Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army

After the Roman Empire had incorporated a big chunk of the British Isles in the first century, 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 the Netherlands, joined the Roman army as mercenary to fight in Britannia. So, what do we know about these early mercenaries?

The practice of hiring soldiers of a different nation is of all times and places. Even today it is 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 is not a contradictio in terminis) the Gurkha’s and the Foreign Legionnaires are officially non-mercenaries, because they are part of the national army at war. Probably the Frisian mercenaries, as other mercenaries within the Roman imperial army, e.g. the Hispanics from Spain and the Tungri from Belgium, were seen as part of the army too. Therefore, if we would apply the Geneva Convention of today, strictly speaking the classification ‘mercenary’ probably would not 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 Gurkha’s and the French Legionnaires of today. When you see them: run! We will come back to it below.

The Romans arrived two thousand years ago at the mighty river Rhine Delta and its impenetrable, near-empty peat lands. The first record of the Frisians dates from BC 12 about how the Frisian (called Frisii) tribes became an ally during a battle against the Chauci tribe in the north of what is now the Wadden Sea coast of northwest Germany, roughly between the river Ems and Elbe. The Chauci were not pacified either. It were notorious pirates, read our blog post It all began with piracy.

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 Germanica in general as follows: “The terrain is fierce, the climate is rough, life and landscape are bleak. You only come here if it’s your homeland.” This must have been especially true for the coastal zone, and 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 northwest of the city of Amsterdam, the Romans had established two pre-limes fortresses, probably in 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 possibly also with lacus Flevo ‘Lake Flevo’, and from there with 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.

Roman outposts were also (shortly) established near current villages Winsum-Bruggeburen in province Friesland in the Netherlands, and at current Bentumersiel at the river Ems in Germany in the first century. The latter in the land of the Chauci tribe. Possibly, both outposts to collect taxes the local tribes had to pay, and to facilitate trade.

One year after John the Baptist was beheaded by tetrarch ‘ruler’ Herod Antipas, the Frisians revolted against the Romans. It were taxes that led to revolt in the year AD 28. Yes, death and taxes. At least, that is what Tacitus gave as reason. The Romans were pushed back south by the Frisians, behind the river Rhine. This, after significant loses against the Frisians in the Baduhenna Forest. Tacitus reports 900 Roman casualties in the forest, and yet another 400 Roman soldiers who killed each other just after their retreat, at the farmstead of a certain person named Cruptorix. Reason for the butchery at Cruptorix was a betrayal after the massacre in the forests. The reports of Tacitus are supported by archaeological finds. Archaeological research has found no less than 520 lead catapult bullets at the former Roman fortresses.

That Germanic ‘armies’ could number into the hundreds and be very brutal during this era, 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 too, located circa twenty kilometers northwest of the city of Amsterdam. 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.

„clarum inde inter Germanos Frisium nomen“

ever since the name of the Frisians has a bright sound

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 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.

The limes, part of the Limes Germanicus, were erected along the south banks of the lower river Rhine from AD 47 onward, and the northern outposts at Winsum and Bentummersiel were abandoned. In AD 121, in the land of the civitas ‘tribe’ Cananefates, living between the mouths of the rivers Rhine (Flevum) and Meusse (Helinium), the Romans founded 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, to MAC. It was located near the present-day city of The Hague. It had an estimated 5,000 inhabitants. The nearest other town was Noviomagus, modern Nijmegen in the Netherlands, with also an estimated 5,000 inhabitants.

Forum Hadriani also known as Municipium Aelium Cananefatium MAC, by Ulco Glimmerveen

Frisii and Frisiavones

The Romans distinguished, besides other tribes living in the big delta, 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 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/Frisii (IJssennagger, 2017). Archaeological research suggestes that Frisiavones populated the area between Rhine and Meusse from mid-first century, similar to the civitas Batavii. Ceramic found of the Frisiavones is of Frisian (Frisii) tradition.

That the civitas 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 dated between AD 169-177. It is an inscription in honor of a certain procurator (i.e. 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 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 Frisiavones the mannered part of the Frisians, and 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 marshlands 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 goddess 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 Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea.

continental origins of military cohorts in Roman forts in what is now northern England

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.

Before reading further about the presence of mercenaries in Britannia, we need to elaborate on military vocabulary. You will 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 the force adopted in battle. The cunei forces were mainly restricted to non-allied tribesmen who offered their services as mercenaries. Again, parallels to today’s Gurkha’s and the French Foreign Legion as they are deployed at the front of battle too. The rough boys whose casualties are not been noticed by the public too much. You do not mess with them and, indeed, 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 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

(altar stone AD 241)

… 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

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

(inscription AD 242)

… 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

2. Fort Vinovia (Fort Binchester) near Bishop Auckland

[…] MANDVS EX C FRIS VINOVIE VSLM

(altar stone AD 43-410)

… Mandus veteran of Frisian Cuneus of Vinovia gladly and deservedly fulfilled his vow

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

(altar stone AD 222-235)

“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”

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

(altar stone AD 222-235)

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

4. Fort Ardotalia (Fort Melandra) near Glossop

CHO I FRISIAVO VAL VITALIS

(stone inscription AD 43-410)

from the First Cohort of the Frisiavones the century of Valerius Vitalis [built this]

5. Fort Mamucium at Manchester

COHO I FRISIAV MASAVONIS P XXIII

(inscription building stone AD 43-410)

from the First Cohort of the Frisiavones the century of Masavo [built] 23 feet

COHR I FRISIAVO QVITIANI P XXIIII

(inscription building stone AD 43-410)

from the First Cohort of Frisiavonum the century of Quintianus (built) 24 feet

CVDRENI CHOR I RISIAV P […]

(inscription centurial stone AD 43-410)

the century of Cudrenus from the First Cohort of the Frisiavonians [built] … feet

6. Fort Brocolitia at Carrawburgh

DE CONVETI VOT RETVLIT MAVS OPTIO CHO P FRIXIAV

(altar stone AD 43-410)

to the goddess Convetina. Mausaeus, optio of the First Cohort of the Frixiavones, paid his vow

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

(tombstone ca. AD 100)

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

We have put all the locations of Frisii and Frisiavones ‘abroad’ during the Roman Period in a map for your convenience:

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 10,000 soldiers were deployed along the wall. The wall was erected between 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 adjacent 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 back then. It is 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.

The third inscription of the overview given above, mentions the numerus ‘unit’ of Hnaudifridi. A group of mercenaries at Hadrians’s Wall based at fort Housesteads. This was an irregular force, or actually more a gang, named after their Frisian chieftain Hnaudifridus, or in his native tongue Notfrid. Presumably, Notfrid was a Frisian chieftain and commandeered a Frisian mercenary force. These irregular forces became a common practice in the third century onward. Whether these irregular forces would still be classified as non-mercenary units according to Geneva Convention, we do not dare to answer.

numerus Hnaudifridi in action

Know that Notfrid will probably be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal of Frisia (ICTF) at Aurich, region Ostfriesland 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 would not point out there is a fantastic hike along Hadrian’s Wall too: the Hadrian’s Wall Path. It is 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 southwest 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.

credit featured image of this post by karakter.de

Suggested 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)
  • Gelder, van J., Nieuwenhuis, M. & Peters, T. (transl), Plinius. De wereld. Naturalis historia (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)
  • Heeringen, van R.M. & Velde, van der H.M. (eds), Struinen door de duinen. Synthetiserend onderzoek naar de bewoningsgeschiedenis van het Hollands duingebied op basis van gegevens verzameld in het Malta-tijdperk (2017)
  • Huisman, K., De Friese geschiedenis in meer dan 100 verhalen (2003)
  • Hunink, V (transl), Tacitus. In moerassen en donkere wouden. De Romeinen in Germanië (2015)
  • Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
  • 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)
  • Mijle Meijer, van der R.A., Scheveningseweg gemeente Den Haag. Archeologische begeleiding rioolvervanging (2011)
  • 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)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: