The Cornovii and Hadrian’s Wall

The Cornovii were the only Celtic tribe or civitas of Roman Britain with a military commitment. The Notitia Dignitatum lists a unit called the Cohors Prima Cornoviorum stationed at a fort called Pons Aelius by the first Roman bridge from the sea over the river Tyne on the site of the Norman castle keep at Newcastle upon Tyne.

Pons Aelius means “The bridge of Aelius”, Aelius being the family name of the Emperor Hadrian. The fort was the second station from the east on the Roman frontier lying between Segedunum (Wallsend) and Condercum (Benwell).

Before the arrival of the Roman army the site seems to have been under cultivation. Evidence of this, in the form of criss cross grooves (plough marks?)

in the clay subsoil, has been found beneath the fort buildings.

In spite of the name only scattered traces of Hadrianic activity, such as ditches and postholes, have been found. The stone fort was built in the late 2nd - early 3rd century AD. This is considerably later than the first stone phases of the adjacent forts on Hadrian’s Wall which date from the early 2nd century. The inscription illustrated in the Newcastle keep museum tells us that in the year

213 AD the garrison was the cohort of Cugerni who were from the lower Rhine (now the Netherlands). The fort may have been built for this unit but by the late 3rd century a cohort of the Cornovii had replaced them The fort was abandoned by the Romans towards the 4th century as their control of the provinces weakened.

For those interested in the Cornovii tribe a visit to the fort of Pons Aelius an the museum is recommended.

The fact that the Cornovii were the only tribe in Celtic Britain to serve in the Roman army in Britain is significant. Normally, and it makes sense, Roman authorities deployed auxiliary troops recruited in foreign lands to other foreign lands.

The Cohors Prima Cornoviorum were stationed at the fort Pons Aelius at the eastern end of the wall from the mid third century until the early fifth century 410 AD when the Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain.

No one is sure what type of auxiliary unit the Cohors Prima Cornoviorum were, light cavalry, infantry or other type. They must have been good to have been chosen as the only native British troops to be deployed in Britain.

The Cavalry (Equitatus) and Auxiliary

As Romans were never considered exceptionally good horsemen, and the role of the cavalry not as important in the Roman thought process, the Equitatus was generally made up of non-Roman horsemen. While they would play an important part of Legionary tactics, the Roman Cavalry was considered secondary and would remain the weakest part of the Roman Army until the very late Imperial period.

Generally, the cavalry was used as light skirmishing troops, and mounted archers whose job was to patrol, act as scouts and messengers and to provide a mobile defensive screen while the legion was massing in battle array. As in all armies throughout history, the mounted trooper was also very effective in chasing down and harassing a fleeing and panicked enemy force.'s_Wall's_Wallshapeimage_2_link_0shapeimage_2_link_1

Pons Aelius

The fort ‘Pons Aelius’ guarded the first bridge over the river Tyne. Named after the Emperor Hadrian, by his family name ‘Aelius’. Originally the East most end of the wall. It was decided to extend the wall for a few more miles to what was

to be called Walls End, on the site of the fort of  Segedunum on the river Tyne.

for further information,

Basic Organization of the Auxiliary Infantry

While the Legion itself was essentially heavy infantry of Roman citizens the auxilliaries were non-citizens and apart from cavalry were used as light infantry and missile troops. The basic unit structure is explained above in the cavalry section.

Types of Roman Cavalry

Lancearii or Antesignani: The Roman light cavalry, the Equites Legionis was

generally this type of trooper.

Conttarii: These troop types were created under the reign of Trajan probably

to counter the cavalry of the Sarmatian people and carried the heavy lance


Cataphractii or Clibanarii: This heavy cavalry was developed in the east and

probably first appeared in Roman service under Hadrian. They were

completely armored from head to toe to counter archers.

Sagittarii: Mounted archers.

Roman Cavalry Ranks

The following list indicates a general chain of command and various titles

within the cavalry:

Praefectus Alae or Praefectus Equitum: Cavalry commander, could be

either Roman or a non-Roman.

Decurion: Commanded a single turmae.

Duplicarius: Second in command to the Decurion.

Sesquiplicarius: Third in command to the Decurion.

Eques or Eques Alaris: A cavalryman or auxiliary cavalryman.

The cavalry also maintained several positions of the infantry like the

principales. Some other titles in no particular order:

Centurio Exercitator: Cavalry training officer.

Eques Speculator: A mounted scout.

Eques Stablesianus: Cavalry stablehand.

Eques Sapsarius: Mounted medical personnel

Basic Organization of the Roman Cavalry

Ala Quingenaria: The typical Auxiliary cavalry unit was broken down as follows:

Turmae: The smallest basic unit of cavalry. One Turma consisted of 32            troopers or Eques Alaris. The Turmae were under the command of a Decurion.

Alae: Meaning "wing" the basic alae was composed of 512 men, a total of 16 turmae.

Ala Milliariae: A larger formed unit with the same structure. It was composed

of up to 32 alae or roughly up to 1,000 troopers.

Equites Legionis: These were the cavalry units attached directly to the Legion and were considered regular Legionaries of immunes rank. Originally they consisted of 120 men but may have been upwards of 1,000 men like the Ala Milliariae. Generally this unit would fall under the command of a Centurion or an Optio.

Cohortes Equitatae: These units were composed of a mix of infantry and cavalry but were generally only organised when the need arose.

Cohors Quingenaria: Composed of 120 infantry and 380 cavalry.

Cohors Milliaria Requitata: Composed of 240 infantry and 760 cavalry.

Equites Singulares: Both the Emperor and Provincial Governors could have cavalry contingents as bodyguards. Those protecting the Emperor were called Equites Singulares Augusti, and will be further explained in the Praetorian

guard section.