Ruminations on food supply at the Roman fortress of Caerleon

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Overlooking the Roman store excavation at Caerleon where many domestic animal bones were discovered. (Image: Cardiff University/UCL)

It is a problem not often considered: the difficulty of feeding armies while they are hundreds of miles from home or any of their allies. Previously, it was taken for granted that supplies were procured from local sources. But a new study by Dr Peter Guest and Dr Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University, with colleagues from Memorial University, Newfoundland, and the University of Bristol, challenges this theory using evidence from animal remains excavated at the Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon.

A jaw bone of a pig – one of the specimens used in the study. (Image: Cardiff University/Richard Madgwick)

Caerleon was one of the main Roman fortresses in Britannia, housing the Second Augustan Legion while it attempted to gain – and maintain – control over the ‘unruly’ Welsh tribes. To better understand how this large legion could sustain itself in such unknown terrain, 37 animals (including bones from cattle, sheep/goats and pigs) excavated from the site were isotopically analysed. Strontium isotope analysis is usually used to assess the origins and migration patterns of humans, but it is an equally valid technique to apply to animal remains.

‘As the first study to use biochemical data to investigate the supply of animals to the Roman army in the provinces, it is hoped that these results will encourage further isotope studies of husbandry practices and livestock supply in Roman Britain,’ said Dr Richard Madgwick. ‘The research adds important data to the very limited corpus for domestic animals in Roman Britain, providing significant new information on the production, supply, and consumption of cattle, sheep/goat and pigs at a key military base.’

Dr Richard Madgwick extracting a sample from an animal bone to be used for stable isotope analysis. (Image: Cardiff University/Richard Madgwick)

Despite difficulties in establishing local baseline strontium levels, the study showed that at least seven livestock were not reared in the local region. Possible origins include southern or eastern England, southern Scotland, and even northern France. As the local biosphere signature is very diverse, it is highly likely that many more animals were not locally raised, but this cannot be determined using current methods. In any case, it is clear that the army needed to draw on resources from far beyond the local landscape.

‘Provisioning large concentrations of professional soldiers in Britain after the invasion in AD 43 was a major challenge for the Roman Empire. This study has important implications not only for understanding how the Roman army was sustained in Britannia, but also the impact that provisioning the army had on the countryside, particularly around military sites,’ said Dr Peter Guest.

The results of the project have been published in the journal, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, and can be read for free at:

This article was published in CA 334.

1 Comment

  1. The romans invaded to source essentials for their cities and their industries: charcoal, timber, ore, lime. Forest would be cleared in such a way that corn could be grown soon after; until this was done, supplies would have been brought in from somewhere else.

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