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Hadrian’s Wall – the grandeur and intimacy of the Roman Empire

April 20, 2014






The fact that most of Britain was part of the Roman Empire is one of the defining aspects of our past and nothing epitomises that episode of history more than Hadrian’s Wall.  Started in 122AD on the occasion of the visit of his to Britain it was part of Hadrian’s plan to establish fixed and defensible limits to the Roman Empire.  It is not a wall.  It is the Wall which, even if it is through a mistaken piece of translation, has given us the word in the English language.

In a nation with an ambivalent attitude today to grand public works, its ambition and scale are breath-taking.  72 miles long and built across a landscape which, even today, can still be forbidding and desolate, the Wall makes few compromises to geography in its aim to furnish the best defensive positions.  Follow the Wall today around Walltown Crags or Steel Rigg and you cannot fail to be taken back by the boldness and determination of the Roman engineers and soldiers who constructed it.

Built by the legionary soldiers of the 2nd, 6th and 20th Legions over a period of around 5 years the Wall was built of stone, except for its western reaches which, initially, were constructed from turf.  In addition to the Wall itself, the legionaries constructed a series of milecastles, a network of forts such as those which can still be seen at Housesteads, Chesters and Birdoswald and an enormous ditch or “vallum” running in parallel to the Wall.  The Wall was, by any standards, an enormous logistical exercise. By one estimate it might have taken 30,000 vehicles, 6000 oxen and 14,000 horses and mules to transport the materials required.  Its  scale is highlighted by the extent to which so many subsequent buildings in the area are constructed from stone robbed from the Wall.

The Wall was occupied for 300 years.  In the period after Hadrian the Romans tried to extend the boundary of the Empire northwards to the line of the Firth of Forth where they built the Antonine Wall as an alternative frontier defence.  It didn’t last much more than 20 years and for the rest of the life of Roman occupation they relied on the defences of Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Empire from incursions from the northern tribes of Scotland.  The Wall was garrisoned by around 9000 auxiliary troops drawn from different parts of the empire, Romanians, Spaniards, Belgians, Dutch, Germans but with their strength made up over time form more local recruits.  It is a classic image of the Roman occupation of Britain to imagine soldiers, drawn from sunnier climes in the Empire, shivering on sentry duty on the windswept Wall.

But the Wall and the forts and settlements which grew up are not just about military expediency.  As well as forbidding fortifications, the Romans were determined to bring the comforts of civilisation to the northern frontier of the Empire.  Forts such as Chesters had their bathhouse blocks; there was access to fine pottery, literature, decent wine, fine clothes and all the other accoutrements of civilised Roman life.    

 Nowhere is this more on display that at Vindolanda, a fort behind the lines of the Wall. Thanks to excavations starting in the 1970s which uncovered a fascinating series of wooden tablets, preserved in damp anaerobic conditions, recording many of the details of everyday life at the fort.  The tablets, now mainly held at the British Museum, are a unique and wonderful historical source, their everyday character making them particularly special.  The tablets cast light on many of the practical everyday features of how the Roman army went about its business and how it was supplied.  They include quotes from Vergil, an insight into how the Romans view the natives (there is a tablet which patronisingly refers to the Britons as “Britunculi” – “little Britons”), a reference to the disastrous day on which the Fort ran out of beer.   

One tablet stands out as particularly lovely.  It is an invitation sent by Claudia Severa the wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the Flavius Cerialis the commander at Vindolanda inviting her to a birthday party.  As well as being the oldest surviving writing by a Roman woman, it is an artefact of heartrending beauty connecting us in such an intimate way with the lives of those who have gone before us.

So when you next wonder what the Romans did for us make your way up to Hadrian’s Wall.

If you are interested in reading more about Hadrian’s Wall I would recommend for starters:

The Wall – Alastair Moffat

Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier – Alan Bowman


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