The Roman Vigiles

At an unknown stage of pre-history man, who had previously run in terror from the forest fires, turned back with a curiosity that over- came his fear. Perhaps on the edge of the fire he found the half- burned carcases of animals that were his normal prey and found them more palatable than when raw. He found he could snatch burning brands and start smaller fires, limited by the amount of fuel he gathered in a heap. He learnt to cook and to warm his cave. Centuries later he learnt to smelt the ore he found in the ground. He had made fire his servant, but a servant that could break its bonds and destroy and kill. 

For thousands of years man has fought a battle to control this dangerous servant. As his skill and the weapons at his disposal increased, so did the potential of the enemy. Bigger buildings, congested cities and hazardous industrial processes and materials have increased a thousandfold the risks involved, and fire as a weapon of war has now reached the awful climax of the heat flash of nuclear-fission weapons. 

The history of Rome is interspersed with records of great fires which from time to time devastated the city. In the time of the Republic, bands of slaves were employed as fire fighters. They were called the ‘Familia Publica’ and were stationed around the walls and gates. Responsible for them was a tribunal of magistrates called the ‘Tresviri Nocturni’, and written history tells us that in 300 B.C. they were in trouble for neglecting to go round the watchposts and because they were slow in coming to put out a fire which had started in the Via Sacra. 

The Familia Publica were not an efficient body and in A.D. 6, after a disastrous fire, the Emperor Augustus instituted the Corps of Vigiles who were to protect Rome for the next five hundred years. Rome was divided into fourteen regions for administrative purposes and the Vigiles were formed into seven cohorts, each responsible for two regions. A cohort consisted of a thousand men and was divided into centuries of a hundred men, each commanded by a centurion.

A force of seven thousand men for a city of just under one million population, or one fireman to each one hundred and forty inhabitants, seems an extravagant establishment, but the Romans knew no half-measures and the manpower required to fight a big fire with bucket chains was of course considerable. Besides, the Vigiles had other functions; they policed the city by night (the urban cohorts did this duty by day), they were responsible for the recapture of runaway slaves, and for some reason they had special instructions to watch the clothes of bathers at the public baths to prevent pilfering by the public and the bath attendants.

Fire fighting had been a servile business and in the early days of the Vigiles it still was. Recruiting for the Army was confined to citizens of free birth. The first Vigiles were recruited entirely from freedmen, though their officers, tribunes and centurions were freeborn citizens who could transfer in their rank to the legions, and their Chief Officer, the Praefectus Vigilum, was of Equestrian rank. Their period of service was for twenty-six years and it would appear that recruitment was slow, for in A.D. 26 the inducement of admittance to full citizenship was being offered to freedmen after six years’ service in the corps. By the second century A.D. men of free birth were joining, and by A.D. 207 the Chief Officer, Rustius Rufinus, was a noble. By the fourth century they were apparently on an equal footing with the imperial troops, though they never counted as soldiers and the cohorts carried no standard but had instead an image of the emperor borne by a man holding a special rank the Imaginiferi. 

The first stations were apparently requisitioned houses, but by the end of their long history the Vigiles had large barracks and Excubitoria, or substations, which were built on the boundary line of the two districts which each cohort protected. Four of these Excubitoria have been found and excavated, and their magnificence is testimony to the standing the corps eventually attained.

Suetonius, Tacitus, Paulas, Petronius, Tertullian and others have written of the Vigiles, but they are mostly passing references made just as a modern writer would say “the fire brigade was called” and we owe most of Our knowledge to epigraphy, the reading of carved stones and inscriptions.

The excavated Excubitoria were prolific sources of these carvings, and that of the Vth cohort, found and excavated in 1820, contained two great marble statue bases with the complete rolls of the cohort inscribed on them giving the ranks of all the members. These include the ranks Or titles of Aquarius, Siphonarius and Uncinarius. An Aquarius was a water-carrier and presumably referred to men who had special duties with regard to water-supplies or who organised the bucket chains which kept the siphos or pumps supplied. A Siphonarius was the man who supervised the pump and Uncinarius was a hook man, and probably he was trained in the use of the large fire hook for pulling off burning roofs, which was such a feature of the rudimentary fire fighting of mediaeval Britain.

The equipment available was as varied and as extensive as that of any early nineteenth -century fire brigade in Britain, for Ulpian tells us that the Vigiles had ccentones, siphones, perticae quoque et scalae, et formiones, et spongiae , et amas et scopas.

Centones are blankets which were probably damped with water and hung over the walls of adjoining buildings threatened by radiated heat. Perticae are poles, perhaps the counterpart of modern preventers, or perhaps the poles carrying the hooks of the Uncinarius; scalae are ladders; spongiae, sponges; amae, buckets; and scopae, brooms. Formiones are wickerwork mats and the use to which they were put is unknown, nor can any fireman accept the theory of classical scholars who have made the Vigiles their study that the sponges were used for sluicing water over the burning building. Perhaps they were used with the brooms for clearing up water damage after the fire and the modern salvage tender was anticipated by nearly two thousand years. 

Besides the gear in Ulpian’s list there are several references to the Vigiles carrying ‘dolabrae’ pick-axes, and ‘secures’, felling-axes.

There are few other written records of the corps. Cassiodorus quotes the warrant of the Prefect of Vigiles, “Eris Securitas Soporantium, Munimen Domorum, Tutela Claustrorum, Discusson Obscuris”- “Thou shalt be the safety of those who sleep, the guardian of houses, the protector of sacred enclosures, watching in the dark night.” 

We know from several sources that they had to patrol the streets by night “cecoerrare calciatum cum amis et dolabris” “correctly dressed includ- ing sandals and with buckets and axes.” From the buckets they carried, which were made of woven and tarred esparto grass, they were sometimes nicknamed Sparteoli, the bucket chaps.

Duties included fire prevention, and the corps had powers to dole out summary corporal punishment to offenders, for a passage in the Roman Digest says of the prefect: and because most fires are the fault of the inhabitants he punishes with rods those who are negligent with their fire or if the rascal is repentant after a severe reprimand he remits the punishment. He should warn all householders lest the chance of fire arise from any negligence and instruct them to keep water in their room.” 

Finally, there is an amusing passage in the Ceva Trinalchionis of Petronius. The hero of this book was entertaining and the preparation of the feast caused so much smoke from the kitchens that “Itaque Vigiles, qui custodiebant vicinam regionem, rati ardere Trimalchionis domum, effrege- runt ianuam subito, et cum aqua securibusque tumalturari suo iure coep- erunt” “so the Vigiles who guarded the neighbouring district, thinking that Trimalchio’s house was on fire, suddenly broke down the door and began to raise havoc with water and axes as they were entitled to do.” Facetious comments on water damage by fire brigades can still be heard to this day.

It has been stated that the Siphos used by the Vigiles were only large hand squirts but on what evidence nobody knows. Hero, who is generally supposed to have lived in the third century B.C., describes a double-purchase manual pump, the invention of Ctesibius, a native of Alexandria, and many years later Vitruvius refers to the Siphos as Ctesibiaca machina quae altissime extollit aquam’, the machine of Ctesibius which expels water to a great height. He gives an exact description of the pump with its bronze cylinders, pistons and valves. Pieces of these machines have been discovered at Civita Vecchia, at Bolsena and at Silchester, Hampshire, the site of the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, excavated between 1889 and 1909.

The corps of Vigiles was not confined to Rome. The Emperor Claudius formed a detachment at Ostia, where their barracks have been excavated, and at Naples. The Digest infers that all large municipia had their detach- ments, and epigraphy produces evidence of their establishment at Constantine in Algeria and at Nîmes in France. 

The information accidentally left to us of the inhabitants and officials of the fifty Roman cities of Britain is sparse, and it may well be that important centres of Roman civilisation in this country had their Vigiles. In the reign of Sextus Severus there is a record of a centurion of Vigiles being posted to Chester, but it seems that he was exercising his right to transfer in his rank to the XXth Legion. The corps have left no signs of their presence here except for the discovery at Silchester, and the only other evidence is the Notitia. The Notitia was the Army List of the Roman Empire drawn up in about A.D. 410 and giving the location at that time of all the forces of Rome. In it we find that a Numerus Vigilum’ was stationed at Concangium, Greta Bridge in Yorkshire. It also mentions “a squad of Vigiles on barbarian soil at Acinco,” which is in Hungary. The nomenclature of the Roman Army was exact and the term Vigiles had been in use for over four hundred years for firemen and had never been used to designate bodies of troops. Brady, in his History of England, assumes that these men were firemen. But why should such a large body as a Numerus be stationed at Greta Bridge which was not a Roman city, though a large and important military camp? The Notitia shows that at this time nearly all the forces in Britain were either moving up to Hadrian’s Wall or were con- centrated in the south-east against the Saxon sea kings. In a few years, with Rome itself threatened, the legions were to withdraw from Britain, leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of Pict and Scot, Norseman and Viking. Even marines and galley men were defending the wall, and it could be that the Vigiles of the Romano-British cities, being an available disciplined force, had been gathered together, armed and sent north to reinforce the troops, and that those others mentioned in the Notitia as on barbarian soil at Acinco had been treated in a similar way, since they would hardly have been used for the fire protection of enemy-held territory. The Vigiles passed out of history with the disintegration of Rome, over whose citizens and buildings they had kept watch for five hundred years. With their passing went an organised and well-equipped fire brigade such as Europe was not to know again for another thousand years.

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