Why didn’t the Romans build castles?

Why didn't the Romans build castles - they built others. These were grandiose buildings that contemporaries are unlikely to be able to replicate so well. Почему римляне не строили замки Зами римской империи

Maybe you’ve wondered why the Romans didn’t build castles. Now let’s explain this topic. It is now believed that the English word Castle comes from the Latin word Castrum, meaning fortified place.

There is a certain period in European history when rich people decided that palaces should be fortified, and fortresses could become palaces. As a rule, this is the time period from the 10th to the 13th centuries AD – the period of the High Middle Ages.

What were these castles like?

One of the most primitive types of castle was the so-called Motte-and-bailey. It was a courtyard surrounded by a palisade, next to which on a hill stood a donjon – the main tower. In the 11th century this was the most common type of castle. The fortress wall of such a castle was high enough so that it would not be taken right away. The wall could have towers for cross-firing. As a rule, a small cavalry garrison could be placed behind the walls.

The residential part of the castle consisted of apartments and the same dungeon inside or outside the main walls. Sometimes the residential part was additionally fortified. However, much earlier than this, in ancient times, wealthy people kept palaces and fortresses away from large crowds of people. Rich Romans preferred to live in palaces or villas of various kinds. While the state was responsible for the construction of fortresses in dangerous territories.

During the Roman Empire, local nobles did not have to fear attacks. Almost all of them lived either near the city or near the fort. And most importantly, there was a guarantee of peace throughout the Roman Empire. Citizens holding high positions could spend their entire lives in a luxurious villa with vineyards and never see barbarians. For most Romans living in the empire, the front line was thousands of kilometers away – on the Rhine, Danube and near modern Syria. In pre-crisis times, most Roman cities did not even have walls, because they were not needed.

Why didn’t the Romans build castles – they built others

Where military clashes took place, the Romans erected fortresses, relatively primitive from the point of view of defensive architecture. Republican and early Imperial era forts were similar to large fortified army camps and were designed to protect and house large infantry units. Infantry was the backbone of all Roman armies until the fall of the empire in the fifth century. Such camps fit perfectly into the concept of the Roman troops. This is how conquests were carried out and maintained. In later eras, the focus was on controlling and protecting border areas. For this purpose, garrisons consisting of infantry and small cavalry were suitable. As Late Antiquity approached, the interior of the Roman Empire became increasingly dangerous compared to the period of the Principate, which lasted until the end of the third century AD. The Romans developed a whole system of fortifications to resist the increasing frequency of invasions. Camps were turned into defensive structures, and walls were built to protect previously safe cities.

It is interesting to note that typical Roman fortresses with a square layout, located on level ground, look like castles, which would not appear in medieval Europe until a thousand years later – in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Гамзиград-Ромулиана римская крепость
Gamzigrad-Romuliana, Roman fortress of the 3rd-4th century AD. e. (reconstruction of appearance)

The picture shows Hamzigrad-Romuliana – a Roman fortress that was built between the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the fourth century AD. It certainly looks like a very large castle from the High or Late Middle Ages, with defensive structures and a residential interior.

We are currently starting a project to build the medieval castle Castle.men (Minsk region). If you would like to participate in the construction and development of the castle, please contact us:

We in Telegram
Реконструкция-дворца-Диоклетиана римская крепость
Diocletian’s Palace, Roman fortress, early 4th century AD. e. (reconstruction of appearance)

Diocletian’s Palace, built at the beginning of the fourth century, looks like a fortified camp, surrounded by very high walls with towers.

Fortress of Gariannonum

One example of a Roman fortification from antiquity is Castle Gariannonum (now Burgh Castle), which was built in what is now the county of Norfolk in England between 260 and 270 AD. Castle Gariannonum was an irregular rectangle measuring 205 × 100 meters and covered an area of about 2.4 hectares. The eastern side of the castle was 15 m shorter than the western side, which was approximately 205 m long.

Использование плинфы в римском замке
Current condition of the wall of the Castle (fort) Gariannonum (now Burgh Castle), England, 3rd century

The width of the wall of Castle Gariannonum varies greatly. The western wall and parts of the northern and southern walls have a thickness of 2.02 meters, and the more massive eastern wall, built on a hill, has a width of 3.02 meters (this wall is one of the best preserved sections) and a height of up to 4.6 meters . The castle walls have a base up to 3 meters wide and taper towards the top. According to scientists, there was previously a fortified battlement on top of the walls, accessed by the castle’s wooden or stone stairs. Ten round towers were erected along the perimeter of the wall, standing at equal distances from each other. The towers were placed directly in front of the wall and made it possible to conduct concentrated barrage fire against the attacking forces. Torsion throwing machines could be installed on the towers.

Использования плинфы в укреплениях античности. Римский Форт замок
The surviving walls of the Roman Castle (fort) Gariannonum (now Burgh Castle), England, 3rd century

The wall itself is made mainly of flint, but it has stripes of plinth, typical of late antiquity. After 5–6 rows of flint cladding, three rows of plinth were laid at a distance of 1.5–1.8 meters from each other. The use of plinth provided additional strengthening of the outer part of the wall. The inside of the wall was filled with a mixture of stone and mortar (see picture below).

Структура и состав стены римского замка рисунок

Structure of the wall of the Roman Castle (fort) Gariannonum (now Burgh Castle), England, 3rd century

Comparison of Roman fortresses with medieval castles

Now compare these castles with what they had in medieval Europe. The continent is divided into hundreds of small domains, each of which is ruled by a local duke, prince, baron, and so on. Instead of a regular army, there is a non-professional army with knights, and wars with each other were common. The nobility of that time could not live peacefully in luxurious villas and bathe in underground heated baths. In the Middle Ages, to be a noble person meant to be a person directly involved in war. For such rulers, a place that will be both a home and a fort is ideal. Often medieval castles were smaller than Roman fortresses because they housed fewer people. The castles of that time were varied in design, because people built them based on their taste and amount of money. In the Late Middle Ages, cities could also receive their own castles.

The sizes of the castles could vary greatly. From a lonely donjon without walls to an impressively sized fortification complex, the strength of which was not in its fortifications, but in the projection of power (mainly cavalry) onto the area. For example, a castle in the Early Middle Ages accommodated only a few dozen garrison people.

An individual castle could rarely hold out for long against superior enemy forces. Although there are examples when castles shackled entire armies. Most often they were taken by small siege groups. The castle was primarily intended to control the territory and was a defensible place from which the garrison could make forays or, if necessary, detain the enemy. Thus, by the High and Late Middle Ages, castles began to resemble Roman forts or fortified military camps, constantly increasing the size of the garrison as the economy of the region developed.

I hope it is now more clear why the Romans did not build castles. They built them only when there was a need, and they built them in such a way that even after a thousand years nothing so grandiose could be repeated.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.