Arbeia

Fort

Arbeia – ‘The Place of the Arabs’

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.

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.

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.

Hadrianic Cavalry Fort / Severan Supply Base

Originally built during the reign of Hadrian c.129AD, Arbeia was the easternmost garrison fort of Hadrian’s Wall, guarding a small seaport on the south bank of the Tyne Estuary near its outlet into the North Sea at South Shields. The first two units stationed here were both auxiliary cavalry ‘wings’, each containing around five-hundred troopers.

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 campigns 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 eighteen new stone-built granaries.
  • 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).
  • Four new barrack-blocks (two double and two single) were built in the new praetentura.

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.

RIB1061 - Building inscription of the Sixth Legion

LEG VI
The Sixth Legion (built this).
No commentary.

RIB1057 - Fragmentary dedication

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

Ala Primae Pannoniorum Sabiniana The First Wing of Sabinus’s Pannonians

The first unit to be stationed here was Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana, a squadron of auxiliary cavalry 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.

RIB1064 - Funerary inscription for Victor

D M VICTORIS NATIONE MAVRVM
[...]NNORVM XX LIBERTVS NVMERIANI
[...]QITIS ALA I ASTVRVM QVI
PIANTISSIME PR[...]QVTVS EST
To the spirits of the departed (and) of Victor, a Moorish tribesman, aged 20, freedman of Numerianus, trooper of the First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians, who most devotedly conducted him to the tomb.
No commentary. Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): Full description and analysis by Phillips, CSIR i, 1. 248, who concludes that the sculptor was Palmyrene, but under western influence. He was probably also responsible for RIB 1065. Phillips notes similarities of lettering (especially B, R and V) and formula (natione, perhaps annorum). Note also that both texts are exceptionally confused in their case-usage, but not in quite the same way, and that their Vulgarisms of spelling are not distinctive.

RIB1064 - Funerary inscription for Victor

D M VICTORIS NATIONE MAVRVM
[...]NNORVM XX LIBERTVS NVMERIANI
[...]QITIS ALA I ASTVRVM QVI
PIANTISSIME PR[...]QVTVS EST
To the spirits of the departed (and) of Victor, a Moorish tribesman, aged 20, freedman of Numerianus, trooper of the First Cavalry Regiment of Asturians, who most devotedly conducted him to the tomb.
No commentary. Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): Full description and analysis by Phillips, CSIR i, 1. 248, who concludes that the sculptor was Palmyrene, but under western influence. He was probably also responsible for RIB 1065. Phillips notes similarities of lettering (especially B, R and V) and formula (natione, perhaps annorum). Note also that both texts are exceptionally confused in their case-usage, but not in quite the same way, and that their Vulgarisms of spelling are not distinctive.

RIB1060 - Building dedication to Severus Alexander

IMÍ¡P CAES DIVI SEVÍ¡ERI
NEPOS DIVI MÍ¡AGNI ANÍ¡TÍ¡ONÍ¡IÍ¡NI FIL
M AÍ¡VREÍ¡L SEVEÍ¡RVS ALEXANDER
PIVS FEÍ¡LIX AÍ¡V
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.
For Valerianus see RIB 978 (Netherby), 1465 (Chesters). Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): 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.

RIB1059 - Fragmentary dedication

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

As the normal requirement for a milliary 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 Company of Bargemen from the Tigris

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

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. It would appear that the wife of one of these men is recorded on a tombstone recovered from South Shields (vide RIB 1065 infra).

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 religous activities of the inhabitants.

RIB1052 - Altar dedicated to Aesculapius

D ESCVLAP
P VIBOLEIVS
SECVNDVS
ARAM
D D
To the god Aesculapius Publius Viboleius Secundus gave this altar as a gift.
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

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

RIB1054 - Dedication

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
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.
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

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

RIB1056 - Dedication by Domitius Epictetus

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

RIB1062 - Fragmentary funerary inscription

D M S
AV[...]DVS
VIX[...] ANNO
VIIII MENSES VIIII
L ARRVNTIVS SAL
VIANVS FILIO
B PIISSIMO
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.
No commentary.

RIB1065 - Funerary inscription for Regina

main
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).
Palmyrene
Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.
Professor T.W. Thacker kindly provided the Palmyrene transcript and translation. 1, 3.  Regina, liberta, coniuge, Catuallauna: in ablative, instead of the normal dative, case. Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): Full description and analysis by Phillips, CSIR i, 1. 247, who notes the contrast between the confident lettering of the Palmyrene inscription and the erratic lettering of the Latin. He concludes that the sculptor was Palmyrene, but under western influence, and was probably also responsible for RIB 1064. See note to RIB 1171 for whether Barates should be identified with [Ba]rathes Palmorenus. Addenda from Brit. 31 (2000), 446, (d): Adams (ZPE 123, 235-6) states that the grammatical case of Regina (etc.) is not ablative for dative, but accusative with omission of final -m (unsounded). The accusative of the honorand juxtaposed with the nominative of the dedicator, the verb understood, is a standard construction in Greek inscriptions. Greek was presumably the Palmyrene dedicator’s second language.

Arbeia Today

Roman Remains Park, Baring Street, South Shields
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. The site museum includes a display of Roman burial customs, while another shows the day-to-day routine of an auxiliary soldier posted to the Arbeia fort. When we visited the fort in August 2000 the reconstruction of the commanding officer’s house or praetorium was well under way. It is projected to open in winter 2000.

References for 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 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)