Fortress York

Eboracum – The Name

The root of the early name was Eburos, an ancient British personal name, suggesting that the site was founded by someone called Eburos. An alternative theory is that the name is based on the ancient British word Eburos meaning yew, a sacred Celtic tree from which the personal name Eburos derives. The Britons, therefore, called the place Eburacon. During the Roman occupation there was a Gaulish tribe called the Eburorovices – the ‘Warriors of the Yew Tree’. The Romans Latinised this into Eburacon or Eboracum and the boar became emblematic of the town (the Latin ebur – whose genitive eboris contains an O – is ‘ivory’, referring to boars’ tusks). As noted, one of the Vindolanda tablets gives us our earliest written reference to York, datable to about AD 100, occurring as Eburacum, as it does in the Antonine Itinerary and seventh-century Ravenna Cosmography. The Vindolanda reference is one of thirty or so literary and epigraphic references to York. The form Eboracum is more common, occurring, for example, in the works of the second-century BC Greek geographer Ptolemy (2, 3, 17 Εβορακον) and on several stone inscriptions from York. See Appendix 8.

When the Anglo-Saxons replaced the Romans in the sixth century, they made Eboracum the capital of Deira, a Northumbrian sub-kingdom. Eboracum was corrupted by the Anglo-Saxons into Eoforwic and Evorwic meaning ‘wild boar settlement’. In 876, Halfdene the Dane made Eoforwic the capital of the Viking Kingdom of York. The Vikings mispronounced Eoforwic as Jorvik. In the late Viking period the name Jorvik was shortened to York, although ‘Yerk’ is also known.

Roman Fortifications

The word for a fort is castrum (plural castra) but this Latin word is something of a catch all for different types of fortification. Confusingly, in English castrum can apply to a fort, camp, marching camp or fortress. The diminutive castellum was used for fortlets, as occupied by a detachment of a cohort or a century.

The Romans could build a camp even when under enemy attack in as little as a few hours. They had a repertoire of camp plans, selecting the one appropriate to the length of time a legion would spend in it: tertia castra, quarta castra, etc. – a camp for three days, four days, etc.

Castra were essential to security while an army was on the move, which it often was; their construction at the end of a day’s marching followed a text-book plan with every man knowing his particular responsibility and the position of his billet. See Polybius 6, 27-32 for a detailed description. Apart from his weapons, each soldier carried two stakes used to construct a palisade inside a ditch which was dug at each night stop.

Josephus describes the daily routine in The Jewish War (3, 5, 1):

as soon as they have marched into enemy territory, the Romans do not fight until they have fortified their camp; nor is the fence they construct poorly built or uneven ... their individual places [in the camp] are not assigned at random; but if the ground happens to be uneven, it is first leveled: the camp is four-square, and many carpenters are ready with their tools to build the buildings for them.

More permanent camps were castra stativa (standing camps). The most temporary of these were castra aestiva or aestivalia, summer camps, in which the soldiers were housed sub pellibus or sub tentoriis, ‘under tents’. For the winter, the soldiers retired to castra hiberna containing barracks and other buildings of more solid materials, with timber construction gradually being replaced by stone over time.

The camp allowed the Romans to keep a rested and supplied army in the field, a massive advantage which neither the Celtic nor Germanic armies enjoyed: they had to disperse after only a few days.

The Romans could call on a number of other fortifications in the field, depending on what was required in a given campaign or in a particular military scenario. They include

Temporary (vexillation) forts

Roman vexillation forts are rectangular enclosures set up and occupied on a purely temporary basis by a campaigning army of between 2,500 to 4,000 legionary and auxiliary troops. They flourished soon after the conquest in AD 43, when the highly mobile Roman army had not yet established the boundaries of its occupation, and then during campaigns to increase and establish its control. All were probably abandoned by about AD 90. Vexillation forts are defined by a single rampart of earth or turf, usually surrounded by one or more outer ditches. Only fourteen examples of vexillation fortresses have been recorded in England.


There are over 125 known forts in Britannia, most sited for obvious strategic reasons, for example to guard river crossings and ports; establish defensive positions; post troops near or in local communities; assert control over new territories; and form part of a cohesive network providing easy access to reinforcements and military support. The soldiers in the forts would also have assisted in collecting local taxes. The forts provided homes for the garrison, which contributed to the local economy in terms of infrastructure contracts and the soldiers’ disposable income, not least in the surrounding vicus.

Roman forts varied in size and construction materials depending on strategic requirements and local natural resources. Most conform to the same basic layout, which facilitated a well-practised method of siting and set-up that was pervasive throughout the empire and familiar to all legionaries.

The standard Roman fort was rectangular with rounded corners, ‘playing-card’ shaped. The perimeters were formed by a system of banks or ramparts and ditches, the banks created by the digging of the ditches on site. Timber came from the surrounding landscape for palisades, and timber walls along the top of the banks.

The interior was laid out with roads at right angles to each other with a central gate in each side allowing access to the fort. The central area would include the headquarters (principia), which housed the staff offices, the treasury, and sometimes a shrine. There were also storehouses, granaries, barracks, stables for the cavalry horses and pack animals; wagon sheds, workshops, a hospital, senior officers’ quarters and bakehouses with ovens. Bath houses were positioned outside the fort perimeters on account of their fire risk. There were parade grounds inside and outside the forts and areas for physical training and for practising battlefield and combat skills. Many forts were rebuilt in stone after their initial turf and timber construction.

Examples of the many forts in Roman Britain are Caernarfon, Manchester, Lancaster, Catterick, Ravenglass, Cumbria, as well as Housesteads, Vindolanda and Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall.


Positioned between forts along frontiers; Hadrian’s Wall has an extensive network.


There were three permanent legionary bases in Roman Britain: Caerleon (Isca Silurium), Chester (Deva) and York. The most northerly, albeit short-lived, legionary fortress known in the Roman Empire was at Inchtuthil, west of Dundee.

Marching camps (castra)

Fortress buildings

The original wooden fortress at York was refurbished by Agricola in 81; it was completely rebuilt in stone between 107 and 108 as part of a rebuilding programme which fortified the two other permanent fortresses: Caerleon in 100 and Chester after 102. This suggests that garrisoning rather than campaigning was now very much the order of the day. The early second century saw the start of more long-term rebuilding under Trajan, extending for a century or so into the reign of Septimius Severus. At York, something like over 48,000m3 of stone was used – mainly magnesian limestone from the quarries at Calcaria, Tadcaster. The Romans used several other types of stone in their buildings including millstone grit and Elland stone (York stone), which was used for floors and roofs as it splits naturally into flat slabs. However, the use of mortar to hold everything together was the real Roman revolution enabling far larger buildings than ever seen before.

The York fortress would have comprised a number of key buildings common to most fortresses around the empire. These included the headquarters basilica and barracks, the commander’s house (praetorium), workshops (fabricae – for metal and wood), granaries (horrea), meat store (carnarea), hospital (valetudinarium), veterinary surgeon (veterinarium), stables, and the fortress baths. There were also barracks for the special forces: classici (marines), equites (cavalry), exploratores (scouts), and vexillarii (carriers of vexillae, the official colours of the legion and its units).

The Legionary Baths

There were at least two bath houses in York – the fortress baths and the civic baths. The York fortress baths, nearly 11,000 square yards of them, were, as normal, outside the gates, on the south-east side of the praetentura – the ‘stretching to the front’ – which contained the scamnum legatorum, the quarters of officers below general but higher than company commanders, legati. The retentura – ‘stretching to the rear’ – contained the quaestorium: a strongroom for booty and a prison for hostages and high-ranking enemy captives. Nearby were the quarters of the headquarters guard (statores) – made up of two centuries.

Evidence for the legionary baths in York was unearthed in 1991 in excavations in Swinegate and with the discovery of the sewers in Church Street in 1972; copious amounts of waste water from the baths and latrines would have been washed away through these sewers. If the baths at Exeter are comparable then something like 70,000 gallons gushed through every day. The sewer extended for 44 metres and was high enough to allow slaves to crawl along inside to clean it. Silt deposits have revealed seeds and pollen from plants typically at home in limestone landscapes, suggesting that an aqueduct was involved to bring water from limestone country, possibly around Tadcaster (Calcaria) or on the North York Moors.

Other tantalising water-related and bathing finds include a stone fountain unearthed in Bishophill in 1906 – now unfortunately dismantled; a timber lined 6 metre deep well at 58-59 Skeldergate, which was probably used for gardens as well as for drinking if the box clippings (tidy, aromatic and curative) found inside are evidence, and a Roman well languishing under the stage in York Theatre Royal. Excavations of the 115 hectare site of University of York campus expansion at Heslington East show evidence of a bath house.

The Roman Bath Museum is under the Roman Bath public house in St Sampson’s Square. The main feature of the museum is remains of part of the legionary bath house in the southern quadrant of the fortress.

This bath house was excavated in 1930–31; it is probably of the early fourth century AD and was originally only viewable through a glass panel in the floor of the public house. Now visible to visitors to the museum are the east corner and south-east side of a frigidarium including a cold plunge bath together with part of the caldarium (heated room), with an apse and hypocaust system (underfloor heating). The cold plunge bath has a tiled floor with some of the tiles bearing stamps of the two legions that occupied the fortress, the IXth and the VIth. It is probable that the large Roman sewer discovered under Swinegate served this bath house. Set among the museum’s excavated remains are descriptive displays, original Roman artefacts and a collection of replica uniforms, clothing, regalia and equipment. The splendidly detailed replica helmets are of particular interest.

Evidence for the public bath house has emerged at the north-east end of Micklegate. The walls were a huge 2.2 metres thick and up to 3.5 metres high. A water pipe found at Wellington Row and a fountain at Bishophill are evidence of the piped water supply to such bath houses.

Bath houses were central to urban living and to military life. They constituted a social and exercise centre where you went to meet and make friends, gossip and generally socialise. But they were not all good news: Seneca the Younger had the misfortune to live in an apartment above a public bath house; in this tetchy letter to Lucilius (Letters 56, 1, 2), he gives us a fascinating glimpse into what went on in these places:

Imagine what a din reverberates in my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture the different sounds, which are so loud as to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strongman, for example, is exercising himself by wielding lead weights, when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt, and whenever he exhales his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting, wheezy and hissing. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according to whether that hand is laid on a flat or hollow part of the body ... . Add to this the arrest of the odd drunk or pickpocket, the noise of the man who always likes to sing out loud in the bath, or the over-keen men who plunge into the swimming pool splashing loudly. Besides all of these . . . picture the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice which he uses for self-advertising, – continually giving it vent and never shutting up except when he is plucking armpits and making his victim scream instead. Then the cake seller with his various cries, the sausage man, the sweet seller, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own individual yell.

The Multangular Tower

This integral part of the city walls is a multi-period structure at the west corner tower of the fortress. It is in what is now York Museum Gardens and stands with the adjacent stretches of the curtain wall. What greater symbol of Rome’s might; what greater projection of Roman power?

The Multangular Tower was probably built no later than 200 to 250. The protruding style of the polygon tower made it easy to fire down on enemy attackers. The commemorative stone (in part inaccurately) at the front reads:

This tower formed the north west corner of the Roman Legionary Fortress of Eboracum. It was built about 300 A.D. on the site of an older tower. The larger stonework at the top is Medieval.

It is possible to see how the layers differ according to when they were added. Square stone, called saxa quadrata, makes up the internal and external skin, a layer of red tiles then acts as a modern-day wall tie does, holding the two layers together and creating a firm structure.

The tower gets its name from its ten sides and was named by a Dr Martin Lister, a member of the Repository of the Royal Society, a group dedicated to documenting the country and human activity. It appeared in a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1807.

Nine building stones of the VIth legion (RIB 669) were built into the lower courses of the inner face of the Multangular Tower. They read:

a leg(io) [VI] Vic[t(rix)]b leg(io) [VI] Vict(rix) c Calp]urni Vict[o]rini d Anton(i) Prim(i)

N CXX e Anton(i) Prim(i) f VNO [ ̣ ̣ ̣] MNVI [ ̣ ̣ ̣ ̣] VIC g [ ̣ ̣ ̣] h LN [ ̣] XXX i [ ̣ ̣ ̣]

a-e translate as

a [Sixth] Legion Victrix b[Sixth] Legion Victrix cThe century of Calpurnius Victorinus. d The century of Antonius Primus (built) 120 (feet). eThe century of Antonius Primus.

It was originally thought to have been built with three floors and a wooden roof but later, in 1807, a drawing of the tower showed it filled with earth right up to the upper lookout points, maybe to provide more strength and rigidity when under attack. Over time the tower has been referred to as Ellerandyng in 1315 and Elrondyng in 1380.

There was another non-extant similar tower at the south corner as well as six interval towers studding Severus’ walls.

The late Roman Anglian Tower is about 60 metres to the north east of the Multangular Tower, built into the fortress wall. It was originally discovered in 1842 and re-excavated in 1970. It is 13 feet high and 14ft 6in square. What was its purpose? It could have been built as a watch tower, or as a replacement for a nearby Roman interval tower. It was formerly known as The Roman Room.

Remains of the Roman basilica building, at the north side of the principia are visible in the undercroft of York Minster. Heaps of animal bones – pig and sheep – have been unearthed and radiocarbon dated to the late fourth or early fifth century; this and some evidence of metal working in hearths suggest a major change in use of the basilica in the final days of the garrison as it prepared to withdraw from York and return to Rome. Excavation at the Minster in the 1960s and 70s suggests that the basilica may have endured until demolition well before the late eighth or early ninth century as previously believed.

One of the most significant findings was the toppled 7 metre long Roman column now opposite the south door of the Minster. Substantial remains of painted wall plaster still attached to the adjoining wall were also discovered.

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