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