Roman Marching Camp Placement in Scotland: Lab Notebook #1

Aerial photograph of Lochlands temporary Roman camp in Falkirk, Scotland. Taken by John Wells, provided via Creative Commons.


The intersection of Roman and Scottish history is such a brief period of time that as I have started research for my HST 251 digital history project, I have often asked myself why this period of time has pulled me in as much as it has. Historian Gordon S. Maxwell contemplated the same question, reasoning on the problem that “the Romans occupy a disproportionately prominent position on the stage of [Scottish] national history” despite the fact that “their presence in this northern kingdom did not extend beyond three episodes, which together spanned no more than fifty years1.”

Maxwell gives some well-reasoned answers for this conundrum — that we see in the Romans a society of people dealing not unlike ourselves, or that we see a sympathetic cause in Scottish fight against oppression that has seemed to replay throughout history. Whatever the exact reasons, I quickly found myself pulled into my research on many occasions.

But this project is not just a result of a fascination with Roman Empire’s failed forays into Scotland. I have also always been captivated by the designs of fortresses and defensive structures, ever since I was a child drawing pictures of castles on my school notebooks, although I did not think of this as a topic I could be captivated by until fairly recently. I’ve always wanted to know more about why fortifications were placed where they are, how their designers intended them to be used, and how they interacted with the land they are placed on.

I decided to focus my project on a confluence of these two fascinations: specifically, I wanted to study the relationship between the locations of Roman military marching camps and the features of Roman Scotland, including elevation, water sources, and roads. I also wanted to research what the Romans wrote down on this topic and to see for myself how the writings I found compared to an analysis of the real-life locations that historians have discovered.

Location and Scope

One of the first challenges I faced was tightening my focus so that the topic was reasonably approachable and doable with the limited amount of time and prior knowledge that I had; in both the former and latter categories, the amount could be summed up as “very little”.

Although originally I did was not restricting the idea of studying fortifications to those of the Romans, I decided to focus on Rome fairly quickly, for a number of reasons. Aside from prior interest, the breadth of the Roman empire meant that I would not be limited by a lack of data points or areas to focus on. I surmised that collecting a comparably-sized pool of data to work with a different ancient civilization, such as those of the Greek city-states, would require lumping together fortifications of different types and origins in a way that would make it harder to draw worthwhile conclusions. I also found sources on Roman fortifications to be fairly numerous, recent, and easy for me to access.

Once this decision was made, I still had to narrow down my area of interest to a specific locale and type of fortification, as to create a manageable size for my data set. This decision was made easy by my discovery of the book Roman Camps in Scotland, written by Rebecca H. Jones. Published in 2011, the book contains a large gazetteer of Roman temporary camps in Scotland and relevant information on the methods used to discover and classify these camps. Although the term “temporary camp” is not especially well defined by Jones, it seems to be distinguishable enough based on the distinction between permanent fortifications and their more temporary, “ephemeral” counterparts, which seem to have been of fairly uniform construction and purpose, especially within Scotland2.

Jones’ book also mentioned Canmore, an online database of archaeological sites and historical locations in Scotland. Most of the camps described in Roman Camps in Scotland are mapped on Canmore. Jones mentions some errors she was aware of at the time of writing3,  but I could cross-reference the information obtained via Canmore with Roman Camps, and it would take significantly less time as compared to typing and organizing Jones’ data set by hand.

After getting this far in the research by myself, I had a very helpful meeting with Michigan State University GIS Librarian Amanda Tickner. We discussed my research so far, and she helped me formulate a framework for the project. She gave me the idea to add roads to the project, and also told me that the data from Canmore could be imported into mapping software — her recommendation was ArcGIS — and layered along with existing elevation, watershed, and Roman road data in order to analyze the spatial relationships between them.

Sources on Roman Marching Camps

Before diving into the data, it was clearly necessary for me to examine the history of Roman marching camps and the military campaigns in Scotland which had left them behind. As one might expect, the methods used by the Roman military to decide where marching camps are placed is the type of information that seems not to lend itself to being written about frequently — although it would not be fair to speak for the primary sources we have on Roman military affairs,  I could understand how such information might seem uninteresting or unimportant. However, this does not mean that the historical record is completely bereft of ink spilled on this topic.

The first source from the period that I examined was the Eptioma Rei Militaris, a work of the author Vegetius. I was able to view two translations, one by N.P. Milner in Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science4 and another in Epitoma Rei Militaris: Edited with an English Translation by Leo F. Stelten.

Vegetius’ point of view is interesting in that he appears to be writing a guide on how to fix the Roman army of his day, apparently as advice to an emperor of disputed identity, rather than a history of the Roman military’s practices4. Vegetius seems to have been some sort of court official, and “there is little evidence that he himself was a soldier6,” but he does not seem to position himself as anything other than that. The text covers a wide variety of military matters, including a section describing the factors that Vegetius though important in camp placement7.

Another Roman source on the topic of temporary fortifications is a treatise known as the De Munitionibus Castrorum. It was somewhat difficult to track down an English translation of this treatise, but fortunately I was able to find a translation in a thesis paper written by Catherine M. Gilliver and provided via ProQuest. The dating and authorship of this treatise are still disputed, although the author is believed to have been a military surveyor8. Although this text is much shorter than the Epitoma, it is focused specifically on the construction, organization, and placement of marching camps, with the caveat that it is a book of theory and guidelines rather than a description of actual practice9.

This author gives similar advice to Vegetius, with much more detail — it includes a list of camp location types, apparently ordered according to their advantage, and a list of unfavorable features for marching camp sites, which the author refers to as “mothers-in-law10.” This is the most detailed source I found on the subject, and it is well complemented by the thesis paper its translation can be found in — it gives some insightful commentary on marching camps in the historical record and lists many other primary sources on the Roman military.11.

Beyond the primary sources, there were numerous modern secondary sources that provided me with the information needed to better understand the context of these fortifications. I found several compendiums and compilations on military architecture — specifically Roman Military Architecture on the Frontiers12 and Ancient Fortifications13 to be good introductions to the study of fortifications, Roman and otherwise, and they gave some much-needed clarification on the classifications of fortifications. I also viewed some papers that gave reports on specific Roman temporary camps to better understand the methods used to discover and confirm these sites as Roman14, and read up on the Roman military’s history in Scotland to give myself a better knowledge of the context these camps come from15. I then examined the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World16 and kept it in mind as a source to return to if I found myself lacking information about a specific site.
Roman Fort near Braco – taken by Paul Birrell, provided by Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Developing a Research Question

Deciding how to frame my research as a question was perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the early stages of this project. I knew that I wanted to study this topic in general, but finding specific questions to ask was hard when the data still needed to be modified and interwoven into something I could query.

I wanted to know first and foremost how Roman marching camps were positioned in relation to the features of Scotland, but I wanted to frame that as a question that was more approachable and quantifiable. After much thought I arrived at my first research question: At what distance are Roman marching camps typically located from land features, such as roads, water sources, and elevation, that were considered important by sources from the time?

I am not sure that this first question is in its final wording right now, but I am fairly confident that the general framing of the question will remain similar. I originally had thought of using a term like “physical features” or “geographic features” instead of listing the specific features I would examine, but the addition of roads to that list made those terms seem less than ideal, and spelling them out seemed more clear.

As an addendum to that first question, I think that a secondary research question that focuses on the comparison between the data I analyze and the sources I’ve read: Do the locations of Roman marching camps tend to follow the maxims and guidance of military manuals from the time?

I like the combination of these two questions in that they ask similar questions in different ways; the former more quantitatively, and the latter more qualitatively. However, I am not completely sure that the latter question is completely necessary — it will probably have to be decided how much I will focus on that question as my research progresses.

Where To Next?

The next big hurdle to overcome is learning how to use ArcGIS — I have almost no experience in this department, so it will certainly be a challenge. Unfortunately, I cannot yet attempt this hurdle, as I am waiting on acquiring a student license, but once that is resolved that will take up most of my research time. After that, I look forward to layering my data together and trying to analyze it effectively.

Overall, I’m very excited by the prospect of finishing a digital history project and contributing to our understanding of these camps. There’s a long road ahead and not a lot of time to traverse it, but I feel up to the task and I’m excited to see where this project goes.


  1. Maxwell, Gordon S., The Romans in Scotland (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1989, Print): ix-x.
  2. Jones, Rebecca H, Roman Camps In Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2011, Print): 1-12.
  3. Jones, Roman Camps In Scotland: 125.
  4. Milner, N.P, translator, “Epitoma Rei Militaris” by Flavius Vegetius Renatus, in Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool : Liverpool Univ. Press, 2011, Print). I have not directly referenced this work here as the book was unavailable to me at the time of this writing, but I found it just as useful as Stelten’s translation and I did not notice any differences significant enough to warrant mention here.
  5. Stelten, Leo F, translator, Epitoma Rei Militaris By Flavius Vegetius Renatus (New York : Peter Lang, 1990, Print): XIV-XVIII.
  6. Stelten XIV.
  7. Stelten 45.
  8. Gilliver, Catherine M, The Roman Art of War: Theory and Practice (Order No. 10045626, University of London, University College London : ProQuest, 1993, Web) : 13.
  9. Gilliver 21; Gilliver, translator, De Munitionibus Castrorum, in The Roman Art of War: 233-245.
  10. Gilliver, translator, De Munitionibus Castrorum 244-245.
  11. I have not heavily examined any of the other sources listed;  most of the other sources listed either did not deal with marching camps, or focus on time periods or places different from the particulars of the Roman occupation of Britain. If interested, see Gilliver: 11-26.
  12. Collins, Rob, Matthew Symonds, and Meike Weber, Roman Military Architecture on the Frontiers: Armies and their Architecture in Late Antiquity (Havertown, US : Oxbow Books, 2015, ProQuest ebrary, Web).
  13. Muth, Silke, et al, Ancient Fortifications: A Compendium of Theory and Practice (Oxbow Books, 2016, EBSCOhost, Web).
  14. Jones, Rebecca H., and Peter Keague, “A ‘Stracathro’-Gated temporary camp at Raeburnfoot, Dumfriesshire, Scotland,” (Britannia vol. 40, 2009, pp. 123-136, JSTOR, Web); see also White, Ross, “Excavation at Tollpark Roman Temporary Camp, North Lanarkshire,” (Scottish Archaeological Journal vol. 32, no. 2, 2010, pp. 177-197, JSTOR, Web).
  15. Breeze, David J, Roman Frontiers in Britain (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2007, Print); see also Maxwell,  Gordon S., The Romans in Scotland (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1989, Print).
  16. Talbert, Richard J.A., and Roger S. Bagnall, Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, Print).

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