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  • Hans Faber

Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army

Updated: May 17


After the Roman Empire had incorporated a big chunk of the British Isles in the first century AD, the empire needed a military force to defend their northern limes. Like elsewhere they made use of mercenaries. Many Frisians, (still) living along the coast of present-day Germany and the Netherlands, joined the Roman army as mercenary to fight in Britannia. So, what do we know about these mercenaries?

The practice of hiring soldiers of a different nation is of all times and places. Even today it’s a well-known and fully accepted way of warfare. Think of the feared Gurkha regiments from Nepal, swearing allegiance to the British Crown and think of the French Foreign Legion operating as part of the French army. Or maybe even the somehow exotic African-American Harlem Hellfighters infantry regiments serving for the U.S. Army in World War I and II. According to the laws of war (apparently regulating warfare isn’t a contradictio in terminis) the Gurkhas and the Foreign Legionnaires are strictly speaking non-mercenaries because they are part of the national army at war. Probably the Frisian mercenaries, as other mercenaries within the Roman imperial army (exempli gratia the Hispanics from present-day Spain and the Tungri from present-day Belgium) were seen as part of the army too. Therefore, if we would apply the Geneva Convention, strictly speaking the classification 'mercenary' probably wouldn’t be correct. Nevertheless, we use it here. Because they are, of course.

Whatever de jure the definition and since during battle everything is allowed de facto anyway, the Frisian legionnaires might have had a similar reputation as the Gurkhas and the French Legionnaires of today. We'll come back to it below.

The Romans arrived two thousand years ago at the mighty Rhine Delta and its impenetrable, near-empty peat lands. The first record of the Frisians dates from BC 12 about how the Frisian tribes became an ally during a battle against the Chauci tribe in the north of what's now the Wadden Sea coast of Germany, roughly between the river Ems and Elbe. The Chauci weren't pacified either and would raid the coast of present-day province Zeeland which led to Roman fortifications in the area at the end of the second century.

It were the Romans Pliny (or Plinius) the Elder and Tacitus who wrote about the Frisians and these northern lands in the first century. Historian Tacitus described the area as follows: "The terrain is fierce, the climate is rough, life and landscape are bleak. You only come here if it's your homeland." His words had a long-lasting negative effect on tourism to the Netherlands.

Roman Army in the territory of the Frisians (by Stichting Oer-IJ)

Close at the North Sea coast the Roman army tried to penetrate into the north and conquer the area of the Frisians and the Chauci. In the area of present-day town Velsen-Zuid, just north of the city of Amsterdam, the Romans had established two pre-limes fortresses in probably the year AD 16. Whether it were lime-type fortresses, primarily naval bases or coercion castles to control the local, quite populous area, is yet unclear. Back then, the river Oer-IJ connected Velsen-Zuid with the North Sea and possbly also with lacus Flevo 'Lake Flevo', and from there the hinterland. So, it might have been a strategic spot to controle (and tax) the movement of goods and people. Archaeological research also has identified a place of cult of the Frisians at the village of Velserbroek, just south of Velsen-Zuid. Also, Roman outposts were (shortly) established near current villages Winsum-Bruggeburen in province Friesland in the Netherlands and at current Bentummersiel at the river Ems in Germany in the first century AD. The latter in the land of the Chauci tribe. Possibly, outposts to collect taxes the local tribes had to pay and/or for doing trade.

It were taxes that led to revolt among the Frisians (the Frisii). Yes, death and taxes. At least that's what Tacitus gave as reason. In AD 28 the Romans were pushed back by the Frisians south, behind the river Rhine. This after significant loses against the Frisians in the Baduhenna Forest. Tacitus report about 900 Roman casualties in the forest and yet another 400 Roman soldiers who killed each other at the farmstead of Cruptorix because of a betrayal after the massacre in the forests. The reports of Tacitus are supported by archaeologic finds. Archaeologial research has found no less than 520 lead catapult bullits at the former Roman fortresses. That Germanic 'armies' could number into the hundreds and be very brutal during this age, is illustrated by the archaeological finds at Alken Enge, Denmark. Here a mass-grave has been found of 380 brutally slaughtered (young) men. Anyway, as a consequence of this fierce resistance the Romans had to give up their pre-limes at Velsen-Zuid and maybe this applies to the recently discovered fortifications at the town of Krommenie circa twenty kilometers north-west of the city of Amsterdam too. And, as it was perceived in Rome those days, the Imperial Army had lost much of its honor in the north against the Germanic tribes above the river Rhine.

Despite all military efforts, the river Rhine turned out to be the most northern border of the Empire on the continent. Do not forget, no less than three Roman legions were slaughtered by Germanic tribes in the relatively nearby Teutoburg Forest at the present-day town Kalkriese near the city of Osnabrück in Germany in the year AD 9. With the already mentioned disastrous battle in AD 28 the Romans eventually adjusted their ambitions in expanding their territory northbound and settled save south of the river Rhine.

The limes, part of the Limes Germanicus, were erected along the south banks of the lower river Rhine from AD 47 onwards, and the northern outposts at Winsum and Bentummersiel were abandoned. In AD 121, in the land of the Cananefates tribes between the mouths of the rivers Rhine and Meusse at the present-day town of Rijswijk (near The Hague), the Romans erected the most northern capital of the Roman empire on the continent, namely Forum Hadriani also known as Municipium Aelium Cananefatium, commonly abbreviated (something the Romans loved to do with inscriptions) to MAC. It had an estimated 5,000 inhabitants. The nearest town was Noviomagus, modern Nijmegen in the Netherlands, with also an estimated 5,000 inhabitants.

Frisii and Frisiavones

The Romans distinguished, besides other tribes living in the big delta, like the Cananefates, the Frisii and the Frisiavones. According to soldier Pliny in his book Naturalis Historia, the Frisiavones lived on islands "inter Helenium ac Flevum". This is generally explained as the islands between the broader river mouths of the rivers Meuse and Rhine. But scholars are still having disputes to exactly pinpoint the civitas of the Frisiavones. We suggest just to describe it as the coastal section of province Zeeland south, part of province Zuid Holland, and parts up the river Meuse in province Noord Brabant in the Netherlands. Furthermore, the tribe of the Frisiavones may be considered as the Romanized Frisians (IJssennagger, 2017).

That the Frisiavones were subjects of province Germaniae Inferioris and of an administrative area or region called Frisavonum, is supported by a stone inscription found in 1958 in the Roman province Africa Proconsularis (present-day Tunisia. Yes, you heard it right, Tunisia) dated between AD 169-177. It's an inscription in honor of a certain procurator (administrator of a military district) Q. Domitius Marsianus, with the text reading:

proc[urator] Aug[usti] ad census in Gallia accipiendos provinc[iarum] Belgicae

per regiones Tungrorum et Frisavonum et Germaniae inferioris et Batavorum

By the way, in the year AD 1270 the Frisians would land on the coast of Tunisia again, but this time as fighters part of the Eighth Crusade under the banner of King Louis IX. Read our blog post Foreign Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea to understand more about the atrocities committed by the Frisians during these campaigns.

The tribe of the Frisii more or less lived in the area of present-day provinces Noord Holland, Friesland and (partly) Groningen. Curiously, a shrine dedicated to Matres Frisiavae has been found at present-day Wissen in Germany, a town halfway between Cologne and Frankfurt. In Roman sources the Frisians are also nicknamed transrhenana gens, meaning 'people of the other side of the river Rhine'. The Romans, as said, failed to conquer these areas after multiple defeats against the Chauci and the Frisii; the 'terp dwellers' of northern Germany and of the Netherlands. Thus, the Frisii being the independent, rude, barbaric part of the Frisians living in the north. Something that of course has all changed today...

Job vacancies

The close proximity of the Roman Empire also offered opportunities to the Frisian tribesmen. One opportunity was to join the ranks of the imperial army and fight in Britannia for wealth and glory. Traces of the Frisian legionnaires (both the Frisii and the Frisavones) have been found at the English towns of Bicester, Burgh-by-Sands, Carrawburgh, Cirencester, Glossop, Hexham, Manchester and Papcastle. From, for example, the tidal salt marshes in the north of the Netherlands they traveled to the present-day town of Domburg at the Walcheren Island or to modern Colijnsplaat, both in province Zeeland in the south of the Netherlands. From there they crossed the North Sea to Kent, maybe together with merchants trading in e.g. wine from Cologne or Trier in Germany of which we know the trade was quite intensive. Of course, only after they had made offerings to the water godess Nehalennia for a safe passage. Read more about the major importance of the Walcheren Island as a one of the big 'ferry ports' connecting the Continent with Britannia in the Roman Period, in our blog post about the Walcheren.

Besides joining the army as mercenary, the other opportunity the close proximity of Roman wealth offered, was plunder and piracy. The regions north of the Rhine were heartlands of piracy and from here the Germanic tribes raided the coasts of Britannia and of northern Gaul. Learn more reading our blog post It all began with piracy.

overview Latin inscriptions testifying Frisian mercenary presence

But before reading further. You'll notice that often is referred to so-called ‘cunei’ units. A cuneus was an auxiliary, small cavalry force of varying strength named after the cunei-shape or ‘wedge-shaped’ offensive formation they adopted in battle. The cunei-forces were mainly restricted to non-allied tribesmen who offered their services as mercenaries. Again, parallels to today’s Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion as they are deployed at the front of battle too. The rough boys whose casualties aren't been noticed by the public too much. You don't mess with them and you better run. In a late third century ode to Emperor Maximian it was worth mentioning that enslaved Frisians and Chamavi (a tribe living east of the Frisians/ Frisii) worked the land for the Romans. Testifying their former tough reputation to be subdued.

1. Fort Derventio Carvetiorum at Papcastle

[…] IN CVNEVM FRISIONVM ABALLAVE […] EX V P XIIII KAL ET XIII KAL NOV VSLM G II E PONPEIANO COS

"… to the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava (present-day Burgh-by-Sands) … in accordance with his vow set this up on October 19 and 20 in the consulship of Gordian for the second time and Ponpeianus, gladly and deservedly fulfilling his vow." Altar stone AD 241. That this cuneus force came from the settlement Aballava meant they had been stationed there before.

[…] EG AVG IN C NEVM FRISIONVM ABALLAVENSIVM P XIIII KAL ET XIII KAL NOV GOR II ET POMPEI COS ET ATTICO ET PREXTATO COS VSLM

"… transferred by (?) the Emperor's legate to the cuneus of the Frisians of Aballava (present-day Burgh-by-Sands), styled Philippian, on October 19 and 20 in the consulships of Gordian for the second time and Pompeianus and of Atticus and Pretextatus, gladly and deservedly fulfilled the vow." Inscription AD 242.

2. Fort Vinovia (Fort Binchester) near Bishop Auckland

[…] MANDVS EX C FRIS VINOVIE VSLM

"… Mandus veteran of Frisian Cuneus of Vinovia gladly and deservedly fulfilled his vow." Altar stone AD 43-410.

3. Fort Vercovicium (Fort Housesteads) near Hexham

DEO MARTI ET DVABVS ALAISIAGIS ET N AVG GER CIVES TVIHANTI CVNEI FRISIORVM VER SER ALEXANDRIANI VOTVM SOLVERVNT LIBENTES M

"to the God Mars the two Alaisagae goddesses and the divine spirit of the Emperor, the German tribesmen from Tuihantis serving in Frisian cunei formation, true servants of the Alexandrian, gladly and deservedly fulfil their vow." Altar stone c. AD 222-235. Tuihantis is the present-day region Twente in the Netherlands. Fort Vercovicium was part of Hadrian's Wall.

DEABVS ALAISIAGIS BAVDIHILLIE ET FRIAGABI ET N AVGN HNAVDIFRIDI VSLM

"to the goddesses the Alaisiagae, Baudihillia and Friagabis, and to the divinity of the Emperor the unit of Hnaudifridus gladly and deservedly fulfilled its vow." Altar stone c. AD 222-235.

4. Fort Ardotalia (Fort Melandra) near Glossop

CHO I FRISIAVO VAL VITALIS

"from the First Cohort of the Frisiavones the century of Valerius Vitalis [built this]." Stone inscription AD 43-410.

It's assumed fort Ardotalia has been built by the First Cohort of the Frisavones.

5. Fort Mamucium at Manchester

COHO I FRISIAV MASAVONIS P XXIII

"from the First Cohort of the Frisiavones the century of Masavo [built] 23 feet." Inscription building stone AD 43-410.

COHR I FRISIAVO QVITIANI P XXIIII

"from the First Cohort of Frisiavonum the century of Quintianus (built) 24 feet." Inscription building stone AD 43-410.

CVDRENI CHOR I RISIAV P [...]

"the century of Cudrenus from the First Cohort of the Frisiavonians [built] … feet." Inscription centurial stone AD 43-410.

6. Fort Brocolitia at Carrawburgh

DE CONVETI VOT RETVLIT MAVS OPTIO CHO P FRIXIAV

"to the goddess Convetina. Mausaeus, optio of the First Cohort of the Frixiavones, paid his vow." Altar stone AD 43-410. Fort Brocolitia was part of Hadrian's Wall.

7. Fort Corinium Dobunnorum at Cirencester

SEXTVS VALERIVS GENIALVS EQES ALAE TRHAEC CIVIS FRISIAVSTVR GENIALIS AN XXXX ST XX H S E H F C

"Sextus Valerius Genialis, trooper of the cavalry regiment of Thracians, a Frisiavone tribesman, from the troop of Genialis, aged 40, of 20 years' service, lies buried here. His heir had this set up." Tombstone c. AD 100.


Hadrian’s Wall

Two of the forts mentioned are part of the famous Hadrian’s Wall, namely fort Brocolitia and fort Vercovicium. The latter better known as fort Housesteads. There were in total fifteen forts along Hadrian's Wall and around a 10,000 soldiers were deployed along the wall. The wall was erected between c.AD 122–128 and was about 117 kilometers long.

Fort Housesteads is one of the major fortresses of the wall with annex a civilian settlement or vicus. Actually, it resembles more a garrison town than a fortress. Interestingly, a distinctive form of pottery at fort Housesteads shows close parallels with that found in Frisia. The pottery is only found in the vicus and not in the fort itself. The question arises whether the Frisian legionnaires at fort Housesteads fabricated the pottery themselves, it was imported or that their Frisian women accompanied them to Britannia and that they were responsible for the production.

The last option might actually not be that strange. When we for example recall how the colonial Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) of the Netherlands functioned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was literally the same: women, or concubines, of the KNIL soldiers followed their men and were housed in an adjacent settlement to the fort (Lanzing, 2005). And women were 'mobile' too. It's an accepted theory based on archaeological research in the Netherlands that the exchange between tribes happened through 'marriage' (exchange) of women. These women took with them their own techniques for pottery, thus explaining finds of so-called 'foreign' pottery (Nieuwhof, 2016). Proof of women living in the vicus of fort Housesteads, however, has yet to be found.

One group of mercenaries at Hadrians's Wall is intriguing, namely the 'numerus Hnaudifridi' based at fort Housesteads. This was an irregular force or actually more a gang named after their Frisian captain Hnaudifridus, or in his native tongue Notfrid. Presumably, Notfrid was a Frisian chieftain and commandeered a Frisian mercenary force. Below a casual photograph as it were of Notfrid's bunch after an S&D (search and destroy action) against the Picts. These irregular forces became a common practice in the third century onwards. Whether these irregular forces would still be classified as non-mercenary units according to Geneva Convention, we don't dare to answer.

Know that chief Notfrid will probably be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal of Frisia at Aurich, region Ostfriesland, or East Frisia, in Germany. Read our blog post about his provisional indictment by the ICTF.

Note 1: For more history on ancient walls in Britain and Europe, read our blog post Just another brick in a wall.

Note 2: The term Germanic is an invention of the Romans. Actually the tribes above the river Rhine might have been Celtic or a mixture of Germanic and Celtic. The Frisians (both the Frisiavones and the Frisii) might have been this, including the two Frisian kings or local leaders Verritus and Malorix who traveled all the way to Rome in the year AD 58 to plead at Emperor Nero their case for the use of land bordering the limes north of the river Rhine. Read our blog post Celtic-Frisian heritage: There's no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune to learn more about the Celtic-Frisian connection.

Note 3: We hikers would not be worth a penny if we wouldn't point out there is a fantastic hike along Hadrian’s Wall too: the Hadrian’s Wall Path. It’s a national trail and is 135 km long. So, an excellent hike for a week. With all the Frisian warfare history at this wall we dare to consider it as a natural extension of the Frisian Coast Trail after you have reached the end of the trail at the town of Ribe in Denmark. Just cross the North Sea in western direction from there until you hit the shores of England. Or, do it the old way. Travel to the Walcheren Island in the south-west of the Netherlands, give some offering to the gods and sail with a ship to Kent. More walls and hiking paths along old walls can be found in our blog post Another brick in the wall.

Further reading:

Bosman, V.A.J., Rome aan de Noordzee. Burgers en barbaren te Velsen (2016)

Broeke, van den P.W., Pierenpaté? Fries aardewerk ten zuiden van de Nederrijn (2018)

Ginkel, van E. & Vos, W., Grens van het Romeinse Rijk. De limes in Zuid-Holland (2018)

Goldsworthy, A., Hadrian's Wall. Rome and the Limits of Empire (2018)

Huisman, K., De Friese geschiedenis in meer dan 100 verhalen (2003)

Meijlink, B. & Silkens, B. & Jaspers, N.L., Zeeën van Tijd. Grasduinen door de archeologie van 2500 jaar Domburg en het Oostkapelse strand (2017)

Nieuwhof, A. & Nicolay, J., Identiteit en samenleving: terpen en wierden in de wijde wereld (2018)

Lanzing, F., Soldaten van Smaragd. Mannen, vrouwen en kinderen van het KNIL 1890-1914 (2005)

Lendering, J., Romeinen in Velsen (2016)

Londen, van H., Ridder, T., Bosman, A. & Bazelmans, J., Het West-Nederlandse kustgebied in de Romeinse tijd (2008)

Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)

Rushworth, A., Housesteads Roman Fort - The Grandest Station. Volume I Structural Report and Discussion (2009)

Stedman, H. & McCrohan, D., Hadrian's Wall path. Wallsend (Newcastle) to Bowness-on-Solway (2006)

Stolte, B.H. (ed.), Germania Inferior. Untersuchungen zur Territorial- und Verwatungsgeschichte Niedergermaniens in der Prinzipatszeit (1972)

Tuuk. van der L., De Romeinse Limes. De grenzen van het Rijk in de Lage Landen (2017)

Vanderbilt, S., Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB), website

Vugts, T. (ed.), Varen op de Romeinse Rijn. De schepen van Zwammerdam en de limes (2016)

Weij, van der A., Deabus et Dis Communibus. Thesis on the religious identity of auxiliary soldiers on the northern frontier of Roman Britain (2017)

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