2. The Background

2.1 Roman authors

Some Roman authors wrote about the inappropriateness of women and families in combat zones. Herodian (Histories, 3.8.4) considered wives a hindrance to military discipline, and Juvenal (Satires, VI.398-405) was sharply critical of those women who, 'with unflinching face and hard breasts' participated in male discussions of politics and military matters. The views of such authors have supported a widely held perception among modern scholars that the Roman frontier, like the military zones of the 17th-early 20th centuries, was no place for women and families (Phang 2001, 1-2).

But other ancient authors indicate that wives, families, tradespersons, artisans and slaves, did indeed accompany the Roman army on campaign. Caesar mentioned baggage trains of the carts of camp followers and merchants carrying their wares, during his African campaigns (de Bello Africano, 75) and Cassius Dio (LVI.20.2-5) noted that 'not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants' followed the marching column of Varus when he led the Roman legions to a disastrous defeat by the Germans in AD 9. Such 'camp-followers' and their impact on this frontier community have taken a more prominent place in recent investigations of the Roman military (e.g. Goldsworthy and Haynes 1999). However, the general understanding is still that, for the early empire, the only families accommodated inside military forts were those of the camp commander and of senior officers.

2.2 Roman officers' families

Wooden writing tablets found at the fortress of Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall in northern England (Birley 1977, 125; Bowman and Thomas 1994, no. 291), give evidence for the residency of wives of at least two commanding officers in this frontier region prior to AD 103. And the residences of commanding and senior officers were often laid out and furbished in a seemingly appropriate manner for a household comprising a family and servants - spacious courtyard houses with hypocaust heating, wall-painting, sculpture, and private bath-suites, similar to well appointed urban and rural houses (Hoffmann 1995, 140). There is also evidence to suggest that centurions' families may have accompanied them in their quarters (see Hoffmann 1995; Hassall 1999, 35-36; Phang 2001, 130-2).

2.3 Ordinary Roman soldiers' families

It has been widely believed that other non-military personnel, such as tradespersons, were housed in settlements outside the fort, the vici and the canabae and that there were no families of other serving men in this community because ordinary soldiers were not permitted to marry during the early empire (e.g. Garnsey 1970, esp. 48; Smith 1972, esp. 497; Southern and Dixon 1996, 85). The Emperor Augustus is thought to have banned the marriage of soldiers during active service (Phang 2001, 16-17), a ban that was lifted two centuries later, in AD 197, by the Emperor Septimius Severus who allowed these soldiers to 'wear the gold ring and live [in marriage?] with their wives' (Herodian, Histories, 3.8.4-5). Most scholars have assumed, therefore, that this legal ban resulted in an absence of ordinary soldiers' families, certainly from inside forts, prior to the end of the 2nd century.

Sara Phang (2001) has analysed textual evidence, such as tomb inscriptions, papyrus letters, and bronze military diplomas and concluded that, during the early empire, ordinary soldiers indeed had 'wives', if in a de facto sense, who accompanied them and produced children while on active service. But these documentary sources give little indication as to where these 'de facto' families would have lived.

At Vindolanda remains of small-sized shoes have been found within the barracks of ordinary soldiers, dating to the beginning of the 2nd century AD, and have been identified by Carol van Driel Murray as those of women and children (1994; 1995; 1997). These barracks do not have the elaborate layout and furnishing of officers' quarters, which have been widely assumed to be necessities for female accommodation (see Petrikovits 1975, 134-5).

2.4 Other women inside the fort

Evidence for women inside military bases has also been found associated with the 1st-century legionary fortress at Vindonissa, in Switzerland. Some of the wooden writing tablets found on the rubbish heap of this fortress recorded house numbers and individual's names, demonstrating that there had been inns and taverns, or perhaps brothels, inside the fortress, where female barmaids and innkeepers worked (Speidel 1996, 55, 80). This evidence from Vindonissa does not actually verify the residency of these women within this legionary fortress, but it suggests that they were employed inside the fort proper in establishments that were highly likely to have provided accommodation for their staff.

2.5 Summary

Scholars have used textual evidence and the structural remains of officers houses' to argue that their families accompanied them on campaign. More recent analyses of the written evidence indicate that ordinary soldiers also had wives and families while on active service. But, because there appears to have been no allowance for the accommodation of such families in the structural layout of barrack buildings, most military scholars, including Phang (2001, 127-9), argue that these families must have lived in the settlements outside the fort. But the findings of women's and children's shoes at Vindolanda, and the evidence from the wooden tablets at Vindonissa suggest that at least some such people were likely to have been accommodated within the fort proper. Van Driel Murray stressed that, 'It is to whole packages of attributes that we must look' to understand the statuses and roles of the women and children in these, long-considered, male domains. She also wrote (1997, 60) that, '[o]nce it is accepted that women did form a significant section of the camp population, we can begin to develop material correlates by means of which their social and economic roles can be investigated'.


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