Author: Anneke

Date Published 3 September 2020

Working through Vindolanda’s wooden artefacts as part of the Arts Council England-funded digitisation project had me opening a box containing Roman tent pegs. Yes, tent pegs!  A surprisingly familiar object with many stories to tell. Carefully unwrapping the first peg, I recalled an experience with objects similar to these only a few weeks ago. Nowadays they are predominantly made from steel, aluminium, or even carbon, but still fulfil the same duty as thousands of years ago: holding down a tent. They are all too easy to lose, an experience we certainly share with the Romans.

The wooden object in my hand made me think back to my last attempt to pitch a tent on the shores of Styhead Tarn in the Lake District in the middle of winter. We had underestimated the conditions - or should I say, we had not planned for snow at all, and had to abandon the plan to pitch our tent after losing those essential pegs in the snow, not to be found again. I often wonder: has our lost peg already been found, or will somebody find it in many years’ time and handle it with gloves, weigh and measure it, and  make assumptions about how it got there and who lost it, eventually putting it in a database? It made me smile to imagine what a Roman soldier would think if he were able to see me handling so carefully his discarded peg, a peg he probably thought expendable.

While I go camping as a leisure activity, to recharge and perhaps have some mini adventures, it is likely that the Romans didn’t set up tents just for fun. It is a fair assumption that tents have been important not only to operate far away from the fort but also to help with the transition from a temporary marching camp as part of setting up a permanent fort or other structures. Tents would have been prominent symbols of the Roman army. Living under canvas - sub pellibus - would have been the first step to permanent occupation.  The essence of a mobile army unit.

My enthusiasm for spending time sub pellibus myself, and the chance to get my hands on Vindolanda’s fascinating wooden collection, got me hooked. I wanted to investigate further the prominence of tents and the equipment which comes with them. What evidence or record is there on “Roman camping”?  There are several sources, even if they need to be treated with care bearing in mind the questions: who were the authors and the clients, and what was the purpose, intention or message that should be conveyed? One major source of information on a Roman soldier’s life is Trajan’s column in Rome.

The column depicts the Dacian campaign, and with that a variety of tents.  The depictions clearly demonstrate that there must have been different types of tents in the army camps serving different functions. In the foreground are the commanders’ tents, and in the background smaller rectangular and bivouac tents (one-man tents) which would have belonged to the lower ranks. The leather tents appear to have a box frame construction, with a low-pitched roof and a deep overhang, made of leather rectangles as are the walls.  The column also shows the transport of bundled tents carried by boat and cart.

Luckily, I am able to carry my tent, which hardly weighs more than a bag of potatoes, on top of my rucksack, and I don’t have to worry that much where exactly I am going to pitch it. The Roman soldiery were a lot more organised, a text by an anonymous author from the second century AD describes how tents were pitched in orderly rows. A Roman ten-foot tent (approximately three-square metres) with two-foot-long guy ropes would provide a shelter for a contubernium of eight men. The centurion would have had a similar tent all to himself and some space for baggage, whereas the soldiers on guard would not have had a tent.

My personal tentus sleeps two and, to be honest, there is even then hardly any room for my walking boots let alone baggage. Looking back at my failed camping trip, I would say the major problem was the pitching of the tent. My tent doesn’t have a frame and needs pegs to stand up. Due to the unexpected snow, the tent pegs wouldn’t hold the guy ropes, which meant it collapsed - and the high wind didn’t help. I wonder if the Romans struggled with collapsing tents and difficult soil conditions. Details have been brought to light by finds from excavation, providing clues to construction methods and sizes. At Vindolanda, over 50 tent pegs and several pieces of leather have been excavated over the years. One exciting aspect of the several pieces of leather discovered was that the team realised that, by fitting the individual stitch holes together, they had discovered an almost complete tent, a real ‘dot-to-dot’ challenge. After extensive sorting, four large panels, smaller panels and further assorted pieces were identified as parts of one tent. The seams on the tent are very specific to fit the tent panels, two distinctive sides of seams must fit in their logical sequence. The find helped to draw further conclusions on how the tents were pitched. Before the find, the assumption was that a central pole and the guy ropes would have held up the tent. This however could not be confirmed considering the weight of the leather, which would have been even greater in wet conditions. The strain would have been too much for such a simple frame. The weight of the leather walls suggested that every tent needed a wooden frame, and probably four guy ropes would have been used as supports holding the leather down over the frame, pegged out about 30 centimetres from the wall. Vertical posts at the corners with auxiliary horizontal poles would have been necessary to bear the weight of the roof. Unfortunately, none of the surviving tents have loops for pegging, so the mud wall and the very poor preservation of lower panels suggests earth may have been heaped up against them. The guy ropes were tied directly through the reinforced eyelets along the wall. It is likely that toggles were used for fastening the doors at either end.

Nowadays tents are often produced by specialist companies, and quality depends on how much you are willing to pay. If you use the tent often then running repairs are part and parcel of the experience, another aspect we share with the Romans, and one I particularly enjoyed finding in the artefacts. The Vindolanda tent is of high quality and gives the impression that the stitching must have been carried out by professionals, while later repairs would have been done by soldiers themselves. Inscriptions on the leather can be interpreted as possible markings to ensure regular sizes, or to show that these pieces were reserved for tents of a certain size. It is not surprising that the tent shows several signs of repair given the fact that around 75 skins were required to produce one tent. You can imagine that the Romans must have repaired and recycled the tents as much as they could.

Goatskin was used for most of the military equipment because it is lighter than calf and has a higher tensile strength. The tent would have had a weight around 18-20 kg: by comparison cowhide would weigh around 30 kg.  It’s estimated that a tent would have lasted approximately ten to twenty years, and all that leather? Well, the source of all that goatskin remains a mystery. The value of the tent implies that they must have spent a lot of time on cleaning and general maintenance of their tents. The cost for the communal tent was shared between the 8 soldiers and taken from their pay, which makes it even more likely that they would have wanted to maintain the tent and make it last. Military registers show that the mother of a dead soldier received 20 denarii as a refund for his share of a tent in AD 142, so we have some idea of the importance of this piece of military equipment. It is likely that tents were manufactured in the legionary fortresses and taken to auxiliary forts for use on campaign. The cutting of the individual tent panels might have been undertaken by unskilled workers following a template and a modular system to avoid any waste of leather, with the actual stitching being done by professionals.

These repairs really interest me, small alterations to the standard pattern done by the individual, one pair of hands making a fix or improvement for a particular purpose. The same thing with the pegs: objects made quickly and discarded when damaged, to be quickly replaced and forgotten. They are moments in time, moments I’ve experienced myself some 2000 years later. This is just the start of my dive into Roman camping equipment, as essential in its way as the sword or shield. I’ll keep you posted on what I find, and I’ll also continue to enjoy my time ‘sub pellibus’. I hope I won’t lose too much more equipment, or should I say leave too much of a record for the future!



  • Collins, Rob et al: Living on the Edge of Empire – the objects and people of Hadrian’s Wall,Yorkshire 2020
  • Van Driel-Murray, Carol: New light on old tents, in: Journal of roman military equipment studies, volume 1, 1990

Van Driel-Murray, Carol: Warm and dry: a complete Roman tent from Vindolanda.