World’s Largest Roman Cavalry Re-enactment this Summer

When people think of Roman soldiers, they tend to think of infantrymen with swords and shields, marching down the famous Roman roads in  a disciplined formation. An exhibition is being planned by archaeologists, historians and heritage groups to celebrate another group in the Roman military: the cavalry.

Between April and September next year, they will hold the largest re-enactment of Roman cavalry battles in history. The battles will take place along Hadrian’s Wall as part of a six-month exhibition called “Hadrian and His Cavalry.” The exhibition will show items from both public and private collections, which have been lent to 10 museums and heritage sites along the cross-country wall. Included amongst the treasures are impressive cavalry helmets and armor from Hadrian’s troops.

Bill Griffiths is the head of programs for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. He’s also the chair of the project steering group. He called the armor “shiny and showy.”

“It’s bling. Hadrian’s cavalry was a showy part of the army, more highly decorated than the infantry’s equipment. Think of [today’s] horse guards. It’s very much in that vein of looking the part.”

Dr. Jon Coulston from the University of St. Andrews is the leading academic on military equipment and the Roman army. He said, “The objects are to die for – visually gorgeous. The Roman army is probably the sexiest area of Roman archaeology as far the public is concerned.”

Hadrian was emperor between 117 and 138 AD and focused on consolidating the empire. He strengthened the defenses along the frontier. While visiting Britain in 122, he authorized construction of the barrier that is now one of Britain’s most famous landmarks. Hadrian’s Wall is made of stone and turf and is up to 4m tall and 3m thick. There are watchtowers every third of a mile. It covers 73 miles from Wallsend (Segedunum) on the Tyne in the east to Bowness on the Solway Firth in the west.

Up to 1,000 men could be housed in forts along the wall, set a half day’s march apart. The cavalry was well fed, sustained on venison and oysters, and watered with beer and wine.

The re-enactment is based on eulogies offered by Hadrian and Arrian, the governor of Cappadocia in modern Turkey. In one speech, Hadrian said, “You shot stones from slings and fought with javelins; everywhere you jumped nimbly on  your horses.”

Arrian wrote: “From the helmets hang plumes of yellow hair, not for any practical purpose but to make a fine show. When the horses charge, if there happens to be even a slight breeze, they present a splendid spectacle.” He describes training exercises in which horsemen hurled javelins at “target” teams of men and horses in protective armor.

Re-enactment societies are becoming more popular around the world, but this re-enactment had a serious academic aspect.

“It’s not boys and their toys,” said Coulston. “It’s about technology, economy, metallurgy, culture, art history. Most of the showy stuff was practical. It made them distinctive on the battlefield. If they did something brave, they would be instantly recognized and get military decorations. That was all part of the ethos of achievement and attainment.” Their bravery was often recorded on their gravestones.

The re-enactments will give a look into the training and tactics of the Roman cavalry, including the design of saddles, which allowed the cavalrymen to lean to the side with a longsword or spear or to shoot with a bow in any direction.

Griffiths said: “This is a great archaeological experiment and fun.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE