Research And Reconstruction

The Soldier’s Ridge Tent

Roman military tents are depicted on the 1st century carvings of Trajan's Column, but that is no help to us in the 4th century. Tents may have changed radically in the intervening three centuries. The classic conterburnium tent of goatskin that is used by the 1st and 2nd century Roman groups cannot be used by Comitatus with any real justification. So what kind of tent can I use as a Late Roman legionary?

There is one illustration of a simple ridge-tent in a civillian context that dates from our period. Two tents are depicted in the 6th century Vienna Genesis manuscript, and they are simply formed from a six-foot ridge pole, held up with two three or four-foot upright poles. Presumably the tent material is pegged out to keep it taut and upright. This is a simple tent, easily created that is dated to our period. On that basis alone it could be used with a clear conscience. However, its very simplicity suggests that the Late Roman army would have used such a shelter.

Further, one Late Antique manuscript actually shows this simple ridge-tent shelter in a military context. Below is a copy of this manuscript illustration, it is a miniature from the Ilias Ambrosiana (dating from the late 5th century) which shows the Greek soldiers at Troy setting up camp and feasting. Of course, as with all these illuminated manuscripts they are dressed and equipped in typical Late Antique garb! The picture is fascinating, a camp of ridge-tents, with at least two erected end-to-end to provide a longer ‘double’ tent.

In many wars throughout history, the infantryman has had to find shelter where he could: in barns, ruined houses, under fallen trees, dug-outs or simply crouched up against a wall. Many armies have issued their soldier with tarpaulins/blankets which have served as an improvised shelter. Maurice recommends that cavalry "should take with them ... small tents or a couple of heavy cloaks, the one for covering if needed and the other as a tent or shelter..." (Strategikon 5.4) I used

Maurice's advice on using cloaks to create an improvised shelter, and I recreated a Vienna Genesis ridge tent using spear and javelins. Two cloaks tied together, thrown over a spear held up by two javelins, pegged out using the pebble and string method (see below) ... created a great two man tent. A shield perfectly closes off the mouth of the tent at each end, and two men could provide a spare cloak each for the tent canvas... This combined the literary evidence from Maurice with the pictorial evidence from the Vienna Genesis. I think it makes a very authentic Late Roman 'field-tent', but I'm not so sure I want to weather rain and storm using blanket-weave cloaks. Instead I purchased 2.4m of canvas from Whalley's of Bradford. I'm sure the legions would have used cheaper and more waterproof goatskin (depending on how good your stitching is ...), but canvas makes a good stand-by. Federal troops in the American Civil War were using an identical design nicknamed the 'dog tent' or 'pup tent'.

I think the tent-shelter, thrown over spear and javelins, is a decent soldier's interpretation of the Vienna Genesis evidence and follows the tenet of the infantryman in all eras of history - 'adapt what you have to survive'. Using your weaponry, shield and cloak to create your overnight bivouac fits well with the timeless military reality of the fighting man.

What you need to create the Vienna Genesis soldier's-shelter: one 6 foot spear, two veruta (short javelins), string, six small pebbles and around 2-3m of tent canvas. The pebbles are used to create loops in the canvas without piercing it, you aren't going to damage that nice cloak of yours! Tie string around each corner of the canvas to crreate 4 loops for pegs. Use a pebble halfway along to create a loop there too. Push the pebble up underneather the edge of the canvas, as it pushes up, tie string around it and the canvas (see illustration). Include a loop in the string. I create loops using pebbles at the top of the canvas too, to slip over the tops of the javelins. These stop the canvas slipping into the middle during the night.

Whaleys (Bradford) LTD. Harris Court, Great Horton, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD7 4EQ, England
Telephone: 01274 576718
Order 3m of Cotton Canvas 9.5oz (width is 183cm or 72 inches). 3-9m is priced at £3.58 per metre.

Rig it up like this: