Publius Aelius Hadrianus, better known to us as Hadrian, was Emperor of Rome in AD 117 until his death in AD 138. Before becoming Emperor, he had a distinguished career as a soldier, and was, for a short time, governor of Athens, in Greece
He left his mark all over the vast Roman Empire. I’ve visited Hadrian’s Gate in Athens, Hadrian’s Gate in the ruined city of Jerash, in Jordan and Hadrian’s Temple in Ephesus, Turkey. He probably visited all these places, too, as a soldier and afterwards as Emperor. The most famous thing that bears his name is Hadrian’s Wall, in the north of England, which he ordered to be built during his visit in AD 122.
Hadrian’s Wall stretches for just over 100 kilometres (73 miles) from England’s west coast, at a village called Bowness-on-Solway, near the city of Carlisle to the east coast, at Wallsend, near Newcastle.
Our Australian visitors had seen some of the wall before. They had been disappointed in the slight, insignificant section they had seen, and wanted to know if there was more to see. Of course there was!
At school, we were taught that the wall was built as a defence against two savage tribes, the Picts and the Scots. These tribes lived in what is now Scotland, which, at that time, the Roman army had not conquered
However, some historians suggest that Hadrian simply ordered the wall to be built to keep his soldiers occupied at a time of relative peace. Even in modern armies, the cry is often heard ‘I say, Sergeant! Find these men something to do!’
Some believe that the wall was part of a much larger one that marked the boundary of the Roman Empire, and served the secondary purpose of discouraging small-scale invasions. Other such walls are known to have been built in eastern Europe, although they were built of wood, of which there was much more in that area.
An old stone wall, possibly Roman, has been found in the Libyan desert in Africa. Could this have been part of that vast boundary wall? Certainly, there are not many people to the south of it to keep out.
Over the years, generations of farmers and builders used the wall as a quarry for ready-cut stone. They told us that the inn at which we stayed was supposedly built from stone from the wall.
There were ‘milecastles’, or lookout points, at intervals along the wall, and the remnants of some of them can still be seen. These were a ‘Roman Mile’ apart. A Roman mile was, in Latin, their language Mille passuus. That means 1000 paces, which is approximately a modern ‘mile’
At less frequent intervals larger forts such as Housesteads were built. This fort was well preserved because it was in such a remote location. It is claimed as the most complete Roman fort in Britain. The Commandant’s house, the barns that stored the grain to feed the soldiers, and the barracks which once housed 800 men can be easily recognised.
The fort is built on the top of a ridge, which gives good views of the surrounding countryside and along a long stretch of the wall. The soldiers in the fort, of course, were not interested in the view for its own sake. They did need to be able to see as much of the landscape as they could, though, so they could have plenty of warning of the approach of their enemies.
Closer to Carlisle is another fort, called Birdoswald. This is not as isolated as Housesteads; indeed, it is in the paddock of a nearby farmhouse, dating from much later. The remains of some of its buildings still remain buried, but it was much bigger, housing up to 1000 soldiers. Its defensive wall is the best preserved of the 16 forts along the wall. It does not take much imagination to picture how, for instance, the East Gate looked like when it was complete.
Birdoswald also has the longest stretch of preserved wall to the east, and a well-preserved ‘milecastle’ is within easy walking distance.
If you are only able to visit one part of Hadrian’s Wall, Birdoswald is best for the variety of things to be seen there, and the comprehensive visitor centre. But, there are many other sites … indeed, the whole wall is a World Heritage Site.
In Summer, many of the old forts are often visited by re-enactors, or people who dress up in accurate copies of a Roman soldier’s armour and equipment of the time. This makes it even easier to imagine what life must have been like for the Roman soldiers who guarded Hadrian’s Wall.