Cohors I Hispanorum

This page created 16 November 2015, and last modified: 1 December 2015 (Breeze & Dobson reference added)


The sixteenth item listed (154.32 in Ingo Maier's numbering scheme) under the command of the Dux Britanniarum following the subsection headed "along the line of the Wall" (item 154.16, per lineam valli), is the Tribunus cohortis primae Hispanorum Axeloduno.

Disclaimer: Remember, a lot of what comes below is speculation. Hopefully informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Comments welcome! (lukeuedasarson "at"

The men under the Tribunus cohortis primae Hispanorum are said to be stationed at Axeloduno. This is surely Uxelodunum, identified with modern Stanwix in Cumbria, and which is the largest of all the forts on Wall. The unit, more fully named the cohors I Aelia Hispanorum milliaria equitata, was extra-large part-mounted auxiliary cohort, and is one of the best-represented in Britain in terms of epigraphic records. It is thus somewhat problematic that not one of these records comes from Stanwix (although it must be said that Stanwix has produced very little evidence for any units: very little archaeological work has been carried out there). Most of the epigraphic evidence for the unit in the 2nd century comes from Alauna (modern Maryport, the Notitia's "Ailione"), and, for the 3rd century, from Castra Exploratorum (modern Netherby, north of the Wall, and not recorded in the Notitia). Further, the ala Petriana, another extra-sized unit, is said (154.29) to be stationed at Petrianis, which has also been identified with Stanwix.

Since it would be wildly improbably for two such large units to share the same fort, either:

1. the two units were much reduced in size by the time of Notitia, or
2. at least one of identifications of Petrianis and Axeloduno with Stanwix is wrong, or
3. the Notitia has an error in one of these two entries, and either Petrianis or Axeloduno should not be associated with the units they are in the text as received.
The first option would seem at first to be not unreasonable. That Britain was being continually drained of troops during the late 4th and early 5th century nobody would deny, and there is no reason to assume units were withdrawn in toto to supply these troops; on the contrary, the Roman predilection for detaching bodies of men from their parent units as vexillationes for service elsewhere, often never to return, is well known. Further, units were known to share forts at times; and some of the examples known come from Britain, so it was not a practice foreign to the island. And yet, that the only two bodies of troops that appear to share a station under the Dux Britanniarum just so happen to be, assuming full strength numbers, the largest non-legionary unit in the country on one hand, and the second-equal largest on the other, and thus of more need of shedding numbers than any two random units situated together, might strike one as something of an unlikely coincidence. It would have been easier for any two other units to share a fort than these two...

The reasonableness of option 2 is something I can't fully evaluate at the moment. The identification of Axeloduno with Stanwix was cemented by its acceptance by Rivet and Smith, and has been widely accepted. It appears to have been first made three years earlier by Hassall in 1976, and later in the same year by Breeze and Dobson, but I have not been able to see full copies of these two references to evaluate their arguments.

If option 3 is accepted, one must decide which entry is the incorrect one. Petriana Petrianis looks like an obvious doublet, and therefore a spurious copying error, but doublets like this are rife in the Notitia for the very good reason that forts very frequently were named after the units garrisoning them (the example par excellence being the city of Legio in Spain, named after it garrison, Legio VIII Gemina, 156/8.44, and which carries the name even today, as Leon). So this doublet to my mind strengthens the claim of textual authenticity rather than weakens it (contra Rivet and Smith).

Turning to Axeloduno, as a textual reading it is unremarkable as a variation of Uxeloduno. If it is to be deemed spurious, one must consider if the mistake is one of insertion into the text, or by way of lacuna in the manner posited for 154.28.1. As an insertion, this still leaves unanswered the question of what the replaced location of the unit would most likely be. Castra Exploratorum itself would seem an obvious choice, but one must suspect that this outpost, north of the Wall, would have been abandoned before any forts further south. The nearby fort at Bowness-on-Solway, identified with Roman Maia is also absent in the Notitia, and might be a reasonable candidate, as it is the second largest fort along the wall after Stanwix itself. Epigraphic inscriptions (RIB 2057, RIB 2058) attest to the presence of an auxiliary cohort's tribune at the fort, but the unit itself is unfortunately unnamed (inscriptions of the unit from Maryport show the commnading officer might be either a prefect, e.g. RIB 822, or a tribune, e.g. RIB 823, as was commonly the case with milliaria-sized units). Maia was Rivet and Smith's choice for the station, but it is hard to see how it could have come be inserted there.

Positing a lacuna instead removes the problem with how Axeloduno could have come to replace an entry such as Maia, as text would only have to be deleted during copying, not added, but only moves the doubling-up problem as opposed to eliminating it: if cohors I Hispanorum is to be stationed as some omitted location, such as Maia, and an omitted unit is to be stationed at Axeloduno, this just rearranges the problem, so that it is this unknown unit that has to share Stanwix with the ala Petriana. However, this problem would be avoided if Petrianis is not in fact to be identified with Stanwix.

It is possible that the Notitia's Tribunus cohortis primae Hispanorum commands only the foot component of cohors I Aelia Hispanorum milliaria equitata, while the mounted component is commanded by the Praefectus numeri exploratorum (154.9); see that unit's entry for details.

The unit's name is intimately connected with Spain, from where the unit was no doubt originally raised. Not only does Hispanorum refer to Spain directly, but Aelia does so too, albeit indirectly, by way of the emperor Hadrian, Publius Aelius Hadrianus, and the most famous bearer of the name: a native of Spain.

As with all limitanei units in the Notitia, the shield pattern of the cohors I Hispanorum is not illustrated.


1. Ingo Maier; "Appendix 4: Numeration of the new edition of the compilation 'notitia dignitatum' (Cnd)"; last accessed 26 October 2015. See also for here for numbering examples. Return
2. A.L.F. Rivet & Colin Smith; "The Place-Names of Roman Britain"; Batsford, London, 1979; at p 221. Return
3. M.W.C. Hassall; "Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum", British Archaeological Reports, supplemental series 15 (1976), Oxford; at p 112-114. Return
4. D.J. Breeze and B. Dobson; "Hadrian's Wall"; Allen Lane, London, 1976. Return


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