Chesters Roman Fort (Cilurnum)

Chesters is one of a series of permanent forts built during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. The cavalry fort, known to the Romans as Cilurnum, was built in about AD 124 above the west bank of the River North Tyne. It housed some 500 cavalrymen and was occupied for nearly 300 years until the Romans left Britain in the 5th century. Cilurnum is considered to be the best preserved Roman cavalry fort along Hadrian’s Wall. Pioneering excavations in the 19th century exposed the structures visible today. These excavations yielded one of the best collections of inscriptions and sculpture on Hadrian’s Wall.

At Chesters, the ditch that fronted the Wall was filled in and a recently built Wall turret demolished to make way for the fort. It marked the point where the Wall crossed the River North Tyne, the first major obstacle on its route from east to west. A large road bridge with stone piers whose abutments survive spanned the river there.

A reconstruction of the fort and civilian settlement at Chesters as they may have appeared in about AD 200.
© Historic England (illustration by Mikko Kriek)

The first attested Cavalry unit at Chesters was the 500-strong ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata – ‘the cavalry regiment styled Augusta for its valour’. It is mentioned on an altar dedicated to Disciplina and dated to Hadrian’s reign (RIB 1496c). By around AD 180 until the end of the Roman period, Chesters Fort was garrisoned by a cavalry regiment originally raised in northern Spain, the ala II Asturum (‘the Second Asturians’).

The fort was of the usual rectangular shape, covering 2.3 hectares, with large, double gateway in each side. The walls were of stone, some 1.5m wide, backed by an earthen rampart and fronted by a single ditch on all sides. The defences were completed with four stone corner towers and eight interval towers, two on each face. In addition to the four monumental gateways, two smaller, single gates at either end of the via quintana gave access to the fort on the south side on the Wall.

Remains survive from various periods in the 300-year life of the fort but most of its interior is unexcavated and is still buried. The visible selection of buildings result from the excavation campaigns of Nathaniel Clayton, the wealthy land-owner of Chesters House and Estate, between 1843 and 1893. They include all six gateways, the two interval-towers in the southern defences, a small section of the fort wall to the immediate south of the northern interval tower, the headquarters building (principia), the commanding officer’s house (praetorium) with its own central heating system, as well as two barrack blocks that could each accommodate a turma or cavalry troop of about 30 men. The most impressive building remains are those of the headquarters building (principia) in the middle of the fort.

The site museum houses finds from the fort and elsewhere along the wall, including Roman sculptures, inscriptions and altars, many of them collected in the 19th century by John Clayton (see images here). Following his death in 1890, his nephew Nathaniel commissioned the building of a permanent museum (completed in 1896) in order to house the Clayton Collection.


The North Gate, used to gain access to the area north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was one of four identical main gates with a square tower to each side of a double passageway.
The Barracks blocks, located in the north-east part of the fort. They probably date from the later 2nd or early 3rd century AD. The barracks were over 50m long, providing sufficient space for ten men, each shared by three men and their horses.
A view looking east up the street that divided two of the barrack blocks. Each block consisted of a row of rooms divided into front and back parts. Three men slept and ate in the rear part while their tree horses were tethered in the front part.
The remains of the central headquarters building (principia) built between AD 122 and 138.
The headquarter building occupied the central place in the fort. It was built around a paved courtyard, surrounded by colonnades.
A well was located in the north-west corner of the headquarters. It was probably used for religious ceremonies.
A phallus carved on a flagstone near the ceremonial well in the headquarters.
The East Gate. It is the finest gate at Chesters and one of the best preserved on the whole of Hadrian’s Wall. The two carriageway openings and flanking towers are clearly visible.
The Commanding Officer’s House (praetorium) dating to AD 150-400. This was a peristyle house (with a colonnaded courtyard at its centre) modelled on the sort of urban mansion and used by the commanding officer and his family.
The Praetorium Baths. This complex is traditionally described as the private baths of the commanding officer, but it is of considerable size and seems more likely to have been for the soldiers.
The West Gate. This gateway allowed the garrison to leave the fort to patrol north of the frontier.
The West Gate, guarded by two towers. The remains of a bread oven are visible set into the fort wall.
The South Gate. It was the main entry into the fort from the vicus which lay to the south of the fort.
The Baths, located outside the fort close to the river. They are considered as the best-preserved Roman military building in Britain.
The external baths were uncovered in 1884–5 and are of Hadrianic date with many later additions and alterations.
The remains of an internal tower along the southern fort wall.
The remains of the south-east angle tower.
The viewing platform overlooking the site of the west end of the Roman bridge over the North Tyne.
Reconstruction of the bridge at Chesters in the time of Hadrian, when it was designed to carry the Wall alone on nine narrow arches.
© Historic England (illustration by Richard Lea)
The eastern bridge abutment and tower of Chesters Bridge, looking east. The bridge was an imposing structure with an overall length of 58 metres and with four arches each 10.8 metres wide.
The second bridge, built in the AD 160s, was wide enough to carry the Military Way across the Tyne on four arches and had guard towers on each bank.
© Historic England (illustration by Richard Lea)
The remains of the two successive Roman bridges at Chesters encapsulate some of the main developments in the history of Hadrian’s Wall.
The face of the north wing of the east abutment showing the carving of a phallus and characteristic curved tooling lines on the face of the blocks.


Saalburg Roman Fort

The Saalburg is a former Roman Cohort Fort located northwest of Bad Homburg in Hesse and belonging to the Limes Germanicus. This fort served for 150 years as a base for frontier troops. The Saalburg is the most completely reconstructed Roman fort in Germany and serves as a research institute and open-air museum. It is part of UNESCO‘s “Upper-German Raetian Limes“ World Heritage Site.

Coordinates: 50° 16′ 17″ N, 8° 34′ 0″ E

Towards the end of the 1st century AD, the Romans occupied the area of the Taunus and erected a simple wood-and-earth fort at the Saalburg Pass to house a numerus (units of barbarian allies) and control traffic on this important route. It had a rectangular ground plan, corner towers, intermediate towers and two gates and was surrounded by a ditch.

Around AD 135, the old timber fort was converted into a larger cohort fort measuring about 147 x 221 m and consisting of walls built from a solid combination of stone and timber beams. The cohort fort was occupied by the Cohors II Raetorum civium Romanorum equitata, an auxiliary unit made of about 480 foot soldiers and 120 cavalrymen. The troops were tasked with monitoring the Limes which can still be seen today north of the Saalburg. In the fort’s interior, wooden barracks were built to accommodate the troops, their animals and supplies. A civilian settlement (vicus) developped along the road leading to Nida (present-day Frankfurt-Heddernheim).

In the middle of the 2rd century, the cohort fort was extended and rebuilt in stone. An earthen ramp reinforced the inner side of the defensive walls and the four gates took their final shape. Inside the fort, the original half-timbered buildings were partly replaced by massive stone structures. Around AD 200, the village reached its greatest extent. As many as 2000 people may once have lived in the fort and the vicus.

In the early 3rd century, the situation along the limes became increasingly unsettled. The fort and the vicus fell into disrepair after an attack by Germanic tribes. Campaigns in the East of the Empire and the Germanic threat to the Roman frontier after AD 260 forced Rome to abandon the limes and with it the Saalburg. After the abandonment of the Upper Germanic Limes, the fort was used as a quarry.

Reconstruction drawing of Saalburg Roman Fort according to the field of archaeology over the past 120 years.

The first archaeological excavations at the Saalburg began in the middle of the 19th century. In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II initiated the reconstruction of the ancient Roman fort. Between 1897 and 1907, the fort was rebuilt on its stone foundations; the stone defense wall with the earth embankment behind it and the four gates, the principia, the horrea, parts of the conjectured praetorium, two troop barracks were erected. However, with the insights gained by the field of archaeology over the past 120 years, a different conception of some aspects of Roman military architecture has developed. The buildings erected since 2004 (the praetorium, the fabrica) reflect the modern understanding of the fort.

The Saalburg also houses the Saalburg Museum, one of the two most important institutions dedicated to the study of the German Limes (the other being the Limesmuseum of Aalen). Today, the remains of the 550 kilometre-long frontier complex stretching from the Rhine down to the Danube comprise the largest ancient monument in Europe.


The defensive walls and the Porta Praetoria (main gate).
The walls were rebuilt on Roman foundations in the style of the fort’s final construction phase around 220 AD.
The walls stood about 4.8 m in height. In Roman times, the walls would have been coated with white plaster and then painted with red mortar.
The V-shaped ditches in front of the walls.
They served as an obstacle to attack and were filled with water. The inner ditch was about 8.5 m wide and 3 m deep. The outer ditch is broader, but shallower.
The reconstructed Porta Praetoria, the main gate of the Saalburg fort. The gate takes its name from the Via Praetoria, the camp’s road running in a north-south direction.
Between the two gates, a bronze statue of emperor Antoninus Pius greets today’s visitor.
The statue of Antoninus Pius was created by Berlin sculptor Johannes Götz in 1901. The statue rests on a pedestal with the following inscription:
To Emperor of the Romans, Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, [from] Wilhelm II, Emperor of the Germans [dedicates this monument].
The inscription over the gateway on the plaque proclaims the completion of the restored Saalburg. It reads: Wilhelm II, son of Friedrich III, grandson of Wilhelm the Great, in the 15th year of his reign, in memory and honor of his parents, rebuilt the Saalburg Fort on the Roman Limes.
The Porta Principalis Sinistra located on the east side of the fort. The gate takes its name from the Via Principalis, the camp’s road running east-west.
The defensive walls and the Porta Principalis Sinistra.
The Porta Principalis Dextra, located on the west side of the fort. The gate takes its name from the Via Principalis, the camp’s road running east-west.
The parapet walkway along the defensive wall which gave access to the gateways’ upper floors.
The Porta Decumana, located at the rear of the fort, facing the Limes. The gate takes its name from the Via Decumana, the camp’s road running in a north-south direction.
The Bath-House, located at the rear of the fort, near the north gate. It is the bath-house of the small timber fort, the predecessor of the Cohort Fort we see today. The rooms include the Caldarium (hot room), the Tepidarium (lukewarm room) and the Frigidarium (cold bath).
The Great Bath-House (Thermae), located in front of the Fort. The large bathing complex was built around 130 AD at the same time of the Cohort Fort and remained in operation up to about 260 AD.
The Great Bath-House outside of the Fort.
The reconstructed Praetorium, the Commander’s residence.
The commending officer lived in a private residence which contained 8 rooms arranged around an open courtyard. Today, the administrative offices of the Saalburg Roman Fort and the Research Institue are housed in the Praetorium.
The reconstructed Principia, the headquarters building of the Roman garrison and the camp’s most important building. It was located in the centre of the fort. The visitor enters the Principia through a great hall, the basilica.
The Basilica served primarily as a public market hall or place of assembly during the Roman era. It consisted of an extended rectangular hall with a roof and large windows.
Statue of Hadrian flanking the entrance to the courtyard of the Basilica.
The bronze statue is a replica dating to 1904.
The courtyard of the headquarters building. This section of the Principia was not reconstructed with complete authenticity. Originally, there was a second covered hall, not an open courtyard we see today.
The Porticus of the headquarters building with numerous pedestals and inscribed stones bearing dedications to the Emperor and diverse gods.
The Aedes, the shrine of the standards located on the rear wall of the Principia.
In and in front of the of the Aedes, the soldiers practiced the official cult of the emperor worship. Several steps lead up to the small room, whose interior decoration could be almost completely reconstructed.
The interior of the Aedes.
A raised ledge holds copies of military insignia and small votive offerings.
A richly decorated Triclinium (officer’s dining room), the most complete Roman wall-painting of all the limes. It was found in 1965 in the Limes fort at Echzell.
The painted fresco from Echzell was created in the mid-2nd century AD. Figures can be seen within framed spaces between the columns on the rear wall. In the central image, Fortuna, who carries a horn of plenty (cornucopia) and a wheel, greets Hercules. On the right, Daedalus uses wax to attach wings to the limbs of his son, Icarus. On the left, Theseus kills the Minotaur.
The courtyard of the Principia with one of the two reconstructed wells.
The two wings of the Principia were connected by a colonnade. The left-hand wing probably housed offices. The right-hand ring housed an arsenal, an Armamentaria.
Reconstructed artillery in the right wing of the Principia.
Reconstructions of ancient Roman and Greek mechanical artillery; Polybolos, Catapultae and Ballistae.
Two reconstructed wooden troop barracks (centuriae) that housed the soldiers. Recent research tells us that these buildings should have faced in a north-south direction and should have also been much larger. Each barrack block housed a Centuria led by a Centurion and was divided into ten rooms known as Contubernia, each occupied by 8 men.
The reconstructed Horreum, the fort’s double granary.
Typically, Horrea were very solidly built, with massive stone foundations. Their floors were elevated, raised on timber platforms. Today, the Granary serves as an exhibition room containing many original Roman finds that illustrate varied aspects of daily life.
The Saalburg Museum.
The Saalburg Museum.
The reconstructed Fabrica (workshop). The workshops along the Limes forts assured a constant supply of military equipment to the troops.
A reconstructed Thermopolium (cook shop) inside the Fabrica.
Portrait of a man imitating the appearance of Hadrian, 120-140 AD.
Inside the Fort.

Source: Carsten Amrhein, Elke Löhnig und Rüdiger Schwarz, “Saalburg Roman Fort – Tour of the Archaeological Park“, Nünnerich-Asmus Verlag & Media (2014).