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Mile Castle 39: The worst-positioned castle on Hadrian’s Wall?

Ancient Roman History

For this blog I’m at Mile Castle 39 on Hadrian’s Wall. The wall was originally built and designed to have Mile Castles along its length to defend itself from attack. They were supposed to be small garrisons, housing troops to project the Roman power either to the north or south of the Wall.

Milecastle 39

However, when Emperor Hadrian visited the north, he thought that wasn’t grand enough, so he decided to add Forts into the construction of the wall. The Mile Castles were retained at every Roman mile and were home to between 8-38 troops depending on size, whose job it was to keep an eye on what was happening locally. They would probably have been from a local fort – for example, Housesteads Roman Fort and Magna are the closest to this Mile Castle.

Inside there would have been a barrack block where the soldiers lived, and a stables where horses were housed. This meant they could quickly send out messages if the need arose.

There would also have been a gatehouse with a tower above it. The tower would have given brilliant visibility to most Mile Castles on the Wall. However, here at Mile Castle 39, this wasn’t possible because of the presence of significant ridges on either side of the Mile Castle. This means that any signals from this Mile Castle would have been very hard to see. That meant that the turrets on the ridges provided the best visibility for this location. So it would have been the turrets that signalled messages and alerts if the location was ever attacked.

A digital reconstruction of a Milecastle

The Mile Castles changed over time as the needs of the Roman Empire changed. As a result, the Mile Castles were changed and adapted.  During the 4th Century, half of each gateway on this Mile Castle were bricked up, making the entrance narrower. This could either have been for defensive reasons or because the garrison size was heavily reduced at each location.

Inside the walls of Mile Castle 39 you can see the remains of structures – these, I believe, are post-Roman as the location was taken over and used for accommodation in later years. But at the other side of the Mile Castle there is a steep drop. This meant the movement of troops was made very difficult by this drop, not to mention the marshy lands beneath the drop and the hill on the other side. All that means this Mile Castle probably wasn’t used as a Custom Post, it wasn’t used to move troops north or south. But due to being one Roman mile away from the next Mile Castle, it had to be constructed here.

This is a wonderful example of how the Roman military functioned. Even though, functionally, this Mile Castle didn’t have the same practical use as other Mile Castles and was probably quite a grim posting for the soldiers, it was still built here and functioned as a vital part of Hadrian’s Wall.

I always wonder whether the soldiers ever had a sense of disappointment about being posted to Mile Castle 39 because of this? Would it have been seen as a dull posting? Or perhaps a chance to be slightly more relaxed about watching for the enemy?

And that’s just one of the reasons I love this location in particular. So many questions.

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