Maryport stands out among the Roman forts in northern Britain. Popular accounts of such sites normally focus on providing a structural biography of the fort buildings, with less said about individual soldiers or the world beyond its ramparts. Books about Maryport must buck this trend, as comparatively little is known about the fort interior, but fascinating insights into activity outside the defences are steadily accumulating. Despite this work, the fort remains most famous for its collection of sculpture and inscribed stones, especially altars.
In this engaging and lavishly illustrated book, David J Breeze reveals what these objects tell us about Roman garrison life, while also observing that collectively they have a fascinating story of their own. Most of the objects now housed in the wonderful site museum were gathered by local landowner John Senhouse and his descendants. He is first identified in 1599 as the custodian of the collection, which over the centuries has swelled and occasionally – alas – contracted when objects were lost or gifted to figures ranging from friends to Mussolini.
The names on the stones take us back rather further than 1599. One, Marcus Maenius Agrippa, probably accompanied Hadrian to Britain in AD 122. After commanding the Maryport garrison, Maenius Agrippa deftly climbed the imperial career ladder, ultimately becoming Procurator of Britain (comparable to a modern Chancellor of the Exchequer). For men of his status, Maryport represented, as Breeze puts it, ‘the lowest rung in the hierarchy’, and it is easy to imagine a succession of eager young commanders earnestly inscribing their names on altars as their future stretched out before them.
Recent excavations north of the fort have revealed the surprising fate of these altars in the centuries between them being set up by Romans and collected by the Senhouses (see CA 289). Other work has explored an extramural settlement and a cemetery. As well as covering these projects, Breeze includes local settlements excavated near the fort, providing an invaluable sense of the world these soldiers operated within. The result is an essential account of a key site.
This review appeared in CA 338.