Ghost Romans in Britain

Sometimes you just have to post fun stuff!

Because of my interest in Roman military history I’ll just run a Google search for various terms and then wade deep into the search to see what turns up. This link kind of cracked me up. It’s from a British Ghost website-a website that documents British ghost sightings, a land famous for the variety of ghosts that populates the various British castles and old spooky buildings.

But this was different since it was not a medieval type ghost knight or princess the person saw but a unit 20 Roman auxiliary soldiers.

Apparently some chap named Harry was in a basement of some sort in the City of York in Northern England. Harry first saw an apparition of an auxiliary standard-bearer (signifier) pass through the wall followed by a large horse and then followed by 20 soldiers who appeared to marching on their knees!

According to the link it was discovered later that the house was built over one of the many Roman roads that are still used in parts of Britain so the soldiers were not marching on their knees but marching on the road beneath the house flooring! Harry said they just kept coming and marched through the walls. (York btw, is a center of much history. Not only were the Romans there but also the Vikings. The Vikings at one point had conquered so much of Anglo-Saxon England that England nearly became Scandinavian. The area under Danish Viking control was called “Danelaw” because Danish law prevailed. I believe York was the capital of Danelaw.)

Anyway, back to the Roman ghosts. I dunno if I ever want to see a ghost but if I did seeing a unit of Roman auxiliary infantry in full armor would be the kind of thing to see.

Auxiliary units made up approximately half of the Roman Army and many were raised in Britain but as was the Roman habit they would have been stationed elsewhere in the empire for obvious reasons. The unit Harry reports as seeing would therefore have been raised in a place other than Britain. After 25 years of service an auxiliary would become a citizen and his sons would be eligible to be in the legions which were made up exclusively of citizens. Auxiliary service was something to be desired by the people the Romans conquered and it served the empire well by Romanizing the population.The equipment of an auxiliary differed from that of a legionary too. Both wore heavy armor but the auxiliaries armor was a mail shirt while the legions wore a type of segmented plate armor that was both elaborate and effective. Auxiliaries served as infantry, missile infantry and cavalry.

Roman Auxlia reneactors, not ghosts!

The auxiliaries often did much of the heavy lifting (fighting) on the empire’s borders. In fact Hadrian’s Wall was garrisoned by auxiliaries while the few legions were held behind the wall in reserve. Someday I’d love to take a tour of Roman Britain since there is much to see. The Romans were in Britain for about 400 years. They left behind a Romano-British culture of which King Arthur is the most well-known aspect.

As a point aside for those of you interested in biblical history. There is a passage in the Bible that mentions a centurion of the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1) by the name of Cornelius, definitely a Latin name.

Most people think that the Roman soldiers who were involved in Jesus’ crucifixion were soldiers from a legion. This is most likely not true. Judea did not become a province of Rome until 6 A.D. Prior to this date what we call Judea was ruled by Herod the Great as a client kingdom of Rome. Herod therefore had his own small army and it was this force that killed the little babies following Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:16).

When Judea became a province most of the force would have been disbanded or absorbed into the Roman Army as auxiliaries.  While the Romans usually recruited auxiliaries from one area and sent them to serve in another this did not mean it was always true so it’s easy to speculate that Herod’s old army was simply Rome’s new army in Judea.

Not only that Judea was a bit of a second-rate province and did not rate a legionary garrison. There were four legions stationed in nearby Syria mostly because it was a wealthy province but also because if bordered Parthia one of Rome’s nastier enemies. It is possible that legion detachments did serve in Judea and there is some evidence that a legion named “Gallica” did have detachments there. However, evidence is scanty so it is much more likely that the Romans mentioned in Scripture were units of the auxilia. I’m sure to the average Judean the differences between legion and auxilia were moot.

What it may mean though  is that the soldiers who were present at Jesus’ death were most likely of the auxilia and just possibly of the same Italian Cohort where Cornelius was a centurion! (A cohort numbered roughly 500 men.)

Usually, as mentioned above the auxilia was recruited from non-Romans and the name of the unit would reflect where they were recruited. Since Cornelius’ unit was an Italian Cohort it raises the issue of how could they be auxiliaries?

Well, in 9 A.D. three entire legions plus attached auxiliaries were destroyed in Germany at the Battle of the Teutoberg Wald by Arminius (Herman in German) himself a former auxiliary! The resulting loss of manpower (up to 30,000 soldiers) caused Augustus to raise three cohorts (about 1500 men) of Italian auxiliaries who were already citizens. At least one of these cohorts ended up in Judea after the crisis along the Rhine passed.

So when the Bible says Cornelius was a centurion of the Italian Cohort the reference is most likely to an auxiliary unit of Italians serving in Judea and just possibly being one and the same unit present at Jesus’ death.

As for Harry and the image of 20 auxiliaries forever on patrol in Northern Britain. Who knows?

12 comments on “Ghost Romans in Britain

  1. Although it is true that Judea was a client kingdom ruled by Herod Roman troops were stationed in the province as part of an alliance between Herod and Antony. There were in fact several cohorts of the third Gallica Legion stationed in Judea. It was during the first Jewish revolt, eventually put down by Titus and Vespasian, that the thirds cohorts stationed there were severely mauled thus resulting in them being transferred to the province Moesia on the Danube.

    • I recall reading this somewhere, maybe in a Dando-Collins book. But I’ve also read somewhere else that the Italian cohort mentioned in the Bible was probably Auxlia raised after the Battle of the Teutoberg Wald.Thanks for the comment Thomas.

    • Yep, just looked and I think this is the book.
      Mark Antony’s Heroes: How the Third Gallica Legion Saved an Apostle and Created an Emperor

  2. Yes, that is the same book i read it in. Have you read Dando-Collins new book, Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion?

    • I have not. I saw it on Amazon but thought it said it would not be available until July 2012? Maybe I misread. It will be on my wish list. Roman history is one of my niche interests. I’d love to come to Britain sometime and do the Roman tour some agencies offer. My wife went to Scotland a few years ago and briefly stopped at the Wall.

  3. It is definately worth getting. Roman History is my favourite history and is my greatest interest. I wish to do Hadrians wall myself, Bath is excellent and the Saxon Shore forts are excellent. Where are you from then? The states?

    • Yes, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about 90 miles north of Chicago, IL. Where do you live in the UK? UK history is also an interest of mine. I used to do a lot of miniature games and someone accused me of being an anglophile 🙂 Do you get Ancient Warfare magazine?

  4. Oh right. I live in Salisbury, a small old Medieval city in the south, about 150 miles west of London. I don’t actually. There’s nothing wrong with being an Anglophile, we have such a vast history there is so much to take in and enjoy.

    • Salisbury, Wiltshire, right? I’ve read most of Bernard Cornwall’s series on Alfred the Great and your area factors into that a lot, Vikings, Saxons, Welsh Celts, great novels and as you say lots of history.

      The anglophile comment came from a fellow wargamer. I played the Brits/Tories in our American Revolution games and was the Brits in our Napoleonic games as well. I also had a British/Zulu wargames army so yeah, anglophobe, plus my wife is of Scots/English extraction which is why she visited N. England and Scotland. So, someday hope to do a tour of your great country, esp the Roman sites.

  5. It is indeed in Wiltshire. Oh right, so you seem to represent us a lot in the wargames then. Well thank you for the compliment, it is indeed a great country, as is the United States. I wish to visit the west and east coast at some point but as the USA is so big it would be harder to do a tour of than in tiny little Great Britain.

    • Well Thomas, given your interest in military history we are kind of limited. No Romans for sure! Some Viking stuff in Canada. But, lots of American Civil War. We’ve been to Gettysburg in PA and most of the battlefields in N. Virginia. And if you are in N. Virginia Jamestown is well worth a visit. Archaeological dig there. Williamsburg is great too and Yorktown of course. I’ve always wanted to do the French and Indian War tour too. Upstate New York, Canada, Plains of Abraham, but heard the French speakers don’t much like Americans. Probably over-stated. Yeah, it’s a big country and there is much I have not been to. Never been to California and don’t care to. We have been to Colorado a number of times and the Rocky Mountains are quite the experience.

  6. I think the Seven Years War sites and Civil War battlefields would be interesting to do. Yes, that is a shame, unfortunately due to America being unknown to Europeans for a while it means that there is less recorded history unfortunately.

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