Full Version: Emcampment Ditch Construction - Use of Animals.
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Hello all, this is my first post on this forum.
Does anyone know of any classical sources that describe or illustrate how the defensive ditches of military encampments were dug? ("with spades and shovels I hear everyone say").
The reason for asking is the following. I was having a lazy Sunday afternoon in a pub garden with a friend that's in the construction industry and ended up discussing if a well trained legion could construct a standing camp quicker than modern machinery and tools, we were estimating the time and manpower to dig the ditches and in my calculations I assumed that the legions mules and oxen would be used to plough the ground (where appropriate) before it was shoveled. I've read a translation of "De Munitionibus Castrorum" and some of "Histories" by Polybius but while they're both full of information on the dimensions and position of the ditches, I can't remember any references to the actual digging of the ditches (next up Vitruvius)
Knowing the legend of Romulus and him ploughing the boundary marker around the Palatine Hill when founding Rome, and that in later generations this action became part of the religious rites while founding a new settlement, I assumed that using the cart animals would be a sensible and obvious thing to do while building camps.
I'm thinking of composing an article on the urgency and methods of camp construction but can't find a source to reference the use of animals in ditch construction, but then again I suppose lack of proof of something happening is not proof of it not happening.
I will make an appropriate offering to the relevant god at the local temple if anyone can point me to a source.
Most, if not all, of the work appears to have been manpower. Turfs cut from the surface would be needed to help construct the rampart, and presumably the soil exposed beneath would have been easier to dig by hand. A plough would only be useful for breaking the ground and turning a furrow - by their nature, they can't dig very deep!

Besides which, the main baggage train was probably still on the road while the initial stages of ditch digging were commencing. Gary Breuggeman's old site (available in rather knocked-about form here) has an interesting hypothetical model of the typical day's march, which suggests that the camp would be half completed by the time the heavy baggage arrived. The mules used by the legion troops would have been available before that, but I'm not sure how useful they would be for pulling ploughs etc (besides, presumably any such big tools would travel with the main baggage anyway!).
This article describes a modern experiment of constructing a castra: Reconstruction of the defenses of a roman mobile castra

More info about the castra: LacucCurtius: Castra
"Can't dig very deep" True, but it could be done in layers, adapted plough/ploughs cutting the turf and the animals getting progressively deeper ( most ditches described in the sources would be wide enough to allow this) closely followed by legionaries shoveling the earth out (easier than digging)
Mules themselves are ideal for ploughing and are much more maneuverable and responsive then oxen are (I've seen mules at work while working in Crete back in the 80s)
If ploughs were initially used then it's likely they had a few traveling at the front of the column.
I do think it's quite plausible that animals were used somewhere along the line.
Thank you for your input.
Mules would have been ever present in the Roman army, used by the rankers, all officers, the supply train, etc., and are capable of walking at a faster pace than most people, so chances are there would be some with the vanguard.

But how do you imagine the plough was used for ditch digging? From my understanding, the ancient Roman plough was actually a rather crude tool that basically only scratched a line in the dirt, leaving a shallow furrow. It did not turn up much dirt as compared to modern ploughs, only creating a furrow to put seeds in. Not only was the plough itself not designed to go deep, but the draft animals themselves lacked the yokes and harnesses that would allow them to pull without being choked. Here's some more info:LacucCurtius: Greek and Roman Plough

I read an article a while back that explained it in detail and even provided images of how shallow the furrow was, I'll try to find it.