Wednesday, 25 May 2016

England, Hadrian's Wall, and the Romans Part 1 (text)

I’m currently in the tail end of my whirlwind tour of British libraries and military sites.  After making the trek, by car, from Winnipeg to Brantford with the dog, I flew off to London to head to the Institute for Classical Studies library.  Had four productive days, then, after a brief layover just outside of Worcester, it was off to Wales – with another family layover at the start, this time in Cardiff.  I spend two nights taking photos of the area around Caerleon, site of some well-preserved legionary ruins.  Next I charged off for two nights in Aberystwyth, for a lecture on cohesion and combat motivation.  Went down well, and got some excellent feedback.

A brief sojourn to Devon (Sidmouth and family) was followed by a trip to Oxford for some more library work – and some typing.  I also squeezed in two nights in Birmingham to catch up with some friends and colleagues, including my former PhD supervisor.  Then a night back in Oxford (family) and a night in Devon (Sidmouth, family again).  This week, however, I’ve been in the north, along Hadrian’s Wall.  The purpose of this portion of the trip has been to visit as many Roman military sites along the wall as is feasible and to take as many photos as possible.  These photos, or the best of them, will appear in an introduction to the Roman military, in the works.  I think in a follow-up post I’ll attach a couple of the pictures.  Perhaps, too, I’ll consider joining Instagram.  Although I’ll be posting this written entry from Newcastle, I’m writing it on the train from Carlisle, a train trip I’ve done twice before. 

Anyway, there’s probably any number of things I could say at this point, from how I’m feeling about the news about Gord Downie (hits close to home in a number of ways) to the remarkable beauty of this landscape, but I should say a thing or two about military stuff, since I’ve devoted this blog to work matters.

What I’d like to draw attention to here is how well-sited most of the bases are along the wall.  The wall, one of the most glorious archaeological sites in the world, in my humble opinion, runs for about 73 miles (British? – never understood the difference, if there is one, between US and UK miles) from coast to coast, or sea to sea.  That’s from just west of Carlisle to Newcastle.  Now, at many points the isle of Britain tends to be much wider, so that they’ve chosen one of narrowest points, though not necessarily the easiest in terms of landscape, to build the wall reflects, I think, Roman practicality.  Sure, their geographical knowledge differs from ours, but after brief consideration it’s a remarkable coincidence that they built it at this point.  I’m sure there were geographical and tribal considerations in part, but practicality and cost must have been a major consideration.

The other matter, or the principal matter, that I wanted to touch on was also how well-placed the sites are.  In nearly all those sites that survive that I saw – and the forts and fortlets in particular – you are afforded excellent views of the surrounding countryside.  This, too, could be chance:  it’s not the case that the landscape has changed enough that my modern perspective is defective, as you can see when you notice how the wall hugs the landscape.  No, some thinking went into choosing the locations, and again, in an albeit small sample size, and without making any mathematical calculations using, say, Google Earth, it’s clear they wanted their forts in spots where they could observe approaching visitors with comparable ease.  In some cases too they went to such remarkable lengths to do this that certain forts were built into the side of hills.  Housesteads, for instance, is one the side of the hill, and the slope is not inconsiderable.  I don’t doubt that there might have been some levelling in the past, but the surviving foundations suggest that this was limited.

 Now, there are obviously lower points – the wall goes in as straight a line as possible, but the landscape is anything but flat and straightforward.  This means it snakes its way up and down up and over hills and then down into valleys.  That also means that certain spots would have been easy to get across for a determined group.  Even there, however, it should be stressed that there were towers or forts or something every mile (or is it Roman mile? – can’t remember off the top of my head).  And given you could see that sort of distance fairly easily, unless the conditions were dreadful, I don’t think they need have been too concerned, and they probably weren’t. 

All in all, as I’m sure commentators have noted time and again, even when they have disagreed over the precise function of the wall, it’s clear that a great deal of care, consideration, and planning when into its construction.  This was no mean feat for any number of reasons, and it is a testament to Roman ingenuity and practicality – and in some instances their efficiency.  Plus, while I don’t doubt that the wall had all sorts of functions ranging from the control of peoples to the movement of goods, when you’re here and you see it on the ground it’s hard to get past its defensive function too.

From the train south of the wall, until next time.

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