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Use of Space and Variability of Ground Plans: a study of legionary centurions’ quarters.
by Birgitta Hoffmann
Modern houses display a wide range of arrangement of rooms, and a number of architects
prosper by developing ever more ways to arrange a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and
varying numbers of bedrooms etc within four (or more) walls. In most cases, however, these
arrangements boil down to a very few basic ideas about how a house should work.
In modern Britain, the dominant ground plan puts the living room at the front and the
kitchen at the back, whilst bedrooms and bathrooms go upstairs. Many European countries
have similar ideas, but there the living room tends to be at the back of the house, overlooking
the garden and not at the front, where, the Germans, in particular, would expect the kitchen to
be. These arrangements are almost part of our subconscious expectations of the world around us
and so are rarely explicitly laid down. They are simply a sort of vague mental standard, referred
too indirectly, so that people might think of houses as being ‘proper’ if they go along with such
arrangements or ‘strange’ if they do not.
The existence of building traditions like these seems to date back to at least the Roman
period, and probably much further. But, how does one detect such a tradition for a period in
which there are very few expressed statements of what a house should look like, and these so
few and far between that it is difficult to know whether the views expressed are personal or
reflective of more widely held opinions?
Turning to the archaeological record may often be considered a more reliable method of
studying buildings, but archaeology has had distinct weaknesses when it comes to establishing
the use of particular rooms, for the evidence it uncovers is notorious for always being too
fragmentary or too badly preserved to make a straight forward study possible. This was
certainly a problem encountered by the writer during recent studies of legionary centurions’
barracks and this paper is meant as a short introduction to the methodology eventually
employed to get results from these structures.
Legionary centurions’ quarters are one of the commonest building types found in legionary
fortresses, but their very frequency has often led to a rather casual publication record, despite
their perplexing variations in internal ground plan, especially when other ‘more interesting’
features such as the gates, baths, principia and praetorium could be elaborated on.
Excavation standards have ranged from cursory depictions of whole fortress ground plans,
as at Lambaesis (Cagnat 1908), to very detailed feature descriptions as at Colchester (Crummy
1992) and Vindonissa (Tomasevic 1963). Moreover, building activity in certain fortresses could 84 Birgitta HofJinann
span up to four centuries, leading to architectural ‘excesses’ like Carnuntum, where the fourth
century ground plan all but obscures the original desigI), a situation made worse by the fact the
buildings are often only partially excavated, so that even their original size has not been
established (Nowotny 1914). It was fairly clear from the outset, however, that only two of the c.
100 buildings studied were exactly identical, and the aim of the study shifted from establishing
the ‘exact’ building plan of a standardised structure to establishing a building tradition for what
proved to be a much more heterogeneous group.
The checker board ground plan
To prevent this study becoming bogged down with detailed variatIOns in the internal
partitioning of centurions’ quarters, a schematised ground plan (see Fig. 9.1) was developed
Barrack Wall. ,
I I 1 2
(3 1 (jj
I f 2
tl l j
LJ I ll:!
tl l 52
Fig. 9.1. Schematic plan oIa centurions’ quarters of Space and Variability o(Ground Plans: legionary centurion ‘s quarters 85
that divided the buildings into different areas rather than individual rooms, based on an outline
provided by the normal 3: I ratio of the external walls. This outline was then subdivided into a
grid of squares and, since many of the buildings studied produced a corridor running along
their long axes – dividing the interior into three long segments – a grid of 27 (3 x 9) was
chosen, to reflect the overall 3: 1. As well as allowing greater clarity, this approach had the
additional advantage of allowing evidence from incompletely excavated quarters to be included
as long as the length and position of one of its short axis walls was known.
Establishing the structural details
Using this grid, the presence and position of particular features from a number of quarters
could be mapped onto the same diagram allowing us to see whether they showed any consistent
tendency to appear in specific areas of the buildings and/or in combination with (or to the
exclusion of) others.
Of particular interest were drains and water containers
various floor types
hypocausts and hearths
courtyards and widened corridors.
Attempts were also made to study the ways in which centurions’ quarters design may have
changed over time (Fig. 9.2), a particularly necessary exercise since a lot of the primary results
were distorted by the evidence from Carnuntul11, where the structural evidence had survived
particularly well, but where the excavation techniques used around the beginning of the century
were not always able to distinguish between different phases of activity.
0 1-2 cases 0 1 case 0 1 case
o 3-6 cases 0 2 cases 0 2 cases
o 6-8 cases D 3 cases 0 3 cases
0 8-10 cases Cl 4 cases 0 4 cases
@ 10-12 cases 0 5 cases @ 5 cases
• 12-14 cases • 6 cases • 6 cases
• 14-20 cases • 7 cases • 7 cases
or more or more
total without Carnuntum Carnuntum
Fig 9.2. Chronological changes in centurions’ quarters 86 Birgilta HojJmann
Access and lighting
Doors and especially windows have frequently not survived in the archaeological record, but a
number of hints can be used to infer their position. for example the presence of moulded
plaster, stone blocking, door sills, and corridors that end against walls. In many cases, however,
it was necessary to rely on general physical limitations to form hypotheses of what such
buildings would have required. For example, it has to be assumed that a building of c. 10 m in
depth would need to be lit from both sides in order to provide enough light to work in. This was
frequently impossible in centurions’ quarters, however. as Roman barrack blocks were often
built back to back. In these cases the only ways of lighting the back range of rooms would have
been c1erestories, a solution for which there is very little evidence in writings on residential
buildings elsewhere in the Roman world, or light wells, which are known in a number of parts
of the empire.
In order to reach conclusions as to the likely uses of the rooms themselves the data for the
various features of the buildings had to be collated according to a meaningful scale of their
likely standing in the eyes of the inhabitants. For in most societies certain things are associated
with certain attitudes so that, for example. whilst interiors decorated with wall paintings would
probably have been seen as luxuries which raised the standard of life, close proximity to open
sewers would rarely have had such a connotation.
A survey of the writings of Roman equestrian and senatorial writers. a class to which many
legionary centurions would either have belonged or aspired, shows that they looked to their
houses for light, warmth (though not heat), quiet and clean air. and that they sought to
surround themselves with wall paintings, hypocausts and mosaics and whilst trying hard to
avoid the damp, darkness, smells and noise, that Seneca, Martial and Juvenal complain of. If
we apply this to centurions’ quarters, we might make the following distinctions between the
features a Roman would have thought highly of and those that, although sometimes essential,
he might have looked down upon.
Windows. courtyards, basins of fresh water, heating,
hypocaust. concrete floors, mosaics. wall paintings.
open drains, open sewers, latrines, unlit rooms, doors (cold
If we also take into account the fact that most centurions’ quarters were aligned along a main
sewer and one of the principle roads or the fortress, so that the roadside was probably noisy and
smelly, this all goes to suggest that the areas with the highest living standards were at the back
of the buildings whilst the front was more suited to utilitarian functions (Fig. 9.3).
Returning from here to the actual ground plans shows that the largest room of the house can
usually be found at the back and that its furnishings usually equip it as a living room or a room
for modest reception purposes. in other words as a room to which one could happily invite
friends. It was rarely, however, bigger than the average modern living room and so would Use a/Space and Variability a/ Ground Plans. legionary centurions’ quarters 87
With separate back wall
x < 0
2 0 < x < 10
1 0 < x < 20
x > 20
With joint back wall
E3 x < 0
La 0 < x < 10
10 < x < 2 0
x > 20
Fig. 9.3. Living standards in different areas a/centurion ‘s quarters
probably not have been of much use as a room for briefings or other military business or as a
room in which meetings of large bodies of people could be held. The onJy room that could be
described as a bathroom, on the other hand, is in the likeliest place for a compromise between
not having one at all and having to live with the smells all day – at the opposite end of the
A number of other rooms do not usually display any distinguishing features and it is
therefore impossible to confidently identify any bedrooms or storerooms and the office which
has often been assumed for these buildings has also eluded identification.
It has become something of an adage over the last few years that high status areas are usually
notable for their absence of small finds. It is, thus, hardly surprising that very little material has
been found in the occupation layers of centurions’ quarters, although they abound in destruction
deposits (e.g. Dangstetten [Fingerlin 1986], Chester [Droop & Nowestead 1931 D.
The only material that could possibly be linked to the a room’s principle occupation would
be finds trodden into clay surfaces, or which had slipped between the planks of timber floors,
both of which, especially in the later periods, would have been restricted to lower status areas 88 Birgitta Hoffmann
thanks to the growing use of higher quality floor types elsewhere and, even taking these
cautions in mind, any research has to be extremely limited since, in the past, most site reports
have failed to link finds to any particular room, let alone level. [n fact, only two excavations
have provided enough properly documented finds from occupation layers to be of much value:
Nash-Williams’ excavation at Caerleon (Nash-Williams 1932) and Newstead’s in Chester
(Droop & Newstead 193 I). But, although their results must be treated with extreme caution,
given the tiny sample, they do show concentrations of containers and kitchen wares along the
back walls of the buildings, and further research may well confirm the presence of storage
facilities in this area.
Linking to the civilian world
The Roman empire did not detach the military completely from other areas of administration,
and, certainly, its senatorial and equestrian office-holders found themselves drifting constantly
in and out of military offices. In fact, centurions were probably the highest ranking officer with
a life-long military career. Even they often came from equestrian families, however, indeed
several cases are known where one brother had an equestrian career whilst another became a
centurion, and there is evidence that centurions often displayed very much the same ‘upper
class attitudes’ as the higher ranking officers and tended to side with them, rather than the
men, in mutinies. The likeliest places to find parallels for the structural traditions displayed in
centurions’ quarters is, thus, urban Italy in an ‘upper class’ context and such parallels can be
identified in the sort of apartments often occupied by the sons of senatorial families in the city
of Rome: such as those described by Cicero and actually lived in by Seneca. Where luxurious
apartment blocks like these have been excavated – as in Ostia – the individual units have
often proved remarkably simi lar to centurions’ blocks (Meiggs 1960: Packer 197 I) .
Vitruvius elaborates on this type of living. and states that such flats were the appropriate
housing of people \vithout the sort of social and political obligations that had to be fulfilled at
home. Reapplying this to centurions’ quarters might hint that the buildings were exclusively for
private use and thus that the actual admi nistration of the centuriae took place elsewhere in the
fortress Interestingly, provincial urban housing (and especially strip buildjngs) have been
shown by a preliminary survey of urban sites in Southern Germany, to show similar structural
traditIons in operations. a parallel which would appear to become closer with the increased use
of stone structures. Should further study verify these results, this could have interesting
ramifications. Traditions as to how to arrange a house seem to become very deeply entrenched
into people’s minds so that British houses occupied by Germans will often be modified to have
the living r00111 at the back of the ground floor whilst Turkish workers in Germany, often try to
preserve the idea of different areas for men and women despite the considerable restrictions
imposed by German architecture. If we, therefore. detect Italian structural traditions in
provincial towns, this migllt set us thinking about the motives and origins of the owners. Were
they ‘settlers’: new to the country’) Were they following a new status fashion. or were they
perhaps provincials that had become so inwardly Romanized as to abandon their original native
ideas on the usage of houses’! Use of Space and Variability of(7round Plans: legionmy centurions’ quarters 89
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Paris: imprimerie Nationale.
Cnunmy, P. 1992. Excavations al Culver Streel, the Gilberd School and other siles in Colchesler
J 971- 1985. Colchester Archaeological RepOit 6. Colchester: The Colchester Archaeological
Trust and English Heritage.
Droop J.P. & Newstead, R. 1931. Excavations at the Deanery Field, Chester. Part 1: The Excavation.
Annales of the Archaeological and Anlhropohgical Society of Ihe Universify of Liverpool 18:
Fingerlin. G. 1986. Dangsletten 1. KalaloK der Funde. Forschungen und Berichte zur Vor- und
Ftuhgeschichte in Baden-Wurttemberg. 22. Stuttgart.
Hoffmann, B. forthcomi.ng. Legionary centurion’s quatters of the Principate. Brilannia.
Meiggs. R. 1960. Roman Ostia. Oxford.
Nash-Williams. VE. 1932. The Roman Legionary Fortress at Caerleon In Monmouthshire. Report on the
Excavations carried out in the Prysg Field. Part IT and ill. Archaeologia Cambrensis 87:
48-104 and 265-349.
Nowotny, E. 1914. Ausgrabungen im Lager Camuntwn. in: Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften
(ed.) Der rdmische Limes in Gsterreich. Heft 12. Wien, 1-222.
Packer, J.E. 1971. The Insulae of Impenal Ostia. American Academy in Rome Memoirs 3 I. Rome