by Peronis. 2007

Perhaps the most notably 'specialised' auxiliary regiment in Britain was the 500 strong 'quingenary' cohort of Syrian archers. "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria", a unit of bowmen recruited from the Hamian tribesmen from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria, one of only two whole regiments of archers known to have been stationed in Britain. The other being a reference in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 'Numerus Syrorum Saggitariorum' - 'The Company of Syrian Archers' from Malton (Derventio Brigantium) in Yorkshire. This could well be the last incarnation of the former unit.

Hama fell under Roman rule in 63AD. Swapping the sheltered valley of the sun-drenched Orontes River for the Roman Empires cold and windswept northwest frontier in Britain was not a choice most Middle Easterners would have made voluntarily, but in the early second century AD, the 500 infantry archers from the city of Hama simply had no choice. For they were now part of the army of Imperial Rome, and were being sent to a new posting - to protect the remote Roman province of Britain from the attentions of barbarians living in what is now Scotland. Upon their arrival in around 120AD they became the start of an extraordinary blossoming of Middle Eastern culture in Britain. Egyptian temples, Syrian merchants, Arab sailors - all contributed to transforming Britain for the very first time into a cosmopolitan multi-cultural society.


The first cohort of Hamian archers was the known Hadrianic garrison unit of Magnis/Carvoran, one of the Stanegate forts. From their garrison of Carvoran the unit then transferred to the legionary-built fort at Bar Hill on the Antonine Wall, and occupied it from AD 142-157 during this frontier's second occupation period. They then transferred back to Carvoran c.AD163-166, during the early reign of Marcus Aurelius, where it was responsible for building the fort in stone. There is evidence of archers possibly stationed at some time at Housesteads fort (Vercovicium) on Hadrian's Wall, the tombstone of an archer dated to the second century, depicted with an eastern bow was found there, though the period of possible occupation at Housesteads is unknown. They would undoubtedly have proved an excellent defensive unit, able to shoot some considerable distance from the northern battlements of the Housesteads fort.

Spaul suggests ("COHORS2" BAR International series 841-2000) that the principle reason for a whole quingenaria unit of archers based on Hadrian's Wall during this period, was possibly to supply meat and game, (which may have been abundant in the area) to the other garrisons. This theory is backed-up by other mentions of hunters (Venatores) from the fort at Birdoswald (Camboglanna).

(RIB 1905).

The earliest documentary evidence found of Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittaria in Britain, is from the late first quarter of the second century AD. The evidence is in the form of a military diploma, dated July 17th 122AD. (CIL XVI 00069) Another diploma from the slightly later date of November 16th 124AD was found at Stannington in Yorkshire. (CIL XVI 00070 - RIB 2401.6) Another of the same series which mentions the Hamian cohort was discovered at Ravenglass.(Itunocelum) (AE 1997, 01001).

An altar dedicated to the Syrian Goddesses by a newly arrived Syrian was found at Catterick in Yorkshire, and possibly predates the diplomas, but there is no mention of the cohort on the stone. (RIB 726)


The text is very similar to another altar dedication from Carvoran (Magnis) dated to AD163-166. (RIB 1792)


"To the 'Syrian Goddess'. Under Calpurnius Agricola, Legate of the Augustus with pro-praetorian power,
Licinius Clemens, prefect of the First Hamian Cohort (set this up)."
Other inscriptions from Carvoran;.


"[...]ius Agrippa [...] The First Cohort of Hamians [...]"
(RIB 1810 altar stone dated:AD163-166

FORTVNAE AVG(ustae) PRO SALVTE L(uci) AELI(us)/ CAESARIS EX VISV / T(itus) FLA(vius) SECVNDVS PRAEF(ectus) COH I HAMIORVM SAGITTAR V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) / M(erito)

"To the Fortune of the Emperor, for the health of Lucius Aelius Caesar. As the result of a vision, Titus Flavius Secundus, prefect of the First Cohort of Hamian Bowmen, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow."
(RIB 1778) altar stone dated: AD136-138


RIB 1778

"For the Goddesses of the Hamians, Sabinus has made this."
(RIB 1780; altar stone)

Inscriptions from Bar Hill


"For the god Martius Camulus,¹ the citizen soldiers of the First Cohort of Hamians, under the command of [...]"
(RIB 2166; altar stone)


"To the god Silvanus, Caristianius Justinianus, prefect of the First Cohort of Hamians, gladly, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow."
(RIB 2167; altar stone)

D(is) M(anibus) / CAIVS IVLIVS / MARCELLINVS / PRAEF(ecti) / COH(ortis) I HAMIOR(um)

To the spirits of the departed, Caius Juilius Marcellinus, Prefect of the First cohort of Hamians"
(RIB 2172; Grave stele)

Imp(erator) Caesar divi Traiani Parthici f(ilius) divi Ner/vae nepos Traianus Hadrianus Aug(ustus) pont(ifex) / max(imus) trib(unicia) potest(ate) XVI co(n)s(ul) III p(ater) p(atriae) proco(n)s(ul) / equitib(us) et peditib(us) qui militaver(unt) in alis tri/bus et coh(ortibus) XII quae appell(antur) I Aug(usta) Gallor(um) Pro/cul(eiana) et Aug(usta) Vocont(iorum) et Vetton(um) Hisp(anorum) et I Aug(usta) Nerv(iana) / German(orum) |(milliaria) et I Celtib(erorum) et I Thr(acum) et I Ling(onum) et I Ha/mior(um) sag(ittariorum) et I Morin(orum) et I Sunuc(orum) et I et II Dalm(atarum) / et III Brac(araugustanorum) et IIII et V Gallor(um) et sunt in Britan/nia sub Iulio Severo quinq(ue) et vigint(i) sti/pend(iis) emeritis dimiss(is) honest(a) missione / quorum nomin(a) subscript(a) sunt ipsis li/ber(is) posterisq(ue) eorum civitat(em) dedit et / conub(ium) cum uxorib(us) quas tunc ha/buissent cum est civitas iis data aut si / qui caelib(es) essent cum iis quas postea du/xiss(ent) dumtaxat singuli singulas / a(nte) d(iem) V Id(us) Dec(embres) / C(aio) Acilio Prisco A(ulo) Cassio Arriano co(n)s(ulibus) / coh(ortis) I Hamior(um) sagitt(aria) cui prae(e)st / M(arcus) Mussius Conc[e=L]ssus / ex pedite / Longino Sesti [f=E](ilio) MOMS / et Longino [f=L](ilio) eius et Sestio f(ilio) eius / et Sestiae fil(iae) eius / descriptum et recognitum ex tabula ae/nea quae fixa est Romae in muro post / templum divi Aug(usti) ad Minervam // Ti(beri) Claudi Menandri / P(ubli) Atti Severi / T(iti) Flavi Romuli / L(uci) Pulli Daphni / P(ubli) Atti Festi / C(ai) Iuli Silvani / C(ai) Vettieni Hermetis // Imp(erator) Caesar divi Traiani Parthici f(ilius) divi Nerv(ae) / nep(os) Traianus Hadrianus Aug(ustus) pont(ifex) max(imus) / trib(unicia) pot(estate) XVI co(n)s(ul) III p(ater) p(atriae) proco(n)s(ul) / eq(uitibus) et ped(itibus) qui mil(itaverunt) in al(is) III et coh(ortibus) XII quae / app(ellantur) I Aug(usta) Gall(orum) Proc(uleiana) et Aug(usta) Voc(ontiorum) et Vett(onum) Hisp(anorum) et I / Aug(usta) Nerv(iana) Germ(anorum) |(milliaria) et I Ce[l=T]t(iberorum) et I Thr(acum) et I [L=S]ing(onum) / et I Ham(iorum) sag(ittariorum) et I Mor(inorum) et I Sun(ucorum) et I et II Dalm(atarum) et / III Brac(araugustanorum) et IIII et V Gall(orum) et sunt in Brit(annia) sub / [I=L]ulio Severo quinq(ue) et vig(inti) stip(endiis) em(eritis) dim(issis) / hon(esta) miss(ione) quor(um) nom(ina) subscr(ipta) sunt ips(is) lib(eris) / post(erisque) eor(um) civ(itatem) ded(it) et con(ubium) cum ux(oribus) quas tunc / hab(uissent) cum est civ(itas) iis data aut si q(ui) cael(ibes) ess(ent) / cum iis quas poste(a) dux(issent) dumtax(at) sing(uli) sin/gulas / a(nte) d(iem) V [I=L]d(us) Dec(embres) / C(aio) Acilio Prisco A(ulo) Cassio Arriano co(n)s(ulibus) / coh(ortis) I Hamior(um) sag(ittaria) cui prae(e)st / M(arcus) Mussius Concessus / ex pedite / Longino Sesti (!) MOMS / et Longino f(ilio) eius / et Sestio f(ilio) eius / et Sestiae fil(iae) eius

(Publication: ZPE - 174 - 189; military diploma (Provincia incerta)

A military diploma issued to a soldier of Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittariorum - for the army of Britain under the emperor Hadrian circa 132AD.

The diploma was issued to a veteran of cohors I Hamiorum sagittariorum named Longinus, son of Sestius (both common Western names), who hailed from "Moms". Initially thoughts were that this was a scribal error for Homs (a town in Syria, reasonably close to the Hamian hometown of Hama -- but it would surely have been rendered as "Emesa", the usual ancient form of the name). However, the editors accept "Moms" as a legitimate, if unknown, place name (suggesting a link with Momasson/Momoasson in Cappadocia).


ZPE - 174 - 189

Dress and appearance


Although not mentioned on any inscription, the Hamian unit of auxiliary bowmen is eloquently attested at the fort of Housesteads, in the shape of a tombstone of an auxiliary soldier. This second century tombstone suggests the presence of at least part of Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittaria. The tombstone is unfortunately un-inscribed but carries a carved image undoubtedly of an archer, armed with a composite construction recurved bow, and it would seem reasonable to suggest that it represents a Syrian archer.


Picture from
  The Housesteads depiction of an auxiliary archer differs somewhat from the Eastern archers shown on Trajan's Column. Although the composite recurve bow is shown in both cases, the style of dress is markedly different. The archer on this tombstone is shown wearing 'western' dress, particularly in the style of his tunic. The archer on the Column is shown to be wearing long flowing robes, possibly typical of Syria at the time. There are examples of archer's grave stele from Germany which all depict western dress. It would appear that the Column depiction may have been made to show the plebeians that the archers were of eastern origin.

  Picture from Roman Military Clothing 1.
Graham Sumner . Osprey publishing 2002

  In both cases the soldier is wearing what appears to be a conical helmet. The Trajan's Column soldier is seen in profile and both cheek guards and neck guard can be seen. There are two helmet examples which could be classified as archers' helmets. One (in the museum at Sofia) is particularly heavily decorated with depictions of Roman Gods and Goddesses, the other from the other from the Dakovo region of Bosnia, quite plain except for its applied beaded wire decoration. Both helmets have holes in the nape of the neck for the attachment of a neck guard, possibly of mail or scale.

Sofia helmet

Bosnia helmet
  The Composite bow.

The name composite bow is descriptive of a bow constructed of three basic layers of different materials, usually wood, bone, and sinew. Composite bows were constructed in a fairly labor-intensive process. Basically, bone and sinew layers were applied to a wood core; each layer would enhance the elasticity of the others. The wood core generally consisted of three pieces: one for the upper part of the bow, one for the lower part, and the hand grip. Two strips of horn would be glued to the belly (side toward the archer) of the wood core, and a strip of sinew would be glued to the back (side toward the target) of the wood core. The elastic properties of these materials working together allowed a smaller bow to fire an arrow farther and with greater force. Turkish composite bows were considered to be the world's best bows until synthetic materials were used in bow construction, just this century. The greatest distances for an arrow shot from a composite bow were recorded in the 19th century: 660 yards for special arrows, and 440 yards (1/4 mile) for war arrows.

As with most other composite bows made before the 20th century the layers were glued together using glue made from hide, or fish bladders. As the shape curves back on its self, this design gives higher draw-weight in the early stages of the archer's draw, so storing somewhat more total energy for a given final draw-weight.
Sinew and horn will store more energy than wood for the same length of bow. The composite bow's construction gives it a long draw length for its small size. The strength can be made similar to that of all-wood bows, with similar draw-length and therefore a similar amount of energy delivered to the arrow from a much shorter bow. Some Mongolian composite bows are known to have been able to produce a draw weight of nearly 160 lb. That can be compared to the approximately 80-180 pounds of the English Longbow which was twice the size.
The main advantage of composite bows over self bows (made from a single piece of wood) is their combination of smaller size with high power. They are therefore also much more suitable for use from horseback. (There was also a mounted unit of Hamian archers; 'Ala prima Hamiorum' 'the first wing of Hamians'.) Their construction also requires more time and a greater variety of materials than self bows, and the animal glue traditionally used can lose strength in humid conditions and be ruined by submersion.

©RMRS 2010