The University of Southampton

HIST1168 The Roman Army in Britain: life on the northern frontier

Module Overview

In this module, you will examine one of the greatest armies in European history. The Roman army has long excited interest, whether out of an interest in the past, or as a model for more recent military powers. The far-flung province of Britain hosted the largest contingent of Roman military units of any province, with 3-4 citizen legions and up to 50 non-citizen auxiliary units. From the end of the first century AD, conquest ceased, and a frontier was established in the north of England, at first an informal frontier and then the fixed frontier of Hadrian’s Wall. This area has been one of the most important sources of evidence for the Roman army, both textual and material, in particular, the fort of Vindolanda and the Vindolanda Tablets, a unique repository of written evidence from letters to daily manpower reports. What do we know about life on this frontier? Where were the soldiers from? What were their daily routines? How was such a large force supplied? Who else formed part of the military community? Addressing these and other questions, you will study the Vindolanda Tablets and other evidence to reconstruct the lives of this fascinating community. In this module we will examine the Roman army on the developing frontier in northern England. The late first century AD was a period when the pace of conquest slowed, and fixed frontiers began to develop, whilst the empire split into militarised and de-militarised provinces. Britain held the large contingent of Roman troops of any province, and in time, the development of one of the most monumental frontiers in Hadrian’s Wall. Consequently, it has played an important role in our knowledge of the Roman military, both citizen legions and non-citizen auxiliary units. In 1973, the first of a unique form of documentary evidence was discovered: the Vindolanda Tablets. Dating to the late first and early second centuries, these now amount to over 1000 documents, many fragmentary, but those which can be read give a unique insight into life on Rome’s northern frontier.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• Examine the lives of soldiers on the Roman frontier in the north of England from the late first century AD through to the third century AD • Reconstruct the activities they carried out on a regular basis • Explore how they were supplied and the goods which were brought in • Explore the relationships between the soldiers and non-soldiers

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Life on the Roman frontier in Britain from the late first century to the third century AD.
  • The nature of the community inside and outside the fort walls.
  • The debates concerning the character of the Roman army and agenda for its research.
  • Key primary sources from the northern frontier and Vindolanda in particular: writing tablets, inscriptions.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Participate fully and constructively in group discussion, arguing your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding.
  • Analyse and critically a variety of textual, visual and material culture sources.
  • Structure your ideas and research findings into well-ordered commentaries and essays.
  • Contextualise a range of primary source material.
  • Engage with and evaluate the secondary literature on the Roman army and Roman frontiers.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Participate effectively in group discussions.
  • Develop your time-management skills.
  • Locate and use appropriate textual, visual and material sources in the library and online.
  • Research historical questions and communicate your findings verbally and in written form.


Using these tablets, supplemented by other textual evidence from the frontier and further afield, we will explore specific themes related to the military. This is a social history of the region: we will be examining the community who lived on the frontier: who they were, where they were from, who they interacted with, the gods they worshipped. Introductory lectures will introduce you to the history of the region, and the history of the study of the Roman army. In subsequent weeks, the lectures will introduce you to the wider themes and key works of historiography, whilst the seminars will focus on the primary evidence from Vindolanda and what it adds to our understanding of the frontier and Rome’s auxiliary troops. All textual sources from Vindolanda are available in translation. Weekly themes may include: • The development of the frontier zone • Language and literacy • Documenting the Roman army • The officers of the Roman army: getting to the top • How Roman was the Roman army of the frontier? • Women and children inside and outside the forts • The daily routines of military life • Supplying the troops • Military religion 1: Roman state religion? • Military religion 2: the gods of the frontier • Creating a military community

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • weekly one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar • detailed examination, analysis and discussion of sources • group discussions including feedback from the tutor Lectures will provide you with a general overview and understanding of chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary source material. Presentations and subsequent group discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about topics, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument. Learning activities include: • preparatory reading, individual research and study prior to each class • studying primary sources, including textual, visual and material evidence • participation in group and class discussion In this module, learning and teaching activities focus on helping you to explore and investigate the ideas and themes outlined above. Throughout the module you will also engage in directed and self-directed study, for example through pre-seminar reading and through library research. Your reading will provide you with a broad overview of the secondary literature, using the bibliography provided at the start of the module. The discussion generated within the seminars will provide you with the opportunity to explore the relevant major historical debates on a weekly basis. In addition, you will study in depth a range of primary written and visual sources, as well as surviving material culture. These sessions will allow you to prepare for the assessment exercises. Feedback on your progress and development will be given via seminars and group discussions.

Follow-up work25
Completion of assessment task30
Preparation for scheduled sessions45
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Bowman, A.K., Thomas, J.D. and Tomlin, R.S.O (2011). The Vindolanda writing tablets. Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 2. ,Britannia 42 , pp. 113-144.

D Whittaker (1994). Frontiers of the Roman empire: a social and economic study.. 

Vindolanda Tablets Online.

Life and letters on the Roman frontier: Vindolanda and its people. 

Birley, A.R (2002). Garrison life at Vindolanda: a band of brothers. 

Goldsworthy, A. and Haynes, I. (eds.) (1999). The Roman army as a community. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 34. .

Bowman, A.K., Thomas, J.D. and Tomlin, R.S.O (2010). The Vindolanda writing tablets. Tabulae Vindolandenses IV, Part 1. , pp. 187-224.

Bowman, A.K. and Thomas, J.D (2003). The Vindolanda writing tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses). Volume 3. 

Grønlund Evers, K. The Vindolanda tablets and the ancient economy. 

I Haynes (2013). Blood of the provinces: the Roman auxilia and the making of provincial society from Augustus to the Severans.. 

Vindolanda Tablets Online 2.

Birley, R. (2012). Vindolanda: a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall.. 

Keppie, L (2013). The making of the Roman army: from Republic to Empire. 

Bowman, A.K. and Thomas, J.D (1994). The Vindolanda writing tablets (Tabulae Vindolandenses II).. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary  (1000 words) 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Examination  (1 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Assignment 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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