THEY came as the advance guard, heralding the 21st century equivalent of a Roman invasion.

Fortunately for Tony Novellino, Matija Ivanic and Denny Sacchetti, they came by aeroplane, the better to prepare for the press calls that ultimately alerted the public to last weekend’s Hadrian’s Wall Live!

“We are the lucky ones,” said Tony. The other 77 members of Italian re-enactment group Legio I Italica were stuck on their two coaches at Calais, mid-way through a 26 hour journey.

Tony wasn’t quite sure where the 50 barbarians – “we need somebody to fight against” – were coming from, because they were from other re-enactment groups.

But by Friday night, the travel-weary (although not foot-sore, it has to be said) band of Legio I Italica had all arrived at Birdoswald Roman Fort, near Gilsland, and after emptying the truck-load of gear they’d brought with them, set up camp.

It was the most authentic Imperial Roman Army camp to grace the Wall in 1600 years. Visitors to Birdoswald were able to wander round it, talking to the ‘soldiers’ and picking up their chattels and equipment.

The re-enactors only used whatever the Romans would have had, said Tony. “This is about living history – many of our members even use oil lamps rather than torches in their tents at night. So even when the public goes home, we are still living in the era – I think that’s cool!”

Matija, a lorry driver by day (Tony is a policeman), steps back in time each night he goes home. “My house is like a small museum. Some people have books and glassware in their lounge, but I have Roman replicas and lamps.” He’d agreed with one of the members who’d called Legio a passion rather than a hobby. “Some of these guys would rather be Roman, 24/7.”

Much like the Roman army itself, the members of Legio are pretty much from anywhere but Rome. The majority of them are from wider Italy, but Matija, for one, is from Slovenia and there are also people from America, Germany and Switzerland.

They train once a month, learning combat skills, authentic behaviour and Latin – all orders given during battle scenes are in Latin – and they re-enact key events drawn from the Roman period as a whole, from Before Christ to the fall of the Roman Empire.

This trip, Legio are a legion from the Imperial period, which ran from 27BC, when Octavian was appointed princeps and assumed the honorific title Augustus, till 476AD, when Romulus Augustus, the last emperor, was deposed. The period before that was known as Republican Rome, when the city and its territories were run by the Senate in a representational system.

The quietest of the trio, Denny Sacchetti, a docker from Trieste, said: “I like the time of Caesar and the Gaul camping we do, which was during the time of the Republic. That isn’t my favourite era, but I’m a fan of Caesar.”

It was the auxiliaries, complete with their building, blacksmithing and leatherwork skills, who were actually stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding Rome’s most northern frontier. The legion Legio was representing would have been based somewhere down South, ready to be summoned by border garrisons scenting barbarians – in this region, the pesky Picts from the North.

Tony said: “For every kind of soldier living on Hadrian’s Wall, life would have been the same. They would guard the shift and after that maybe they would go to the spas (the bath houses) and then the tavernas that had grown up around the fort.”

Matija said: “Every soldier wasn’t just a soldier – he had other skills. Maybe he built houses or made equipment or made Roman shoes, and so on.”

The Roman sandals were called caligae, I learn, and the Roman boots better suited to our colder climes, calcae.

Not too proud to learn a thing or two, even from their enemies, the Romans copied good ideas. Great pieces of kit they came across would be replicated for all the Roman legions. Tony said Northern England’s climate had led to the development of leather socks to be worn with the sandals.

“They discovered examples at Vindolanda,” he said. Dressed as a legionary for our interview, he pointed to the traditional woollen socks he was actually wearing: “They’re already wet and uncomfortable.”

Matija obligingly strips down to his linen base layer, comprising a tunic, cropped trousers and what can best be described as leg-warmers secured with leather straps, to demonstrate what a Roman auxiliary living on the Wall would have worn. A woollen tunic duly goes on over the top and he scoops up a long, flowing, black woollen cloak, called a paenula, that reminds me of Meryl Streep in the French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Matija said: “Uniforms didn’t exist in those times – uniforms weren’t introduced until the Napoleonic period – and Romans just wore whatever they needed to to keep warm.

“So that image of them wearing very nice uniforms and red cloaks is rubbish! That’s only in the films. They tended to wear the basic colours that linen and wool came in.”

Tony laughs as he says: “People always want to know if we wear panties.” And the answer, I ask? “Yes, the Romans did and we do!”

The other, equally vital, element of garb they have in their possession is the lorica segmentata, the very effective armour developed during the Imperial period.

It is thought the lorica segmentata and its ‘terraces’ of solid metal came in after Marcus Licinius Crassus, a member of the Republic’s First Triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome, led his legions to one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history at the hands of an otherwise vastly outnumbered Parthian force.

“He lost three legions,” said Tony, “mainly because the enemy was a cavalry unit using bows and arrows and the heavy chainmail armour the Romans wore at the time gave them little defence.

“The lorica doesn’t have holes, so it protects against the stabbing motion of swords as well, but we don’t know whether the regular soldiers wore it or just the higher ranks and veterans.”

The Roman empire had a lot of blacksmiths who were paid by the state to travel with the legions. “So it probably wouldn’t have been as expensive to make then as it is to make replica copies now,” he added.

Besides demonstrating Roman combat skills and showing visitors round their camp at Birdoswald, Legio I Italica also clashed steel with the barbarians during an epic battle at Housesteads Roman Fort on Saturday evening.

Matija said: “You have a lot of good re-enactment groups in England, so we are really proud to have been invited here.”