Epiacum Roman Fort, which is also known by its modern name of Whitley Castle, was built concurrently with Hadrian's Wall. It controlled access along the Maiden Way, an important road connecting that frontier with the wider Roman world, but the primary duties of its garrison would have been to oversee the surrounding lead and silver mines.
Whitley Castle, which was originally known by its Latin name of Epiacum (possibly an abbreviation of Epiacumen), was a Roman Fort built around AD 122 concurrently with the work on Hadrian's Wall. Possibly replacing a first century fort on the same location, its purpose was to provide secure accommodation for troops moving along the Maiden Way. Epiacum was located between the forts at Kirby-Thore (Bravoniacum) and Carvoran (Magna). It is also probable that the fort's garrison was used to oversee lead and silver mining operations in the immediate area especially as its proximity to the River South Tyne would have facilitated the export of those minerals to Newcastle where they could have been shipped around the Roman world. Archaeological finds on the site have included numerous inscriptions made by the Sixth Legion (Legio VI Victrix) which may indicate Epiacum was built by them. Ptolemy's Geography, a second century AD book detailing the prominent locations across portions of the Roman Empire, stated the fort was situated in the land of the Brigantes tribe. Of note numerous round houses were built in vicinity of the fort - although it has yet to be confirmed that these were contemporary with the occupation of Epiacum, it is tempting to consider they may have been the homes of the miners.
The vast majority of Roman Forts of the first and second centuries AD were built to a standardised rectangular layout with rounded corners - the so-called playing card configuration. Epiacum was unusual as, although based on the normal layout, the fort was distorted into a rhomboid shape to suit the terrain upon which it was built. The fort is also different from most by the large number of defensive ditches surrounding the structure. The norm was for one of two which were configured to provide a clear line for a Pilum (Javlin) to be thrown from the associated rampart. At Epiacum however the south-west side of the fort is protected by no less than seven fighting ditches. The reason for this is unclear. At some outposts, for example Ardoch, a reduction in fort size led to the existence of extra ditches as redundant ones weren't filled in whilst new ones were constructed optimised for the revised position of the ramparts. However Epiacum was not downsized. The most likely reason for the extensive ditch system is the fact the western side of the fort was overlooked by the crest of the hill. It is probable the Romans felt this made the fort vulnerable and added additional ditches to defuse any attack. To place the defences into context however, they are the most elaborate surviving earthworks of any fort across the entire Roman Empire. It seems a logical conclusion that this was an indication of extensive local hostility and/or the importance of operations conducted within the fort.
Aside from its unusual shape and extensive ditch system, Epiacum was laid out in the standard form with a Headquarters building in the centre of the fort which was surrounded by a Commanding Officer's House, Granaries, Workshops and Barracks. A Bath House was built outside the defences and this was clearly added later in the fort's life as it was constructed over some of the ditches on the north-west side. A flattened area near the fort may be a parade ground. Initially the defences would have been constructed in timber but were later upgraded to stone. Each side of the fort had a twin-tower Gatehouse and angle-towers occupied each corner. A further two interval towers were built on the north-east and south-west sides.
Various modifications and much rebuilding seems to have occurred at Epiacum. It was extensively modified around AD 200 at which time it was garrisoned by the Second Cohort of Nervians (Cohors Secundae Nerviorum) - a 600 strong Regiment that originally recruited from the Lower Rhine. The fort was modified again in AD 300 and the west gate may have been blocked up at this time which could perhaps indicate a deteriorating military situation in the north. Epiacum seems to have continued in operation until late in the fourth century - presumably as the mining operations continued to be extremely valuable to the wider Roman world.
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Whitley Castle (Epiacum Roman Fort) survives as extensive earthworks and includes a rare example of multi-ditch defences. The fort is also unusual for its layout which modified the normal 'playing card' configuration in order to best fit the terrain. The site is free to explore and is adjacent to the Pennine Way.
Epiacum. The fort occupied a plateau directly adjacent to the Maiden Way but was overlooked to the west by higher ground. This is almost certainly the reason for the extensive ditches on that side of the fort.
Epiacum Roman Fort Layout. The normal 'playing card' configuration associated with Roman Forts of the period was retained but the layout was deformed to fit the terrain.
Bath House. Around the start of the third century AD some of the north-west ditches were flattened and a Bath House built.
Whitley Castle (Epiacum Roman Fort) has recently been made more accessible to tourists with an unpaved car park directly off the A689. A small sign points the way through an open farm gate. Alternatively the fort can be accessed from the Pennine Way.
Epiacum Roman Fort