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Types of Roman Fortification
Different type of Roman Fortifications and their names

On this page we will show a summary of the different types of Roman Military Fortifications, our information comes from the archaelogy of Hadrians wall and the European Limes.

The European Limes are a fortified Roman border stretching from Katwijk Brittenburg in the Netherlands, through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Slovakia, Hungary ending in Halmyris in Romania on the Black Sea coast.

These defenses which stretch across the Rhine and Danube were nearly 2800 kilometers in length and were primarily made of 9ft wooden stakes with watchtowers, castellum, burgus and castra dotted along the western border of the main rivers.

They were designed to stop incursions into Roman controlled areas, and to allow taxes on goods to be collected at major crossing points.

Castra or Castrum

Wikipedia Definition: (Wikipedia Page for more details);
'In Latin usage, the singular form castrum meant 'fort', while the plural form castra meant 'camp'. The singular and plural forms could refer in Latin to either a building or plot of land, used as a fortified military base.'

'Regulations required a major unit in the field to retire to a properly constructed camp every day. "… as soon as they have marched into an enemy's land, they do not begin to fight until they have walled their camp about; nor is the fence they raise rashly made, or uneven; nor do they all abide ill it, nor do those that are in it take their places at random; but if it happens that the ground is uneven, it is first levelled: their camp is also four-square by measure, and carpenters are ready, in great numbers, with their tools, to erect their buildings for them. To this end a marching column ported the equipment needed to build and stock the camp in a baggage train of wagons and on the backs of the soldiers.'

These forts varied from marching forts up to the size of legionary fortifications, the majority of the tribes that fought Rome did not have the organisation to enable them to build these defensive fortifications while on the move, and often the tribal armies broke up within a few days.

In England Castrum/Castra have become the source of the english place name snippets 'caister, caistor, caster, castor, cester, ceter, chester and eter' which originate from the Saxon 'cæster' and probably describe a major Roman Fort together with its surrounding Vicus(supporting town).

The image below shows a Model of the legionary fortress of Deva (Chester) - please click for the original entry. DevaMinervaPlan(bq)
Castellum and Burgus

Wikipedia Definition: (Wikipedia Page for more details)

Burgi were erected along border rivers and along major roads, where they are likely to have been used for observation, as forward positions or for signalling. So these are larger than the watch towers and usually held a complement of 20-100 men(a century). They are normally defined as 'a small fortified position or watch-tower usually controlling a main routeway.'
It seems that Castellum also refer to Burgi meaning a larger fortlet, or stone built construction.

Burgus Zullstein illustrated below is a a special type of burgus contained a river landing. In addition to a rectangular building near the river bank, these had crenellated walls that extended up to or into the river like pincers, thus protecting a landing stage or berthing bay for cargo ships and river patrol boats.
This may be relevent to our area as we have a location near Rye in Sussex called Cadborough at a strategic point at the end of the river Brede which is where the majority of the largest Roman iron-workings were.

The modern place name snippet 'Borough' derives from the Roman Burgus, other place names such as 'Burgh' and 'Burg' derive from the Saxon 'Beorg' meaning a hill.

The modern place name snippet starting in 'Castle' derive from the Roman 'Castellum', other place names ending in 'Castle' are generally Norman stone castles.

Click on the images for the full Wikipedia image:
Burgus5 Ländeburgus

Watchtower or Castellum

The Romans built watchtowers especially on the European Limes, but it seems the Castellum term is used for some of these, so a Castellum could be as big as a Burgus or as small as a watchtower.

In this area(East Sussex), because of the proximity of the Forest of Andredsweald the majority of these fortlets would have been made of wood.

The dimensions of these watchtowers were about 3.5 metres x 3.5 metres x 7.5 metres tall with a ditch of about 12 metres x 12 metres with a 2 metre fence on top of the bank.

The image below is a really excellent visualisation of a small wooden watchtower, which would have had a detachment of 8-10 men.

Click on the image below for the original website and larger image:

it would seem that there are four differing names used for Roman military sites, implying relative sizes.
  • Castra (Large permanent constructions for Legions or Smaller units)
  • Burgus (Medium sized forts possibly used for signalling holding 80-100 men)
  • Castellum (Smaller fort used to service the Watchtowers)
  • Watchtower (Dotted at approximately a Roman mile distance for signalling or raid prevention)

In our area of East Sussex there are very few Castra's with the exception of Hastings Ceastre mentioned in the Burghal Hidage, and the fort of Anderida at Pevensey.

Again we also have only one Burgus(Borough) which is at Cadborough Cliffs near Rye, it is possible or even quite likely that this was a Burgus of the type at Burgus Zullstein in the illustration above.

There are a number of possible Castellum locations(those places starting in Castle) in the area, Telham a diminution of Castellum, Castleham just a slight name variation, and some others around the area in strategic positions usually on major roads, see map below. These may refer to larger possibly more permanent stone built structures used to service the watchtowers.

The other Watchtowers within the area would have been timber built using the timber from the great forest of Anderida which surrounded the area.

One further interesting fact is that the Romans referred to the river Rother as the 'Limen', in Saxon this can be translated from 'lǽmen' meaning 'earthen', but a more interesting possibility is that it is directly from the Latin meaning 'threshold' or 'the boundary of the military zone at Hastings'.

In comparison the Latin 'Limes' means 'Limit' or possibly 'threshold' as well, so there may be a Limes running along the old Rother.

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Author Simon M - Last updated - 2024-05-06 15:53:01
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