Arbeia

Fort

The Roman Fort of Arbeia (South Shields), was originally built during the reign of Hadrian c.129AD.  South Shields was located just four miles beyond the eastern end of Hadrian’s wall of Segedunum (Wallsend) and would have prevented anyone by-passing the wall by simply crossing the River Tyne. The fort also guarded a small seaport on the south bank of the Tyne Estuary near its outlet into the North Sea at South Shields.

Who Built the Roman Fort at Arbeia  (South Shields)?

We know that Arbeia Fort was built by the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) by the following Roman Inscriptions that were found at the fort.

RIB1061 - Building inscription of the Sixth Legion

The Sixth Legion (built this).
LEG VI
The inscription was found in the front wall of the cross-hall of the Headquarters Building of South Shields fort.

RIB3273 - Centurial stone of Paternus

Of the Sixth Legion Victrix, the century of Paternus (built this).
LEGLEG ‣ VI VIC 𐆛 PAT͡ERN͡I
Also refered to as RIB 1070a; JRS lii (1962), p.193, no.13.

RIB3275 - Centurial stone of [...] Severus

Of the Sixth Legion Victrix [Pia Fidelis], the century of [...] Severus (built) 102 feet.
ḶẸG VI VIC P F
COH III
[.] traces
Also Referenced as RIB 1070d; Britannia xviii (1987), p.368, no.8
The legion also built the first stone principia (RIB 1061), now dated by excavation to c. 163. 3.  The legion's secondary cognomina have been erased with a small pick or point, probably the result of casual or wanton damage, since it extends to part of Vic(trix) and the centurion's name as well. 5–6.  Most 'centurial' stones do not specify the length built (pedatura), but other instances are collected in RIB I Index, p. 107. They must have varied according to the total length required and the number of sub-units available, but '102 feet' of fort-wall is comparable with the lengths of 112 feet built by two auxiliary centuries at Carvoran

RIB3275 - Centurial stone of Sixth Legion

Of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis, of the Third Cohort, [the century of...(built this)].
G VI VIC P F
COH III
[.] traces
Also reffered to as RIB 1070e; Britannia xxvi (1995), p.379-80, no.6

Although the inscriptions indicate that the Sixth Legion built the fort of Arbeia, South Shields, it is quite unlikely that a cohort from this unit was ever stationed here. A substantial stone-built fort such as that at Arbeia would have required specialised engineering skills which were only available in the highly-trained soldiers in the Roman legions, and not possessed by the auxiliary units which were to garrison the fort. It was the legions, therefore, who were responsible for most of the military building work in the Roman empire, and it is evident that the Sixth legion were responsible for perhaps all of the building work at Arbeia.

The inscription below, which is an altar to an unknown god, was dedicated by a centurion of the Sixth (vide supra), which suggests that at least one century of the legion was stationed here for some time, most likely in temporary accommodation whilst construction work at the fort was under way.

RIB1057 - Fragmentary dedication

Julius Verax, centurion of the Sixth Legion ..
IVLIVS
VERAX
𐆛 LEG V[...]
[...]
For the placing of the dedicator's name at the beginning of the text see RIB 140 (Bath).

Who Garrisoned the Roman Fort at Arbeia (South Shields)?

The first two units stationed here were both auxiliary cavalry ‘wings’, each containing around five-hundred troopers.

Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana

The first unit was the Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana – The First Sabinian Wing of Pannonians, a 500-strong auxiliary cavalry regiment containing five-hundred horsemen recruited from among the Pannonian tribes of modern Hungary. They were removed to Onnum (Halton Chesters, Northumberland) sometime before the third century.

Ala I Hispanorum Asturum

The second unit to be stationed here was another cavalry regiment Ala I Hispanorum Asturum, originally from the Astures tribe of north-western Spain, and probably numbered among the auxilia which accompanied emperor Claudius during the British invasion of 43AD. They are attested in stone on a single tombstone (vide supra).

Cohors V Gallorum

The original cavalry units were replaced in the Severan period by a one-thousand strong infantry unit  Cohors V Gallorum, who were possibly withdrawn from Fort Cramond on the Forth. The presence of this Gallic infantry unit at South Shields is attested in the following dedicatory inscription dated to 222AD, which celebrates the completion of the new fort aqueduct (vide supra).

RIB1060 - Aqueduct dedication to Severus Alexander dated: 222AD

The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Pius Felix Augustus, grandson of the deified Severus, son of Antoninus the Great, pontifex maximus, with tribunician power, father of his country, consul, brought in this supply of water for the use of the soldiers of the Fifth Cohort of Gauls, under the charge of Marius Valerianus, his propraetorian legate.
IMP CAES DIVI SEVER NEPOS DIVI MGNI ANTONINI FIL M AVREL SEVERVS ... PIVS FELIX AVG PONTIF MAX TRIB POT PP COS AQVAM VISBVS MIL COH V GALLO IN DVXIT CVRATE MRIO VALERIANO LEG EIVS PR PR
For a fragmentary dedication of A.D. 213 of the same cohort at South Shields see Brit. xvi (1985), 325 No. 11; and for its leaden sealings there, RIB 2411.100-05.

While the above is the earliest datable inscription from South Shields which mentions cohors V Gallorum, however its earlier presence is implied by the apparent association of its lead sealings (RIB II.1, 2411.100, 102–105) with Imperial sealings no later than 209 (2411.1–16).

References to Cohors V Gallorum was also found on an altarstone to an unidentified deity (RIB 1059).

RIB1059 - Fragmentary dedication

... the Fifth Cohort of Gauls ..
[...]
[...]H V GAL
[...]
No commentary.

It was also mentioned on a the base of a statue of dedicated to Julia Domna, the mother of Caracalla.

RIB3272 - Imperial dedication to Julia Domna

[For Julia our Augusta, mother of our Augustus Marcus Aurelius Antoninus] and of the army, [and the senate and] the country, out of its common duty and loyalty, [under the charge of Gaius Julius Marcus, imperial propraetorian legate], the Fifth Cohort of Gauls [erected (this)].
... AC CASTR AC SENAT AC PATRIAE PRO PIETATE AC DEVOTIONE COMMVNI CVRANTE G IVL MARCO LEG AVG PR PR COH V GALL POS
This is also references as RIB 1070b; Britannia xvi (1985), pp.325-6, no.11. Julia our Augusta refers to Julia Domna, the mother of Caracalla, in the governorship of Gaius Julius Marcus (in 213), whose name as usual has been erased.

As the normal requirement for a military cohort was ten barrack-blocks, it would appear that the Fifth Cohort of Gauls was under-strength by almost half, perhaps four centuriae had been retained as a caretaking force at the Cramond fort. An alternate theory is that the unit was employed to accompany the supply caravans between the two forts – whether they travelled by road or sea – and quarters had been allocated in both establishments for use by the infantrymen at either end of the journey.

Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium

The last Roman military unit attested at South Shields were the Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium, an irregular unit of barge-men from the River Tigris in the Middle-East; the name of the unit is recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum.

Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium, Arbeia
“The Company of Bargemen from the Tigris at Arbeia
(Notitia Dignitatum xl.22; 4th/5th C.)

It would appear that the wife of one of these men is recorded on a tombstone recovered from South Shields.

RIB1065 - Funerary inscription for Regina

To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up).
Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.
D(is) M(anibus) Regina liberta et coniuge
Barates Palmyrenus natione
Catuallauna an(norum) XXX
RGYN’ BT HRY BR T’ HBL

What did the Roman Fort at Arbeia  (South Shields) look like?

Arbeia Roman Fort

Initially it was built in the traditional ‘playing card’ shape with a headquarters in the centre, flanked by twin granaries and a Commanding Officer’s house with barracks and workshops in the quadrants.

 

Supply Fort of Arbeia – Phase 1

In 208AD the emperor Septimius Severus launched a series of campaigns against the troublesome Caledonian tribes, and the fort at Arbeia underwent a radical change in its usage. The attendant cavalry ala was withdrawn for the emperor’s campaigns through the Scottish highlands, to be replaced at South Shields by an auxiliary infantry cohort. This change in military function was obviously accompanied by a period of rebuilding, during which the fort was considerably altered:

  • The principia was rebuilt on the same site but rotated by 180°.
  • Apart from the double granary which was retained, all the other internal buildings were demolished and replaced by initially by eighteen new stone-built granaries, which was later increased to 22.
  • The original rear of the fort – which was now the front after the rebuilding of the principia – was extended by about one-hundred and fifty feet (45m).
  • Initially the northern half of the fort was separated from its southern half by a dividing wall across the width of the installation, although the wall had a short life
  • Four new barrack-blocks (two double and two single) were built in the new praetentura (Latin term for the front division of a fort or camp, lying forward of the via principalis).

 

The initial building of the dividing wall between the northern half of the fort  and the southern would indicate that the north would have taken supplies from sea-going vessels, while the southern half acted as a more normal garrison area.

We can date the period that the fort was converted, to between 198 and 209, this is based on small finds found during the excavations of this supply phase. These include lead sealing that bear portraits of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta. Therefore the renovation would with be associated with the work of the governor Alfenus Senecio between 205-207 or the campaigns in Scotland led by Severus himself 208-209.

Supply Fort of Arbeia – Phase 2

The second phase of the supply fort began around 220-235, and lasted until at least 270. A new principia was built in the southern part of the fort, and the original fort principia was converted to a granary. Nine more granaries were built in the southern part of the fort, bringing it up to a total of 24 and new barracks were also built.

Following a fire about 300, 8 of the surviving granaries were converted to barracks; a new larger headquarters building was built on the same site, and a large commanding officer’s house.

The fort appears to have been temporarily abandoned towards the end of the third century, and not re-used until the end of the fourth, when Arbeia seems again to have been put to use as a storehouse, with its contents being shipped periodically inland along the course of the River Tyne and its tributaries.

The fort was finally abandoned c.400AD, pretty much about the same time as emperor Honorius informed the people of Britain that they must look to their own defence, and the Romans withdrew from the island never to return.

Classical References to the Roman Fort of Arbeia

The earliest reference to the Roman fort at South Shields occcurs in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 4th/5th century, where the garisson fort Arbeia (vide infra) is listed between the entries for Verbeia (Ilkley, West Yorkshire) and an unknown station named Dictium. Arbeia is thought to be a Latinised form of a name originally from Aramaic – the native language of the last attested unit stationed at the fort – meaning ‘the Place of the Arabs’.

The fort at South Shields has been identified with the Horrea Classis entry of the Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of forts and posting stations compiled for the Severan campaigns of the early third century. This Latin name means ‘The Granaries of the Fleet’, which certainly describes the Arbeia storage depot, and possibly indicates that part at least of the Classis Britannia or the ‘British Fleet’ may have been based here in South Shields. This view is now discredited, however, and Horrea Classis is now thought to refer to the Severan fort at Carpow overlooking the mouth of the Tay in Scotland.

Other References to the Roman Fort of Arbeia

The sixteenth-century antiquary, John Leland, gives the name as Caer Urfa, which appears to be a simple corruption of the earlier Roman name, prefixed by Caer, a Welsh word meaning ‘a fortified place’ which is typical of the early Saxon era. The modern name is first recorded in 1235 as Scheles, which is a Middle English term for a group of makeshift huts or shelters, in this case probably used by fishermen; there were evidently more of these temporary dwellings on the opposite bank of the Tyne at North Shields.

The diet of the soldiers of Arbeia

During excavations over the years at the South Shields fort a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of domestic Ox, Sheep, Goat and Pig, also game such as Red Deer, Boar and Elk; the latter animals very likely being hunted and killed for sport and as a means of supplementing the soldiers’ diet. As one might expect from a fort positioned close to the coast, a number of molluscs were also eaten at Arbeia, including Oyster, Mussel, Limpet, Winkle and Edible Snail.

The Gods of Arbeia

Over the years a number of Roman inscriptions have been unearthed in the neighbourhood of the Arbeia fort which, aside from giving valuable dating information and the names of the garrison auxiliary units, also gives some insight into the religious activities of the inhabitants.

RIB1052 - Altar dedicated to Aesculapius

To the god Aesculapius Publius Viboleius Secundus gave this altar as a gift.
D ESCVLAP
P VIBOLEIVS
SECVNDVS
ARAM
D D
Viboleius seems to be a variant of Vibuleius, CIL ix 1324 (Aeclanum), CIL x 4153, 4410 (Capua), CIL xiv 3013 (ILS 5667) Praeneste.

RIB1053 - Altar dedicated to Brigantia

Sacred to the goddess Brigantia: Congennicus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.
DEAE BRI
GANTIAE
SACRVM
CONGENNC
CVS V S L M
For Congenniccus see CIL xii 4883 (Narbonne) Congennicus.

RIB1054 - Dedication

To the gods the Preservers for the welfare of the Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Most Great Conqueror of Britain, [and of the Emperor Caesar Publius Septimius Geta Augustus, conqueror of Britain], the military unit at Lugudunum paid its vow for their safe return.
DIS
CONSERVATO
RIB PRO SALV
IMP C M AVREL
ANTONINI
AVG BRIT MAX
ET IMP C P SEP
GETAE AVG BRIT
N [.] LVG[...]ENSM
OB REDITV
V S
9. The termination -ens may well conceal the adjectival form of the name of the group which made the dedication R.P.W.Brit. xlv: This badly weathered altar has been re-examined and a new reading supports the argument that Lugudunum was the original name of South Shields.For Di Conservatores see CIL v 4864 (ILS 3986), CIL viii 2554 (ILS 2445), CIL viii 17625 (ILS 2399), CIL xiii 8170 (ILS 2298).

RIB1055 - Altar dedicated to Mars Alator

To Mars Alator, Gaius Vinicius Celsus for himself and ... willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.
MAR ALA
G VINICIVS
CELSVS
PRO SE ET [...]
V S L M
For Mars Alator see RIB 218 (Barkway, Herts.).

RIB1056 - Dedication by Domitius Epictetus

To holy ... and the Divinities of the Emperors ... Domitius Epictetus, ... with his fellow-soldiers ... this temple.
[...] SANCTE ET NVMINI[...]
[... ] DOMITIVS EPICTET[...]
[...] COMMILITONIBVS TEMPLV[  ...]
No commentary. Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): Birley, Deities, 35, sees the dedicator as [praef coh v gallorvm].

RIB1062 - Fragmentary funerary inscription

Sacred to the spirits of the departed: Au[...]dus lived 9 years, 9 months Lucius Arruntius Salvianus (set this up) to his deserving and most devoted son.
D M S
AV[...]DVS
VIX[...] ANNO
VIIII MENSES VIIII
L ARRVNTIVS SAL
VIANVS FILIO
B PIISSIMO
No commentary.

RIB1065 - Funerary inscription for Regina

To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up).
Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.
D(is) M(anibus) Regina liberta et coniuge
Barates Palmyrenus natione
Catuallauna an(norum) XXX
RGYN’ BT HRY BR T’ HBL

Arbeia Today

Much of the original outline of the defences and several interior buildings can be seen, together with an impressive, full-size reconstruction of the west gate and of the commanding officer’s house or praetorium.

References for the Roman Fort of Arbeia

  • Hadrian’s Wall Map and Guide by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1989);
  • Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans by Ronald Embleton and Frank Graham (Newcastle, 1984) pp.33-42;
  • The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia II (1971) pp.122-142;
  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).

Roman Roads near the Roman Fort of Arbeia

Wrekendike: SW (12) to Chester-le-street (Chester-le-Street, Durham) Wrekendike: W (12) to Pons Aelivs (Newcastle, Tyne & Wear) River Tyne (upstream): WSW (5) to Segedvnvm (Wallsend, Tyne & Wear)

Although the supplies for the Wall and for campaigns must have come by sea, they needed to be sent on to Corbridge in the west, however this road has never been found.

 

Plan of Arbeia

Arbeia