Hadrian’s Wall

  • By Adrian Goldsworthy
  • Basic Books
  • 192 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ronald Mellor
  • May 18, 2018

A fascinating look at one of history’s most formidable barriers.

Hadrian’s Wall

For more than four millennia, mankind has used walls for protection and demarcation; from mud brick walls around cities (Babylon and Jericho) to vast Great Walls of China or Zimbabwe to delineate territory against invasions, migrations, and smuggling.

And we keep building walls, despite (or because of) the increasing globalization of the last half-century: the Korean DMZ, the Berlin Wall, the West Bank Barrier, and a proposed wall between the United States and Mexico.

Thus, Adrian Goldsworthy’s excellent book on one of history’s most emblematic walls, the 70-mile barrier built by the emperor Hadrian in northern England, is especially timely. This is not a descriptive guidebook to the wall, but an analysis of the history, purpose, construction, and effects of it and the evolution of its purpose during three centuries of Roman Britain.

Since Goldsworthy is perhaps the leading military historian of ancient Rome in the English-speaking world, it is no surprise that his historical analysis of Hadrian’s Wall is first-rate. But his book is also noteworthy for its admirable synthetic treatment of the archaeological remains.

Ancient Roman writers report conquests and great military victories, but they otherwise say very little about life in the provinces. Hadrian’s Wall is well known as Rome’s largest surviving monument, but it is less well known that the wall and its surrounding area are exceptionally fertile in providing rich material on military organization, civic life, and even political strategy in the provinces.

Goldsworthy has mined both the obvious evidence — the wall itself and its attached forts — as well as the wide range of material less accessible to the general reader: inscriptions, coin hoards, altars and temples, everyday objects (including thousands of shoes and boots), and the Vindolanda tablets.

While much of this material is known to specialists, Goldsworthy provides a superb account of it for a general reader and thus a window on the cultural, social, and economic context of life along the wall and elsewhere in Rome’s frontier provinces.

From the surviving stones, the author provides clear reconstructions — with many excellent plates — of the buildings along the wall. There were about 15 forts, of which several are sufficiently preserved to identify the soldiers’ barracks, the horse stables, the praetorium (domicile for the commander and his family), the principia (headquarters for military bureaucracy), and the military hospital. Outside the walls of the fort was a village for families of common soldiers, traders, and camp followers, as well as the baths.

One of the exceptional finds from this area are the so-called Vindolanda tablets — dating from several decades before Hadrian’s Wall was built. The nearly 800 tablets — written in ink on thin pieces of wood — were first found in 1973 and provide extraordinary material for specialists to study both public and private life.

An auxiliary commander’s wife, Claudia Severa, invites a friend to a birthday party; while a scribe probably wrote the invitation, a personal postscript in another hand is probably from Claudia herself — perhaps (as Goldsworthy agrees) the first example of a woman’s actual handwriting from Rome.

In sum, these are the only such handwritten documents on perishable material that survive from Roman Europe; only in the dry sands of the Near East do records survive on papyri from Egypt, and the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Judaean desert.

While Goldsworthy provides evidence and arguments which go far beyond the wall itself, he does not neglect the central issues: Why was the wall built? What were its components? How long did it serve its purpose?

After Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 CE and Nero’s suppression of Queen Boudica’s revolt in 61 CE, lowland Britain remained largely pacified. The Roman legionary forts at York and Chester were intended to be a bulwark against northern “barbarians.”

In the 80s, Roman policy changed from building outposts in Scotland to abandoning them when invasions on the Rhine and Danube frontiers forced the emperor Domitian (81-96) to reduce his British army.

Domitian’s successor, Trajan (98-117), reestablished some forts, and Hadrian (117-138), after a visit to Britain in 122, ordered the construction of the wall and its attendant forts and milecastles by legionary soldiers. After the legions were withdrawn to York, auxiliaries staffed the forts. 

The purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was to slow down invaders (Roman troops could redeploy more easily behind the wall) and reduce raiding parties by making it much more difficult for raiders to return home with their booty (e.g., animals). It was hardly an impermeable barrier — similar peoples lived on both sides and crossed often for trading and family reasons — but it was a deterrent.

Goldsworthy traces the fate of the wall in later centuries; 20 years after its construction, the wall was decommissioned, while a second “Antonine” wall was built in 142 which pushed the Roman frontier 100 miles to the north. But after a few decades, that wall was abandoned, and Hadrian’s wall once again became the frontier.

So it remained until the end of Roman rule in the early fifth century. Through succeeding centuries, the vestiges of the wall — those which had not been used as building blocks for churches and monasteries — remained for travelers or novelists (Kipling) a symbol of Roman might at the edge of Empire. Goldsworthy’s Hadrian’s Wall will provide the necessary historical background to the modern traveler, as well as an excellent introduction to life on the Roman frontiers.

Ronald Mellor is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he served as chair of the department. He is the author or editor of 12 books, including The Annals of Tacitus, Augustus and the Creation of the Roman Empire, and The Roman Historians. The fourth edition of his collection, The Historians of Ancient Rome, now co-edited with Jason Moralee, is forthcoming in 2019.

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