.

We find out the names of some of these women from their tombstones. For example, Aurelius, had his 20 year old daughter Aurelia with him whilst based at Vindolanda. She died and he set up a tombstone to her, which is now on display at the Clayton Museum at Chesters Roman Fort.

Tombstones to two little girls have been found at Corbridge Roman Town. Ahteha, the daughter of Nobilis, lived 5 years, whilst Ertola, ‘properly known as Vellibia’ lived ‘most happily for 4 years and 60 days. These tombstones are a poignant reminder of the trials and tribulations of life on the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire.

The tombstone of a little girl called Ertola, playing with her ball.

The tombstone of a little girl nick-named Ertola, playing with her ball.

The Commanding Officer of an auxiliary unit had a large house in the centre of the fort (praetoria) where he lived with his whole family. It is also thought that Centurions may have lived with their wives in their quarters.

Meanwhile, ordinary soldiers lived in cramped barracks, sharing two rooms with seven other men. On Hadrian’s Wall, the civilian settlements (known as vici) around the forts would have been where most of the military wives and families lived.

Business women and craftswomen in Roman Britain

Not all of the women present on Hadrian’s Wall would have been related to soldiers. There would have been wives and daughters of merchants and craftsmen who were attracted by the ready market the army provided, as well as business women in their own right.

Housesteads Roman Fort has visible remains of six buildings from the vicus, close to the south gate. These buildings have been identified as inns and shops, fronting the street. The owners of these establishments would have lived in the back-rooms.

Typical Roman camp food

 

What did Roman women wear?

We have evidence of the lives of Roman women at Hadrian’s Wall – in particular their jewellery and fashions. Highly decorated hairpins would have been used to hold up the ornate hairstyles, alongside animal fat and beeswax.

Selection of decorative bone hairpins. The 2nd from the left has gold sheet on the head. Only the heads of the pins would have been visible in fashionable, ornate Roman hairstyles.

Selection of decorative bone hairpins. The 2nd from the left has gold sheet on the head. Only the heads of the pins would have been visible in fashionable, ornate Roman hairstyles.

Jewellery could be worn by both Roman men and women. This included brooches, rings, bracelets and even occasionally, earrings. Some pieces of jewellery found at Hadrian’s Wall can be linked to a specific person.

One such example is the gold finger ring, pictured below. It’s probably a betrothal ring, and was owned by a woman called Aemilia. This ornate ring must have had huge sentimental value, and how it ended up in the ground at Corbridge is, unfortunately, a mystery.

A gold Roman finger ring, found at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian's Wall, inscribed with: ‘Aemilia, long life to you’.

A gold Roman finger ring, found at Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian’s Wall, inscribed with: ‘Aemilia, long life to you’.

Meet Roman women at Hadrian’s Wall Live 2016

If this blog has whet your appetite about women on Hadrian’s Wall, come and explore the civilian settlement we’re setting up at Hadrian’s Wall Live this year. The Vicus will capture the hustle and bustle spirit of a thriving civilian population and the interaction between military and civilian personnel.

You’ll be able to meet re-enactors, including 18 Roman women, who will be encamped outside the military base. There will also be soldiers having a respite from their duties, having a cup of passum or water, chatting with their wives and haggling with merchants.

TICKETS ARE AVAILABLE NOW – JOIN US FOR:

And if you can’t make this event, visit our museums which showcase some of the amazing objects left behind by these forgotten Roman women.

About the author

Frances joined English Heritage in July 2012 and is currently working on her PhD on the Clayton Collection. She is an expert in Roman material culture and is also interested in the contribution of antiquarian studies to our understanding of the past. After completing a research masters in Roman brooches, Frances wanted to broaden her studies and the Clayton Collection offered the perfect opportunity as it contains the whole range of material from Roman military sites.

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  • About the Author

    Frances McIntosh
    Curator of Roman Collections at English Heritage

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  1. Thanks for sharing this 🙂 Roman history is quite often focused on what the men were up to, so it’s nice to catch a glimpse of how the other half of the population lived!

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