Stones at the Edge of the Civilized World
Smithsonian, April 1985




"HOP, HOP, HOP!" a piping voice calls out. "Look at me, Mummy! I'm a Roman hopping down the wall."

"Yes, darling," the English mother says, making a stately progress in her small son's wake, "but the Romans were ever so much quieter."

The boy's excitement is easy to share. On the wall, you seem to be on top of the world. Besides, there he is, zipping along the top of a piece of stonework 1,800 years old, where Roman soldiers used to march.

Hadrian's "Wall is one of the wonders of the world.  Its path runs right across the neck of Britain, 73 miles from Newcastle upon Tyne to the Irish Sea, past flat fields and over rivers, through churchyards and the occasional farm, up hill, down dale and, for about 20 spectacular miles, climbs along the rim of the high cliffs on which we stand. Behind us, the ribbon of ancient stones dips and rises eastward along a rollercoaster ridge toward the great fort at Housesteads. Ahead, the ragged, gray six-foot width of it swoops upward following a grassy hill line, and then suddenly drops off into nothing. A 19th-century quarry simply chopped the hill in half, gobbling up hundreds of yards of stone and history at a bite.

There is always wind on the wall, shivering the grass on these Northumbrian hillsides. Sometimes it roars in the ears like a subway train. Sometimes it softens to bring the faint baaing of sheep and, now and then, through some sort of mysterious skip-distance effect, the rumble of a lorry passing along the distant Carlisle road.

Here a sense of space seems to extend outward, and backward into history. The Carlisle road, for instance, was built after 1745, from stones pulled out of the wall, to help an English army maneuver against the diehard Scots under Bonnie Prince Charlie. And the wind is the same west wind that blew the troublesome Scots (the name Scoti meant raiders) out of Ireland and into what became troublesome Scotland. That was several centuries after Hadrian first ordered up the wall around A.D. 122. He was a new emperor then. There had been uprisings in the north, and Rome was overextended elsewhere. It had been an empire for 150 years, bogged down in Britain for 75. The wall, as Hadrian's biographer would put it, was to "separate the Romans from the barbarians."

Nowadays Romans tend to be dismissed as do-it-by-the-numbers boobs, like the forces so constantly diddled by the French comic-book hero Astérix le Gaulois. Imperial Rome is scorned as a kind of prototypical Fascist menace, mainly notable for militarism and orgies of cruelty and political usurpation. But after the carnage of the republican wars, and the chaos that prevailed elsewhere, the empire's pax Romana was a piece of good fortune for the world.

The idea of a wall has not fared well, either. Fixed defenses always fail, we think (see Maginot Line). And walls perversely try to pen up the human spirit (see the Berlin Wall). Besides, we have Robert Frost's word on it: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The Romans had no such notions. Hadrian's Wall did, in fact, dramatically confirm a shift in policy, from dreams of conquest to hopes of defensive consolidation. But the barbarian forces it was trying to hold at bay turned out to be the Dark Ages.

Barbarians? Sophisticated citizens back in Rome probably felt about barbarians the way middle-class American householders might feel about Canada if the population of our neighbor to the north were made up of hard-rock groups and street gangs, much given to blood feuds and mind-bending substances, entirely bereft of art, police or plumbing.

Rome had some reason for arrogance. In a Tower of Babel world, the empire could offer an official language, a single overriding structure of law, a system of standard coinage, weights, measures and distances, and a network of maintained roads that ran for 49,000 miles, all across Europe and beyond, from Hadrian's Wall to the Euphrates River. By Hadrian's time, some experts say, Roman aqueducts were bringing more health-giving water per capita to Rome than Cambridge, Massachusetts, gets today.

A Roman citizen could vote. A Roman citizen could hold office. A Roman citizen had rights and responsibilities under a complex and well-administered system of criminal and civil law. When Saint Paul was arrested in Jerusalem for being a Christian and a dissident, he shouted, roughly speaking, "You can't do this to me! I am a citizen of Rome."

But what the legions also brought, pretty much at spearpoint, taking a cut on everything from property and sales to imports and exports, was taxes. When recently Romanized provinces threatened to revolt, often as not it was because of the tax squeeze.

Taking Britain in the first place may have been an imperial blunder. The crippled Emperor Claudius went there in A.D. 43 to acquire prestige and the tin of the lowland south. But Rome wound up tangling with the Welsh, the tough Brigantes - who occupied the long hilly spine of Britain - and the fierce tribesmen of the north. Eventually it had to leave three legions - a tenth of the empire's total -permanently staked out in one tiny, recalcitrant island.

from Cuddy's Crag, the National Trust


When Hadrian succeeded the warlike Emperor Trajan in A.D. 117, advantages won by earlier victories in Scotland had been thrown away, and there was little sense in trying to pacify all of Britain. Trajan had conquered Dacia (Romania) and thrust into Mesopotamia, where Rome had a precarious and costly grip. The empire's long and ragged northern edges near the Rhine and the Danube were restless. Hadrian was a dabbler in art and architecture whose sybaritic tastes are still evident in the exotic baths and fountains of the villa he built at Tivoli. But he had been a general and a provincial governor, and he had a firm grip on one of Rome's great patrician virtues - seeing ambition, not in the modern way, as a combined ego trip and personal scourge, but as a matter of public responsibility. He spent a good part of his reign crisscrossing Europe and the Near East trying to reform the sprawling empire. What could not be held (most notably Trajan's acquisitions in Mesopotamia) he had the wisdom to get rid of. But he looked to the long-term defenses of the rest. 

Little green olives for the watchtowers

It was probably in Germany while he was seeing to the defense of the Rhine that he worked out plans for a British wall to be built by the legions. Part customs barrier, part architectural wonder and first line of defense, it would be an enduring symbol - and rugged proof of Rome's protective power.

He called for a width of ten feet, and (probably) a height of fifteen, with small forts every mile and lookout turrets every third of a mile. This was done apparently without much regard to the terrain, so that in the central section around Housesteads, some of the milecastles ended up opening onto sheer drops from the cliffs. As a wall archaeologist put it to me, "You have to imagine Hadrian sitting at dinner down there in Germany somewhere, laying it all out just so, with big black olives for the milecastles, little green olives for the watchtowers, and maybe a string of pits for the wall in between."

It was to be no rigid Maginot-like line, though. It was part of a network of 30 forts, north and south. Hadrian's insistence upon military flexibility, and perhaps more important, his plan for the wall's use as a customs and police barrier controlling civilian movement, became clear when he modified the design.

Map of the wall's spectacular central section shows towns, roads and the principal Roman sites to be seen, from the fort and the museum at Chesters to the remains of Birdoswald, a fort just west of the Irthing River.


Hardly had the II, VI and XX legions surveyed the terrain, designed bridges for the North Tyne and the Irthing, and seriously got down to laying stone, when the emperor demanded drastic changes. No need for a wall ten feet wide - eight, or even six would do. The legions would also have to build 11 new forts right into the wall, each with large northward-facing gates so reinforcements from their garrisons could pour forth the moment trouble was reported. The plan had always specified a traditional fighting ditch on the north side. Now Hadrian called for a 120-foot-wide earthwork to the south, in back of the wall, centered on a trench 20 feet wide and ten feet deep, with the excavated earth mounded up on both sides. This is the vallum, clearly meant to keep smugglers and local inhabitants away. Causeways were built across the vallum, but only at the forts.

The largest wall fort enclosed nine acres, and provided a base for 1,000 men. Like legion marching camps, forts were all laid out according to the same plan, around a central headquarters building (the principia), which contained a paymaster's office and Mithras, a monotheist sun-god popular with Roman soldiers, holds symbolic dagger and lighted torch, a kind of chapel for storing the unit's sacred military standards. Forts held large latrines with room for 20 men at a time and plenty of running water, cookhouses, storage granaries, rows of slate-roofed barracks.

A modern visitor can get an idea of what these forts were like by looking at the low, fragmentary walls at Housesteads or Vindolanda or Chesters. Compared to Roman buildings elsewhere they do not seem startling. It is the wall itself, built without benefit of slaves (or bulldozers) that first stirs awe and curiosity, even in its present dilapidated and fragmented state.

Twenty-five million dressed and fitted stones, most of them at least as big as a modern electric toaster, some so huge that they could only be lifted with block and tackle. The outer shell of the wall stood 20 or so tiers of stone in height. Into the center was poured mortar, ton upon ton of rubble, earth and chunks of a splintery, unworkable local stone called "bluey."

Passing through a farm in Gilsland, the wall shows clearly where builders switched to a narrower width.  Note the sheep in the upper left.

In some places, east of Birdoswald fort, for instance, you can still see where the legions switched from the broad to the narrow measure. Each legion consisted of about 5,000 infantrymen and 120 cavalry. Legions were self-sufficient units, and their men doubled in more specialties (135) than Boy Scouts have merit badges. There were men trained in baking and bookkeeping, in carpentry, cobbling and plumbing, in music and medicine and signaling, not to mention the latest methods for conducting a siege.

But apart from fighting, what the legions did best was building. Men of the legions worked as they marched or fought - at a regular pace, pretty much from sunrise until sunset, without weekends or holidays, except for special days devoted to religious festivals (including obeissances to the emperor), oath takings, award givings and (once a quarter) receiving pay. In Britain, starting in A.D. 122, the II, VI and XX sweated along at the remarkable rate of five to six wall miles and one fort per legion per year. And though the whole wall was not completed until after 128, in about three years much of the work was done.

Once completed, did the wall work? Was it, in terms Defense Secretary Weinberger's critics might examine, cost-effective? Like much else about the wall, such questions are impossible to answer satisfactorily.

Legions were expensive. Keeping three of them in the field for a year cost almost 8 million denarii, or roughly, experts say, the cost of buying 48 million loaves of bread! But stone cost Hadrian nothing and the legions were on the payroll anyway. It was their presence that made fighting rare, beyond a punitive raid now and then, and when not fighting, the legions, like all soldiers, had to be kept busy.

The wall's clear military purpose was as a deterrent, and its psychological effect must have been considerable. Imagine what it must have been like to approach from the north, this grim, damnable, never-ending, somehow ultra-Roman thing, an awesome creation quite beyond the experience or the imagination of any tribesman. You can get the feel of that by walking north across the fields beyond Steel Rigg or Housesteads fort just before dark, and looking up at it.



Bearded barbarians storming the battlements

By and large, between A.D. 128 and 410, when Roman power finally evaporated from Britain, the island was much more calm than continental Europe. Several times attacks seem to have been made on the Roman forts north of the wall, and on the wall itself most likely when rebellious Roman leaders took troops from the island to Gaul, and farther, in attempts to become emperor themselves.

It used to be believed that at least once, in 367, the wall was completely overrun. Nineteenth-century-style illustrations show skin-clad, bearded barbarians pouring over the battlements, and flames leaping skyward. But there is fairly little literary or archaeological evidence to prove the extent of these attacks. The destruction of at least some of the forts north of the wall now appears to be the work not of barbarians but of the Romans themselves, as they systematically abandoned forward positions.

Rome was in steady decline, though, coming apart from within and pressured from without by tribes migrating westward from the steppes of Asia. They pressed upon tribes in central Europe and Germany, and probably were the main reason why the Saxons kept raiding Britain across the North Sea. Without the wall, whatever raiders there were would have had an easier time of it, and disruption of orderly life to the south would certainly have been greater.

Even with the wall, Rome failed in Britain - or, as it might be seen, the British tribes failed to profit from what Rome brought. Roman ways left little imprint on the island and Britons seem to have learned almost nothing about plumbing, tools or practical architecture. Ironically, just about all that survived of what Rome brought was the spark of Christianity, and a tenuous linkage, broken a millennium later by Henry VIII, with the Roman Catholic Church.

We know the wall was built by the legions because they signed their work in stone. But contrary to popular belief - and this is a misapprehension that particularly seems to gall wall experts today - the wall was manned not by legions but by auxiliaries, 10,000 of them, special forces including infantry, cavalry, spearmen and bowmen from all over the empire.

We used to imagine them, alien and cold, clad inadequately in leg wrappings and hobnailed sandals, gazing north but dreaming of Syria or Egypt, of Africa or Spain, and longing "for a beaker full of the warm South." Evidence suggests, though, that they tended to stay on and on, that they often married and retired where they were stationed, and sent their sons into the same outfits they had served.

In a sense such units were like the public schools which prepared immigrant children for citizenship in 19th-century America. Besides the pay, what an auxiliary really worked for and what it took as much as 25 hard years of military duty to earn was a bronze plate known as a "diploma." It had his service record chiseled on it. And it meant that any marriage he had made would be recognized under Roman law. More important, a diploma entitled him and his children to the honor and privilege of Roman citizenship.

A settlement that grew up outside a fort was called a vicus. In the centuries that the wall was a defensive outpost of empire, what with all that army pay going out, with all the goods and services, bathhouses and grogshops, the wall doubtless became a lively place. In a splendid story from Puck of Pook's Hill, Kipling describes it as "a vast town - long like a snake, and wicked like a snake. Yes, a snake basking beside a warm wall."

Kipling is describing the wall about A.D. 383 when Maximus, one of three leaders who at various times took troops from Britain's wall in an attempt to make themselves emperor, is off fighting the Emperor Theodosius. Admittedly the wall, like the Roman empire itself, was more or less going to hell. But even so, the archaeological experts say, Kipling was wrong. Settlements that grew up along the wall were permitted only in dense clusters close around the forts.

Knowledge of life on the wall derives in part from a considerable understanding of how the Roman army operated in dry climates, where more writing has survived. In England, scholarly investigation has drawn heavily on epigraphy, the examination of about 1,200 inscriptions carved on buildings and statuary offerings to the gods around the wall. Most are written in rather enigmatic Latin abbreviation. LEG VI VIC P FIDELIS F, for example, really means LEGIO VI VICTRIX PIA FIDELIS FECIT, "This was built by the faithful and pious VI Victrix legion."

Coins (more than 100,000 have been found along the wall) help fix dates of emperors and victories. So do other excavated artifacts, from bushels of hobnails and spearheads to pieces of glass (it is a surprise to learn that forts and milecastles enjoyed glassed-in windows) and on to touchstones of wallography like the Rudge Cup, on display at Alnwick Castle, with a decorative frieze suggesting the wall was crenellated.

The most arcane study that is appropriate to reconstructing Roman history is something called prosopography. It consists in trying to follow individual careers, methods of promotion and movement around the empire by studying names. Essays by Eric Birley, one of the most celebrated wall scholars, make absorbing reading. Most Roman citizens had five names, starting with a praenomen and a nomen (as in Marcus Flavius) and moving on to names that mean "son of such and such a father," and names revealing tribe and even place of origin. The bad news for any layman trying to follow Professor Birley is that Rome was constantly turning non-Romans into Romans - a good thing politically, but a prosopographical disaster. New citizens usually took new Roman names, starting with praenomen, nomen and tribe borrowed from the emperor then reigning. And sometimes block grants of citizenship were given to whole cohorts of auxiliaries for bravery in battle.

To get an idea of the problems involved, imagine trying to study the careers and origins of professional football players - with little more than the names to go on - if the Superbowl involved, say, 500 rather than 98 men, and each year the players were permanently renamed after the winning coach. You soon might be overwhelmed by legions of virtually indistinguishable Don Shulas and Vince Lombardis.

Information keeps accumulating about the everyday life of the wall. There were elaborate communal bathhouses, complete with hot, cold and even tepid water, plus a room with hot air and one for being rubbed with oil. These, as you can see at Chesters, down beside the North Tyne, were kept outside the fort, no doubt because heating caused a danger of fire.

Burying grounds, too, for soldiers as well as civilians, were naturally outside the forts. Burials were expensive; to finance them soldiers joined burial clubs and had money taken out of their pay, along with deductions the government took anyway to pay for clothing and equipment. Sometimes when a baby died, the grieving parents secretly buried it at home, in a pot in a shallow grave under layers of ferns, bracken and twigs that carpeted the dirt floors.

There were many gods, but, at least until Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in A.D. 311, Rome was tolerant. Provided a Syrian archer or a Belgian cavalryman saluted the military standards of his unit and did his duty by a handful of official religious days and deities, he was free to make offerings as he wished. Many were to Jupiter and Mars, of course. But along the wall, statues and altars were often dedicated to a mysterious trio of mother goddesses, "to the genius of the place"(Genio Loci), and to Vitiris, a mysterious deity rarely recorded elsewhere in the Roman empire. There was also a popular army cult of Mithras, a new, monotheistic religion out of the Near East that involved the sacrifice of a bull, stressed the need for soldierly courage and competed with that other new religion, Christianity, by emphasizing redemption and offering hope of immortality.

"Low-standing ruins by themselves," says Robin Birley, "do not have much appeal to the young. You must publicly portray the human story." Robin is 50 and the son of Professor Eric Birley. He is also the man who more than any other has tried to popularize Roman life on the wall in ways that modern audiences can understand. And it is true that these ancient stones live only if you have some grip on the history and the people. I remember a middle-aged woman trying to urge a sulky, preteen girl along the breathtaking vista of wall near Steel Rigg. "I know it's 2,000 years old, dear," the woman said desperately, "but bits of it are terrific."

You can sometimes sense the Romans best in the musty museums at Chesters and in the city of Carlisle, where jumbled rows of statues stand, a few of them life-size, shaped and dedicated to gods and goddesses, but mainly in mournful memory of the dead - a faithful wife, a comrade killed in battle, a child. At Carlisle you also learn that on the march the tents of legion officers had floors - and couches! The men slept in tents called "butterflies" (papiliones), because, packed up, they formed a caterpillarlike roll, but when unfolded, their flaps spread out like wings. You admire tools: chains, axes, mattocks, minicrowbars. And the fine work of tiny clasps, even a set of handcuffs.

At Vindolanda, a fort, a partly excavated vicus and a museum about a mile south of the wall, considerable effort is made to popularize information. Today Vindolanda is run as a trust, but since 1929 it has belonged to the Birley family (the third "wall" Birley is Robin's brother Anthony, an author of books about Roman Britain, and a professor at the University of Manchester). At the entry are souvenirs, Roman recipes (including ham in pastry with fig sauce) and picture puzzle books full of details about the gear and training of the Roman army.

Inside, paying visitors get to watch a tableau moment in the life of the "Marcus family," in a frontier house complete with a sound track (bugles call husband and father Marcus to the fort) and voice-over commentary. Along with the canned birdsong, the stuffed dog, the plastic mother, Marta, cooking with cumin seed, there is an impressive density of detail: the bracken on the floor, orangy-red Samian pots and cups from Gaul (somewhere near Vichy), the wine, the fish sauce imported from Portugal.

Hadrian, on a coin minted about A.D. 132,
like other emperors was worshipped
as one among many gods.


Farther on you see displays of combs, heated curling tongs, and coins bearing the heads of empresses. It is curiously touching to learn that these imperial matrons served as fashion plates for women living on the wall, and indeed in any remote spot in the empire, because there were no other hairstyles to copy. The displays make clear that research suggests Roman soldiers, long regarded as largely vegetarian, actually ate a lot of meat - at least to judge by the bones found around the Vindolanda vicus. I note the bones of a horse on display and the poleaxed skull of an ox. "Did the Romans kill it, Daddy?" a tiny boy asks, clearly shocked and holding his father's hand. "The Romans used it, Nigel," the father replies.

Piece de résistance at Vindolanda is a display of blowups and translations from one of the most important finds ever made, 202 fragments of wafer-thin wooden notebooks, with still-readable writing on them in ink. Robin Birley and a digging crew of young volunteers found them in 1973 in a flooded drainage ditch beneath Vindolanda's vicus. The writing turned out to be personal letters, soldiers' work assignments, clerks' lists of food and drink. Since no other writing exists about life in the wall area, these proved a treasure trove. In one letter a mother writes that she is sending underwear (subligaria), once and for all proving (the issue seems to have been in question perhaps. because we are so near Scotland) that soldiers on the wall wore underwear.

Among the food and drink listed: Celtic beer ( cerusa ), vintage wine (vinum) for officers and special festivals, and (literally) sour wine (acetum) for enlisted men, fish sauce (muria), pork lard (axungia), young pig, ham, roe deer and venison.

bust of Hadrian, A.D. 117-138.  River Thames, British Museum

Birley, who once taught at Gordonstoun, the spartan school famous for having Prince Charles as a student, and who likes to think he's responsible for the fact that the Prince read archaeology at Cambridge, did not spend the rest of his life working in wet trenches. Until recently he was the controversial head of the Northumberland County Council, and among other things he is pushing a plan to create local jobs and draw more history-minded tourists by establishing an archaeological park beside his home, near Carvoran. Here he wants to rebuild a section of the wall. The Department of the Environment (DOE), which tends to be conservative and has protective custody of the wall, does not approve of reconstruction, but Birley hopes to get around that because his site has no archaeological remains to interest science. It is a huge quarry where 500 yards of wall were cut away.

If he gets his way, visitors will be able to look at and walk along as near a replica of the wall in A.D. 300 as possible, 21 feet high including the parapet, with observation posts and a milecastle. Birley, who directed schoolchildren in the building of a short replica section of wall at Vindolanda, and regards such work as the best way ever of teaching history, reckons that his new project would not only provide 70 permanent local jobs - in job-scarce Northumberland - but should generate income to support more archaeological research.

Sestertius of Hadrian from the Tyne


That would certainly please other archaeologists, who agree with Birley that most of the forts and most of the wall have so far barely been touched, while basic questions that digging could answer are left to pure speculation. Today even controlled and responsible digging is clearly hampered by government restrictions and lack of cash. Consider James Crow, who directs archaeological studies on the wall under the aegis of the DOE and the National Trust. Though his work is now funded by the DOE, over the years funding has often been sporadic and he constantly seeks support for future projects. "There have been times," he says, "when it was almost literally 'Drop your trowel, there's no more money.'" Nevertheless, there are those in Britain who feel that Birley's proposed park might prove more suitable to Disneyland than to Northumberland.

The number of visitors along the wall increases steadily; some estimates go as high as 500,000 a year. "What I worry about," a young archaeologist said to me, "is the tramp, tramp, tramp of all those boots."

The danger of destruction is not new to the wall. According to some experts, after barbarian attacks the faithful legions had to make heavy repairs on it three times between A.D. 200 and 410, when the exhausted Roman empire in the West finally withdrew all support. But these days, where the wall is concerned, the Romans and the barbarians are one.


Additional reading:

  • Hadrian's Wall by David J. Breeze and Brian Dobson, Penguin Books, 1980
  • Handbook of the Roman Wall by J. Collingwood Bruce, edited by Charles M. Daniels, Harold Hill &Son (Newcastle Upon Tyne) 1978
  • Vindolanda: A Roman Frontier Poston Hadrian's Wall by Robin Birley, Thames and Hudson, 1977
  • The Roman Empire, 27 B.C.-A.D.476: A Study in Survival by Chester G. Starr, Oxford, 1982