The Syrian archers on Hadrian’s Wall

By Pat Hirst, Volunteer

Longinus Festius and the Hamian archers

When Longinus Festius joined the Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittariorum (the first cohort of Hamian archers) in about 107AD, he probably realised he would spend the next 25 years in various parts of the Roman Empire. What he probably didn’t realise was that for at least some of that time, he would serve at the northern edge of that empire at Carvoran and Housesteads, a journey of over 1,700 miles. Almost 1900 years later, a discharge diploma in his name issued on 9th December 132AD and authorised by Hadrian, was uncovered in what is now Bulgaria (Roman Thrace), where there was a colony for retired soldiers. It details where he had served with his unit, how long he’d been in the army, and granted him and his two sons (Longinus and Sestius, and his daughter, Sestia) Roman citizenship. The fate of his partner is unknown.

Hama or Hamath was a fortress in Syria about 110 miles north of Damascus, which was overrun by the Romans in 64BC. The men from this area were renowned for their formidable archery skills notably from the battle of Carrhae in 54BC, when Crassus was defeated by the Parthians, whose empire abutted Syria. During the Republic, the Romans did not have their own tradition of military archery, and they adopted this practice as a necessity to aid the infantry as they conquered more territory. Archers under Caesar were likely to be Cretan conscripts and mercenaries, and later, Roman armies would use Syrian archers and mercenaries from Eastern regions, who were then deployed throughout the Empire as Longinus’ diploma testifies. At the time of the Republic, when the legions were lauded in art and literature, archery was not seen as the weapon of a brave Roman soldier, and Caesar describes using them to shield infantry or cavalry movements, cover the flanks, or standing behind infantry lines to shower advancing troops and disrupt formations. They were never the central focus.

Although there were likely to be about 20,000 archers in about 40 regiments in the ‘High Empire’, they were thinly scattered, and the Hamian archers are one of the two known cohorts stationed in Britain, the other being referred to in the Notitia Dignitatum as the ‘Numerus Syrorum Saggitariorum’, the Company of Syrian Archers at Malton, (Derventio Brigantium) in Yorkshire, though this is contentious and could well be the last incarnation of the former unit. There was also a mounted unit of Hamian archers; ‘Ala prima Hamiorum’, the first wing of Hamians, but there is no British reference. The first evidence of their presence was under Hadrian in 122AD, as attested in a diploma Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) 16.69.

What do we know?

Archers (sagittarii) are depicted on Trajan’s column, wearing flowing tunics, chain, distinctive conical helmets, with cheek and neck guards, and holding a composite/recurve bow. The flowing tunic was probably to show their eastern origins. In 1822, a stone relief was found at Housesteads showing an archer carrying a composite/recurve bow, wearing a short tunic and conical helmet, a quiver on his back, a billhook for cutting arrows, and a dagger and was probably the preferred uniform for archers serving on Hadrian’s Wall, and later the Antonine Wall at Barr Hill. They were deployed there from circa 158AD, but returned to Housesteads in 163 to 166AD. This relief can be seen at the Great North Museum. There are two helmet examples which could be classified as archers’ helmets: One (in the museum at Sofia) is particularly heavily decorated with depictions of Roman Gods and Goddesses, the other from the Dakovo region of Bosnia, quite plain except for its applied beaded wire decoration. Both helmets have holes in the nape of the neck for the attachment of a neck guard, possibly of mail or scale. Although a helmet has never yet been found at Vindolanda or Magna, a very rare helmet crest made of hair moss and believed to belong to a centurion has been unearthed, and is on display at the Roman Army Museum. There is also a highly decorated cheek piece in the museum of Corbridge Roman Town.

Archery at the level of the Syrian archers was a lifelong skill, so training other legionaries and auxiliaries once recruited to the army would be time consuming. Recruiting archers who already had the required expertise was by far the easier option. Longinus, it seems, was a perfect candidate. The design of a composite/recurve bow meant arrows were shot with greater speed and greater force than other bows. The ends of the bow were tipped with bone, (called ‘siyah”), and the strings were skin or tendons. The quivers were made from leather, and mounted archers wore these to the right of their waists, while foot soldiers carried them on their backs. The bows were usually shot from the chest as opposed to a long bow shot from the ear and lower jaw. The materials used transfer more power from the bow to the arrow, making the bow very efficient. By the time the Romans were fighting in the East, composite sinew bows were the norm and any description or depiction of Roman archers would have been Eastern conscripts using bows inspired by steppe archers.

Because of the complexity of construction, the length of time it took to make them, and the British weather, the bows were made at ‘fabricae’ in Pavia, Italy for the army stationed in the west, though it might have been possible to buy them on the open market in the east, where the weather was more clement. They were also protected by leather cases when the soldiers were in Britain because the wet weather affected the glue.

Shooting the Bow

There were three techniques for shooting the bow:

• the Mediterranean draw,

• the Persian draw,

• the thumb draw.

Examples of each technique can be found on many YouTube videos. The archers probably wore a metal, wood or leather thumb ring and a wrist guard. Arrows were made of wood, reed or cane, and were tipped with iron (originally copper alloy), or bone (which shattered on impact) with one of the following shaped heads depending on the target:

• Trilobate heads for inflicting most damage on unarmoured enemies. Examples have been found at Masada, Herodium and Dura Europos. Some arrows have 4 ribs which modern blacksmiths have proved were easier to make.

• Bodkin heads for piercing armour.

• Incendiary heads for starting fires in enemy territory. Examples were found in Straubing, Germany, and Tilurium in Croatia, and the basket shaped arrow found near Vienna is now in the Met Museum, New York.

There are, of course, arrowheads on display at Vindolanda, with a 3-D representation on by Dr Rhys Williams. This arrow matches the holes on target skulls, also on display.

Experienced archers could shoot up to 15 arrows a minute with reasonable accuracy, though the object was often to shower the opposition with a rain of arrows to scatter the men before launching an attack. It is currently not known how much action the Syrian archers stationed at Magna and Housesteads saw during the time they served on or near what was to become Hadrian’s Wall in 122AD. Nor do we know precisely how they dressed, their preferred weapons, or indeed whether some of them were mounted. It has been postulated that the archers were used to hunt the abundant game in the area, with a reference to ‘venatores’, (hunters) at Birdoswald, but that could equally apply to the cohorts.

Magna Fort and Current Research

If, as hoped, the levels of preservation at Magna are as good as those at Vindolanda, and the remains haven’t been too disturbed by the efforts of Carrick and Clayton, then they should reveal many secrets and add a great deal to our knowledge of the Syrian archers stationed on the northern edge of the Roman Empire.


Youtube (various videos of archers using modern composite/recurve bows)

JSTOR –Anthony Birley’s ‘The Cohors 1 Hamiorum in Britain’

Roman military equipment from Dura-Europos – S. James, The Excavations At Dura-Europos Conducted By Yale University And The French Academy Of Inscriptions And Letters 1929-1937. Final Report Vii: The Arms And Armour And Other Military Equipment (The British Museum Press, London, 2004)

‘The Fort at the Rock’ Robin Birley

P. Urech, The Bow and Arrow during the Roman Era., Ziridava Studia Archaeologica (27, 2013).  

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