Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


14.7.14
  Living With Horses - Roman Cavalry Barrack in the Limes Fort Aalen

Salvete carissimi lectori, it's Aelius Rufus again. Gabriele told me I should tell you a bit about the Limes fort in Aalen since that's from my time.

Gabriele has also added two maps about the Limes to her post with Roman maps so our dear readers won't get lost in the German forests.

Remains of the cavalry fort in Aalen

The German Limes, or as it's usually called, Upper German-Raetian Limes (Obergermanisch-Rätischer Limes) has a few things in common with Hadrian's Wall where my friend Gaius Fannius lives.

After Gabriele's ancestors had kicked the Romans out in the aftermath of the Varus battle, the Rhine in the west and the Danube in the north remained the borders of the Roman Empire. But her ancestors kept to that bad habit of crossing the Rhine, looking for shinies and cattle in the hinterland, so the Emperor Domitian (AD 83) pushed them back a bit further and established a road along the Neckar river and across the Swabian Alp from Moguntiacum at the Rhine to Augusta Vindelicum (Augsburg) at the Danube. That road was protected by watch towers and some forts were built. It was the same time when Domitian's general Agricola took a closer look at those tribes in the mountains of Caledonia who didn't leave the Romans alone, either. Only he got his big battle while Domitian didn't, because the German tribes knew better than to face the Roman army in a pitched battle.

Aalen, partly reconstructed cavalry barrack

At the same time the deified Hadrian decided to set the border between Romans and barbarians at the line now known as Hadrian's Wall, the emperor also proclaimed the fortified roads that cut from the Rhine to the Danube as border between the Romans and Gabriele's ancestors. But our dear Tony isn't content with those borders, so he pushed further into Caledonia with the Antonine Wall, and expanded the Limes border a bit east and north (AD 150/155). The fort at Osterburken dates to that time, as does the cavalry fort in Aalen.

Aalen was the main seat of the military administration of Raetia from about AD 150 until the fall of the Limes in the 250ies, and garrison of the Ala II Flavia pia fidelis milliaria. Its praefect also was the second in command of the entire province. No wonder they got such a big headquarter building.

View from the side

The fort in Aalen is quite a sight, I can tell you. With 277x214 metres it covers an area of ~6 hectares. It is surrounded by no less than four trenches. I'm glad I wasn't there for the digging. The fort as I've seen it has mostly buildings of timber or half-timbered walls on stone foundations, but Marc Aurel had most of it rebuilt in stone in about AD 170. Else it shows the usual pattern with walls, double-gates on each side and towers in the corners.

Gabriele says not much is left of those today, only the foundations of two of the gates and a bit of one of the trenches. Those stone filching locals from the future again, is my guess. Another remaining feature are the foundations of the principia, and excavations have shown the site of some of the barracks and granaries.

A room in the barrack

Today, one third of the fort lies under the old cemetery, another third is covered by houses, though when the first digs were made by the Reichlimeskommission in the 19th century, some of that space was still fields. Yeah, after the wars, building houses was more important than preserving the foundations of some Roman walls and barracks. The buildings usually found outside a fort, like the vicus settlement south of the fort and the baths are covered by houses as well.

Luckily for Gabriele and other Roman ... what does she call them, geeks? the foundations of the principia were never built over but made accessible for the public in the 1980ies. A museum has been around since 1964 and was recently modernised.

The fun bit, Gabriele tells me, is the partly reconstructed garrison barrack from 2005. Since it was a cavalry fort, those looked a bit different from the infantry barrack reconstructions you can find in Arbeia or Caerleon (where only the interior is shown). She should be able to time travel into the past and look at the fort in Aalen during the time of its splendour, when I visited the place.

The stable

Several sources say that an ala milliaria (a unit of 1,000) had 24 turmae of 32 men, but that would only bring it to 768 men. Well, I counted and Gabriele checked more sources*. We got another, more realistic number: 24 turmae of 42 men, that makes 1,008, not counting the decurions who lead the units (same as centurions for the footsloggers). The fort in Heidenheim where the Ala II Flavia had been stationed before moving to Aalen shows a size and number of barracks that would house a thousand.

They got a lot of horses, too. One of those research guys estimated a minimum of 1,200, but there may have been as many as 1,900 because of the need of extra horses as remounts and packhorses. You'll understand that I didn't count them.

Display of the fort layout Aalen

When you compare the reconstructed barrack part with the sketch of the fort layout Gabriele caught with her little picture box, you'll notice those barracks were a lot bigger. Well, there's no space to set up a full one, and I suspect no money either. Some things never change. The reconstructed barrack sits in the wrong spot, too, at my time there were two agricultural buildings, a magazine and a workshop for repairing horse stuff.

Since the barracks are under the cemetery and they won't dig up the bodies and make their ghosts angry, the fort in Heidenheim / Aquileia was used as foil for the reconstruction. The Ala II Flavia milliaria had been stationed there prior to moving to Aalen, and the Romans, practical lot that they are, dismantled the barracks and moved the parts, much like a prefabricated house in the future.

Roofed gallery at the outside of the barrack

The barracks in Heidenheim had been constructed of timber or in half-timbered style. Excavations in 2000-2004 showed the foundation groves and post holes of seven barracks. The results from the digs and surveys in both forts made it possible to reconstruct the ideal layout of a cavalry fort for an ala milliaria. It's the only way for the people from the future, though Gabriele sometimes mutters about how time travel would make research so much easier as long as you stayed out of the actual battles. I won't be surprised if she tried to bring one of those aviation machine thingies for that.

So we get 24 barracks - most of them combined to double barracks - with 13 rooms plus stables. Tacitus had no reason to be snarky about the Germans living in the same house with their cattle; the Roman soldiers do pretty much the same. That wattle and daub wall between living rooms (papiliones) and stables (stabula) doesn't keep the smell out, I can tell you. And there's always someone walking into the living room with his horse pooped sandals. But the advantage is that the guys got their mounts real close in case they had to go on an urgent mission.

Upper storey / gallery, maybe used for sleeping

The horse lads do have more space. 3 to 4 share a room of about 20 square metres, instead of our 15 square metres plus anteroom for eight men, and their rooms have a second storey. Each double barrack was about 80 metres long and 18 metres wide. The individuals stables could house 3 to 4 horses. Extra horses were kept in additional stables.

The bad thing about timber is that it's seldom preserved for those archaeologists from the future, but they can make some guesswork from post holes and such, like the basilica structure of the barracks.

The upper storey may have been supported by extra posts and crossbeams as in the reconstructed barrack, but one can't be sure whether the upper floor was a full storey or more like a gallery or loft. That the upper floor was used for sleeping is an assumption of course, it could also have been used for storage - those horses need a lot of fodder.

The decurio's quarter

The inner walls were half timbered with loam-covered wickerwork and roughcast, while the outer walls may have been a plank construction. All units were prepared in a way that they could be moved around. During summer, the front planks of the stables could be taken out so that they would be open towards the porch.

The roofs were covered by wooden shingles, and remains of glass point at glassed windows and transoms lights. A nice luxury in the German climate. Each papilio had a fireplace / stove facing the stable wall, probably made of bricks, with a brick or timber chimney taking the smoke out through the roof of the upper floor.

Those barracks used up a lot of wood. Mostly oak, but then, the German forests had a lot of those in my time. All the barracks in Aalen together would have used some 3,000 oak and about 400 pine trees.

Decurio's quarter from another angle
The wall segments / partitions have not all been inserted, and the view to the roof left open;
there would have been planks to add that second floor.

The decurios (decuriones), the commanders of a turma, got their own rooms, of course. A hundred square metres and a second floor. Though I have to be honest; the ground floor rooms were partly taken up by offices - tables and shelves - and I don't envy them the paperwork. They also had to make space for slaves. Hey, that's still more than I got for a flat, says Gabriele. And I have too many books; I could do with some more shelves.

The double barracks had living quarters for the decurios at one side, and for the lieutenants, the duplicarii at the other. They got some colour on their walls and their own loos. Though they still had to use the shared baths, heh.

A cavalry soldier and his mount in the museum

We know for sure that the Ala II Flavia pia fidelis milliaria was garrisoned in Heidenheim from AD 90/110* and moved to Aalen in AD 155/60 where it stayed until the midst of the 3rd century. But where the ala comes from is more difficult to trace. The name 'Flavia' points at an assembling under Vespasian (AD 70-79) or his sons (Titus AD 79-81, Domitian AD 81-96). The earliest mention is on a military diploma from AD 86 where it already got its full name pia fidelis milliaria. It is possible that the unit was created in the aftermath of the Batavian rebellion in AD 70; that would make it the oldest ala milliaria we know of.

Another scenario is that the basis of the unit was the Ala II Flavia Gemina stationed in Germania Superior which indeed was assembled after the rebellion but disappears from military diplomas before AD 90. It could have been expanded to 1,000 men, renamed and deployed to Raetia. The byname pia fidelis - pious and faithful - points at some special distinction; possibly during Domitian's war against the German tribe of the Chatti AD 83-85. But that doesn't solve the problem whether it was newly created then or expanded from the Ala Flavia Gemina.

An 'Ala II Flavia' can be traced in the fort at Günzburg (Gontia) at the Danube in AD 78 due to tile stamps, but it is not clear if that is the old Gemina (à 500 men) or the ala II Flavia milliaria. I think the most likely scenario is that of the expanded Gemina which was then moved to Heidenheim under the new name.

The reconstructed barrack seen from the shrine of the standards in the principia
The statue shows Marc Aurel

It definitely is a special troop, Aelius Rufus grins. And it got special, big headquarters for another post.

Sources:
Junkelmann, Marcus. Die Reiter Roms, Vol. II Der militärische Einsatz. Mainz 1991
Kemkes, Martin; Scheuerbrandt, Jörg; Willburger, Nina. Am Rande des Imperiums - Der Limes, Grenze Roms zu den Barbaren. Schriften des Limesmuseums Aalen, Stuttgart 2002
Kemkes, Martin; Scholz, Markus. Das Römerkastell Aalen. Schriften des Limesmuseums Aalen, vol. 58, Stuttgart 2012
Klee, Margot. Germania Superior - Eine römische Provinz in Deutschland, Frankreich und der Schweiz. Regensburg 2013

Note
* The number of 24 turmae à 42 men comes from Junkelmann.
* Kemkes/Scholz date the move to Heidenheim to AD 110 while Junkelmann dates it to AD 90. I agree with Junkelmann because it coincides with the disappearance of the Ala Gemina from the documents.

 
Comments:
What a fabulous place to visit! Would like to visit a place like that myself.
 
Anerje, the Roman remains in Germany are fun places to visit. But the UK got some nice sites, too.
 
Thanks for the tour, Aelius Rufus. It helps clarify the differences between infantry and cavalry barracks. 1900 is a lot of horses. How did they feed them all? Did the civilians grow and gather fodder, the army, or a combination?
(I would hate to be on stable cleaning duty for an extended length of time.)
 
Thanks for yet one more fascinating post, Gabriele! The Romans with their buildings and organised army were born to conquer :-)Poor Germans and other tribes... They didn't stand a chance, did they?
 
Constance, it depends on circumstances. Sometimes fodder was grown locally but often it had to be brought in from further afar. Stable cleaning duty was probably handed out to those poor sods who did something wrong or couldn't bribe the the decurio. ;-)

Kasia, actually the Romans didn't have that much luck conquering the Germans. First Arminius kicked them out (not only at the Teutoburg Forest but in some later battles that turned out too costly for the Romans, so they withdrew in AD 16), and even the Limes was overrun in the 260ies and the Romans withdrew to the Rhine and Danube again. One emperor, Maximinius Thrax, campaigned deep in Germania (battlefield at Kalefeld) but while he probably was victorius there, he failed to actually conquer anything. The Romans never stayed put in Germania Magna.
 
Thank you for the explanation. Why did I think they conquered everything that was to conquer? :-) But seriously, I don't know much about the Romans. Perhaps this will change thanks to your highly educative and entertaining posts :-)
 
Kasia, they didn't have much luck with the Picts / Caledonians, either, hence Hadrian's Wall, and in the east - basically what is today Syria - the Parthian and its succeeding Sassanid Empire gave them a whole lot of trouble. The Romans had a pretty good propaganda machine, though. :-)
 
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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