At the start of the month I headed to Hadrian’s Wall to attend some of the Roman events taking place to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and 1,900 years since Hadrian became Emperor. Hadrian’s Cavalry was the theme chosen for the celebrations with a fantastic programme of public talks, Roman-themed re-enactment events and a major exhibition along the Wall. The most spectacular event was the Turma! Hadrian’s Cavalry Charge in Bitts Park in Carlisle.
On Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd of July 2017 and for the first time in about 1,500 years, a full turma of Roman cavalry, the Roman name for a 30-strong cavalry, was brought together to perform some of the manoeuvres that would have been done at the time of Hadrian. The event was one of the biggest Roman cavalry re-enactments ever seen in the UK and it attracted huge crowds of people who watched on during the three performances. It featured in both the Guardian and the Telegraph as one of 2017’s must-see events.
The Turma! event was part of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition which is currently taking place across 10 sites along Hadrian’s Wall. This unique series of exhibitions celebrates the cavalry regiments that once guarded the northern frontier of the Roman Empire by exploring the role and daily life of cavalry soldiers. The exhibition runs until Sunday 10 September 2017, from Maryport in the west to South Shields in the east, and each site focuses on different aspects of the Roman cavalry and has its own special exhibition of objects from their own collection or on loan from national and international museums and private collectors.
Historically, a cavalry display took place in a parade ground situated outside a Roman fort and involved the cavalry practicing a series of charges and drills and the handling of weapons such as javelins and spears. These parades were called “hippika gymnasia” and were described by Arrian as glamorised versions of training exercises, performed in decorated armour. They were colourful tournaments among the elite cavalry of the army, the alae, and played an important part in maintaining unit morale and fighting effectiveness.
The audience was invited to join separate teams (the red team and the blue team) and was provided with a team flag to wave to cheer on the horsemen as they tried to score points throughout the competition. I was supporting the blue team at the 1st tournament on Saturday and the blues won.
The event started with the Ermine Street Guard re-enacting a unit of the Roman army which served in Britannia. They performed battlefield drills and demonstrated the use of their weapons.
Then the emperor Hadrian himself entered the parade ground accompanied by the draconarius, the signifer who bore the cavalry standard known as a draco.
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Hadrian was followed by the cavalry, clad in authentic Roman armour and kit. The highest ranking, most skillful riders entered the arena first, wearing full face-mask helmets.
The turma then performed the basic formation in two ranks, charging en masse as speed increased.
The cavalrymen then split themselves into their teams, the reds and the blues, and what followed was an elaborate display of training exercise, horse handling skills and javelin throwing.
A group of mounted javelin throwers then circled the parade ground and charged, throwing three javelins at a target. This military tactic was called circulus cantabricus (the Cantabrian Circle).
Further cavalry formations were performed in front of emperor Hadrian.
The cavalry would regularly perform these exercises to illustrate their skills and prowess in front of the Emperor.
Some of the cavalrymen wore elaborate face-mask helmets which, according to the historian Arrian of Nicomedia, military commander and close friend of Hadrian, were only worn for displays in military parades like the hippika gymnasia.
“Those of higher rank or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze to draw the attention of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the head and cheeks only but are made to fit all round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes (…) From the helmets hang yellow plumes, a matter of décor as much as utility.” Arrian (Ars tactica 34)
Calvary helmets were made from a variety of metals and alloys, often from gold-coloured alloys or iron covered with tin. They were decorated with embossed reliefs and engravings depicting the war god Mars and other divine and semi-divine figures associated with the military. Such helmets are currently displayed in the multiple museums along the Wall as part of the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition. Most notably, the privately owned Crosby Garrett helmet, one of the most significant archaeological finds in Britain, is back on display at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle.
The exhibition also features other iconic Roman Cavalry helmets on loan from national and international museums including two Ribchester style helmets which are displayed together for the very first time at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, a complete Butzbach style helmet which is displayed at Segedunum and a helmet from the Roman fort at Newstead in Scotland which is displayed at Vindolanda.
After the 90 minute Turma! ended, the audience could meet and talk to the soldiers and even touch the horses.
The two key texts for understanding the Roman cavalry training are Hadrian’s adlocutio from the parade ground at Lambaesis in Numidia in 128 AD and Arrian’s Ars Tactica which was written in the reign of Hadrian.
Over the course of three days of exercises, Hadrian observed the legion stationed at Lambaesis, the Legio III Augusta, and addressed different groups of soldiers separately in a speech (aldocutio). He commented on their manoeuvres, mixing praise with advice, and spoke directly to his soldiers, unit by unit. He praised the Ala I Pannoniorum for their javelin throwing, performed while they were wearing the legionary cuirass. He complemented their prowess, telling them:
“You did everything according to the book. You filled the training ground with your wheelings, you threw spears not ungracefully, though with short and stiff spears. Several of you hurled spears with skill. Your jumping onto the horses here was lively and yesterday swift.”Translations from M. Speidel – Emperor Hadrian’s speeches to the African Army: A new Text (2006)
The speeches were memorialised on an inscription placed in the middle of the parade and exercise ground located two kilometres west of the main fortress at Lambaesis. It was carved on the corner pillars of a viewing platform topped by a Corinthian column, perhaps crowned with a statue of Hadrian (M. Speidel). It is the only surviving example of a speech from a Roman emperor to his soldiers.
- Hadrian’s Cavalry: leaflet pdf to download
- Minerva Magazine: Along the Wall with Hadrian’s cavalry
- Per Lineam Valli: Did Roman cavalry wear face-masks in battle?
- Ancient Warfare VIII-4: Roman Cavalry Helmets from Hadrian’s Wall
- Livius: Hadrian and his Soldiers. The Lambaesis Inscription
- Hadrian’s Adlocutio at Lambaesis
Related post on Following Hadrian: The face of mock battles – images of Roman cavalry helmets from Germania Inferior