Frontier towns

Civil settlements developed beside most established Roman forts, including many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall. These settlements haven’t been subject to a great deal of study either here in Britain or elsewhere.

It’s thought they were populated by a mix of local people and incomers from across the Roman Empire. Retired soldiers, the dependents of serving soldiers, plus people making a living from serving the forts, including blacksmiths and food-vendors, innkeepers and prostitutes, doubtless lived side-by-side. It’s likely these people followed the regiments to their different postings across the Empire. 

Evidence from the Maryport excavation and those of other fort settlements suggests that building plots were laid to plan and to a set size. This may have been undertaken by soldiers themselves, who would then rent out the plots. Frontage on the main street would have presented a premium for trade so those plots are long and narrow. The rooms facing the main street were likely used for direct trading, while goods were made in yards to the rear. There was probably a second floor where property owners or tenants and their families lived.

Like frontier towns throughout history, these settlements are likely to have been cultural ‘melting pots’, full of rogues and ‘characters’, and life would doubtless have been made all the more interesting by the hundreds of soldiers in the adjacent fort with money in their pockets.

All the civil settlements excavated so far along Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned in the mid third century but we don’t yet know why. Potentially, it was connected with the restructuring of the army at this time. Frontier regiments became smaller, pay was poorer and foreign postings less likely. It may be that the people who previously lived outside the fort moved into the fort itself creating a community of soldiers, traders and civilians.

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