History of the COH XV VOL

History of Cohors XV
The 15th cohort of volunteers is one of the most famous Roman army units who where stationed in the Netherlands. The precise date of establishment is uncertain, but probably it was in responce to the Teutoburg battle in 9 AD. In this battle an alliance of Germanic tribes destroyed three Roman legions and accompanying auxilia; six infantry and three cavalry units. In total more then 22.000 Roman soldiers and civilians lost their lives. In responce to this disaster, emperor Augustus rapidly raised new army units. Among those where the cohortes voluntariorum, such as the Cohors XV Voluntariorum Civium Romanorum, the 15th cohort of volunteers.

The volutariorum units where raised in Italy, but the Roman citizens weren’t keen on joining the army. So veterans (evocati) where pressured to join for a second term of 20+ years. In addition state owned slaves where freed to fill the ranks. Presumably the veterans whould use their experience to train the freed men. But despite it’s name voluntari cohorts where forced volunteers, not true volunteers. During their service, the veterans and freedmen lived seperated, since veterans where much higher up in the societal hierarchy compared to freed slaves.

It is not certain if the 15th had both evocati and freedmen. But gravestone evidence shows that decades later the 15the only had citizens in it’s ranks. Probably because after the immediate danger of the teutoberg disaster had faded, the freed slave units where disbanded, leaving only evocati. To keep the cohort up to strenght, new recruits from amongst the citizenry where added to the unit. The 15th cohort gained the ‘civium romanorum’ after the unit consisted entirely of Roman citizens. To show that this volunteer unit didn’t have anymore low status freed slaves in its ranks.

In 89 AD, the 15th cohort received the honorary title Pia Fidelis (faithfull and loyal), after the 15th and other units of Germania Inferior (Roman region wich contained the Netherlands), beat down the rebellious Saturninus, governor of Germania Superior. These units did this of their own accord,without being ordered to the emperor Domitian. All involved units gained the honorary Exercitus Pius Fidelis Domitianus, faithfull and loyal army of Domitian. 

Roman era Netherlands, in green and red are Matilo and Laurium

Trough use of stamps and inscriptions we know that the 15th cohort, in the 1st and 2nd century, was encamped within 2 forts (castella), Matilo and Laurium. Matilo is situated undernetah the modern city of Leiden and Laurium underneath the modern day town of Woerden. This situation lasted between from 70 AD until 240/250 AD. Rooftiles and bricks with the COH XV stamp have been found all along Roman Rhine forts, as far away as Cologne. The 15th made building materials wich where shipped along the Rhine river. It may also be possible that small detachments of the 15th where temporary stationed in other forts.

Cohors XV also get  mentioned in several inscriptions and left behind several inscriptions of their own. For example there is one that dates back to the age of Septimus Severus (193-211 AD). The inscription mentions  that the 15th cohort rebuild the armoury of Matilo after the old one had decayed of old age.

xv_inscriptieInscriptie van het Cohors XV uit Leiden-Roomburg.

By excavations at the Matilo castellum, a very rare finding was done in 1996. It is a shield cover with the emblems and initials of the 15th cohort. Two capricorns flank a tabula ansata, a capricorn is a zodiac sign that is composed of a goat with a fishtale, this was the zodiac sign of Augustus, the emperor who founded the 15th cohort. A tabula ansata is a typical Roman tablet with handle bars, thas was also a popular motif to enclose text on a reliëf. The tabula on the shield cover has COHR XVVO enscribbed on it, CoHoRs XV VOluntarium. The schield cover is made for a rectangular shield, like the ones  used by the legionaries. 


Shield cover of coh XV.

Judging by the findings in the Matillo castellum, an insight in what was going on in the fortress is possible. It is reasonable to assume that Coh XV soldiers where involved with these activities, as the 15th shared this castellum with a detachment of the Classis Germanica (the local navy unit). As mentioned before there was the fabrication of bricks and rooftiles. In accordance with the inscription about the armoury, there where a lot of findings of pieces of chainmail (lorica hamata), scale armour (lorica sqaumata) and laminated armour (lorica laminata). The armoury would have brought the need to do maintenance  on the stored arms and armour, another activity for a soldier of the 15th. An other interesting find is hundereds of round projectiles made of baked clay. This would have been the ammunition voor artillery pieces. Such artillery pieces would have been used in defece of the fortress and onboard navy ships. So another activity whould have been practise with artilley and production of munnitions. Other findings are the fragments of bows, another clue for a defence of a fortress. And a skill what the soldiers whould have learned and maintained.