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The Roman Camp

The term castra includes temporary as well as permanent camps. As is commonly known, the Romans fortified their camps when making a halt even for a single night. Fortified camps intended for occupation for a long period were distinguished as castra hiberna.

A Roman army encamped every evening in a spot chosen by auspices, and mapped with great care by professional surveyors (agrimensores). A large square was drawn and fortified all round with a palisade and ditch, a gate being left in each side. The square was then divided by parallel roads into a series of rectangular spaces (strigae, scamna), each of which was allotted to a definite portion of the army. The general's quarters (praetorium) were at the junction of the main cross-roads joining the four gates. Of these gates, the porta praetoria was nearest the enemy, the porta decumana opposite it and farthest from the enemy. The side-gates were porta prindpalis dextra and p. p. sinistm. The distance from gate to gate was nearly half a mile. Outposts (stationes) were stationed in advance of the gates, custodes at each gate, and sentinels (excubiae) along the palisade. Vigiles kept guard at night and were changed four times. The watchword for the night was written on wooden tablets (tesserae) and made known to the men by four tesserarii, specially picked men from each legion.

The location, construction, and fortification of the camp, were objects of the greatest attention among the Romans. In time of war, they never passed a single night without intrenching themselves. Skill to select the camping-ground in a position easily defensible, with wood and water near by, was regarded by them as a most important qualification for a good commander.

The form of the camp was a square, or a rectangle, crossed by a regular system of streets. The position assigned to each corps was so well determined, that any soldier arriving late knew at once where to find his company. The tents, made of skins, and large enough to contain ten soldiers with their chief, were arranged in lines, a space of 200 feet being left between them and the intrenchments, so that, in case of attack, they were secured from the darts of the enemy.

Immediately upon reaching the place of encampment, parties were detailed under their centurions to dig the ditch - 9 feet deep, and raise the mound on the inner side of it. When completed, the mound was palisaded with interlaced stakes firmly planted on its summit.

Sentries drawn from the ranks of the veliles were posted at frequent intervals all along the rampart, and strongpickets, both of horse and foot, thrown forward to a considerable distance outside each of the four gates. The Roman camp was a well fortified post, capable alike of checking the progress of the enemy and of affording shelter to routed troops. It was also a place of safety, wherein a prudent commander might keep his soldiers until ready for action.

The army was quartered in permanent fortified camps and redoubts. The summer-quarters (aesliva) and winter-quarters (hiberna) were both stativa. The immediate protection of the frontier was regularly entrusted to the auxiliary troops. The legions were usually stationed at some distance to the rear of the actual boundary, where they were held in reserve for real warfare as distinguished from marauding raids. The combination of large fortified camps (castra) for the legions with series of smaller forts (castella) for the auxiliary troops is the distinctive feature of the system of defensive works on the borders of the Empire. Where the frontier was not protected by Nature, continuous defensive barriers were erected. The term limes merely means the boundary as marked off in some way. But from association with the marvelous defensive works erected along the boundary line the word limes inevitably suggests these monuments of Roman energy.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:19 ZULU