NGRef: NZ3667
OSMap: Hadrian's Wall, LR88.
Type: Fort, Minor Settlement.
Roads
Wrekendike: W (12) to Pons Aelivs (Newcastle, Tyne & Wear)
Wrekendike: SW (12) to Concangis (Chester-le-Street, Durham)
River Tyne (upstream): WSW (5) to Segedvnvm (Wallsend, Tyne & Wear)

Arbeia - 'The Place of the Arabs'

The earliest reference to the Roman fort at South Shields occcurs in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 4th/5th century, where the garisson fort Arbeia (vide infra) is listed between the entries for Verbeia (Ilkley, West Yorkshire) and an unknown station named Dictium. Arbeia is thought to be a Latinised form of a name originally from Aramaic - the native language of the last attested unit stationed at the fort - meaning 'the Place of the Arabs'.

Arbeia Gatehouse
The Gatehouse Reconstruction
viewed from across the principia.

The fort at South Shields has been identified with the Horrea Classis entry of the Ravenna Cosmography, which was a list of forts and posting stations compiled for the Severan campaigns of the early third century. This Latin name means 'The Granaries of the Fleet', which certainly describes the Arbeia storage depot, and possibly indicates that part at least of the Classis Britannia or the 'British Fleet' may have been based here in South Shields. This view is now discredited, however, and Horrea Classis is now thought to refer to the Severan fort at Carpow overlooking the mouth of the Tay in Scotland.

The sixteenth-century antiquary, John Leland, gives the name as Caer Urfa, which appears to be a simple corruption of the earlier Roman name, prefixed by Caer, a Welsh word meaning 'a fortified place' which is typical of the early Saxon era. The modern name is first recorded in 1235 as Scheles, which is a Middle English term for a group of makeshift huts or shelters, in this case probably used by fishermen; there were evidently more of these temporary dwellings on the opposite bank of the Tyne at North Shields.

During excavations over the years at the South Shields fort a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of domestic Ox, Sheep, Goat and Pig, also game such as Red Deer, Boar and Elk; the latter animals very likely being hunted and killed for sport and as a means of supplementing the soldiers' diet. As one might expect from a fort positioned close to the coast, a number of molluscs were also eaten at Arbeia, including Oyster, Mussel, Limpet, Winkle and Edible Snail.

Hadrianic Cavalry Fort / Severan Supply Base

Fort Plan
Plan of the Arbeia fort during the Severan period
At this time the former cavalry fort was converted into a supply base
and its defences were extended, measuring at this time 620 x 320 feet.
Adapted from Roman Forts by Anne Johnson (fig.213, p.289)

Originally built during the reign of Hadrian c.AD129, Arbeia was the easternmost garrison fort of Hadrian's Wall, guarding a small seaport on the south bank of the Tyne Estuary near its outlet into the North Sea at South Shields. The first two units stationed here were both auxiliary cavalry 'wings', each containing around five-hundred troopers.

keystone
Keystone from Arbeia
Recovered from the cross-
hall of the principia.

In AD208 the emperor Septimius Severus launched a series of campaigns against the troublesome Caledonian tribes, and the fort at Arbeia underwent a radical change in its usage. The attendant cavalry ala was withdrawn for the emperor's campigns through the Scottish highlands, to be replaced at South Shields by an auxiliary infantry cohort. This change in military function was obviously accompanied by a period of rebuilding, during which the fort was considerably altered:

The fort appears to have been temporarily abandoned towards the end of the third century, and not re-used until the end of the fourth, when Arbeia seems again to have been put to use as a storehouse, with its contents being shipped periodically inland along the course of the River Tyne and its tributaries.

The fort was finally abandoned c.AD400, pretty much about the same time as emperor Honorius informed the people of Britain that they must look to their own defence, and the Romans withdrew from the island never to return.

The Garrison Units of Arbeia

LEG VI
"The Sixth Legion"
(RIB 1061)
LEG VI VIC > PATERNI LEG VI VIC ... > ... SEVERI P CII LEG VI VIC P F COH III > ...
"The Sixth Victorious Legion, century of Paternus [built this]." "The Sixth Victorious Legion, [...] century of [...] Severus, [built] one-hundred and two paces [of rampart]." "The Sixth Victorious Legion, Loyal and Faithful, the third cohort, century of [... built this]."
(RIB 1070a; JRS lii (1962), p.193, no.13) (RIB 1070d; Britannia xviii (1987), p.368, no.8) (RIB 1070e; Britannia xxvi (1995), p.379-80, no.6)

Although there are several inscriptions attesting the Sixth Legion at South Shields, it is quite unlikely that a cohort from this unit was ever stationed here. A substantial stone-built fort such as that at Arbeia would have required specialised engineering skills which were only available in the highly-trained soldiers in the Roman legions, and not possessed by the auxiliary units which were to garisson the fort. It was the legions, therefore, who were responsible for most of the military building work in the Roman empire, and it is evident that the Sixth legion were responsible for perhaps all of the building work at Arbeia.

IVLIVS VERAX > LEG VI
"Julius Verax, centurion of the Sixth Legion [dedicates this]."
(RIB 1057; altarstone)

Among the inscriptions found here is an altar to an unknown god dedicated by a centurion of the Sixth (vide supra), which suggests that at least one century of the legion was stationed here for some time, most likely in temporary accommodation whilst construction work at the fort was under way.

The first unit to be stationed here was Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana, a squadron of auxiliary cavalry containing five-hundred horsemen recruited from among the Pannonian tribes of modern Hungary. They were removed to Onnum (Halton Chesters, Northumberland) sometime before the third century.

D M VICTORIS NATIONE MAVRVM ANNORVM XX LIBERTVS NVMERIANI EQITIS ALA I ASTVRVM QVI PIANTISSIME PROSEQVTVS EST
"To the spirits of the departed and Victor, of the Moorish nation, twenty years old, freedman of Numerianus, a trooper of the First Wing of Asturians, who most devotedly conducted [his burial]."
(RIB 1064; tombstone)

The second unit to be stationed here was another cavalry regiment Ala I Hispanorum Asturum, originally from the Astures tribe of north-western Spain, and probably numbered among the auxilia which accompanied emperor Claudius during the British invasion of AD43. They are attested in stone on a single tombstone (vide supra).

IMP CAES DIVI SEVER
NEPOS DIVI MGNI ANTONINI FIL
M AVREL SEVERVS ...
PIVS FELIX AVG PONTIF MAX
TRIB POT PP COS AQVAM
VISBVS MIL COH V GALLO IN
DVXIT CVRATE MRIO VALERIANO
LEG EIVS PR PR
Imperator Caesar Divi Severus
Nepos Divi Magni Antonini Filius
Marcus Aurelius Severus ...
Pius Felix Augustus Pontifex Maximus
Tribunicia Potestas Pater Patriae Consul aquam
visbus miles Cohortis Quintae Gallorum in
duxit curate Mario Valeriano
legatus eius pro praetore
"The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus [Alexander] Pius Felix Augustus, grandson of the deified Severus, son of the deified Antoninus the Great, Supreme Pontiff, with tribunician power, Father of his Country, Consul, brought this water supply for the use of the soldiers of the Fifth Cohort of Gauls, under the direction of Marius Valerianus, his Legate with pro-praetorian power."
(RIB 1060; dedicatory inscription from the Arbeia aqueduct; dated: AD222)
Arbeia Praetorium
The view from the gatehouse
towards the praetorium.

The original cavalry units were replaced in the Severan period by a one-thousand trong infantry unit Cohors V Gallorum, who were possibly withdrawn from Cramond on the Forth. The presence of this Gallic infantry unit at South Shields is attested in a dedicatory inscription dated to AD222, which celebrates the completion of the new fort aqueduct (vide supra), on an altarstone to an unidentified deity (RIB 1059), which reads simply ... ... COH V GAL ..., also on a dedicatory inscription discovered in 1985 (vide infra).

As the normal requirement for a milliary cohort was ten barrack-blocks, it would appear that the Fifth Cohort of Gauls was under-strength by almost half, perhaps four centuriae had been retained as a caretaking force at the Cramond fort. An alternate theory is that the unit was employed to accompany the supply caravans between the two forts - whether they travelled by road or sea - and quarters had been allocated in both establishments for use by the infantrymen at either end of the journey.

... AC CASTR AC SENAT AC PATRIAE PRO PIETATE AC DEVOTIONE COMMVNI CVRANTE G IVL MARCO LEG AVG PR PR COH V GALL POS
"[To Julia Domna, mother of the Augustus],¹ and the encampments, and the senate, and the fatherland, out of the loyalty and devotion of the community, under the administration of Gaius Julius Marcus, pro-praetorian legate of the Emperor, the Fifth Cohort of Gauls places this."
(RIB 1070b; Britannia xvi (1985), pp.325-6, no.11)
  1. For the restoration of this text see the inscription from Risingham in Northumberland (RIB 1235; dated: AD209).

Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium
The Company of Bargemen from the Tigris

Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium, Arbeia
"The Company of Bargemen from the Tigris at Arbeia"
(Notitia Dignitatum xl.22; 4th/5th C.)

The last Roman military unit attested at South Shields were the Numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium, an irregular unit of barge-men from the River Tigris in the Middle-East; the name of the unit is recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum. It would appear that the wife of one of these men is recorded on a tombstone recovered from South Shields (vide RIB 1065 infra).

The Gods of Arbeia

Over the years a number of Roman inscriptions have been unearthed in the neighbourhood of the Arbeia fort which, aside from giving valuable dating information and the names of the garrison auxiliary units, also gives some insight into the religous activities of the inhabitants.

Altar to Aesculapius

D ESCVLAP P VIBOLEIVS SECVNDVS ARAM D D
"To the god Aesculapius, Publius Viboleius Secundus donated this altar as a gift."
(RIB 1052; altarstone)

Aesculapius was the son of Apollo and the Greek god of Medicine. The dedicator, Publius Viboleius Secundus, has the three names indicative of a Roman citizen and may have been the military physician at the fort, but it is equally probable that he was a military tribune or even a private citizen, who, having recovered from a life-threatening wound or illness, commissioned this stone altar be raised to the god he thought responsible for his recovery.

Altar to Brigantia

DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRVM CONGENNCCVS VSLM
"To the sacred goddess Brigantia. Congenniccus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."
(RIB 1053; altarstone)

Brigantia was the patron deity of the local British tribe in the area of the Wall, who was venerated throughout the Celtic world under the name of Brigit. She was the three-fold goddess of wisdom, also known as the Mother of Memory, a daughter of Dana the Celtic mother goddess. The worship of Brigit/Brigantia was not confined to the British Isles, so we cannot be sure that the dedicator Congenniccus was a locally-born lad, though his name is undoubtedly Celtic and the probability of his being a Brigantian Briton is almost certain.

Altar to the 'Spirits of Conservation'

DIS CONSERVATORIB PRO SALV IMP C M AVREL ANTONINI AVG BRIT MAX [ET IMP C P SEP GETAE AVG] ...RENS OB REDITV V S
"To the Spirits of Conservation for the well-being of Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, greatest in Britain, [and Imperator Caesar Publius Septimius Geta, ...]rens on his return, fulfilled his vow."
(RIB 1054; altarstone; dated: AD211-12)

Altar to Mars of the Cavalry Wing

MAR ALA G VINICIVS CELSVS PRO SE ET ... VSLM
"To Mars of the Ala, Gaius Vinicius Celsus, for himself and [his family], fulfills his vow."
(RIB 1055; altarstone)

Altar to an Unknown God and the Numinibus Augusti

... SANCTE ET NVMINIBVS AVGG ... DOMITIVS EPICTET ... ... CVM COMMILITONIBVS TEMPLVM
"To [...] the holy one and to the divine spirits of the Emperors [...] Domitius Epictetus [...] this temple for his military comrades."
(RIB 1056; inscribed frieze)

Altar to Vitiris

DEO ANSV VITIRI CR...
"To the god Ansus Vitiris, Cr[...]."
(RIB 1070c; altarstone; Britannia xviii (1987), p.368, no.7)

A couple of Tombstones

D M S AV...DVS VIXIT ANNO VIIII M VIIII L ARRVNTIVS SALVIANVS FILIO B PIISSIMO
"To the sacred spirits of the departed and Au[relius Aman]dus, who lived for nine years and nine months, Lucius Arruntius Salvianus [made this], for his kind-hearted and most faithful son."
(RIB 1062; tombstone)

A soldier in the Roman armed forces was not allowed to marry, but we know the practice continued in spite of regulations to the contrary, due mainly to inscriptions like these. The tombstone of a young boy (RIB 1062 supra) is dedicated by a man having the three names indicative of Roman citizenship, but his father's rank and titles are omitted, perhaps because he was a civilian. Another tombstone of a native British woman named Regina (RIB 1065 infra) is most interesting. Regina's tribe were the Catuvellauni, the most populous in southern Britain, who inhabited the area now covered by the modern shires of Hertford, Northampton, Buckingham, Bedford and Cambridge. Her bereaved husband Barates' home city of Palmyra lay on the eastern edge of the province of Syria, at the opposite end of the Roman empire (2,500 miles away by falcon). It is very likely that he was numbered among the unit of Tigris Bargemen stationed at the fort during the fourth century. The stone below was also inscribed RGYN BT HRY T HBL; anyone read Palmyrene?

D M REGINA LIBERTA ET CONIVGE BARATES PALMYRENVS NATIONE CATVALLAVNA AN XXX
"To the spirits of the departed and Regina, freedwoman and wife of Barates of Palmyra, a Catuvellaunian by race, thirty years old."
(RIB 1065; tombstone)

Arbeia Today

Roman Remains Park, Baring Street, South Shields
Admission Free Car Parking Facilities for the Disabled Variable Opening Hours Information Available Site Museum
Much of the original outline of the defences and several interior buildings can be seen, together with an impressive, full-size reconstruction of the west gate. The site museum includes a display of Roman burial customs, while another shows the day-to-day routine of an auxiliary soldier posted to the Arbeia fort. When we visited the fort in August 2000 the reconstruction of the commanding officer's house or praetorium was well under way. It is projected to open in winter 2000.

Arbeia Bibliography

See: Hadrian's Wall Map and Guide by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1989);
Hadrian's Wall in the Days of the Romans by Ronald Embleton and Frank Graham (Newcastle, 1984) pp.33-42;
The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia II (1971) pp.122-142;
The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
All English translations, including any inherent mistakes, are my own. Togodumnus

Arbeia Related Lynx