Monday, July 13, 2015

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall in 2015

In the year 122 AD construction began on a wall that would divide the Roman empire from what they viewed as barbarians to their north.  The Emperor Hadrian attempted to draw a dividing line at the edge of the empire he ruled near its historical height.  He commanded three Roman legions representing about 15,000 men to build a 73 mile long wall that ran across the width of northern Britain.  Over 200,000 tons of stone were used to build Hadrian's wall.  Milecastle forts were built at one mile intervals along the walls' length.  Each Milecastle fort could hold a garrison of about sixty soldiers.  Construction of the wall required at least six years -- there are multiple estimations of the time required to complete the wall from six to fifteen years.

Emperor Hadrian
Ufizzi Museum, Florence, IT
Who was emperor Hadrian?  He was the son of a senator born in Spain in 76 AD.  He became the adopted son of emperor Trajan.  He was an amazing traveller who visited most parts of the Roman empire.  He personally inspected his empire and the soldiers who guarded it.  It was after a visit to Britain that he decided to build his wall.

Roman Legionnaires
Great North Museum, Newcastle, UK
The emperor Hadrian had made the strategic decision that Roman interests would be best served by defence and consolidation of the empire rather than aggressive expansionism.   Roman armies were by far the most successful fighting forces of the ancient era.  For about five hundred years from the Punic wars until the Fall of Rome in the 5th century they were essentially undefeated on the battlefield, if one excepts their numerous civil wars.

Roman Baths
Romans are famous for, among other things, their baths.  The Roman baths at Chester were used by Roman Legionnaires and officers.  Romans set the bar for personal hygiene in the West that was not equalled until the 20th century.  Clean healthy soldiers were much better fighters than dirty sick ones.

Commander K. at Hare Hill, UK
Today Hadrian's Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  I recently had an opportunity to walk about 40 miles of the Wall path with my son, Marco Kelly.  On the first day of our hike we started in Carlisle and walked east towards Newcastle.  Over the fourteen miles we covered that day we did not catch a single glimpse of wall.  The next day that all changed when we arrived at Hare Hill.  Among many things I learned on the journey was that it was the Romans that introduced rabbits to Britain.  Rabbits were, no doubt, a source of protein for those soldiers engaged in constructing the wall.  This means that no Roman invasion would have meant no Watership Down!

Roman Chariot
Roman Army Museum, Carvoran
Along the wall path there are many interesting museums that give us an insight into the nature of life in Roman Britain.  There is, for example, a Roman Army Museum at Carvoran which features a pretty video on life in the Roman army.  The Legionnaires served for about 25 years and were not allowed to marry.  One can also explore the remains of Roman towns at locations such as Vindolanda and Houseteads.

Mars God of War
Astonishingly, much of Hadrian's Wall remains after all those centuries.  Some length of it has been reconstructed. After the fall of Rome in 476 AD the Romano-British attempted to maintain a semblance of civilization in communities near fortifications such as can be found at Housesteads. The origin of the legend of King Arthur is said to be based in a leader of Romano-British cavalry that patrolled through Britain.

Marco Kelly at Chesters Roman Fort, UK
After being abandoned in the dark ages the wall fell into disrepair.  Many of its stones were recycled into kitchen gardens, castles and even churches.

Hadrian's Wall is an enduring testament to the tangible impact of "Italian" invasions on our world.

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