Cohors Primae Frisiavonum – The First Cohort of Frisiavones

The Cohors I Frisiavonum ( German 1st cohort of the Frisiavones ) was a Roman auxiliary unit. It is documented by military diplomas and inscriptions. In one inscription the unit is written as Cohors I Frixiavonum , in the Notitia dignitatum as Cohors I rixagorum. This was an infantry cohort with a nominal strength of five-hundred, a cohors peditata quingenaria, originally recruited from the Frisiavones tribe of Lower Germany. This tribe inhabited the Noordbrabant district of the Southern Netherlands south of the River Maas, extending into the Antwerpen district of Northern Belgium. They were commanded by a military tribune, an experienced professional Roman soldier of the class of knights, probably not a native of the tribe.

The first record of the Frisians, called Frisii or Fresones, by the Romans dates from BC 12. It is about how the Frisian tribes was an ally during a battle against the Chauci tribe in the area of what is now the Wadden Sea coast of northwest Germany, roughly between the River Ems and the River Elbe. Like the Frisians, the Chauci were not pacified either. They were notorious pirates. The Romans distinguished, besides other tribes living in the big delta, the Cananefates, the Frisii or Fresones, the Batavi, and the Frisiavones. According to soldier Pliny in his book Naturalis Historia, the Frisiavones lived on islands “inter Helenium ac Flevum”. This is generally explained as the islands between the broader mouths of the River Meuse and the River Rhine. Archaeological research suggests that Frisiavones populated the area between the River Rhine and the River Meuse from the mid-first century, similar to the civitas Batavi.

Frisiavones also were enrolled in special forces like equites singulares ‘horse guards’ and as corpore custos ‘bodyguards’ of the emperor. The Frisii were more individual entrepreneurs, and enlisted in the Roman army as individuals at first. From around 200 onward the Frisii formed their own military chapters, under the name cunei ‘unit’ Frisionum or Frisiorum and stationed at Hadrian’s Wall.

What do we know from the name Cohors Primae Frisiavonum?

  • Frisiavonum: [the/from] Frisiavones . The soldiers of the cohort were recruited from the Germanic tribe of the Frisiavones when the unit was formed.
  • Since there is no reference to the suffixes milliaria (1000 men) and equitata (partly mounted), it can be assumed that it is a pure infantry cohort ( Cohors peditata ). The nominal strength of the unit was 480 men, consisting of 6 centuries with 80 men each.

History of the Cohors Primae Frisiavonum

The first record of unity in the province of Britannia comes from a military diploma dated 105 AD. In the diploma the cohort is listed as part of the troops which were stationed in Britain. Other military diplomas dated 122, 124, 158 and 178 record unity in Britain under the governors Aulus Platorius Nepos , Gnaeus Iulius Verus and Ulpius Marcellus.

The unit named Cohors I Frixagorum was last mentioned in the Notitia dignitatum  under the direction of a tribune for the Vindobala site (Rudchester).

Locations of the Cohors Primae Frisiavonum locations in Britain may have been:

Carrawburgh (Brocolitia)

An inscription on an altar indicates the presence of (parts of) the cohort. In the inscription the cohort is referred to as Cohors I Frixiav(onum).

RIB 1523 - Altar dedicated to Coventina (A.D. 43-410)

To the goddess Convetina Mausaeus, optio of the First Cohort of Frixiavones, paid his vow.

DE CONVETI
VOT RETV
LIT MAVS
OPTIO CHO
P FRIXIAV

For votum referre see AE 1909, 15 R.P.W.An optio was an under-officer to a centurion, his second-in-command.

Manchester (Mamucium)

Inscriptions indicate the presence of (parts of) the cohort in Manchester (RIB 577–579), probably around AD 160.

RIB 577 - Centurial stone of Masavo

From the First Cohort of Frisiavonians the century of Masavo (built) 23 feet.

COHO I FRISIAV
𐆛 MASAVONIS
P XXIII

Bang, Die Germanen im römischen Dienst … (1906) 46 includes Masavo among the names of Germans.

RIB 578 - Centurial stone of Quintianus

From the First Cohort of Frisiavonians the century of Quintianus (built) 24 feet.

COHR I
FRISIAVO
𐆛 QVIN P XXIIII

4.  The mark before p xxiiii is more likely to be a symbol or stop than a misread letter R.P.W.

RIB 579 - Centurial stone of Cudrenus

The century of Cudrenus from the First Cohort of Frisiavonians (built) … feet.

𐆛 CVREI CHOR I
[...]RIS[...] P [...]

1. For Cudrenus see a mortarium-stamp from Corbridge reading cvdre (Birley and Gillam, Arch. Ael. 4th Ser. 26 (1948) 178).The script is cursive. If the supposed half-line at the top contained letters, this presumably recorded an individual soldier, as on RIB 409 and 467, but in these two instances from Britain the name follows the unit. Further, since the recorded letters do not make sense, it may be easier to regard them as the misreading of a roughly-cut border. The same solution seems to apply to the lowest marks on the stone.Gough’s comment, that ‘under the letters the stone is hollowed as a bason’, may indicate a secondary use.

Melandra Castle (Fort Ardotalia)

An inscription indicates the presence of (parts of) the cohort (RIB 279).

RIB 279 - Centurial stone of Valerius Vitalis

From the First Cohort of Frisiavonians the century of Valerius Vitalis (built this).

CHO I
FRISIAVO
𐆛 VAL VIT
ALIS

No commentary.

Rudchester (Vindobala)

The unit is listed in the Notitia Dignitatum for that Vindobala. In addition, 2 inscriptions (RIB 1395 and 1396) on altars that can be dated to the 3rd century can be assigned to the cohort.

RIB 1395 - Altar dedicated to Mithras

To the Invincible god Mithras, Publius Aelius Titullus, prefect, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

DEO INVICTO
MYTRAE P AEL
TITVLLVS PRAE
V S L L M

Birley shows that the infantry cohort commanded by this praefectus was presumably coh. I Frisiavonum.


RIB 1396 - Dedication to the Sun-god by Tiberius Claudius Decimus Cornelius Antonius

To the Invincible Sun-god, Tiberius Claudius Decimus Cornelius Antonius, the prefect, restored this temple.

DEO SOLI INVIC
TIB CL DECMVS
CORNEL ANTO
NIVS PRAEF
TEMPL RESTIT

Birley notes that ‘it is unusual to find as many as three nomina and only one cognomen‘.

Papcastle (Fort Derventio Carvetiorum)

Papcastle (RIB 882 altarstone dated: 19-20 Oct 241AD; 883 altarstone dated: 244-249AD)

RIB 882 - Dedication of the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava (AD 241)

… to the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava … in accordance with his vow set this up on October 19th and 20th in the consulship of Gordian for the second time and Ponpeianus, willingly and deservedly fulfilling his vow.

[...]NSIVM [...]
EX V P XIIII [...]
ET XIII KAL NOV
V S L M
[...]ORDÍ¡IANO II EÍ¡PONPEIANO CÍ¡O[...]
  • This was found n the courtyard at Cockermouth Castle, presumably taken from the Roman fort at Papcastle.
  • A cuneus literally means ‘wedge’, and represented a third-century unit-title of uncertain significance, consisting of cavalry or non-Roman irregulars.
  • Aballava is present-day Burgh-by-Sands, “cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava” means that this cuneus force came from the settlement Aballava, meant they had been stationed there before.

RIB 883 - Dedication of the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava (A.D. 242)

… transferred by (?)] the Emperor’s legate to the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava, styled Philippian, on October 19th and 20th in the consulships of Gordian for the second time and Pompeianus and of Atticus and Pretextatus, willingly and deservedly fulfilled the vow.

[...]
[...]EG AVG IN C[...]
NÍ¡EVM FRÍ¡ISION
VM ABALLAV
EÍ¡NSIVM PHILIP
P XIIII KAL EÍ¡T XIII KAL
NOÍ¡V

Presumably taken from the Roman fort at Papcastle, 1.6 km. to the north-west.

Now (1994) the property of the National Trust, and displayed in the North Gallery at Petworth House, West Sussex.

Fort Binchester (Fort Vinovia)

The Formation of Frisians from Vinovia (Binchester)

RIB 1036 - Fragmentary dedication

… from the cuneus of Frisians of Vinovia, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

[...] MANDVS
EX C FRIS VINOVIE
V S L M

A cuneus literally means ‘wedge’, and represented a third-century unit-title of uncertain significance, consisting of cavalry or non-Roman irregulars.

Housesteads (Vercovicium)

The Formation of Frisians from Vercovicium (Housesteads) (RIB 1594 altarstone undated).

RIB 1594 - Altar dedicated to Mars and the two Alaisiagae and to the Divinity of the Emperor (A.D. 222-35)

To the god Mars and the two Alaisiagae and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germans being tribesmen of Twenthe of the cuneus of Frisians of Vercovicium, styled Severus Alexander’s, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.

DEO
MARTI EÍ¡T DVABVS
ALAISIAGIS EÍ¡T N AVG
GER CIVÍ¡ES TVIHAÍ¡NTI
CVNÍ¡EI
  1. Tuihantis is the present-day region Twente in the eastern Netherlands. Fort Vercovicium was part of Hadrian’s Wall. Tuihanti tribesmen have been interpreted by different scholars as Frisians .
  2. I.e. Loyal to an emperor who came from Alexandria, of which there are very few; Vespasian wintered at Alexandria 69/70AD before he entered Rome as emperor; the would-be usurper Gaius Avidius Cassius, governor of Syria, who revolted in early 175AD was born there; Septimius Severus stayed at Alexandria and in the East from 197 until his return to Rome in 202; the fratricidal emperor Caracalla (211-217AD) modelled himself on Alexander the Great, and is known to have slaughtered many citizens of Alexandria during his stay there in 215, and his murdered brother Geta had previously made plans to rule the eastern empire from that city; the pretenders Lucius Domitius Domitianus and his successor Aurelius Achilleus tried to set up an alternative administration at Alexandria, but this was overthrown by the emperor Diocletian in 298. The translation of this phrase is tentative, however, and may also be given: “… of Vercovicium, [loyal to] Severus Alexander …”; the emperor Alexander Severus ruled from 222 to 235AD.

RIB 1593 - Altar dedicated to Mars Thincsus, the Alaisiagae, and the Divinity of the Emperor

To the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germans, being tribesmen of Twenthe, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.

DEO
MARTI
THINCSO
ET DVABVS
ALAISIAGIS
BEDE ET FI
MMILENE
ET N AVG GER
M CIVES TV
IHANTI
V S L M
  • cives Tuihanti: Scherer suggests that they came from the district of Twenthe in the province of Over-Yssel, Holland.
  • The sculptured lintel has in its central panel a figure of Mars with sword, shield, and spear and at his right side a goose. The Alaisiagae, portrayed naked and cross-legged, each extend towards Mars what appears to be a palm-branch, and carry a wreath in their other hand.

RIB 1593 - Altar dedicated to Mars Thincsus, the Alaisiagae, and the Divinity of the Emperor

To the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germans, being tribesmen of Twenthe, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.

DEO
MARTI
THINCSO
ET DVABVS
ALAISIAGIS
BEDE ET FI
MMILENE
ET N AVG GER
M CIVES TV
IHANTI
V S L M
  • cives Tuihanti: Scherer suggests that they came from the district of Twenthe in the province of Over-Yssel, Holland.
  • The sculptured lintel has in its central panel a figure of Mars with sword, shield, and spear and at his right side a goose. The Alaisiagae, portrayed naked and cross-legged, each extend towards Mars what appears to be a palm-branch, and carry a wreath in their other hand.

By the fourth century the Numerus Hnaudifridi, a Germanic mercenary unit is recorded on a single altarstone to the Alaisagae goddesses. It has been mooted that this unit may be synonymous with the Cuneus Frisiorum on the premise that the original irregular ‘Wedge’ of Frisians may have become depleted to such low numbers, that by the fourth century the unit merited the status of a mere Numerus, and that the commander of the force, one Hnaudifridus, bears a name which is certainly Germanic in origin, and may indeed have been that of a Frisian tribesman.

RIB 1576 - Altar dedicated to the Alaisiagae and to the Divinity of the Emperor

To the goddesses the Alaisiagae, Baudihillia and Friagabis, and to the Divinity of the Emperor the unit of Hnaudifridus gladly and deservedly fulfilled its vow.

DEABVS
ALAISIA
GIS BAV
DIHILLIE
ET FRIAGA
BI ET N AVG
N HNAV
DIFRIDI
V S L M

For this expansion of N. Aug. in the singular see note to RIB 152.

Commanders and Officers of Cohors Primae Frisiavonum in Britain

The following unit commanders are known from inscriptions. They held the rank of prefect.

  • Publius Aelius Titullus (See RIB 1395)
  • Tiberius Claudius Decimus Cornelius Antonius (see RIB 1396)
  • Cudrenus – Centurian (see RIB 579)
  • Masavo – Centurian (see RIB 577)
  • Mausaeus – Optio (see RIB 1523)
  • Quintianus – Centurian (see RIB 578)
  • Valerius Vitalis – Centurian (see RIB 279)

Further Evidence for the presence of Cohors Primae Frisiavonum in Britain

  1. Cil Vii.1194 privilegia militvm; dated: late? 105AD.
  2. Burn 100; CIL XVI.65 military diploma dated: July 17th 122AD.
  3. Cil Vii.1195 privilegia militvm; dated: September 16th 124AD.
  4. L’Année Épigraphique 1997.1779b diploma dated c.126AD.
  5. L’Année Épigraphique 1997.1001 diploma dated 27th February 158AD.
  6. Rudchester (Notitia Dignitatum)