Empire’s Edge

Historical borders, and the walls that often accompany them, have always been fascinating to me. They pose so many interesting questions: Why were they built?  What was their purpose?  And what was it like to live along them? Plus, for those of us who like order and method, they always look pretty cool on a map. A seemingly clean and simple separation of different entities. Of course, as with most things, when you look a little closer it is way more complicated than that.

One of my favorite historical boundaries is Hadrian’s Wall, built during the Roman occupation of Britain and situated in the borderlands between present day England and Scotland. Chock it up to reading a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff in my youth, but I’ve always found Roman Britain fascinating and the idea of its northern boundary wall is just one of its intriguing mysteries. While you might think that all has been said and done concerning Hadrian’s Wall, nothing could be further from the truth. Three recent books about the wall, and Roman Britain, prove the point.

Hadrian’s Wall by Adrian Goldsworthy

If you fear lengthy historical tomes, this is the book for you. Clocking in at a mere 169 pages, plus illustrations, this is a quick and enlightening read. While this work is loosely chronological, the main emphasis is on social history: trying to discover the motives, experiences and daily life of those who lived and worked on the wall. While there is very little that survives from the written historical record concerning the Wall there is a lot of excellent archaeological evidence. One example is the dig site at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda. In addition to extensive structural remains there are actual letters, written on wooden leaf tablets, which have been preserved in the muddy soil. It is with evidence such as this that the author is able to make some credible guesses as to what life was actually like at the fort and beyond. While this book reveals that there is a lot that is unknown about Hadrian’s Wall, that just adds to the mystery.

The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia by Bronwen Riley

This creative and entertaining work gives you the closest thing to a travel guide for the Roman Empire, circa 130 C.E., that you will come across. Riley admits up front that while grounded in the historical facts we have, many of the events and descriptions she provides are along the lines of an educated guess. That does not dissuade her from giving the reader a grounds eye view of Sextus Julius Serverus’s journey from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall to assume his post as the Governor of Britannia. While you might think such a high status person would have a smooth and luxurious trip, there are perils and indignities aplenty. Shipboard life is far from ideal: camping out on the deck for the entire trip with no restroom facilities does not make for happy passengers. In addition, the inns and taverns offer dubious food and the bedding can be crawling with many unwanted guests. But hey, the roads are good and there is almost always a bathhouse around. The author’s creativity and attention to detail make you feel like you are actually on the road with Severus. Admittedly, a dubious honor at times but never boring.

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins

One of the undeniable facts about Roman Britain, and Ancient Rome in general, is that only a small fraction of the written sources and physical evidence survives to this day. While this is frustrating, it also produces endless speculation and a sense of mystery that is quite irresistible. Part travelogue and part analysis of this sense of mystery, Higgins’ work is as much about how we create the past as it is about the physical remains of Roman Britain. Setting out in a VW Camper van over the course of several years, she visits both the major and minor archeological sites of Roman Britain. While at times this is only a few stones and, lucky day, possibly an inscription, they still generate wonder and enthusiasm among historians and the local population. Long after the Romans have left, people find their lives entwined with an imagined past. While walking along Hadrian’s Wall the author encounters Marcus Aufidius Macimus:

He had borrowed the name of a real Roman, who had dedicated alters at Bath. When in civvies he was Steve Richardson, from Newcastle: he was he said, ‘a full-time Roman centurion.’ The souvenir stall was just for the summer; usually, he said, his work was school visits and events at archaeological sites and museums. At primary schools, he and his wife Lesley kitted out the children in uniforms and then ‘I take them out on drills.’

With many examples such as this, both current and historical, Higgins maps out the remains of Roman Britain as cultural artifacts that are very much alive.

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