Cilurnum (Chesters) Fort
Bath House, Bridge, Fort, Industry, Minor Settlement, Wall Fort and Water Mill
Cilurnum or Cilurvum was a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall at Chesters and marks the point where the Wall crossed the River North Tyne, the first major obstacle on its route from east to west. A succession of finely engineered timber bridges with stone piers spanned the river here, and the Wall itself was continued right down to the water’s edge.
The fort was evidently built after the Wall had here been completed; the foundations of the broad wall and its accompanying ditch have been found beneath the fort’s principal east-west street. As is usual for cavalry forts on the Wall, it was built astride the line of the barrier, with three of its major gateways opening out onto the north side.
The Origin of the Roman Name
The name of the Chesters Roman fort is first mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum of the late-4th/early-5th century, wherein it is listed as Cilurnum, between the entries for Hunnum (Halton Chesters, Northumberland) and Procolitia (Carrawburgh, Northumberland). Another classical geographical source which contains reference to Chesters is the Ravenna Cosmography of the seventh century. In this document the entry Celunnum (R&C#147), again appears between familiarly-sounding entries for Halton Chesters and Carrawburgh.
Cilurnum – ‘The Cauldron Pool’
The Epigraphy of Cilurnum
There are 42 stones bearing Latin texts recorded in the R.I.B. for Chesters, comprising 12 altars and votive stones, 9 dateable building inscriptions ranging from 122 to 223AD, 10 legionary centurial stones including one of Legio VI Victrix (RIB 1471), 4 tombstones and testamentary stones including those of a trooper of Ala II Asturum (RIB 1480) and a tribune of Cohors I Vangionum (RIB 1482), also 17 other fragmentary or undefined texts. Many of these inscriptions are shown in the appropriate sections below.
The Dateable Building Inscriptions
Some Minor Inscriptions
Among the seventeen undefined or fragmentary inscriptions there are a number of interesting stones, for instance; LAPIS IVLIVS “The stone of Julius” (RIB 1489) may have been a grave marker or evidence of a strange form of kleptomania, while the stone inscribed simply MILES or “The Soldiers” (RIB 1490), may have served some sort of votive function; the purpose of the stone inscribed NEILO (RIB 1491) remains uncertain but may be attributed to a Prefect called Nilus (see Rib1465 and Rib1467), alternately neillo was a form of inlaid decoration used before the development of enamels; also the stone inscribed with the letters …D E F G H I K (RIB 1492) may have been used as a teaching aid.
The Garrison Units of the Chesters Fort
RIB1482 - Funerary inscription for Fabia Honorata
ATE FABIVS HON
COH I VANGION
ET AVRELIA E[...]LEC
VNT FILIE D
RIB1461 - Dedication to Antoninus Pius
[...]G VI V[...]
RIB1463 - Building inscription of the ala II Asturum
ALAE II ASTVR
SVB VLP MARCELLO
LEG AVG PR PR
From the late-second century it would seem that the fort was garrisoned for the remainder of its functional lifetime by the same unit; Ala II Asturum, a five-hundred strong cavalry force drafted from among the Astures tribe of north-eastern Spain. Its sister-unit, the First Asturian Cavalry Wing, was stationed at Condercum (Benwell, Tyne & Wear), along the Wall to the east. Aside from the dateable building inscriptions discussed below, there is, in addition, a testamentary stone marking the last earthly remains of a trooper from the unit (vide infra).
RIB1480 - Funerary inscription for Aventinus
II ASTVR STIP XV
AEL GEMELLVS DEC
H F C
RIB1462 - Inscription
[...   ... ]O PIO
[...] ⟦P SEP⟧ ⟦[...]A⟧E
OC[...  ...   ]ROC
RIB1465 - Dedication to Elagabalus
A[...] ⟦SACERDOS AMPLISS DEI INVICTI SOLIS
ELAGABALI⟧ ▸ P ▸ [  ...]IB ▸ P
RIB1466 - Imperial dedication of the ala II Asturum
RIB1467 - Inscription
PER CL [...]
LEG PR [...]
SEP NIL[  ...]
RIB1470 - Inscription
The Gods of Cilurnum
RIB1452 - Dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus of Doliche
PRO SAL AVGG NN
GAL VER[...  ...]
Various Altarstone to Particular Goddesses
RIB1453 - Dedication to the Mother Goddesses
[...  ]RO ▸ SALVTÃÂ¡E ▸ DE
[...  ]VR SEVERI
Altarstones to the Germanic Warrior-God Vheterus
RIB1455 - Altar dedicated to Vitiris
V S L M
RIB1456 - Altar dedicated to the Veteres
RIB1457 - Altar dedicated to the Vitires
RIB1458 - Altar dedicated to Votris
RI V S
RIB1459 - Fragmentary dedication
[...] M AVR[...]
EMERITVS PRO SE
ET SVIS OMNIBVS
V S L L M
RIB1486 - Inscription
NE QI LICIAT
The Civil Settlement
A road issued from the porta decumana (south gate) at the rear of the fort and led for a little under ¾ of a mile (just over 1km) south-south-west to the Stanegate. A small civil settlement or vicus is known to have existed to either side of this road, just outside the fort’s southern gateway, and in the area to the south of the bath-house where the North Tyne widely skirted the south-eastern defences of the fort. The settlement is thought to have been occupied from about the third century AD, and was probably started by the dependants and ‘hangers-on’ of the men forming the garrison of Cilurnum. The vicus at Chesters was observed from the air by Prof. J.K. St. Joseph in the late 1940’s:
South of the fort at Chesters (Hadrian’s Wall) photographs show remains of an extensive extramural settlement. The street that emerges from the south gate of the fort bends gradually westwards and is joined by side streets to left and right. These streets were lined with buildings, while other buildings occur at a little distance. They are mainly long rectangular structures, familiar from excavations in the civil settlement at Housesteads, and may be houses, shops, or sheds. Here and there appear more complicated structures, with ranges of rooms and corridors, recalling the town-houses of southern Britain. It is clear that at Chesters the extramural settlement was large and elaborate, and will some day well repay examination (St. Joseph, 1951).
Tombstones from Cilurnum
RIB1481 - Funerary inscription for Marcus Aurelius Victor
M AVRELIVS VIC
[...]OR VIXIT AN L
RIB1483 - Funerary inscription for Ursa, Julia, and Canio
During excavations over the years at Chesters evidence has been uncovered of the dietary habits of the settlement’s inhabitants. The animal bones recovered include those of Ox, Sheep, Goat, Red Deer, Roe Deer and Boar; the latter animals very likely being hunted and killed for sport. Their diet also included a number of shellfish, such as Oysters, Mussels, Limpets and Cockles, all of which were likely transported here on a daily basis from settlements on the east coast along the River Tyne.
RIB1471 - Building inscription of the Sixth Legion
There are four large, double gateways; the porta praetoria to the north, the two portae principales at either end of the via principalis to east and west, and the porta decumana to the south. The first three of these large gates all open out onto the north side of the Wall, and were obviously to facilitate the rapid northward deployment of the fort’s garrison. A road issued from the southern gateway which linked the fort with the old Agricolan Stanegate. In addition to the four monumental gateways there are also two smaller, single gates at either end of the the via quintana behind the headquarters building, by which the Roman Military Way, built in the mid second century, passed from east to west through the retentura at the rear of the fort.
It is almost certain that the rampart walk was built fifteen feet above ground-level, in order to interface with the Wall itself, and it is probable that all of the towers and gateways were raised about ten feet above the level of the rampart walk. If one allows for a further five or six feet for a stone parapet, the total height of the gates and towers would have been in excess of thirty feet (nine metres).
RIB1460 - Building dedication to Antoninus Pius
IO HAD [...]
INO AVG [...]
COS LEG [...]
Centurial Stones from the Cilurnum Fort
- The text of RIB 1475 is missing the last I but is otherwise identical to 1476.
The Legionary Bath House
The Roman bath house at Chesters was built for the use of the soldiers stationed at the fort on the western bank of the River North Tyne, close to where the Roman bridge spanned the water course. The building has been completely excavated and the function of all of its rooms are recorded. As with all Roman bath-houses used over a period of time, various modifications and repairs had been made and the exact route the bathers took through the variously heated rooms of the building remains somewhat obscure.
- The baths were certainly entered through a small porch at the north end of the baths, approached through an opening on its western side from the Roman Military Way which passed closely by as it left the North Tyne Bridge and angled towards the porta quintana sinistra of the fort.
- Upon passing through the entrance porch, the visitor entered a large entrance hall and dressing room, or apodyterium, the roof of which was probably supported by a number of timber beams. Low down on the interior west wall of the changing room are seven arched niches, whose exact function remains unknown. It is possible that these small alcoves contained statuettes or other icons of a religious nature, or perhaps they were used to retain the belongings of visitors to the establishment during their ablutions.
- An opening in the north corner of the east wall of the changing room led through a small lobby to the latrines, at the eastern end of the entrance hall. The lavatrina was built at the lowest point of the bath complex, where the waste water from the bathing area was used to constantly flush the latrines, which could comfortably accommodate a dozen or so men at a time.
- An opening in the south wall of the changing room near its western end led to a small hallway from which several doorways led off to the variously heated rooms of the bath-house. It is possible that this hallway also served as an unguentarium where the bathers would be smothered in olive-oil – the Roman equivalent of soap – by a slave, prior to entering the heated section of the baths.
- To the south of the small hallway was a small, square tepidarium or ‘warm room’, heated by a channelled hypocaust beneath the floor, beyond which was a rectangular caldarium or ‘hot room’. This room housed at its far end a large boiler which heated water for the hot bath or calvaeus, which was built into an apsidal bay on the western side of the hot room. The boilers and under-floor heating system was fired from a stoke-hole at the southern end of the caldarium.
- The doorway to the west of the small hallway led via a sweating chamber or sudatorium through to a hot-dry room or laconicum. This room was heated from beneath by a hypocaust system consisting of of tile pillars, which was fired through a stoke-hole in the northern wall. The heat in this room would have been so intense that no wood could have been used in its construction, and indeed, the entrance portal is flanked by a massive stone doorway. The patrons were probably issued with sandals at the door, to avoid scorching the soles of their feet, and it is probable that sudatorium and laconicum both contained moveable wooden benches, upon which the clients would sit and sweat. This part of the bath suite seems to be a later addition, and was probably not part of the original plan.
- At the east end of the small hallway was the cold room or frigidarium, where there was originally a cold plunge bath or pluteus at its eastern end, which was later replaced by a sluice bath built into the north wall. This room was used by the bathers both to wash off the majority of the day’s grime prior to entering the baths heated section, and also by those intrepid bathers, who, after sweating it out for a while in the hot rooms of the baths, would return to be immersed or sluiced with cold water to close the pores.
- A second tepidarium and caldarium lies to the south of the cold room, heated by a channelled hypocaust which was fired through a stoke-hole in the south wall. It is probable that these rooms, including the frigidarium and pluteus formed the core of the original bath house.
The remains of the Bath House
The North Tyne Bridge
The Roman bridge at Cilurnum was the first on Hadrian’s Wall – travelling from east to west – and spanned over one-hundred and ninety feet across the River North Tyne, less than a quarter of a mile to the east of the Chesters cavalry fort. Examination of the remains have revealed that the Romans built two consecutive bridges here.
A small hexagonal Hadrianic abutment has been identified on the east bank, incorporated within the massive masonry of the later bridge, and measures some ten feet wide by nineteen feet long, with cutwaters both up and downstream. This surviving eastern abutment was probably mirrored by a similar construction on the west bank. A single seven-foot square pier also belonging to the original bridge has been found embedded within the massive central pier of the later bridge. It is clear from the small size of the identified remains that in its original form, the bridge was intended to carry the Wall rampart-walk only.
The single identified Hadrianic pier is located almost exactly central in the river, suggesting that the river was bridged in just two spans, but a double-spanned footbridge would have needed timbers in excess of one hundred feet in length, and, even if the required lengths of timber were readily available the bridge would have been quite unstable. We must assume that the original timber footbridge was supported on at least three piers, with only the central pier surviving until modern times.
In its second incarnation, probably during the Severan period, the bridge was rebuilt to take the Roman Military Way across the North Tyne as well as the Wall rampart-walk. Three large masonry piers with upstream cutwaters were built on the river bed to carry the large timbers of the new road bridge, and massive stone abutments supported the ends of the bridge on either bank.
In its time, the Roman bridge over the River North Tyne at Cilurnum was probably considered an astounding feat of engineering, and would have created much the same impression on the Roman traveller as the huge, curving spans of the suspension bridges over the Severn, Forth and Humber estuaries have over his modern counterpart today.
The Bridge Remains
References for Cilvrnvm
- Air Reconnaissance of North Britain by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. xli (1951) p.55;
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
- The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia ii (1971) pp.122-142;
- Hadrian’s Wall History Trails Guidebook IV by Les Turnbull (Newcastle, 1974), pp.3-23;
- Chronology of the Ancient World by E.J. Bickerman (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980);
- Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans by Ronald Embleton and Frank Graham (Newcastle, 1984) pp.98-113;
- Hadrian’s Wall Map and Guide by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1989);
- Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, London, 1995);
- Outdoor Leisure Map #43 – Hadrians Wall, Haltwhistle & Hexham by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1997);
Roman Roads near Cilvrnvm
Wall: W (3.5) to Brocolitia Wall: E (6) to Onnvm (Halton Chesters, Northumberland) Stanegate: W (10) to Vindolanda (Chesterholm, Northumberland) Stanegate: E (6.75) to Corstopitvm (Corbridge, Northumberland) Hadrian’s Wall: WNW (2.25) to Limestone Corner Stanegate: W (2.75) to Newbrovgh (Northumberland) Wall: E (5) to Portgate