Pons Aelius

Pons Aelius

Pons Aelius (or Newcastle Roman Fort) was an auxiliary castra and small Roman settlement on Hadrian's Wall in the Roman province of Britannia Inferior (Upper Britain - The Romans judged distances by proximity to Rome, therefore north England is "inferior" as it is farther away). It is situated on the north bank of the River Tyne in Newcastle upon Tyne (gbmapping|NZ249645), in the North East of England, in the ceremonial county of Tyne and Wear. Its location is 12 kilometres (eight miles) north of Chester-le-Street and 19 kilometres (twelve miles) west of South Shields. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcastle_upon_tyne]


Pons Aelius was a fort and Roman settlement on the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall situated west of the forts of Segedunum (Wallsend) and Arbeia (South Shields), north of Concangis (Chester-le-Street), and east of Condercum (Benwell) and Corstopitum (Corbridge). [http://www.roman-britain.org/places/pons_aelius.htm Pons Aelivs ] ] The population of the town was estimated at around 2,000. The fort is estimated to be 1.53 acres in size, quite small by usual Roman standards. As Pons Aelius was a wall fort there is a high probability that a military road led from it and followed the Wall, linking all of its forts and milecastles together. The name Pons Aelius means The Aelian Bridge in Latin, and can be traced back to when emperor Hadrian visited Britain in AD122 and first saw the need for a frontier wall to be built. This required a road to be built from Concangis to the Tyne, where the fort was built. Aelian was Hadrian's family name and eventually the fort become known as Pons Aelius. Although the fort was to be the eastern end of the wall, it was not long until it was extended to Segedunum (Wallsend). There is evidence to suggest the fort was rebuilt in stone probably during the reign of the emperor Severus (193-211AD). [ [http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/keep/keeptimeline/keep_timeline_roman2.htm Welcome to the Castle Keep, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. The Castle Keep Timeline ] ] It is also suggested Pons Aelius may have been built to replace an earlier fort at the south of the Tyne at Gateshead. [http://www.arcg57.dsl.pipex.com/HadriansWall/PonsAelius/index.htm Pons Aelius Home Page ] ]

The fort is mentioned once in the Notitia Dignitatum in the fourth/fifth century and is the only literary reference we have. The bridge there was unique among other bridges outside Rome for being the only one with an imperial epithet, suggesting it may have been of enough importance to give it such status. Strategically, the fort was sited here to guard the important river-crossing, the first major encampment being nearby at Condercum (Benwell, Tyne & Wear). It would have given the Roman Army an excellent view of the surrounding areas and more importantly it commanded an excellent position at the northern bridgehead. [ [http://www.arcg57.dsl.pipex.com/HadriansWall/PonsAelius/BriefHistory/BriefHistory.htm Pons Aelius Brief History ] ] It is also unusual among other forts in being placed at the promontory at Newcastle. This would only allow it to use the west gate for dispersion of troops, while normally all four gates would be used.

It should be noted that despite the presence of the bridge, the settlement of Pons Aelius was not particularly important among the northern Roman settlements. The most important stations were those on the highway of Dere Street running from Eboracum (York) through Hadrian's Wall and to the lands north of the Wall. Corstopitum (Corbridge), being a major arsenal and supply centre, was much larger and populous than Pons Aelius.citebook |author=Middlebrook, Sydney |date=1950 |title=Newcastle upon Tyne, Its Growth and Achievement |publisher=SR Publishers Ltd |isbn=854095233]


Much of the fort remains buried underneath the Norman Castle Keep. Very few excavations have taken place and there is very little to see due to the castle and surrounding city centre buildings being built over the layout of the fort. However, the praetorium, principia and two granaries of the fort are known to be in grounds of the castle adjacent to the castle keep. The remains of the original milecastle and a full-sized reconstruction lies behind the Newcastle Arts Centre, just off the A186 Westgate Road. Hadrian's Wall, although no longer visible, can be traced passing north of the Roman Catholic cathedral in the city centre and roughly followed the line of the modern A187 eastwards, and is buried beneath the A6115 to the west. [ [http://www.northeastengland.talktalk.net/Newcastle%20upon%20Tyne%20History.htm Newcastle upon Tyne History ] ]

The bridge itself was discovered in 1872 lying right beneath the swing-bridge which was built in the same year. It had two stone abutments and so far only two piers have been located, but ten are estimated to have existed. The total length of the Roman bridge from bank to bank is estimated to have been 234 meters (735 feet).

Recovered inscriptions may once have adorned the Roman bridge. Two large altars are thought to have stood to either side of the road on the central pier of the bridge, while a monumental inscription is thought to have been erected on a small archway, also on the central pier, under which all traffic on the bridge had to pass. These two altar-stones were dredged up from the mud of the Tyne and are in remarkably good condition, which has led some scholars to believe that they may have been ceremoniously dropped into the water from the bridge during some sort of dedication ceremony. [ [http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/keep/keeptimeline/keep_timeline_norman.htm Welcome to the Castle Keep, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. The Castle Keep Timeline ] ]

Finds from excavations around the castle keep and dredging of the Tyne yielded usual finds from Roman encampments such as pottery shards, engravings, 7 altar stones, around 11 building inscriptions (one recording possible restoration of a bath-house outside the fort) and even a recently unearthed stone dedicated to empress Julia Domna dated 213AD. [Archaeologia Aeliana - Fifth Series, Volume XXXI - The Roman Fort at Newcastle Upon Tyne published by The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne 2002] Some of these inscriptions are on display at the Museum of Antiquities in the grounds of Newcastle University.

From altar-stones and inscriptions we can gather that gods worshipped included Jupiter (two altar-stones), mother goddesses, of which one relief shows three seated female figures, and Silvanus. Water related gods such as Neptune and Oceanus have also been recovered, no doubt worshipped due to the forts close proximity to the river.


A possible detachment of the Legio VI Victrix (The Sixth Victorious Legion) may have resided here, although they were probably only responsible for building or rebuilding the fort in stone. This is known from altar stones. It is also mentioned on a dedicatory inscription which recorded reinforcements from the German provinces for Legio VI along with the other two British legions II Augusta and XX Valeria. These supplementary troops were necessary to bolster the island's garrison after losses incurred around AD150 when the northern tribes revolted, and may have arrived in the train of the governor Gnaeus Julius Verus circa 158, also mentioned on the stone.

A dedication to emperor Hadrian's mother attests the presence of the Cohors Ulpia Traiana Cugernorum civium Romanorum (The Cohort of Ulpian Cugerni, Trajan's Own) as evidently being stationed at Pons Aelius at the beginning of the third century. This particular unit was in Britain by 103 and was a quingenary unit (roughly around 500, but usually below 480) consisting of six centuries although there is doubt that it would have had the additional four cavalry troops of an equitate cohort. They were originally recruited from the Cugerni tribe of the Lower Rhine in Germany.

The Notitia Dignitatum records the Cohors I Cornoviorum (The First Cohort of Cornovii) as being present at the fort in the beginning of the fifth century. These were raised from among the Cornovii tribe who inhabited Cheshire and Shropshire, and were the only native British unit known to have been stationed on Hadrian's Wall. They could have replaced the cohort listed above as this disappears from the records around this time. This unit above could well have been stationed here until the Roman withdrawal from Britain.

A stone tablet was found on the south side of Hanover Square in Newcastle that records the work of Cohors I Thracum on the vallum, but it is thought unlikely that this unit was ever permanently stationed here. If not they could well have been stationed at the possible fort on the Gatehead side of the River Tyne, if this fort still existed at this time.

ee also

*Roman engineering
*Roman military engineering
*Roman sites in the United Kingdom


External links

* [http://www.roman-britain.org/places/pons_aelius.htm Details of fort]
* [http://www.arcg57.dsl.pipex.com/HadriansWall/PonsAelius/index.htm Pons Aelius Website]
* [http://www.northeastengland.talktalk.net/Newcastle%20upon%20Tyne%20History.htm North East England`s History]
* [http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/keep/keeptimeline/keep_timeline_roman.htm The Castle Keep - Some virtual photos]

Further reading

*Archaeologia Aeliana - Fifth Series, Volume XXXI - "The Roman Fort at Newcastle Upon Tyne" published by The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2002.
*Middlebrook, Sydney, "Newcastle upon Tyne - Its Growth and Achievement" SR Publishers Ltd, 1950. (ISBN 854095233)

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