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The Power of Place: Hadrian’s Wall

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Martin Henig, interviewed by Tony Morris, shares a beaker of wine with the Emperor Hadrian.

Of all the constructions in Roman Britannia, one stands out above the rest. From sea to sea for eighty miles, it stretched from Bowness on the Solway Firth to Wallsend on the River Tyne. And the section of Hadrian’s Wall which is most impressive – most evocative, most photographed and best to walk – is the one we are on now, that from Cawfields to the great fort of Vercovicium, modern-day Housesteads.

Martin Henig has left the warmth and security of his office in Oxford to join me here. We’re crouching under the wall of a milecastle struggling to put on our waterproofs: Milecastle 42, one of sixty which punctuate the wall at exact intervals of 1620 yards (the Roman mile being slightly shorter than the modern measure). Regular, exact, precise. That was the Roman way. They liked their lines straight and their angles uniform.

There are modern-day walkers who like that too of course. We have already been overtaken by a group of earnest bagpackers with serious haircuts. Some people experience the wall as a challenge: they want to march briskly in legionnaire footsteps. Others prefer to take their time, get a sense not only of the wall but also of the archaeological structures which accompany it, to reconstruct the towers and lodgings, peer through the gateways, and above all soak in the view.

‘That seems me to be the whole point,’ says Martin, as we begin to make the first of a number of steep ascents along the brow of the hill. ‘The scale of the vision, the trim of the stone, the drama of the landscape, the commanding power of the view. Who could fail to be impressed by it?’ A sudden shaft of sun seems to strike Highshield Crags on cue. ‘This was a statement on the grand scale. To its enemies it said: “This is what Rome can do. Look on my works, ye barbarians, and despair!” But much more important in my view was what it proclaimed to the people this side of it. To them it said: “This is the edge of the civilised world. It’s a straight edge. You can marvel at it, peer over it, survey the land beyond, inhabited by those who live without the law, and you can know you are Roman, civilised, one of us.” We actually have evidence of second and third century tourists coming from the Home Counties and France to visit it and taking away gaudy enamel bowls with them, marked with the names of the forts along the Wall. Imagine what they must have made of it all.’

There are views in all directions, East and West along the switchback of the wall, South to a second wave of parallel hills marching into England, below to the Crag Lough where two swans glide imperiously, behind to the vallum or double ditch and the road along which messages, men and materiel would have been relayed. And to the North … We are momentarily transfixed by a kestrel wheeling in the distance and below it a couple of people climbing a fence (the Pennine way runs into the horizon). We are looking down at them. They will be looking up at us, seeing our silhouettes on top of the wall.

Martin Henig’s Romans aren’t military grunts and robotic engineers. They are aesthetes like him, with a sense of the power of the landscape to move and inspire as well as to awe and subject. ‘Roman poetry had a great appreciation of landscape. This isn’t taken into account in assessments of the wall. Simply seeing it as a military, defensive line seems to me to leave so much out of the picture – not least the character of the man who gave his name to the project.’ He tells me that Hadrian was a man who understood Greek philosophy, was well versed in the Classics, shared Horace’s and Virgil’s love of nature, and built a vast library in Athens and in Rome the Pantheon. They were the two eyes of the Empire. The other great work he constructed, at the other end of his imperium, was the wall along which we are walking now.

We may even be following in the footsteps of Hadrian himself, for Martin feels sure he would have paced out much of it in person. ‘He was that kind of man: the sort who would climb a hill before breakfast. He loved to lead by example. He had huge energy as well as vision. Can’t you just imagine him?’ – Martin is now bowling along the ramparts – ‘sitting down with his commanders over a beaker of wine – it would have been the soldier’s rough, vinegary variety – drawing a thick line across the map in front of him. “Do this,” he would say. “And I want it done properly.”’

So the feeling we get, to this day, of aesthetic pleasure as well as physical exertion, is the perfect Hadrianic fusion! Why else not take the car and follow the road behind us, the ‘Military Way’?

This is not the conventional view, as Martin is the first to admit. ‘I suggested my theory to a meeting at Glasgow University recently. The Roman archaeologists were hopping mad, but the pre-historians said it made sense to them. They knew exactly what to expect of a linear boundary. It was largely symbolic.’

Didn’t it see battle then? It’s hard not to think of warfare as we approach the end of our walk – the mighty barracks at Housesteads which would once have quartered up to a thousand men. ‘It saw a few skirmishes, yes; but I think we are talking about banditry and cattle rustling rather than systematic onslaught and loss of life. And when the Empire receded at the end of the fourth century you didn’t get a wholesale sacking of the land as the barbarians poured over the dam and through the floodgates. What you got was a pattern of gradual reclamation and accommodation … You see, it wasn’t in the Romans’ interests to pretend that  there wasn’t a threat from the world beyond. Every time they needed a reminder of the power of their dominion they could flash back (literally, by semaphore) news of some great protective victory. Last but not least, building the wall kept the soldiers busy. As any army officer will tell you, one of the great challenges in times of relative peace is to keep the troops occupied, to prevent boredom at best and sedition at worst.’

But building the wall must surely have been very expensive? ‘Not a bit of it. The soldiers were paid for already. It was free.’

It can’t have been much of a posting though, I say. What about he weather? (It is beginning to rain quite heavily now and the wind has really picked up.) ‘It would have been pretty damp, yes; but nothing compared with the hardships one would have to bear during a Balkan winter, or even under the heat of an Iberian sun … And they had baths.’

With this statement Martin confirms  that he is an inveterate optimist and shows why he makes such a great walking companion. I turn round to smile, but he is off, in the footsteps of Hadrian, over the edge of the hill.

Martin Henig is based at the Institute of Archaeology and is a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. His most recent book is The Heirs of King Verica: Culture and Politics in Roman Britain (Tempus, 2002). Tony Morris publishes history books and leads historical walks.

Historical dictionary: Roman Britain


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