The Fell Pony Museum: Roman
The Fell Pony Museum
Pre-history :: Roman Border Control :: Cavalry :: Foreign influences? :: Hadrian's Wall :: Size :: Colour :: The Horse Goddess

Building Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall was begun by the Emperor Hadrian's decree in 122 AD and at that time represented the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. It consists of the largest and most famous administrative controls between 80 AD and 140 AD. There was another, longer wall across what is now southern Scotland, known as the Antonine Wall, but it was frequently breached by the "northern barbarians" and was only held for a short period.

Re-enactment of Roman soldier on a Fell pony on the Wall

Re-enactment with Summit Falcon carrying a "Roman soldier" at Birdoswald. Photo from FPS archives: by Roger Savage, Croft House, Berrier, Greystoke, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 0XD, UK
Tel: +44 17684 83859, Fax: +44 17684 83693.

Hadrian's Wall is around 80 miles long. It stretches right across England from the Solway Firth to the North Sea. It was built originally of turf and wood, and was gradually strengthened to a stone construction, ~15 feet high, over the three centuries that followed. There were "milecastles" or fortified gates every thousand paces along the whole length of the Wall. This extraordinary construction must have needed a great deal of concerted effort and the use of many men and animals over an extended period, in bursts spanning several centuries. 

Since 1987, the Wall has been a World Heritage Site.

What the Romans did for Britain

The Romans brought completely new ways of ruling, with highly organised civil and military hierarchies as opposed to the family-based "clan" system that the Britons were used to.

They brought a uniform measurement of distance - the "mile" which still links back to the Latin for "a thousand paces".

The Roman coin-based monetary system became the common one. Unmade roads became paved or metalled ones, outdoor water supplies became interior plumbing, smoky hearths were replaced with underfloor heating, and round thatched wooden houses were superseded by right-angled stone walled buildings with columns, porticoes and windows.

In the early stages of the Roman occupation of Britain, Latin must have been the general language of trade and commerce between the conquerors and the conquered. And, of course, once the British learned Latin, they learned the advantages of literacy too, so that there are written records of what life was like in that period. For centuries, Latin was the international language of the educated European population.

As far as horseflesh is concerned, the Romans' major contribution seems to have been the breadth of trade within the Empire and the vast distances over which the Army was posted.

Supplying the Army

The Roman way of life seems eventually to have been accepted; forward thinking Britons probably saw the business opportunities that were in the offing. In Cumbria as elsewhere in Britain, Carvettii and Brigantes villages frequently sprang up outside the gates of Roman forts. (Lambert)

The period of the occupation was one of considerable prosperity and increasing integration, so no doubt the locals profited from the increase in trade. Letters written by soldiers serving on Hadrian's Wall to their families, list the foods they ate, most which were probably obtained locally, eg young pig, ham and venison, goats' milk, corn, salt, flour; ordinary wine, Celtic beer, and fish sauce (Wilkinson). Foods that were probably imported included vintage wine, spices, olives, pepper, semolina and garlic (Bowman).


Probably there were more horses than active cavalrymen wherever there was a fort, but no documents have yet been found that detail horse numbers (there are a very small number of documents that detail the current strength of a unit, eg men who are well and those off duty due to illness or injury - eg, Vindolanda Tablets Online, Tablet 154 ). There is nothing so far that explicitly states where the horses were obtained from in Britain. Hyland admits it is difficult to know exactly where the lower ranks of Roman military horses were sourced but suggests that in Britain the heavier types of draught pony (which would include animals of similar build to the Fell, Dale and Highland) may have been used in haulage and pack roles that in warmer climates were filled by donkeys and mules.

Parts for maintaining the Army's pack-saddles and wagons were certainly supplied (eg at Vindolanda) by civilians doing business with the army. (Vindolanda Tablets Online, Tablet 309 ) It is fair to infer from this that the Army obtained its horses and mules as draught and pack animals, and as cavalry remounts, in much the same way - from local suppliers. Breeders in modern times will confirm that it is much easier to buy a horse to suit precise requirements, than to attempt to breed one. The Army will have had exacting specifications for buying horses, as it did for recruiting its men. Davies (1969) points out that the principles outlined by Xenophon were followed by Arrian and other writers who advised on the purchase of military horses, right through to modern times:

"As we have assumed that the horse to be bought is intended as a war horse, it must be tested in all the particulars that war tests it in, namely leaping over ditches, jumping over walls, rushing up and springing off banks, and also in galloping up and down hills and on a slope." De Re Equestri, III, 7.

Davies describes what is known of the Roman procurement system: horses were inspected (during an aestimatio), approved by a senior official (often the local governor, but it varied); then purchased, named, and their ages recorded along with the name of the cavalryman they were assigned to. This purchasing system implies much more genetic input from British equine stock to the Roman Army, than from the Roman Army to British stock; but "market forces" would have exerted influence all the same. This Roman influence may not have been direct, in the form of breeding from animals owned by the Army; it would have been indirect, expecting the local horse dealers and breeders to provide equines that suited Army requirements. Besides, the practice of gelding stallions was known, and would have limited the influence of Army stock: Davies (1969) citing Ammianus:

Most of their horses are made serviceable by gelding, so that they do not become agitated at the sight of mares, or, when in ambush, become unruly and betray their riders by loud neighing. Pliny and Varro state that mares were quite commonly used by the Romans for war purposes.

Horse breeding studs for Roman military purposes are known in Europe and in a couple of areas of Britain: Davies (1969)

Although there is as yet no literary evidence for such stud farms in the time of the Principate, it is not impossible that they did in fact exist. There is a suggestion that there was a small ranch at Irchester, a Roman town in NOrthamptonshire... In the 3rd century the good champaign country of the Fylde in Lancashire was given over to rearing the special heavy horses required as remounts by the Sarmatian cavalry in Britain. The estate was administered from Ribchester by a legionary praepositus regionis.

Another thought to bear in mind is that these animals were being produced for work, for a very specific and demanding market, so not many will have been retained as breeding stock; they were being used, and may have had a high risk of being killed in action; so how much genetic material trickled back into the local horse (pony) population cannot be estimated.

Civilian Transport

Various animals were used to transport goods. There were oxen, mules and horses (ponies) drawing carts with either two or four wheels, while mules and horses were also used to carry packs. Where goods needed to travel fast over short distances or were small, light or delicate, pack horses would be preferable; heavy, awkward goods, especially going more than a day's journey, would be better transported by four wheeled cart. Goods could be left in it and did not have to be manhandled when the draft beasts were allowed to rest at night.

Draft and pack animals probably travelled regular routes. They may well been owned by individuals or family businesses, and so have done whole journeys to and from their main base. A letter (one of the Vindolanda tablets, Tablet 343 ) says that the writer would have been to Catterick to collect a wagonload of hides, but had not done so in case he injured the draught animals ( nissi iumenta non curaui uexsare ) while the roads were bad.

The Cursus Publicus

In contrast, the tax-supported "cursus publicus" supplied changes of riding horse or chariot horses for the traveller on Government business who would not want to wait for animals to recover before starting the next stage of the journey. Whether the horses were returned to an agreed location after a rest, or simply moved on to another posting station with the next customer, is not known (Gould) but Hyland notes the frequent mention of the "wearing out of public beasts" in the Codex Theodosianus. She estimates their working life as averaging four years, which is similar to that of a commercial coach horse in Victorian times.

Roman accounts of Britain: economics, politics and gossip

Julius Caesar described the southern part of Britain as it was on the occasion of his second invasion, in his War Commentaries for 54 BC:

"The number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous, for the most part very like those of the Gauls: the number of cattle is great. They use either brass or iron rings, determined at a certain weight, as their money. Tin is produced in the midland regions; in the maritime, iron; but the quantity of it is small: they employ brass, which is imported. There, as in Gaul, is timber of every description, except beech and fir. They do not regard it lawful to eat the hare, and the cock, and the goose; they, however, breed them for amusement and pleasure. The climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the colds being less severe."

In the north, at the time the Romans invaded, the Brigantes controlled Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Westmorland, and the southern part of Cumberland. They had family links with groups of their tribe in Northern Ireland and Northern Spain. The people of Northern Cumbria and Southwest Scotland, the Carvettii, were not granted their own separate, regional governing body until the second C AD.

The Roman military forces moving north had to stamp out civil unrest in the area: Tacitus describes the British situation in his "Histories" :

"... dissensions, and the continual rumours of civil war, raised the courage of the Britons. They were led by one Venutius, who, besides being naturally high spirited, and hating the name of Rome, was fired by his private animosity against Queen Cartismandua. Cartismandua ruled the Brigantes in virtue of her illustrious birth; and she strengthened her throne, when, by the treacherous capture of king Caractacus, she was regarded as having given its chief distinction to the triumph of Claudius Caesar. Then followed wealth and the self-indulgence of prosperity. Spurning her husband Venutius, she made Vellocatus, his armour-bearer, the partner of her bed and throne. By this enormity the power of her house was at once shaken to its base. On the side of the husband were the affections of the people, on that of the adulterer, the lust and savage temper of the Queen. Accordingly Venutius collected some auxiliaries, and, aided at the same time by a revolt of the Brigantes, brought Cartismandua into the utmost peril. She asked for some Roman troops, and our auxiliary infantry and cavalry, after fighting with various success, contrived to rescue the Queen from her peril. Venutius retained the kingdom, and we had the war on our hands."

We cannot tell from this whether the Carvettii were involved in this early war or just observers. However, Tacitus distinguishes Cartismandua's regional sovereignty from that of her husband; she was associated with the Parisi of Humberside to the East; so it is possible that Venutius, on the other hand, was a Carvettian from the West. (Higham) The West Yorkshire Archaeology Service has a helpful archive online.

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Last updated 21 July, 2021 .
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