Thursday 8 October 2015

Limes Arabicus

The Limes Arabicus stretches from northern Syria to the Gulf of Aqaba, a distance of 1,500 km. Primarily, the series of forts and watchtowers protected the caravan routes from desert marauders, but after the fall of the Parthian Empire, the Sassanid demanded a need to change the policy of the frontier system. During the Severan Dynasty, more forts and watchtowers were constructed pushing the frontier further east serving as an early warning system against the threat of invasion.  

There are some good online pictorial sources for the Limes Arabica for which I can now add a fort and watchtower for the Romans.

For practical reasons older watchtowers (iron age, Nabataea) were reused, especially if these met Roman standards. The construction of new watchtowers were placed atop a mountain or at the entrance to a wadi or along trade routes. Their purpose was meant to serve as an early warning screen for troops of the second line to assemble . These were generally square shaped and three stories high and could accommodate a small number of troops to maintain regular watches.

Further behind the initial line of watchtowers were small forts garrisoned by auxilia. One of these I have selected as a model, Qasr-Bshir a cavalry outpost in modern day Jordan. Described as square with four corner towers, this outpost could accommodate a detachment of equitata, perhaps 150 men.

Qasr Bshir

The assumption of a unit of Equitata is based on the high number of auxilia so named. Severus also increased the number of cavalry units for the eastern frontier.

I have constructed buildings for a variety of periods, but never a fort. Using pink foam material, I cut sections for walls and towers and to get a sense of size, these were placed on my “terrain template”. 

Walls and towers have been scored to simulate stonework. Further, the interior on three sides have openings for horse stalls and for the second level there are windows. 

The gateway was made simple, no fancy archway with inscriptions.

I am still debating how the towers should be finished, with a roof or open perhaps with a makeshift sunshade. Tile roofing would seem the logical choice.

Building this Castra certainly set my imagination to what the daily routine have been; clearing the stalls every morning, the patrols, foraging, the local caravans passing by to do a bit of trade.

As you can see from photo one, a 4 x 5BW would dominate a standard size game board. The fort and watchtower are painted and ready for basing. Both pieces were undercoated crème, washed with a grey-brown mix and dry-brushed with successive light grey paint.

I am still puzzling how this should be based; on one large template or as three pieces, a front, rear and a middle section. The latter option would add versatility to the model, front section as a Stronghold (HOTT) or all three as a free standing fort. Tubing will be fixed on the inside so flags can be exchanged to denote ownership, Roman, Parthia, Sassanid or other.

Suggested reading.
I can recommend The Cohors XX Palmyrenorum, a Cohors Equitata Miliaria by Robert O. Fink. A classic work, noteworthy for the information revolving around the daily duty of a garrison on the eastern front. Not only archers, mounted and foot, they had a small dromedary unit for desert patrols.


  1. Has anyone proved these forts were Roman and not Sasanian ? :-) Have a look at the 'Red Snake' fortifications for your Persians.

  2. Hi Doug,

    A few maps I found on the internet show fort locations further east of the main trade routes which run north to south. This would seem to follow the policy set by Septimius Severus at the beginning of the 3rd century and continued throughout the dynasty to extend the Arabian frontier further east.

    As to the construction several articles mention Roman engineers using existing sites and improved on them, but that begs the question, who built them if not the Romans? The Nabataeans?

    The new projects were Roman and added throughout the 3rd century; with this particular fort built during the reign of Diocletian.

    The Red Snake or the “back door” to the Persian Empire as I would call it. I would like to read about the joint engineering projects done in the Caucasus Mountains by Sassan and Rome during the long period of peace, as I would be interested to read how much was adapted and used for their own building projects.