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2.2 Introduction to the textual and epigraphic information

Investigations of textual evidence and the epigraphic remains have tended to produce more information on the social life of Roman military sites than have archaeological investigations. This type of evidence can be used to demonstrate that Roman military bases were both habitation and administrative places, involving a community that included non-military personnel such as officers' wives and families, concubines and 'camp-followers', tradespeople, artisans and slaves (James 1999, 23). What is not always clear from this type of evidence, however, is whether these non-military personnel inhabited the fort proper, the settlement outside, or both. Of particular concern for this article is the location and activities of women and families.

2.2.1 Textual evidence

Besides information on the construction of Roman military camps and the roles of military personnel, a number of ancient authors also give insights into the presence and roles of other individuals, particularly women and children, in the life of a Roman military base.

2.2.1a Officers' families

For example, several references, sometimes indirect, not only record the presence of officers' families within the camp but also the active participation of some officers' wives in military affairs.

Germanicus' wife, Agrippina, accompanied him on military duty in the northern provinces and, according to Tacitus (Annals 1.69), played a major role in commanding and supporting the troops against German forces at the bridge on the Rhine, at Vetera. During a mutiny on lower Rhine (Annals 1.41), however, Germanicus was persuaded to send her away from the camp, together with their baby son and the wives of staff officers. A number of Roman authors wrote about the inappropriateness of families in combat zones, and of women being involved in military affairs. Again Tacitus (Annals 2.55) informs us that Roman society was affronted when women such as Agrippina and Plaucina, the wife of the governor of Syria, Cn. Calpurnius Piso, interfered in military affairs. The senate debate of 21 CE condemned this type of interference (Evans 1991, 27). Juvenal was sharply critical of 'those women who "with unflinching face and dry breasts" participated in male discussions of politics and military matters' (Juvenal Satires 6.398-405, quoted in Allason-Jones 1989, 52). Herodian also wrote (Histories: 3.8.4) that soldier marriages and cohabitation with their wives were considered a hindrance to military discipline and readiness for action.

Such views, of ancient male authors, have been used to support the widely held perception, by modern scholars, that women and children were not usually to be found on the Roman frontier, and certainly not within the walls of a military base. On the contrary, such views would only need to be expressed if indeed their presence was overt in this sphere (for similar argument, see Dixon 2001, 16-25, 82-84). Cassius Dio commented that 'not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants' followed the marching column of Varus, and Caesar mentioned carts filled with female luggage at the back of his convoy (Cassius Dio LVI.20.2-5). These references are usually taken to refer to the inhabitants of the vici but this is not actually stated.

2.2.1b The marriages of ordinary soldiers

Most references to the presence of women in the military sphere, and particularly within the fort walls, concern the wives of commanders and senior officers. Legislation concerning the marriage of Roman soldiers is potentially important to the question of whether other women and families could have lived inside the walls of a Roman military base. In the mid-1st century CE, the Emperor Claudius 'gave the rights of married men to soldiers, since in accordance with the law, they were not permitted to marry' (Cassius Dio LX.24.3 - quoted from Allason-Jones 1989, 59). After 197 CE, however, the emperor Septimius Severus allowed ordinary soldiers to 'live in wedlock with their wives' (Herodian Histories: 3.8.4-5). There has been much scholarship concerned with the impact of these laws on the state of marriage in the army (e.g. Garnsey 1970; Smith 1972; Campbell 1978). It has led many scholars to commence from the premise that a legal ban on the marriage of ordinary soldiers resulted in an absence of women from within fort walls, before the 3rd century, with the exception of officer's wives (Southern and Dixon 1996, 85). It has generally been assumed that only the families of officers could inhabit the fort proper, while concubines and 'camp-followers' would have been accommodated in the accompanying vicus (see Webster 1985, 209-10; Allason-Jones 1989, 60; Speidel 1999, esp. 78, 80).

2.2.2 Epigraphic evidence

Tombstones, papyri, military diplomas, and wooden tablets provide further information on the types of people associated with Roman military sites. Some of these even provide in situ evidence for the types of people who were accommodated, or at least employed, within the fort. Particularly important are the large quantities of inscribed wooden tablets, found in the very damp conditions at the fort at Vindolanda in Hadrian's Wall (Birley 1977, 133-57; Bowman 1994; Bowman and Thomas 1994) and on the rubbish dump of the 1st century CE legionary fortress at Vindonissa in northern Switzerland (Speidel 1996).

2.2.2a Wooden tablets

Among the wooden tablets from Vindolanda are the famous letters concerning Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the prefect Flavius Cerialis, and Claudia Severa, the wife of fellow officer Aelius Brocchus. These belonged to Period III of the fort and can be dated c. 95-105 CE. One of these letters (Bowman and Thomas 1994, 256 no. 291) consists of an invitation by Severa to Lepidina to visit her for her birthday and so provides a glimpse of the social lives of these high-ranking women.

The tablets from Vindonissa, however, give us insights into other people and activities within a fortress. Speidel (1996, 15) has convincingly argued that this group of tablets originated from within the fortress and are dated between 30-101 CE. He has demonstrated that a number of the tablets refer to slaves, servants, secretaries, craftsmen and freeborn women and that some of these tablets also provide house numbers for buildings within the fortress. Some of these 'houses' seem to have been tabernae along the main axis roads (1996, 38-56) and, in these wine shops and guest houses, some of the women mentioned in the tablets worked as barmaids or as innkeepers. This indicates that these people worked within the fortress and may well have been accommodated there, although Speidel follows the traditional view that they would have been the inhabitants of the settlements outside the fortress walls, presumably coming in to work each day. To my mind, however, this would be rather difficult for an innkeeper and is undoubtedly an anachronistic perspective on the spatial separation of living and working spheres projected onto the Roman world.

2.2.2b Tombstones, diplomas and papyri

Tombstone of Primus, cavalryman and orderly in the Ala Noricum
Figure 5: Tombstone of Primus, cavalryman and orderly in the Ala Noricum, end 1st century CE. Xanten Regional Museum (photo P. M. Allison)

Tombstones (Figure 5) also provide evidence for the presence of wives and families in the military arena, across all ranks. These were set up by families to commemorate the death of their soldier father or husband or, vice versa, tombstones were set up by a soldier to commemorate a member of his family (see Roxan 1991). In Roman Britain, for example, a tombstone near Hadrian's Wall records that an auxiliary soldier, Dagvalda, was mourned by his wife, Pusinna, and another soldier in the century of Obsequens, Aurelius Marcus, set up a tombstone to his wife (Collingwood and Wright 1965, nos 1667 and 1828; see Allason-Jones 1999a, 46). These wives undoubtedly accompanied their husbands into these combat zones but it is unclear whether they were domiciled within the fort walls or in the settlement outside. Such tombstones are believed by many to have been erected after the lifting of the ban on marriage for ordinary soldiers (e.g. Collingwood and Wright 1965: nos 11, 505) but there is actually no precise evidence to date them (Allason-Jones 1989, 59).

There is much debate over the meaning of these legal rights and their relationship to the actuality of Roman military life. For example, it is not clear whether the centurions, as minor officers, were always permitted to marry (see Allason-Jones 1989, 58-59; Allason-Jones 1999a, 43), although there is evidence that centurions had children (Phang 2001, 79). Indeed, Sara Phang (2001; 2002) has argued that, despite the ban on legal marriage for soldiers before 197 CE, there is ample evidence in military diplomas and papyri from Roman Egypt that soldiers 'married', at least in the de facto sense, and produced children while on active service. While their wives and children may not have existed within Roman law, this does not mean that they did not exist physically.

2.2.3 Summary of the textual and epigraphic evidence

The textual and epigraphic evidence indicates that, during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, numerous families and other non-military female personnel were present in the military arena, but it does not usually make explicit whether or not they resided inside the walls, even if some may have carried out their trade there. Von Petrikovits (1975, 62) had argued that women were not allowed to live within the fort. However, the references he cited (1975, 168 fn 53) are not so definitive. For example, Liebenam (1909, 1676) stated that Augustus had set a strict law that ordinary active soldiers were not allowed to marry. However, he also concluded that, as dispensation, the lax handling of the discipline made it possible for a soldier to live together with a woman, through various arrangements. It has therefore traditionally been assumed that this meant that they lived in the area of the military base, but that they would not have come inside the fortification walls and caused a hindrance (see Debrunner Hall 1994, 221).

On the contrary, the combination of the textual and epigraphic remains, and more critical readings of this evidence, most notably the tablets from Vindonissa, gives the impression that life within the walls involved a range of inhabitants and interrelationships, which included a range of women and families. A closer examination of the structural remains and the artefacts from military sites shows that the community within the fort or fortress was much more complex than traditionally portrayed (see Sections 2.3 and 3.2).

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