Hadrian’s Wall: Roman vs. Scot? Or not?

The Wall of Hadrian is strung like a stone necklace across the thin neck of England, just south of Scotland. From a little distance, I can almost imagine myself in China gazing at the Great Wall, seeing the famous Roman construction follow the lines of the rolling hills from horizon to horizon.

The wall was built under orders from the emperor Hadrian. It runs about 73 miles east to west, made of local limestone and, where stone could not be quarried, of turf and rubble. According to Wikipedia, “It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England,” south of the Scottish border by about half a mile in the west at Carlisle, and by about 68 miles in the east at Wallsend.

As we say in America–close enough for government work!

Massive as the undertaking was, the wall took just six years to build. Started in 122 AD and completed in 128 AD, it seems to have been constructed by three sets of Roman legions, laboring in fair weather or foul, seemingly as consumed with the task as they were with the construction of their hugely expansive roads. The Romans were dedicated, to say the least. Perhaps the whip was set to their back. Or perhaps the promise of rewards back in Rome kept their backs bowed to the task.

The question I have is this: why was this wall built? Historians have speculated on the various purposes of the Wall of Hadrian, and they have settled on four possible reasons:

To keep the Scoti and other Caledoni, the northern tribes, from invading Britannia. From fragments found by archaeologists, we know that part of Hadrian’s purpose was “to keep intact the empire.” The emperor’s biographer states that Hadrian’s policy was “defense before expansion.”

But from records of the time, it seems clear that these tribes were hardly a threat to the well-armed and  heavily-fortified Romans. Crude spears against metal swords, tribes on foot against mounted soldiers, swarming masses on the ground against well-trained men in fortified walltowers, or at least on the high ground–it  seems likely that the wall was overkill if it was meant to drive out the barbarians.  Historians theorize that all these reasons argue against the wall being purely defensive.

To mark the extent of the Roman empire in the north. Building limites, or markers, was common for the Romans. But a 73-mile marker (the singular Latin form is lime) would seem to be somewhat overkill–I use that word again–simply to mark the Romans’ world from that of the barbarians.

To give the Romans a large degree of control in exacting customs and other taxes from those traveling to and from the wall. Here is an argument that seems a little silly to me, but of course I am no historian. How many wayfarers could there have been then, traveling to and from the relatively wild area of the far north of Britannia? And how wealthy were those who sought to travel across the wall? If the Romans wanted to enrich the empire by means of customs, it would have been more logical to place customs checkpoints at the harbors, such as Deva Victrix, where several thousands of people traveled by land and sea.

To serve as a tangible reminder of the might of Rome and, above all, the power of its grand emperor.  In fact, the emperor himself made the long journey to northern Britannia to watch the progress of his wall. If the area was so dangerous, it seems unlikely that he would have been idly watching from his litter as the legionnaires bent to the task. The Wikipedia article notes that “Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then white-washed, its shining surface able to reflect the sunlight and be visible for miles around.” In those days, whitewash was a combination of lime and chalk used to protect outdoor surfaces from the ravages of the weather. So it seems reasonable that yes, the imposing wall shone in the sun’s rays and bedazzled travelers by its size and its radiance too.

So it seems that the wall served multiple purposes: to keep out unwanted, possibly dangerous foreigners; to mark the territory of the Romans; to serve as a customs-gathering means of fattening the pocket of Rome; and to serve as a reminder of the glory of Rome and her emperor Hadrian.

I am fascinated by the Wall of Hadrian, and I have placed two of my characters in, on, or around that wall. Gristle, known as Marcus when he was a soldier, was stationed in the nearby hills of the Lake District in Warrior, Ride Hard. He and his soldiers were pitted against the roaming Pictish tribes. In the sequel titled Warrior, Stand Tall, I introduce a character named Dub or Dubthach who fought at the wall and ventured beyond to marry a Caledonian maiden.

The country itself is magnificent, as you can tell by looking at the various photos here. As I was browsing the images, seeing so many “tourist photos,” it came as rather a shock to see a few taken during the winter, where Gristle sardonically remarks that he “froze his buttocks” on the unyielding walls. It is also remarkable how the Romans built this huge enterprise by following the lay of the land. But of course, how else could they have done it?

Read more about the ancient world of Britannia, Hibernia, Wales, and Alba (Scotland) in the romance novels of Erin O’Quinn:

Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Ride Hard on Amazon:  http://amzn.to/P2eRDO
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

Visit my manlove blog too, where excerpts will take you to these lands and more (warning: erotic content):

http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com

14 thoughts on “Hadrian’s Wall: Roman vs. Scot? Or not?

  1. Definitely built to keep the Scots in. Us Scottish didn’t want the English and the Romans in our country anyway :-) Despite the wall The Scots still managed to sneak over and kill loads of Romans thus starting the downfall of the Roman Empire. Go Scotland :-) Can you tell I’m Scottish

    • Hi, Wendy, yes, go Scotland!

      I dont think that the fall of the empire can be placed totally at the feet of the Scots…but it’s a neat theory! I still think that the Romans must have been some pretty uptight individuals to think that Scoti and Picti and Caledoni in general could have penetrated too far into Britannia–at least, not until about 410 when the Romans were ordered back to Rome. That whole time in history is utterly fascinating to me, all the more because the answers are not easy.

      Thanks for coming by, and do make it a habit. I talk a lot about the Scots and about the Gaels in general. Slán, Erin

    • Dear Romy,

      Deep in my heart, I’m sure the Romans built it out of fear of your doughty ancestors…can I use that word to a Scotswoman? But I also think those Roman guys were money-grubbers and narcissists and, deep down, more than a little lily-livered. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
      :-\

  2. Hi Erin,
    I live within six miles of Hadrian’s Wall, and feel you might want to correct your statement that
    the wall is “south of the Scottish border by about half a mile in the west at Borness-on-Stolway, and by about 68 miles in the east near Carlisle.”
    Carlisle is in the west, about ten miles from Bowness-on-Solway. The wall ends in the east at …
    Wallsend.
    Jen

    • Dear Jen,

      You’re a lifesaver! I got that tidbit of info from Wikipedia, like the statement in quotes that preceded it. I didn’t quote it directly, because the Wiki article cluttered up the statement with kilometers/miles and I took out that part.It looks like I misread the Wiki source, so I’m going back in to edit my statement, and I hugely appreciate your help. Good eye!

  3. Loved your blog, Erin.

    I love history, and I love my Scotland (well, being a Euro-mutt, I can claim to a lot of nations over there). I use my maiden name, Morrison, as my author name for two reasons: One, because I am proud of my Clan, and two, it is a way to honor my dad. He may not have been the easiest man to get along with, but I owe a lot of my strength and independence to him.

    I was in Scotland a few years back, but never got to the Isle of Lewis, where Clan Morrison began (in the 1400s). I have been promised a trip back, at which time my hubby and I will make it a point to go there.

    • Y’know, Kathy, most of us can find a bit o’ the Scottish or the Irish if we scratch the surface just a little. My dad was quite a lover o’Irish whiskey…that’s my connection, sad to say! I did find out that the very word “whiskey” is directly from Irish Gaelic uisce and I think the word means “water.” Ah, the delights of flavored water….

      Thanks for coming on board. I hope you’ll read some of the archives, and continue to visit as I scour the ancient world that is part of my novels. I’m always looking for compelling bits of history/archaeology/mythology/culture that are in my books, trying to connect that world with the modern one.

      Slán, Erin

  4. Good post. I reckon there was probably no one reason but rather a combination of the reasons you mentioned here. I definitely don’t think it was built just for defense.

    • Hi, DS, long time no hear from…Good to get your comments. Yeah, I think I reject the usual interpretation of hulking, vicious Picts needing to be kept out. The Romans must have had a multitude of reasons–many of them monetary–for keeping that humongous wall up for four hundred years.

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