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Reenactment Event at Birdoswald
Birdoswald, 28th May 2007

I heard that the ‘Ermine Street Guard’ (aka Legio XX Valeria Victrix) were going to hold a display out at Birdoswald Fort again. So I packed my bag and got on the bus out to Hadrian’s Wall. The weather was a bit ‘dodgy’ that day. A northwind blew in very cold air. It was very windy and rain was forecast. But on such occasions one just trusts to luck.
Three quarter of an hour’s ride takes you from the city of Carlisle through some breathtaking countryside along the course of the wall to the Fort the Romans called Banna, but which is known today as Birdoswald.
I arrived around midday, catching the end of the first display. I snapped away with the camera and caught as much as I could before it ended. Nowing that the next display would be around three o’clock I hence made some good use of my feet and went walking along the wall. I was especially keen to get some pics of sites of some towers and milecastles along the wall. As it was, time allowed for me to cover quite a distance and I hope to show some results of that little excursion in the wild.
Once back at Birdoswald, I was just in time for the next display. I know that I felt thoroughly uncomfortable in the cold, damp weather, so I dare not imagine how the reenactors of the Ermine Street Guard felt in their tunics. No doubt, they’re made of fairly stern stuff.
Unlike other occasions where I visited such events I decided not merely to capture what was of any particular interest to regarding ancient Roman subject matter, but also to try to capture something of the atmosphere of the event in various group shots. I’ll leave you to judge if this was a success or not.

A model representation of what was once the very impressive fort of Banna with grain storage buildings and a very large exercise hall, to allow for all-weather training.

The Legio XX Valeria Victrix descends the sloping ground of Birdoswald fort. Note the cavalry men overseeing matters from a distance.

The centurion leads the vexillation under his command down the hill, the unit’s vexillarius and signifier.

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A great deal of practice seems to be spent on keeping the reenactment troops to perform their display with such precision. There’s no denying that their drill is very impressive.

If there is one thing in particular that the Ermine Street Guard is famed for it’s their expertise in ancient artillery.
Left: A soldier shoulders his manu-ballista and carries a bag of quivers in the the other hand.
Right: A scorpio-ballista in action. The crew was skilled and found the target repeatedly.

Perhaps most spectacular among all their arsenal of catapults is the large scale ballista. Seeing it in action is quite amazing. The noise the arms make as they slam into the front piece on release is testament to the sheer power harnessed in this device. It easily fired a stone ball 30 to 40 yards without much effort. More torsion on the ropes and ideal elevation and who knows how far this machine could reach…

Left: Two auxiliaries wind back the ratchet, to launch another ball.
Right: The ballista is primed and ready. The stone ball is clear visible. Immediately behind the sling the iron release mechanism is clearly discernable. On pulling back it’s black lever the sling is released and the ballista fires.
This ballista is at maximum elevation. At this angle the machine fired its charge 20 to 30 yards high into the air.

The heavies were there too. Legionaries wind back the ratchet on an onager to force back its powerful throwing arm. Of all the catapults present this was eminently the most powerful by far. It fired the greatest load of weight.


Thank the gods for long lenses. The cavalry were elusive for long times. I guess the horses are nervous of the crowds. However, with a powerful enough a lens one could catch them moving about in the distance.

The cavalry did eventually come in close, giving the spectators a chance to admire their beautiful animals.
Right: Note the four prominent pommels on the Roman saddle, they provides the rider the grip he needs (keeping in mind that for most of the ancient era cavalry did not know stirrups!).

The horses of the ancient world were closer to ponies than the large horse breeds we would find in stables today.

A great collection of tools, all in use in Roman times.

The troops had their own encampment with proper, leather tents. There they sat, relaxed, warmed themselves at the fire or just watched the world go by between the displays.

A vexillarius and a legionary caught unawares at the end of a public display.

A good example of customization of armour. I am not specifically aware of this alteration having a historic precedent, but I don’t doubt it existed. An arm protector (manica) is said to have been used in the Dacian campaigns against the dreaded scythe like weapon, the falx. It was the same sort of protection afforded to certain gladiators in the arena. But that protector would have had its segments overlapping from top to bottom. Here the overlap is reversed. Its aim is to provide protection for the arm as it thrusts out from the shield wall.
Personally, I wonder though how practical such a reversed manica is when it rains…

Left: the legionary ranks on parade
Right: two auxiliaries and a legionary. Note how the foremost auxiliary has found a solution to cold feet. This indeed seems a very likely practical solution, wrapping one’s feet in cloth or fur before putting on the caligae.


Two shots of the legionaries in their encampment.
Left: a legionary standing guard
Right: a fine example of the palla, the broad cloak

A legionary sentry standing guard at the encampment.

Now this is a proper auxiliary! A grouchy looking, bearded barbarian hired into the ranks of the Roman army. He’s even wearing that most barbarian garment of all: trousers!

Marius’ mules, the nickname for the weighed down legionaries on the march, make their way across Birdoswald Fort.

More shots of the splendid display.

The display also involved a demonstration of army training methods.
Left: two auxiliaries practice fighting with the stabbing spear, the hasta.
Right: two legionaries exercise with wooden swords and wicker shields.

The most spectacular part of the training display is when one poor infantryman is ‘volunteered’ by the centurion to take on cavalrymen who charge him with pointless lances and spears.
In this picture you can just make out the shaft of the spear as it impacts on the shield our hapless infantry wields to save his skin, as the horse charges by.

The display over, it’s time to strike some heroic poses for the photographers…

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little display. My thanks to the reenactors of the Ermine Street Guard for a great photo opportunity.

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