In the collections of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, there is one inscription from Hadrian’s Wall that has particular relevance to our present circumstances. Gracing a fine inscribed slab from Housesteads Fort, its text can be directly linked to a pandemic that afflicted the Roman Empire – including, very probably, northern Britain.
First recorded in 1807, the Latin inscription is a simple religious dedication by the first cohort of Tungrians (an infantry unit who were stationed at Housesteads), and links the Northumberland site with distant Asia Minor. It reads: Diis deabusque secundum interpretationem oraculi Clari Apollinis coh[ors] I Tungrorum, which can be translated as ‘To the gods and goddesses according to the interpretation of the oracle of the Clarian Apollo – [this stone was set up by] the first cohort of Tungrians’. (For more on the inscription, see www.romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1579; the stone can also be seen in the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, when the museum is able to reopen.)
Located on the Aegean coast of Ionia (now western Turkey), Claros was home to a sanctuary of Apollo where an oracle could be consulted – an industry that was at its peak in the 2nd century AD, when delegations from distant cities came to ask questions of the Clarian version of the god. Excavation of the temple has revealed a network of passages leading to the underground chamber from which divine wisdom was thought to emanate; above ground, a specialist staff of interpreters or exegetes would have helped enquirers (at exorbitant cost) to make sense of the oracle’s sometimes obscure answers – hence the word ‘interpretation’ in the Housesteads text.
How did this site come to be referenced at Housesteads? Had the cohort sent a delegation all the way to Ionia to consult the oracle? The answer to this is no, for the text is in fact a standard one: at least 12 almost identical dedications are known from various regions scattered across the empire, including Dalmatia, North Africa, Sardinia, Spain, Italy, and Asia Minor. The historian C P Jones has argued convincingly that these inscriptions were a general initiative, probably ordered by the emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), who had perhaps himself consulted the oracle about what could be done to protect cities and military bases from a devastating pandemic.
The great ‘Antonine plague’, as it is usually known, reached Rome in 166 and, a year later, infection was rife in the Western provinces. Contemporary descriptions are vague, but it is widely thought to be a form of smallpox that was unwittingly spread by the Roman army returning from war against the Parthian empire (in what is now Iran). Where it originated is unknown. Chinese sources indicate that they too had plague in the same general period, but rather than starting there, it has been suggested that the disease spread east and west from some unknown point in central Asia.
Pestilences were commonplace in the ancient world – indeed, they are often barely noted by contemporary writers – but the Antonine plague stands out for the number of records that survive: it was clearly much more widespread and virulent than usual. Writing over two centuries later, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus described how the pandemic ‘polluted everything with contagion and death, from the frontiers of Persia all the way to the Rhine and to Gaul’. Ammianus does not mention Britain, and perhaps for this reason the Antonine plague does not feature in modern histories of Roman Britain. Given the level of cross-channel military movement, trade, and official traffic that regularly occurred, however, it would be surprising if this island was immune – and recent research suggests that it was not.
Appealing to Apollo
In 2014, Roger Tomlin published an inscribed pewter amulet, found at Vintry on the Roman foreshore of the Thames in London. This tiny strip of metal, measuring only 130mm by 48mm, was designed to be rolled up and placed in a cylindrical amulet case, offering magical protection to the bearer, who perhaps wore it suspended from the neck. This phylactery belonged to a man of Greek origin, named Demetrios, and while the inscription is in Greek, mistakes in the text show that it was the work of a scribe from the Latin West. Moreover, the pewter material suggests that the amulet was made in Britain. The text is a hexameter poem invoking magical protection against the plague. To give a sample: ‘Send away the discordant clatter of raging plague, airborne… infiltrating pain, heavy-spiriting, flesh-wasting, melting, from the hollows of the veins…’.
This apparent awareness that the contagion was somehow airborne is interesting: inhabitants of the empire may have held cloth to their faces from the same instinct that makes many wear masks in 2020. The description of plague as a ‘cloud’ was a cliché in ancient writings of this kind, however. Another of the hexameters on the amulet reads: ‘Phoebus [Apollo] of the unshorn hair, archer, drive away the cloud of plague’.
The mention of the unshorn archer Apollo connects the text to a known figure from antiquity, Alexander of Abonoteichos (in northern Asia Minor), who presided over the cult of Glycon – a supposed snake manifestation of the healing-god Asclepius. Glycon issued oracles, which Alexander claimed to interpret. The cult gained widespread popularity in Eastern regions, even being patronised by Marcus Aurelius, though we know so much about it because the contemporary writer Lucian denounced Alexander as a charlatan. Lucian records a magical verse, supposedly voiced for Glycon by Alexander, who asserted that it would offer protection against the Antonine plague if placed over the doorways of houses. It said: ‘Phoebus [Apollo] of the unshorn hair keeps away the cloud of plague’ – strikingly similar wording to that of the London amulet. It seems clear that it was the Antonine plague with which Demetrios was concerned, and that magical precautions were being taken against it in Britain.
The oracle at Claros prescribed other measures, including mass sacrifices and the erection of statues of the archer Apollo, whose arrows would ‘shoot down’ the airborne plague. An inscription at Hierapolis of Phrygia (Asia Minor) preserves these instructions; it reads: ‘Before all the gates consecrate a holy statue of Clarian Phoebus [Clarian Apollo] equipped with bows that destroy plague’. Further Clarian recommendations survive at Caesarea Troketta in Lydia (also Asia Minor), where citizens were told to set up a statue of Apollo with his bow – the same archer Apollo who is so vividly evoked by the London amulet.
To return to the Clarian oracle recorded at Housesteads, its close association with the Antonine plague is of great interest for a number of reasons – not least because it represents the earliest explicit evidence we have for the first cohort of Tungrians at the fort, strongly indicating that they were stationed there by the beginning of Marcus Aurelius’ reign in 161, and increasing the likelihood that the fort was built for them under Hadrian (the unit was in Scotland during the occupation of the Antonine Wall in the period c.142-158). Previously, all inscriptions of the Tungrians at Housesteads were thought to be of the 3rd century, but it appears that this one, at least, was earlier. But what was it for? Like most of its analogues elsewhere in the empire, the inscription is not on an altar, but adorns a recessed panel within a slab that was designed to be set into the wall of a structure. Taller than it is wide (1.09m by 0.83m), it is unlikely to have been placed above one of the fort gates, but it may have been built into some part of the headquarters building, or perhaps set into the base of a statue of Apollo as the oracle prescribed.
It might also help decipher another intriguing find from Housesteads: a relief depicting an archer. This is usually interpreted as the tombstone of a soldier from a regiment of bowmen, but no such unit was ever stationed at Housesteads. The figure carries an axe-like object as well as a composite bow, possibly making him more likely to be a god of some kind than a deceased soldier. Could he be a local interpretation of the archer Apollo?
Answering a Clarian call
In 2017, a wholly new light was cast on the Housesteads inscription, thanks to the discovery of another dedication referring to the Clarian oracle, this time at Ravenglass fort, south of the Wall on the Cumbrian coast. It had been reused at nearby Muncaster Castle and only a fragment survives, but the remaining letters suggest that the text was identical to that at Housesteads, bar the name of the unit making the dedication, and it too was on a thin slab for setting into a structure, not on an altar.
We have seen how the Clarian oracle’s instructions sparked similar inscriptions at various places in both the Western and Eastern empire. Might the Ravenglass example suggest that military units had been directed by the emperor to make this dedication? Marcus Aurelius would have had good reason for doing so: the arrival of the plague coincided with the onset of the great northern (Marcomannic) wars against invaders from north of the Danube, during which the military situation became so desperate, and the army so debilitated by the pandemic, that (according to the possibly 4th-century Historia Augusta) Marcus ‘zealously revived the worship of the gods’ – something that recalls the dedication ‘to the gods and goddesses’ at Housesteads. Indeed, issuing standard dedicatory texts to British forts is a known practice: there is a series dating to AD 213 containing protestations of loyalty to the emperor Caracalla by the governor C Julius Marcus.
Are there any other indications of the Antonine plague in Britain? In various parts of the empire, historians have pointed to a fall-off in the issuing of certain documents – particularly ‘diplomas’, inscribed bronze tablets certifying the citizenship of discharged auxiliary soldiers – which seems to coincide with the peak of the plague c.167. As for British sites, at Maryport on the Cumbrian coast there is a series of altars dedicated, probably annually, to Jupiter ‘the best and greatest’ by the commanding officers of the three successive units stationed there in the 2nd century (see CA 259, 289, and 353).
The altars seem to preserve the names of all the commanders of the first cohort of Spaniards throughout Hadrian’s reign (117-138), continuing into the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161), during which the first cohort of Dalmatians garrisoned the fort. There are only four altars from this period, possibly because for much of the time the unit was in Scotland. Finally, a third unit, the first cohort of Baetasians, takes over the series after the abandonment of the Antonine Wall (probably in 161), but after two commanding officers, the altars cease abruptly. Assuming that we have found the whole set, and that their creation was annual, this was c.AD 167.
This date is striking. It is tempting to associate the cessation with the effects of the Antonine plague, although this was also a time of acute military crisis, when the unit may have been transferred from Maryport. There is another possible clue from the Hadrian’s Wall area, though: this is also the most likely time when work was suspended on ‘Site XI’ at Corbridge, an immense courtyard building apparently intended as a great storage and marketing complex for the Wall, which was suddenly left incomplete – work never resumed.
The Housesteads and Ravenglass inscriptions represent a wider story. They belong to a time, c.167, when the empire had been brought to its knees by a combination of military crisis and pandemic disease. Inspired by an oracle from far-off Asia, the emperor and his army appealed to the gods and trusted in the power of Apollo’s arrows to save them from the pestilence. The dedication illustrates a fascinating cultural connection between Roman Northumberland and the sanctuaries of the Greek-speaking East. Take a closer look at the remarkable stone from Housesteads when, in better times, we are all able to return to the Great North Museum.
A 3rd-century pandemic?
The extramural settlements that grew up outside frontier forts have long been recognised, but relatively few excavations of them have taken place along Hadrian’s Wall. Geophysical survey (particularly those by Alan Biggins and David Taylor of TimeScape – see CA 164) has revolutionised our understanding though, revealing that the settlements were more extensive than thought, often spreading over a wider area than that of the fort.
Who lived in these settlements? A variety of written sources attest the presence of soldiers’ families, veterans, merchants, craftsmen, manufacturers, entertainers, publicans, priests, prostitutes, and slaves – all members of the wider military community. This information is supplemented through archaeological finds, though some of the evidence is ambiguous: do the implements found in extramural settlements (and forts) reflect civilian or military farming activities, for example?
As for their buildings, some (such as those excavated outside the south gate of Housesteads in the 1930s) appear to be shops, with distinctive open fronts perhaps closed by shutters. Shrines and a metal-working furnace have been identified at Housesteads, while traces of the latter industry are also seen in other extramural settlements including at Vindolanda, home to a cluster of six buildings containing furnaces and iron slag. Meanwhile, at Maryport, the recent excavation of a house and its plot within the extramural settlement concluded that ‘occupation appears to have been predominantly “domestic” in character, with few indications of other activities’. The overall picture is one of a vibrant community in the frontier zone.
The heyday of these extramural settlements appears to have been the 2nd century, continuing into the late 3rd century. Around the 270s, though, several excavations have indicated that these thriving communities came to an abrupt end. At Vindolanda and Housesteads, coin sequences in the extramural settlements stop in this decade, while the excavated areas outside the forts at South Shields, Wallsend, Newcastle, and Burgh-by-Sands along the Wall corridor; at Maryport and Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast; and other sites in the hinterland of the Wall have failed to produce evidence for occupation continuing after the late 3rd century.
This picture is not uniform – extramural settlement at Ambleside appears to have ended in the late 2nd century, at Watercrook by about 220, and at Manchester by the mid 3rd century, while (owing to limited investigations) all that we can say about Bainbridge, Bowes, Brough-on-Noe, and Old Penrith is that they have produced no evidence for occupation in the 4th century. The extramural settlement outside a cavalry fort at Malton in Yorkshire, on the other hand, did persist into the 4th century, and some villages in the hinterland of the Wall are also known to have continued in occupation. The three temples lying to the west of the fort at Carrawburgh on the Wall also continued in use into this period. It must be emphasised that we have only examined very small parts of these extramural settlements, but the available evidence does suggest many were abandoned in the last decades of the 3rd century.
This apparent pattern can be paralleled at several sites outside Britain too. Sofie Vanhoutte reports that the civilian settlement outside the fort at Oudenburg on the Belgian coast was abandoned in the 260s. On the Middle Danube, the phenomenon has been recognised at forts from Vienna to Osijek. At the legionary fortress at Brigetio, where coins, Samian ware, and amphora fragments end in the middle of the 3rd century, Linda Dobosi concludes that the inhabitants simply abandoned their homes. What might have caused the collapse of all these settlements?
Soldiers as stepping stones
The years 235-284 were turbulent, with civil wars and invasions a constant theme. In the 260s, Dacia north of the Danube was abandoned, as was the land between the upper reaches of the Rhine and Danube, followed by southern Mauretania Tingitana (in modern Morocco) in the 280s. Might enemy pressure on the frontier and/or civil wars have prompted civilians to move inside the forts or larger towns such as Corbridge and Carlisle on Hadrian’s Wall? This period also saw the withdrawal of troops from the frontier forts to serve in the field armies – something that would have hit the finances of extramural settlements with fewer soldiers to service and fewer mouths to feed. In any case, the economic crisis of the 3rd century diminished the spending power of individual soldiers and saw the introduction of payment-in-kind which, we might presume, would have led to less money being available to buy goods from traders.
One element so far missing from this discussion, though, is disease. Kyle Harper has recently written about a little-studied pandemic of the 250s and 260s, generally known as the Plague of Cyprian. There are several contemporary references that provide valuable information about its first appearance and spread: the plague is first attested in Egypt in 249, though a later Byzantine source states that it came from Ethiopia. It spread westwards, reaching Rome in 251 and Carthage around the same time, and is said to have lasted 15 years, though some sources ascribe the death of the Emperor Claudius II in 270 to plague.
The disease struck quickly and was contagious, attested in cities and villages with high mortality. It caused diarrhoea and vomiting, internal pain, and putrefaction of the limbs leading to severe debilitation, as well as blindness, impaired hearing, and extreme thirst. Above all, it must have caused terror: it has been suggested that a distinctive coin-type, issued between 251 and 270 and dedicated to Apollo Salutaris (Apollo the Healer), may have been a reaction to the plague, appealing for divine protection.
There is one reference to the plague affecting the army, recorded by the early 6th-century historian Zosimus as occurring shortly before the Emperor Valerian’s capture by Shapur I in the spring of 260 – he describes its devastating effect on the troops. We have no account of the pandemic in the north-western provinces but it was recorded in Illyricum. Crucially, Illyricum is adjacent to the province of Upper Pannonia, where some civil settlements outside forts came to an end in the 270s, including Osijek (Roman Mursa), just 75km from the border. The army, of course, would have been an excellent vector for plague, with the forts along the whole of the northern frontier of the empire providing stepping-stones for the spread of disease. Such a catastrophe affecting the frontier in Britain, leading to the abandonment of extramural settlements, is certainly worth consideration.
Whatever happened, if the soldiers survived on the Wall – and it appears that they did, as forts continued in occupation into the early 5th century – their families, traders, and all the other people who lived with and off the army must have been nearby; we simply cannot see them. Given the size of the extramural settlements revealed by geophysical survey, these are large numbers of people to have disappeared – or are they lurking in parts of these settlements which we have not yet examined?
What caused the plagues?
The physician Galen (d. c.AD 210) described the symptoms of the Antonine plague: fever, diarrhoea, thirst, sore throat, and pustules – perhaps smallpox, though his account is not detailed enough to be certain. It arrived from the East via Roman soldiers being infected when campaigning in Persia, and eventually spread through the empire and beyond, affecting India and China. More than 50 per cent of those infected died; at the pandemic’s height, accounts describe 5,000 people dying every day, leaving towns and farms deserted.
We also have detailed descriptions of the Cyprian plague, but still cannot pin it down. Many of its symptoms (see p.34) are shared with bubonic plague, but no account mentions the occurrence of buboes, so our diagnosis remains uncertain – measles is another plausible possibility.
Further readingR P Duncan-Jones (1996) ‘The impact of the Antonine Plague’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 9. Kyle Harper (2017) The Fate of Rome, Princeton. C P Jones (2005) ‘Ten dedications “To the gods and goddesses” and the Antonine Plague’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 18. R S O Tomlin (2014) ‘“Drive away the cloud of plague”: a Greek amulet from Roman London’, in R Collins and F McIntosh (eds) Life in the Limes: studies in the people and objects of the Roman frontiers. The new Ravenglass inscription was published by R S O Tomlin in Britannia 50 (2019).
To find out more about the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne or how to join, visit www.newcastle-antiquaries.org.uk.