This week: Roman forts

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bashar Tabbah

It is understandable perhaps, here in Britain, that we have a somewhat partial understanding of Ancient Rome’s border defences – with most attention focused naturally on Hadrian’s Wall, the extraordinary fortified structure that is the largest Roman artefact anywhere in the world.

But while Hadrian’s Wall is unique in many ways, its 73-mile length makes up just a small part of Rome’s vast frontier network – which at the empire’s height spanned some 3,100 miles in total, from the Irish Sea to the Black Sea, then south through the Middle East, and across North Africa to the Atlantic.

All along this seemingly endless borderline, the vestiges remain of countless forts, fortresses, and other types of defensive structure. These sites have been studied by archaeologists and antiquarians for centuries – and many have become internationally famous: from Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall to the Saalburg in Germany, and from Porolissum in Romania to Lambaesis in Algeria.

Even against this backdrop, however, one such construction stands out – as we discover this week on The Past.

Deep in the Jordanian desert, an hour or so’s drive from the capital of Amman, stand the isolated ruins of Qasr Bshir – often cited as the best preserved Roman fort anywhere in the former empire. Almost 2,000 years after it was built, its imposing corner towers still dominate the surrounding landscape, while its original Latin dedication slab still greets visitors passing through the main gate.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, David Breeze, Mark Driessen and Fawzi Abudanah explain what makes Qasr Bshir so special, and what steps need now to be taken to ensure the survival of this remarkable relic of imperial power. We are delighted that David will also be discussing Qasr Bshir on this week’s edition of our brilliant PastCast podcast.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives for more about Roman forts: in a two-part special, we analysed the latest thinking about Hadrian’s Wall, and heard how it may have been built in answer to a growing military crisis. Elsewhere, we visited Valkenburg in The Netherlands to uncover the part played by its Roman fortress in the conquest of Britannia; we searched for evidence of a long-forgotten conflict near Ambleside in the Lake District; and with so many forts to choose from, we even looked at the lengths to which the Roman authorities went to ensure that goods and people ended up in the right place.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Roman fortifications. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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