Type: Minor Settlement, Fort.
Reconstruction of Bremetenacum fort
and its associated vicus settlement
Drawing by David Swarbrick
Iter X: N (24) to CALACVM (Casterton, Burrow in Lonsdale, Lancashire)|
ENE (19) to OLENACVM (Elslack, Skipton, North Yorkshire)
Iter X: WSW (8) to Walton le Dale (Preston, Lancashire)
SSE (26) to MAMVCIVM (Manchester, Greater Manchester)
The name of the fort first appears in Iter X of the Antonine Itinerary, "The route from Glannoventa (Ravenglass, Cumbria) to Mediolanum (Whitchurch, Shropshire)". The name is recorded as Bremetonaci, some twenty-seven miles from Calacum (Burrow in Lonsdale, Lancashire) and twenty miles from Coccium (Wigan, Lancashire). The Notitia Dignitatum of the 3rd/4th centuries supplies the name Bremetenraco, which is listed between the entries Calunium (Lancaster, Lancashire) and Olenacum (Elslack, North Yorkshire), both of which sites are only tentatively identified. The Ravenna Cosmology (R&C#124) of the seventh century lists the name as Bresnetenaci Veteranorum, between the entry for Bravoniacum (Kirkby Thore, Cumbria) and the unknown Pampocalia entry.
When the Domesday Book was produced in 1086, Ribchester was even then known by its modern name and is recorded as Ribelcastre, which translates simply as 'Roman Fort on the River Ribble'; the Roman name had apparently been forgotten in the five-hundred or so years between the end of Roman Britain and the arrival of the Normans in the eleventh century.
The etymology of the name Bremetenacum is difficult, but may stem from the Celtic word brez 'hill' coupled with a form of the Latin teneo meaning 'to occupy, retain, settle'. The full name would therefore be something along the lines of 'the Hilltop Settlement of the Veterans'
The Latin name for Ribchester has the suffix Veteranorum, which indicates that veterans were settled here. When the men of the unit stationed at Ribchester were retired from service, it appears that they were granted the use of the marshland lying close to the fort in the nearby Fylde country. They cut a system of drainage channels and thereby recovered large amounts of rich arable land which was used to grow abundant crops, and to raise cattle and horses.
This land was previously owned by the Brigantes tribe, and may have confiscated during the reign of Antoninus Pius (c.AD154-5), for an aside by Pausanias states:
"Antoninus never willingly involved the Romans in War ... he also removed much of the territory of the Brigantes in Britain because they had embarked upon an armed invasion of the region of Genounia¹, which was subject to the Romans." Pausanias Description of Greece, VIII.43 3-4.
Equally, the lands in question may have been held as part of an Imperial Estate since the late 70's, when Cn. Julius Agricola swept through the region during the campaigns prior to his conquest of lowland Scotland, and only allocated later when a clear use for the area had been identified.
The first grants of land to veteran soldiers at Bremetenacum started c.AD200, but the official status of the settlement is uncertain; it certainly was not a colonia, probably not a municipium, though it may have been the centre of an administrative pagus. Other Brigantian territories annexed during the Antonine campaigns were possibly employed to establish the Civitas Carvetiorum in Cumbria. It is also possible that the existing pagus centred on Corstopitum (Corbridge) was up-graded at this time, to form a separate civitas in the north-east of England.
There have been 151 coins recovered from excavations at Ribchester (including seven illegible copper coins, four of which may be attributed to Vespasian), ranging from six republican silver issues (pre 44BC) to a single copper issue of Valentinian I (Imp. AD364-375), also 151 casual finds ranging from a single silver republican issue to a gold coin of Gratian (Imp. 367-383). Of the 299 coins which can be dated, 81 of them are Flavian, 43 of the period AD259-275, 37 Trajanic, 32 Hadrianic, 27 of Constantine and 20 Antonine, with no coins issued after c.378.
"A foundation at least as early as Agricola's governorship would appear to beyond question: however, the very large showing of Flavian coins together with not insignificant numbers of pre-Flavian issues  leaves alive the possibility of some pre-Flavian activity." (Shotter, p.34)
|LEG XX VV FECIT|
|"The Twentieth Legion, Valiant and Victorious, made this."|
(RIB 592; building inscription)
Bronze Cavalry Parade Helmet
unearthed at the Ribchester fort.
The original Flavian timber-built fort continued to be occupied throughout the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, as attested by samian ware dating to both these periods. By the time of Calpurnius Agricola the fort had been replaced in stone. The fort was damaged around AD196/7 and the H.Q. building destroyed, but a Severan inscription records building restorations to both the fort and at least one temple erected outside the defences. Both the fort and its temples were destroyed around 301-306, though repairs were effected at sometime during the mid-fourth century. The last coins from the site are those of Gratian (367-383), and the last dateable pottery was produced in the late-fourth century.
The fort measures 550 by 410 feet (168 x 125 m) within the defences, having an occupation area of just under 5¼ acres (c.2 ha). Defences consisted of a twenty foot wide double-ditch system separated by a narrow berm from the rampart, which was also twenty feet wide and made of puddled clay laid on a raft of oak beams and shingles as a protection against the underlying damp ground. The gateways and corner-towers were of timber, and so it seems, were the original interior buildings, as no traces were found during excavations in 1928.
|IMP CAES M AVREL ANTONINO ...ET IMP CAES L AVREL VERO ... AVG VEX EQ PROVINCIAE GERMANIAE SVP SEX CALPVRN AGRICOLA COS|
|"Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [...] and Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus [...] Augustus, a detachment of cavalry from the German provinces, under Sextus Calpurnius Agricola, the consular (governor)."|
(RIB 589; c.AD163-9)
A building inscription mentioning the governor Sextus Calpurnius Agricola (vide supra), probably indicates some degree of refurbishment during the latter half of the second century, but it is almost certain that the fort was built earlier than this, perhaps during the campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola around AD78.
|COH X > TITIANA O P XXVII|
|"The tenth cohort (under) centurion Titian worked on twenty seven paces (of the rampart)."|
At some time, possibly the Severan period, the fort underwent modifications to the defences; the outer margin of the clay rampart was cut back, then a raft of timbers was laid down on top of which was built a six foot wide stone wall fronting the rampart. During this same period some of the internal buildings were replaced in stone and a bath-house was built outside the defences.
|IMP CAES AVG ET ...AVG ET ... C VALERIO PVDENTE LEG AVGG PR PR|
|"Imperator Caesar (Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax) Augustus,¹ and [Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus] Augustus,² and [Julia Domna,³ supervised by] Gaius Valerius Pudens, pro-praetorian legate of the two Augusti."|
(RIB 591; dedicatory inscription, names restored; AD205)
The columns of the courtyard portico in the principia at Ribchester had deep grooves cut into their sides, which were probably intended as support-slots for timber screens or panels in the spaces between the columns. The elaborate stone forehall of the principia has been dated to the Severan period. The double granary at Ribchester is also worthy of note as two different construction methods were used in the separate halves of the building, one side had stone pillars supporting the floor, whilst the other had only a single sleeper wall which ran longitudinally down the centre of the structure. The granaries had a massive stone loading-platforms jutting out over two metres from the ends of the buildings, which were probably covered by a timber roof. The septic tank into which the latrines drained has been identified, though the latrines themselves have not yet been excavated.
|... ... ... PRO SAL IMP CAES ALEXANDRI AVG N ET IVLIAE MAMAEAE MATRIS D N ET CASTR AVB CVRA VAL CRESCENTIS FVLVIANI LEG EIVS PRO PR T FLORID NATALIS > LEG PRAEP N ET REG TEMPLVM A SOLO EX RESPONSV DEI RESTITVIT ET DEDICAVIT DE SVO|
|"[...] for the health of Imperator Caesar Alexander, our Augustus, and for Julia Mamaea, the mother of our Lord and of the Strongholds, under the direction of Valerius Crescens Fulvianus, his pro-praetorian legate, Titus Florid(us) Natalis, legionary centurion in charge of the regiment and the region, restored this temple from the ground up in answer to the god, and dedicated on their behalf."|
(RIB 587; AD225-35)
The above dedication by a legionary centurion with the title praepositus regionis literally 'the man in charge of the region', perhaps indicates that the veteran soldiers of Ribchester were the custodians of some sort of specialized industry which required the administrative skills of a trusted legionary officer. This industry possibly involved the breeding or training of horses (vide infra).
|... ... > LEG XX V V CVM SVIS VSLM|
|"[...]¹ centurion of the Twentieth Legion Valiant and Victorious, with his family, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow."|
(RIB 588; altarstone)
An altarstone dedicated by a centurion of Legio XX Valeria Victrix is not proof that the legion was stationed here. The Ribchester fort was built by men of the Twentieth, that much is certain (vide RIB 592 supra), but what is also apparent is that it was built for a regiment of auxiliary cavalry, not a cohort of infantry. The unknown dedicator of this altarstone was very likely seconded to the staff of the cavalry prefect, presumably in a senior consultative or advisory position, as he was allowed to take his family along.
|DEAB MATRIB M INGENVIVS ASIATICVS DEC AL II ASTVRVM VSLM|
|"To the Mother Goddesses, Marcus Ingenuius Asiaticus, decurion¹ of the Second Wing of Astures, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."|
(RIB 586; altarstone; 2nd century)
Perhaps the first occupants of the Ribchester fort were Ala II Asturum, a nominal five-hundred strong auxiliary cavalry unit recruited from among the Astures tribe of north-western Spain.
|D M ... DECVRIO AL SARMATARVM|
|"To the spirits of the departed (and) [...]¹ decurion of the Sarmatian Wing."|
(RIB 595; tombstone)
This unit was a Sarmatian cavalry regiment who replaced the Second Asturian Wing. This was one unit of perhaps seven, totalling 5,500 tribesmen in all, who were drafted from among the savage tribes living beyond the Danube and sent to Britain by Marcus Aurelius in AD175. These people had previously held Roman client status, but at this particular time were not under direct Roman control. It has been suggested that Ribchester later became a Roman military horse-breeding/training centre, which drew-upon the particular tribal skills of the Sarmatians.
|HIS TERRIS SIGITVR AEL MATRONA QVOND VIXIT AN XXVIII M II D VIII ET M IVL MAXIMVS FIL VIXIT AN L IVL MAXIMVS S C ALAE SAR CONIVX CONIVGI INCOMPARABILI ET FILIO PATRI PIENTISSIMO ET SOCAERE TENACISSIME MEMORIA P|
|"This earth seals up Aelia Matrona, who lived for twenty-eight years two months and eight days, and Marcus Julius, son of Maximus, fifty years old. Julius Maximus, singularius consularis¹ of the Sarmatian Wing, husband of an incomparable wife, and son of a most devoted father, placed this in memory of the most steadfast of companions."|
(RIB 594; 3rd century tombstone?)
The inscription shown above was dedicated by a singularius consularis, an officer nominally appointed to the staff of the consular governor, who had specific and widely-varying duties. Julius Maximus was perhaps sent to watch over the Ribchester garrison, because the quarrelsome and truculent natures of these auxiliary soldiers could only be dealt with by someone posessing a bit more 'clout' than an ordinary praefectus, who would normally have been in charge of such a unit.
An eighteenth-century historian paints a barbarous picture of the Sarmatiae, which is worth quoting at length:
"... The Sarmatians were a savage uncivilized nation, ... naturally warlike, and famous for painting their bodies to appear more terrible in the field of battle. They were known for their lewdness, ... They generally lived on the mountains without any habitation except their chariots, ... They lived upon plunder, and fed upon milk mixed with the blood of horses."
|DEO SAN APOLLINI MAPONO PRO SALVTE D N ET N EQ SARM BREMETENN GORDIANI AEL ANTONINVS > LEG VI VIC DOMO MELITENIS PRAEP N ET PR VSLM DEDIC PR KAL SEP IMP D N GORDIANO AVG II ET PONPEIANO COS|
|"To the sacred god Apollo Maponus, and for the health of our Lord and the Company of Gordians Sarmatian Horse at Bremetenacum, Aelius Antoninus, centurion of the Sixth Victorious Legion, from Melitanis,¹ in charge of the Company and the Region, willingly and deservedly fullfilled his vow. Dedicated on the first day of September when our Lord Imperator Gordianus Augustus - for the second time - and Pompeianus² were consuls."|
(RIB 583; dedicatory inscription; AD241)
The dedicatory inscription to Apollo shown above, was dedicated by a praepositus regionis, which proves that the local garrison was still considered a special case, and perhaps a potential flash-point, in the middle of the third century. Another dedicatory inscription by a man of this rank has also been unearthed at the Ribchester fort (vide RIB 587 supra).
It was the Sarmatian peoples who, under their tribal identities as Huns, Goths, Vandals and the like, were ultimately responsible for the ruin of the Roman empire in the third and fourth centuries.
|Cuneus Sarmatarum, Bremetenraco|
|"The Formation of Sarmatians at Bremetenacum."|
|(Notitia Dignitatum xl.54; 4th/5th C.)|
In the Notitia Dignitatum of the fourth century, the Ribchester entry is listed under the command of the Dux Britannia, curiously under the heading 'upon the line of the Wall', even though Ribchester lies about 70 miles (110km) to the south of Hadrian's monument. The Cunei were small, irregular auxiliary units predominant in the later Roman empire, who sported a variety of weapons skills; the Ribchester Cuneus was a cavalry unit possibly enlisted from among the sons and grandsons of the original Sarmatian veterans who settled in the area.
|PACIFERO MARTI ELEGA VRBA POSVIT EX VOTO|
|"To peace-making Mars, Elegaurba¹ placed this on account of a vow."|
(RIB 584; altarstone)
Several gods from the classical pantheon are celebrated at Ribchester. There are single altars dedicated to the war god Mars (vide RIB 584 supra), to the goddess Victory (vide RIB 590 infra), and to the sun god Apollo (vide RIB 583 supra). There is also an altar dedicated both to Mars and to Victory (RIB 585; not shown), and another dedicated to the Celtic/Germanic Mother Goddesses (vide RIB 586 supra).
|PRO SALVTE ET VICTORIA INVICTI IMP MARAVR SEVER ANTONINI P F AVG ET IVL AVG MATRI D N ET CAS... ... SEPR|
|"To invicible Victory and the health of Imperator Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus,¹ son of the Pius,² and for Julia Augusta,³ mother of our Lord and of the Strongholds [...] Sempronius."|
(RIB 590; altarstone; AD213-7?)
In the inscription shown above, the equation SEPR = Sempronius is tentative, and the name cannot be linked with any of the ordinary consuls of the period. This may have been the gens or family-name of the altars dedicator.
|D N IMP CAES G MESSIO Q DECIO TRAIANO||IMP CAES M ANTONIO GORDIANO|
|"For our lord Imperator Caesar Caius Messius Quintus Decius Trajanus."sup1;"||"For Imperator Caesar Marcus Antonius Gordianus.²"|
|(RIB 2268; dated: AD249-251)||(RIB 2269; dated: AD238-244)|
Excavations conducted in 1969 outside the NW defences of the fort found occupation evidence from the mid/late-1st to the late-2nd centuries AD, including at least two periods in Flavian/Trajanic times and several others of later date. (See: Britannia I (1970) p.281 & plate.XXXIIa).
During excavations over the years a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of domesticated Ox, Sheep, Goat and Pig, also game such as Red Deer and Roe Deer; the latter very likely being hunted and killed for sport and to supplement the diet. In addition, various types of fowl, such as Chicken, Goose and Swan were evidently eaten. (See the article: The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia II (1971) pp.122-142).
SD649350 - The western defences and part of the interior of the fort were investigated (by Manchester University) in 1970. There were 4 phases of development discernable in the interior investigations: A substantial timber building was the first to be erected on the site, possibly the Flavian praetorium, in which case the original fort faced north. This building was later overlain by a number of barrack-blocks or stables during the Trajanic period. These types of building would have resided in the retentura of the succeeding fort, which therefore faced east. During the late-fourth century the ground went unused, although it is known that the fort continued to be manned by a reduced garrison.
|Ribchester Roman Museum - a very good page from AboutBritain.com|
|Roman Ribchester - page by Steve Lassey|
|Ribchester Roman Fort - a good page from webmaster Andrew Stringer|
|Bremetenacum: Excavations at Roman Ribchester 1980, 1989-90 - a book from RomanFindsGroup.org.uk|
|Ribchester Associates Property Agents, 5 Chad Square, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 3TQ - Don't Go There!|