To the Wall

Murum lo[ngi] operis… non [mul]to diutius exstrucxistis quam caespite exstruitur…Vos lapid[ibus] grandibus, gravibus, inaequalibus, quos neque vehere n[e]que attollere, neque locare quis possit nisi ut inaequa[lita]tes inter se compareant. Fossam glaria duram scabram recte percussistis et radendo levem reddidistis. Opere pr[o]bato introgressi castra raptim et cibum et arma cepistis equitem emissum secuti magno clamore revertentem…

You have built a long wall… in not much more time than if it were made of turf... You built with big, heavy, uneven stones which no one can carry, lift or lay without their unevenness becoming evident… You dug a hard, rough ditch correctly through the earth and by scraping it made it level. Your work approved, you quickly entered camp, took your food and weapons and followed the cavalry which had been sent out, with a great shout as they came back…1

Extract from HADRIAN’S address to the troops at Lambaesis, Numidia,
North Africa, AD 128


ON LEAVING Viroconium and heading north for Deva (Chester), a little over 38 miles (61km) away, Julius Severus can make first for Mediolanum (Whitchurch), about 24 miles (39km) hence. There, at the junction of several roads, there is a mansio and small market. Although this is still in Cornovian territory, the countryside is beginning to change. More cereal crops are in evidence here, and while there are still settlements with their great ditched enclosures for livestock, the landscape now also reveals solitary roundhouses, surrounded by enclosed arable fields with pasture beyond.2 Although some farms have been settled by veteran soldiers who employ Roman methods of agriculture, there are few recognizable villas.

After crossing a bridge over the River Dee,3 the travellers enter Deva. Here is the legionary fortress and adjacent amphitheatre, which loom over the river, commanding the attention of everyone arriving either by road or up-river from the Irish Sea. But the garrison is even more depleted than at Isca. Most of the troops (and those from surrounding auxiliary forts) have gone up to the Wall, and many buildings, including some of the barrack blocks and the amphitheatre, have been abandoned.4 The main military base in the north is now the legionary fortress at Eboracum, under the command of Minicius Natalis.

With little to detain them at Deva, the travellers soon move on, taking the road north-east towards Eboracum as far as the auxiliary fort at Mamucium (Manchester), some 34 miles (55km) away. The route passes through a flourishing industrialized landscape where vital supplies for the soldiers of the north-west garrisons are produced. The area is an important centre of brine extraction. Salt is a vital commodity, not only for preserving meat but also for tanning leather and making cheese, and the abundance of brine here has encouraged leather-working and shoe-making.5 At Condate (Northwich), a stopping place almost 19 miles (30km) from Deva, at the confluence of the rivers Dane and Weaver, there is a connecting road south to Salinae (Middlewich), whose name means ‘Salt Works’: here there is a brine extraction plant in the vicus (village settlement) attached to the auxiliary fort. North of Condate is the industrial centre of Wilderspool (between Widnes and Warrington) on the south shore of the River Mersey,6 where there is extensive iron-working7 and a centre for producing mixing bowls (mortaria), which are supplied to military sites throughout the north-west.*1

Julius Severus continues, however, along the main road from Deva to Eboracum. He will not continue east across the Pennines any further than the auxiliary fort at Mamucium, from where he can take the road north to Bremetenacum Veteranorum (Ribchester), 26.5 miles (43km) away in the lovely valley of the River Ribble. Before descending into the valley, any travellers on this route will be treated to a magnificent view from the ridge of Ramsgreave (west of Blackburn), with Pendle (Hill) to their north-east and ahead of them, to the north and across the Ribble, Longridge Fell—and a taste of the mountains and moorlands that lie beyond.

Approaching Bremetenacum, this route crosses the river at a ford a little to the east of the fort, which is garrisoned by the ala II Asturum, a cavalry unit of 500 men originally raised in Asturia (in Spain).8 A cavalry ala is the most prestigious and best-paid type of auxiliary unit. Bremetenacum itself is cocooned in the gentle valley with its meandering river and rich pasture land, surrounded by a flourishing vicus. Here, any travellers can find rest as well as refreshment and relaxation in a respectable enough little bath house by the river. Here, too, is a significant junction, with routes east to Eboracum (via Skipton, Ilkley and Tadcaster) and west to the Fylde on the Lancashire coast.

Travellers heading north of here could, if they wish, choose an adventurous route north across the fells, beginning with an ascent over Longridge Fell, where the road climbs to just below 290 metres (950 feet) short of the summit. It rewards anyone who makes it to the top with a view (on a clear day) of the Irish Sea to the west, the mass of Bowland fells ahead, and the promise of much wilder and more difficult terrain yet to come. This route would eventually take you to Luguvalium (Carlisle), some 80 fairly challenging miles away, via the rain-soaked fort at Low Borrow Bridge (near Tebay), at the head of the Lune Valley,9 and 18 or so miles beyond that, Brocavum Fort (Brougham, near Penrith), which nestles in the gentle crook of the River Eden.

While this rugged route through wild and underpopulated country is significant from a military point of view, it is not the logical first choice for a provincial governor on tour unless he has a particular reason for wishing to test it out. There is an easier alternative to the west, along much flatter terrain. Quite apart from the physical rigours that would be entailed in the route over the hills, any group of travellers—military or civilian, and of whatever rank—needs to be vigilant while on the road and avoid unnecessary risk. While harsh terrain and bad weather are hazards of nature, there are also plenty of man-made threats, attested to throughout the empire by the numerous tombstones to those unfortunate individuals who have been interfectus a latronibus—killed by bandits, who are regarded as little more than terrorists. In the western provinces, there are specially designated officials charged with ‘guarding against bandits’.10 As governor, Julius Severus must keep the peace and flush out such men. If bandits are causing trouble in the province, he might well already have appointed a trusted praefectus to try to deal with them.11

Travellers wearing or carrying valuables need to take special precautions. Women and girls are warned to keep their jewellery out of sight—the gravestone of one unfortunate ten-year-old girl from Spalatum (Split), who was murdered causaornamentorum(because of her jewellery), offers a salutary lesson.12 Bandits have no respect for gender, age or rank. Even the commander of the army in Africa, M. Valerius Etruscus, was left naked and wounded after being attacked en route to Saldae (near Béjaïa, Algeria); he was lucky to escape with his companions.13 Attacks can occur on even the busiest roads. Pliny the Younger recalled how someone he knew vanished without trace from the Via Flaminia together with his slaves, and ‘no one knows whether he was killed by his slaves or along with them’.14 It is notable that Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is attacked and left half dead to be ignored by one and all, is set not on some obscure byway but on the main road between Jerusalem to Jericho.15 Chillingly, the cruel wounds inflicted by bandits are listed with those of gladiators and soldiers in battle as offering curious doctors the opportunity of studying the position, arrangement and shape of the internal organs of living patients.16

Bearing all these factors in mind (and Britannia, after all, has a reputation as a restless and violent place, especially in the north), an easier, flatter and potentially safer route to the west, which skirts the fells, is a more practical choice for Julius Severus and his entourage.*2 From Bremetenacum, Julius Severus now rides west along the Ribble Valley for 6 or 7 miles (11km), before picking up the road north from Coccium (Wigan).17 An easy, direct road now leads them to Lancaster, 21 miles (34km) away.*3 Here, there is amansio outside the north gate of the auxiliary fort, which commands the surrounding area from its hilltop position above the River Lune.18 Outside the vicus attached to the fort, Severus and his party will pass through a cemetery containing vividly painted tombstones of dead cavalrymen from the ala Augusta Sebosiana. One memorial, to Insus son of Vodullus, citizen of the Treveri, is particularly eye-catching. It graphically depicts the deceased quartermaster astride his horse triumphantly holding the severed head of an unfortunate Briton in his right hand, together with the sword that has just performed the decapitation.19

To begin a tour of inspection at the western part of Hadrian’s Wall, Severus can now reach the north-west and Luguvalium by taking to the water, embarking at the estuary of the Lune and tracking the coastline north of Morecambe Bay.*4 Members of the Cohort I Aelia Classica20 may be put at his disposal, a naval detachment based at the fort of Glannoventa (Ravenglass). This is the most southern of a series of coastal forts that stretches for 25 miles (40km) up to the Wall’s westernmost point at Maia (Bowness-on-Solway). Iron ore is extracted at Glannoventa, and the fort there also connects with one to the north-east at Galava (Ambleside), at the head of Windermere, via one of the steepest and most spectacular roads in the country. Here, the breathtakingly situated new fort at Mediobogdum (Hardknott) commands superb views north to the Scafell range and west along Eskdale to the sea.*5 It is manned by the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians—soldiers originally raised in Severus’s home province.21

Maenius Agrippa, in his new post as commander of the classis Britannica, may well accompany Severus on this leg of the journey along the coastline to Alauna (Maryport). Here, the cohors I Hispanorum millaria equitata (First Cohort of Spaniards, 1,000-strong) recently commanded by Maenius Agrippa himself, protects this part of the province from attack by sea from Caledonia. The camp’s legate is currently Caius Caballius Priscus. Like Agrippa, Priscus is Italian, born in Verona. He has been at Alauna sinceAD128 and will remain here for another year. While making a tour of the camp, Julius Severus will not fail to miss the neat rows of altars made of local St Bees sandstone, which are dedicated annually by the fort’s tribune. Maenius Agrippa himself dedicated several of these altars while he was commander here.22

Impressing a new governor or legionary legate (especially those in favour with the emperor, as Julius Severus clearly is) can make a young man’s career.23 While to some, serving at Alauna might feel like being at the end of the earth, it is certainly no barrier to career progression. Marcus Censorius Cornelianus, born in Gaul (in Nîmes) but serving at Alauna, will win promotion, eventually serving in Judaea when Severus’s fortunes take him there.24 Among others now serving in the north whose career is in the ascendant is the young equestrian officer M. Statius Priscus, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Lingones, which was originally raised in Gaul and is now stationed on the Wall.*6 As with Severus, Priscus comes from Dalmatia. The governor will also take him to Judaea, where he will be promoted to tribune in the Legion III Gallica—and his dazzling rise will continue thereafter.25

There will be many young officers determined to make a good impression on Severus as he makes his tour of inspection. But they must remember always to pitch their level of keenness carefully, of course, and not go over the top. No one would wish to replicate the disappointing fate of one young man who appeared—doused in rather too much scent—before the Emperor Vespasian to thank him formally for his appointment to the praefecture. Vespasian told him sharply, ‘I would have preferred it if you had smelt of garlic,’ and promptly recalled his letters of appointment.26



From Alauna to Luguvalium, a distance of some 30.5 miles (49km), Julius Severus will be able to travel by the good road that runs via the fort at Derventio (Papcastle, near Cockermouth).27 There is also a maritime route, along the coast to the Solway Firth as far as Maia (Bowness-on-Solway). This is the westernmost part of Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aelium), and—at some 1,480 miles away from Rome—the most north-westerly frontier point in the whole Roman Empire.*7

From Maia, the Wall continues for 80 Roman miles (73 miles / 117km), slicing across the narrow neck of northern Britain from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. This most audacious building project began at the time of Hadrian’s visit to Britannia in AD 122, when he ‘put many things to rights, and was the first to build a wall, 80 miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians’.28 It bears all the hallmarks of the emperor’s passions and preoccupations, embodying as it does his interests in monumental architecture, the consolidation of his empire and military discipline.

At the beginning of Hadrian’s reign, ‘the Britons could not be kept under Roman control’.29 If there was trouble in the province at that time, it was almost certainly in the north, and the emperor’s arrival in Britannia possibly coincided with the end of a period of campaigning. M. Maenius Agrippa was chosen by Hadrian to join an expeditio in Britannia in command of the I Hispanorum Cohort, and a top-ranking centurion (primus pilus) T. Pontius Sabinus led a very considerable force of 3,000 men on such a campaign, drawn from three legions stationed in the provinces of Upper Germany and Spain.30 Many men lost their lives in this, and the many other, wars fought in the north—men such as Titus Annius, a centurion serving with the First Cohort of Tungrians based at Vindolanda.31 Others showed great heroism and lived to tell the tale, such as Gaius Iulius Karus, prefect of the II Asturum Cohort, who was heavily decorated for his service in ‘the British war’ before being transferred to Egypt.32

It is entirely possible, therefore, that Hadrian’s decision to build a wall was a response to those recent troubles; but it was also part of his wider instinct to demarcate the bounds of the empire and declare that he was an emperor interested in consolidation rather than expansion. Early in his reign he had—very controversially—given up his predecessor Trajan’s conquests in Parthia, and at about the time of his visit to the Rhine and Britannia in AD 122, as the historians said, ‘he began to look at the many regions where the barbarians are held back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, and Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade’.33

The empire has, of course, had various forms of frontier and border controls in the past—such as the watch towers on the Danube, as depicted on Trajan’s Column. In Britannia, before the Wall, there was a series of northern lookout posts, which connected with a solid network of forts positioned along a road (Stanegate) running from Luguvalium to Coria (Corbridge) through the gap in the Pennines cut by the rivers Irthing and Tyne. But Hadrian has been the first to construct barriers on a grand scale: in Germany this has meant a palisade of timbers running 330 miles (530km) along its eastern frontier.34 In the wilder, much higher and harsher terrain of the Carpathian Mountains of Dacia, with which Julius Severus is so familiar, stone or earth barriers built in conjunction with towers and forts have been erected in places; and in North Africa there is a mud-brick wall with a ditch beyond it (the fossatum Africae), punctuated by gates with a single tower in between and forts spaced out at wider intervals.*8

By starting from the west at the Solway coast, Julius Severus, as a first-time visitor to the Wall, will secure a gentle introduction to it. This stretch is flat and holds no hint of the drama that awaits further east. From Maia, he can follow a road that sticks to high ground near the southern shore of the Solway Firth, keeping close behind the security of the Wall. It is then a mere 12.5 miles (20km) to Luguvalium, a place that will only grow in size and importance in the years ahead.*9 Over recent years its timber fort has become something of a works depot, with a fabrica (workshop) in what was once the camp’s praetorium. With smoky, smelly iron-smithing and copper alloy-working being carried out at several places on site, it is not a place at which anyone will choose to tarry.35A better bet is the fort at Uxelodunum (Stanwix), dominating the road just half a mile to the north. This houses the most prestigious unit on the Wall, the ala Petriana Milliaria, a 1,000-strong pure cavalry regiment, originally raised in Gaul, whose commanding officer holds the highest rank of any auxiliary unit on the British frontier.*10


Although legionaries have built the Wall, helped by members of the provincial fleet, it is manned by auxiliary troops, who are mainly drawn from north-western provinces such as Batavia, northern Gaul and the Rhineland. These are beer-drinking, trouser-wearing men for whom the conditions on this coastal and western section—where a gloomy sea and sky meet on so many days of the year in one great grey, murky mass—will be familiar enough. The scenery might even remind them of home, especially as the land is flatter here than further east along the frontier. But to men from units raised further away, such as the 500-strong cohort Hamiorum Sagittariorum (Hamian Archers) from Syria, who are based at Magnis (Carvoran), or anyone coming from Spain and south-western France, the damp environment of the Wall may well be a strange and perhaps isolating experience. They might well look for consolation. Many soldiers in Britannia put their trust in the goddess Fortuna, and sometimes specifically Fortuna Redux—Fortune the Homebringer. These are men such as Gaius Cornelius Peregrinus, an officer from the province of Mauretania Caesariensis in North Africa. While serving as an officer at Alauna he dedicates an altar to the local spirit (genius loci) and to Fortune the Homebringer, Eternal Rome and Good Fate, perhaps hoping that fate, fortune and the power of Rome will take him back one day to his sunny life as a town councillor in his faraway home town of Saldae.36

There are six different sizes and types of auxiliary regiments in existence, and all may be found on the Wall: two pure cavalry units or alae (wings), two infantry units (cohortes peditatae), with two being mixed infantry and cavalry (cohortes equitatae), of which each of the types can be 500- or 1,000-strong. In total, if you were to include the forts along the Cumbrian coast, well over ten thousand auxiliary soldiers are stationed up here. In addition, there are the officers’ wives and families, slaves and freedmen, as well as visiting officials and troops from the south, the soldiers’ concubines and children, and other men and women servicing the military in various ways who live in the vici, or settlements, outside the forts.

This western section of the Wall from Maia east for 30 miles (48km), as far as the River Irthing and just beyond the fort at Banna (Birdoswald), is made of layers of turf, a huge bank of it 20 Roman feet wide (6 metres) and roughly 4.2 metres (14 feet) high.37 In some places this wall has a stone base of large cobbles; in others, it is entirely composed of turf, from the ground up. Although less than a decade old, some of the Wall’s turf section is just now starting to be rebuilt in stone.

Leaving the fort at Uxelodunum, Julius Severus can make his way along the Stanegate, which runs south of the Wall from Luguvalium to Coria. Before the Wall was built, a series of observation towers situated along what would be its course communicated with the forts on the Stanegate. Now, along the entire stretch of the Wall, at every Roman mile, are gates, each defended by small guardposts, or milecastles, and between every milecastle are two regularly spaced turrets, or lookout posts. On this western section, the milecastles are made of turf and timber, although the turrets are made of stone, as they are all along the Wall.

Running along the whole of the northern side of the Wall, except in places where the steep, rocky terrain makes it unnecessary, is a deep ditch, which measures between 8 and 12 metres wide (26–40 feet) and around 3 metres (10 feet) deep. Between the ditch and the Wall is an open flat area, or ‘berm’, which can vary between almost 2 metres and 6 metres in width (7–20 feet), usually being narrower nearer to the towers. In places this berm had been studded with holes, which were filled with densely packed branches with sharpened points—a particularly nasty form of obstacle. Anyone stumbling into them would be impaled. Julius Caesar, who employed them at the siege of Alesia in Gaul, during the rebellion of Vercingetorix in 52 BC,38 recorded that in soldiers’ slang—so rich in irony and gallows’ humour—the barbed branches were known as cippi, a word meaning both boundary marker and tombstone.


The first Wall fort that Julius Severus now comes to is Banna. Positioned within a meander of the River Irthing, it sits high on top of an escarpment with magnificent views to the south over the river valley and Cold Fell. The original timber fort is about to be replaced by a large stone one, which will also sit astride the Wall. Containing the usual layout of streets, barracks, headquarters and storehouses, it will also boast a basilica exercitatoria, or indoor drill hall, so that the men can continue to keep fit and to train even in atrocious weather.

It was originally intended that the forts would be built to the south of the Wall. Something happened during the Wall’s construction, however, to cause a major change of plan, and all the forts now sit astride the Wall, so that soldiers can mobilize more effectively and move north or south as required. This is an innovation found on no other frontier. Perhaps the act of building the Wall had stirred up trouble and, as a result, demonstrated the limitations of the earlier plan. After all, the Wall could have become a potential trap for its own soldiers, hampering movement and giving little room to manoeuvre, north or south. It must be remembered that the Wall is not easy to defend. Stretched out as it is over such a distance, any band of determined enough marauders might overpower the men on duty at the turrets and milecastles. The latter can house up to thirty-two men, but some have a maximum capacity of as few as eight.39

On the south side of the Wall the soldiers have now built a Vallum, a flat-bottomed ditch 6 metres deep by 3 metres wide (20 × 10 feet), flanked by banks on each side.*11 Crossings through the Vallum are only provided at forts by means of causeways leading directly into the fort gates, with no provision to cross elsewhere, even at milecastles. In adopting this approach, the number of potential crossing points has been reduced from eighty to about sixteen. In this way, the Wall has also become a means of control for those living south of the border, forcing people to cross it only at those points where there is a heavily defended fort. The original width of the stone Wall has also been reduced from the original 10 Roman feet to 8 feet (around 3 metres to 2.4 metres), presumably to speed up its building.

Running direct from the north gate of Banna is a road leading to an outpost fort six miles away. Perched on a bluff above the river, the fort at Fanum Cocidi (Bewcastle)*12 is manned by the cohors I Aelia Dacorum milliaria (First Cohort of Dacians, 1,000-strong), a unit that helped to build the Vallum and whose job now is to patrol the uneasy no-man’s-land north of the Wall. The cohort was raised in Dacia soon after Trajan’s dramatic conquests there in AD 101–2 and 105–6, and it was possibly dispatched to Britannia as soon as it was formed.

These original Dacian recruits will be coming up for retirement in the next year or so, having served their twenty-five years. Perhaps the new governor may even have the pleasure of presenting them with their discharge certificates. Julius Severus is, of course, extremely familiar with their native land, after his unusually long six-year governorship of Dacia Superior. As he served there as recently as five years ago and has just come from the neighbouring province of Moesia Inferior, he can give the soldiers well-informed and up-to-date news from their part of the world. The unit appears to maintain strong traditions derived from their homeland: they call their sons ‘Decebalus’ after the Dacian king and hero who fought Trajan at the time of the conquest, and they continue to employ, if only for ceremonial use, the distinctive curved knife known as a falx, which they proudly depict on inscriptions.40 Although far apart in geographical distance, there are parallels between the two provinces. Dacia, like Britannia, lies on the edges of empire and is surrounded to its north and east by barbarian forces. Both have large garrisons (and in Dacia there is a cohort of Britons), and over the years many high-flying career officers will see service in both provinces.41

Returning south to the Wall at Banna, Severus and his party must now turn their faces east, towards the distant crags of the Great Whin Sill, and head past Harrow’s Scar milecastle to cross the River Irthing over Willowford Bridge.*13 The next forts that Severus will come to lie south of the Wall on the Stanegate: Magnis (Carvoran) and Vindolanda (Chesterholm). At the latter, Severus can inspect not just the garrison—the First Cohort of Tungrians—but also watch trainee Britons being put through their paces. In a derisory letter from Vindolanda from an earlier time, they had been described disparagingly as Brittunculi (‘little Brits’) who wear no armour and do not mount to throw javelins.42

There is handsome accommodation at Vindolanda, fit for an emperor let alone a governor. It comes in the form of a courtyard building of palatial proportions, built of timber but richly decorated with painted plaster.43 A visit from the new governor will have been long planned, and the commanding officer will be expected to entertain him handsomely, ordering special provisions up from London, such as sets of dining bowls, and ingredients such as mustard, anise, caraway and thyme.44

Officers are expected to provide hospitality for official guests at the drop of a hat. Even when they themselves are absent, they must ensure that their visitors are well received and offered a decent lunch, such as chicken and wine.45 While the Tungrian officers might have acquired a taste for Roman staples such as pork, wine and olive oil, as well as more exotic ingredients, this is not to say that they do not quietly prefer dishes from their homeland when dining with their immediate family or friends from the same part of the world. Their Batavian predecessors at Vindolanda had their own treasured recipes for food made ‘in the Batavian fashion’, which contained garlic paste and spice.46


As Julius Severus and his party leave Vindolanda and head north, back to the Wall, they will note how the landscape becomes more expansive, ever wilder and more magnificent. The Wall strides brazenly over the land, crowning the crags and plunging into the gaps between them. In the cold northern light, this great white scar streaks over the grey-green landscape, ‘gleaming with more brilliance than bronze’, as the orator Aelius Aristides will describe other boundaries at the limits of empire.47 For the Wall is painted (perhaps also rendered) white and, like the amphitheatre at Isca and many other buildings, the grooves are painted red in imitation of ashlar joining.*14

At one milecastle (No. 37), the massive handiwork of the Legion II Augusta is again in evidence; and beyond it lies breathtaking Vercovicium (Housesteads). Riding astride the Whin Sill escarpment, this is the most dramatically situated of all the forts on the Wall. What emotion must the sight of it—and of the view of the Wall itself—inspire in men such as Julius Severus? It is at once reassuring, a sign that Rome has managed to draw a nice tidy line even here, in this uncouth place; but also alarming, its very existence a tacit—or perhaps glaring—admission of how fragile the ideal of Romanitas really is, that only a wall separates civilization from restless barbarism beyond, from tribes with unspeakable names who are only too happy to seize the riches of Rome while refusing to succumb to the discipline that created them.

The underlying, ever-present tension is manifested in the presence of the large military zones to north and south of the Wall—both areas are potential sources of trouble, and there are severe restrictions on people mixing across the line. Looking north over the Wall, towards the barbarian lands, the countryside may now seem ominously empty; but it is full of the ghosts of British settlements, abandoned less than ten years ago. That people’s lives have been severely disrupted in this region, not to say uprooted and torn apart, would be painfully apparent were you to stray north over the ditch into what is now no-man’s land.

The Wall has hacked a brutal and in many ways unimaginative course—the most direct route across country, without this always being the best even from a purely military view. The people who have lived here for centuries have had to watch their ancestral land being severed in two, with those living north of the Wall suddenly finding their access to lands, or family, or markets to the south severely restricted. The kind of humiliation that these displaced people must have suffered as a consequence was expressed—albeit through an entirely Roman filter—in a speech that Tacitus gave to a Germanic tribe in AD 70, but which might just as well have come out of the mouth of a northern Briton in the 120s. An envoy from the Tencteri tribe addresses fellow countrymen who have settled in Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne)*15 and from whom they have been separated by a frontier on the Rhine: ‘Having shut off the rivers, the land, even the very sky so to speak, the Romans have prevented us from mixing and meeting—and to add insult to injury for men born to be warriors, we are allowed contact only if unarmed—practically naked—and under escort—and only on payment of a toll fee.’48 The Tencteri demanded the right to settle on either side of the river bank ‘as once our ancesters did’. The inhabitants of the colonia eventually agreed that they would allow the Tencteri to cross the Rhine into their city without escort or having to pay toll or tax, but only during daylight hours and so long as they remained unarmed. The inhabitants around Hadrian’s Wall have most certainly not been offered even these rights; the restricted crossing points at forts mean that they can only ever cross the border under the watchful eye of soldiers.49

While some provincials might have been partially seduced by Roman blandishments, or at least been prepared to make the best of it and seize what opportunities they could within the new order, the severance and seizure of ancestral land must have proved intolerable to some, who decided to make affiliations further north. Perhaps it is these disaffected, but clearly once quite prosperous and powerful, people who lie behind the emergence now of previously unheard-of tribes in Caledonia. And perhaps their armed struggle over the loss of land influenced the change in the Wall’s design soon after construction first started.*16

The rebuilding of the turf section in stone and construction of new forts on and around the frontier suggests that the situation is still tense and unpredictable, with an expectation that trouble can flare up at any time. Indeed, the very presence of Julius Severus—crack soldier and troubleshooter that he is—suggests the sort of problems in Britannia’s far north that need to be addressed. Hostility can be encountered from many quarters—from the unconquered tribes of Caledonia, from the disaffected and uprooted peoples who have moved further north, or from those within the frontier zone itself.*17

Violence committed in Britannia was not confined to wars or to the everyday brutality of occupation, of course.50 As with anywhere else, it could occur on a domestic scale. Buried under the clay floor of a shop (or inn) just outside the south gate of Vercovicium were the bodies of a woman and a man, the latter with the tip of the knife that killed him still wedged between his ribs. Whether the crime was committed by a civilian or a soldier, no one will ever know—all evidence of the crime was carefully concealed by a clean layer of clay.*18

Any fear that officers and men on the Wall have may well be masked by bravado and a disparaging attitude towards the native Brittunculi.51 Arrian, governor of Cappadocia, refers in his Periplus (an otherwise rather pedestrian catalogue of harbours and places) to the Sanni people, who ‘have recently become addicted to plunder and do not pay tribute regularly, but now, by the gods’ assistance, we will either oblige them to be more punctual or exterminate them.’52 Romans have a ruthless attitude towards people who do not comply with their demands. These demands include taxes, which provincials normally pay in cash—though up near the Wall they may still pay wholly in kind.

Across the North Sea the unsophisticated Frisii gave hides specifically for ‘army use’ in the first century AD, and in the south of Britannia cereal crops were given in payment in the years after the conquest.53

The collection of taxes and tribute is universally loathed, and daily throughout the empire letters are written and petitions drawn up complaining about tax collectors and soldiers extorting too much from the local population.54 In Britannia, those unpopular individuals whose job it is to collect taxes or to organize the distribution of the payments in kind to the depots or collection points (before being dispensed to the military) must make many journeys through the northern frontier. Tax farming is less common in Hadrian’s day, however, and in the southern parts of Britannia, where there are established civitas capitals, the duty of organizing and collecting tax falls largely on the local decuriones, or town councillors. In the northern military zone, by contrast, soldiers in the north may be responsible for collecting the taxes; they are certainly employed to carry out censuses, which are used to ensure that everyone eligible pays the tributum capitis (poll tax) and tributum soli (land tax).55

When it comes to tax collection, the potential for abuse, wilful misinterpretation and consequent local disturbance is great. In the case of the Frisii, when the chief centurion (primus pilus) responsible for extracting hides wilfully decided they should be from aurochs—huge wild cattle, difficult to hunt—rather than from domestic stock, the tribe rebelled and strung up the soldiers who came to collect the tribute.56 Needless to say, the Roman response was firm. The Frisii ultimately came off the worse, losing their lands, and their wives and children into slavery, as a consequence.


The fact is that Britannia has tens of thousands of soldiers planted on her soil, who have to be fed, equipped and paid a salary in cash—and Britons are expected to foot the bill. In a place with a large military presence, such as in the north, the burden is felt particularly deeply and on a day-to-day basis. Not only are the soldiers and their military installations all too visible in the landscape—built on land that has been recently confiscated—but the taxes required to pay for it all are now being extracted from people whose reduction in landholdings has made them less well off. In addition, there is the unwelcome burden of having to billet soldiers passing through towns and villages. From the number of complaints arising and the volume of legislation passed on this subject, it is evidently a constant and common grievance throughout the empire, despite several attempts to define the system and clarify the use of what will become known as the cursus publicus. Officially, soldiers can demand a free billet but not food for themselves or their animals; but both of the latter are commonly exacted, nonetheless.57

In Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a legionary soldier confiscates the ass from a poor old market gardener in Greece for ‘army use’ and beats up the owner for good measure because he (not speaking Latin) cannot answer the soldier’s question. Centurions, in particular, are notoriously heavy handed all over the empire, but also heavy footed too: the satirist Juvenal winces as a clumsy soldier steps on his foot with his hobnailed boot in the streets of Rome, though that is to be let off lightly; it is better not to admit that ‘your smashed-in teeth, swollen face black and blue with bruises and the one eye left to you which the doctor is doubtful he can save’ came from being beaten up by a soldier, else ‘you will make enemies of the cohort’ and risk being beaten up even worse. In Britannia, perhaps around the time of Hadrian’s visit, at least one man from overseas (transmarinus) was outraged at being flogged savagely enough by centurions to draw blood—a treatment, it is implied, that is on a level with that meted out to natives.58

It is not always easy being a soldier, of course, and the job, while varied and relatively well paid, is full of risk even in times of peace. If the experiences of the Cohort I Hispanorum Veterana in Moesia Inferior are anything to go by, all manner of eventuality can await you: you can be seconded to the fleet; transferred to a neighbouring province; drowned; killed by bandits; sent to Gaul to get clothing or to the mountains to round up cattle; or dispatched elsewhere to obtain grain, horses, or to visit the mines. Other tasks include guarding draft animals, scouting with the centurion, helping at the grain ships or taking part in a military mission across the River Danube.59 Being detained by bandits is one of the few acceptable excuses for returning to camp late from leave. A soldier will be charged as AWOL unless delayed by storms, bad weather at sea or by bandits on land.60

Military personnel in Britannia carry out similar duties to their counterparts in Moesia or elsewhere and are exposed to the same sort of risks, and the same variety of duties. At one time, the First Cohort of Tungrians at Vindolanda reports that of its 752 men, two-thirds are absent, with 332 at nearby Coria, 46 acting as guards of the governor, 1 centurion away in Londinium, 6 ‘outside the province’, 9 having set out to Gaul and 11 conducting business in Eboracum. Of the 296 men present, 15 are sick, 6 are wounded and 10 are suffering from inflammation of the eyes.61

One thing that soldiers in the ranks will not be spending their time doing is getting married, for they are legally prevented from doing so. As soldiers are still deployed regularly in far-off provinces, the army does not want to be saddled with the problem of moving hundreds, if not thousands, of women and children from one part of the empire to another.

The rules do not mean, of course, that soldiers are obliged to remain celibate, and in the settlements surrounding the forts there are plenty of women—and children. Back in the time of the Third Macedonian War, in 171 BC, troops on duty in Spain were said to have fathered some 4,000 offspring with local women.62 Neither the children of such unions nor their mothers have any legal status, however, until a soldier is honourably discharged on retirement; then he is eligible to marry and to legitimize his union. Until that time, his children will be deemed illegitimate, even if he himself is already a Roman citizen. Children can only inherit if they are named specifically as heirs in their soldier-father’s will. Hadrian has now ruled, though, that the children of soldier-citizens who have died intestate can inherit if there are no surviving legitimate children or relations who might take precedence.

The marriage ban brings other social and legal problems, too.*19 Soldiers’ relationships with local women might well be a source of resentment among the native men, who in the main have rather less cash in their pockets and no promise of Roman citizenship in the distant future. Many women who strike up partnerships with Roman soldiers around the Wall are British but not from the immediate vicinity, or were formerly slaves. One of the most poignant inscriptions on the Wall belongs to a tombstone in draughty Arbeia (South Shields), which commemorates the death of Regina, a Catuvellaunian woman from the south of Britannia, whose civitas capital is Verulamium. She was enslaved and acquired by Barates, a Syrian originally from Palmyra. He freed her, married her, and on her death in Arbeia he paid for someone to carve a handsome tombstone. On it, Regina is depicted seated in a wicker chair like any self-respecting Roman matron, with a distaff and spindle in her lap, an open jewellery box at her right hand and a basket of wool on the floor beside her. Beneath the formal Latin inscription is carved, in her husband’s native Palmyrene, a most poignant cry from the heart: ‘Regina, the freedwoman of Barates—alas!’63

However touching the story of Regina and Barates as depicted on the tombstone may seem, at its root is a British woman from the peaceful south sold into slavery. The truth is that not everyone who is enslaved becomes so as a result of war or of being kidnapped by pirates or bandits. Some children have slaves as parents and are born into slavery; others are sold by parents who cannot afford to keep them, or are even exposed at birth and picked up, from the rubbish heaps, by opportunists who will raise them as slaves.64 Girls are particularly dispensable—as one Egyptian papyrus letter from a man to his wife chillingly records: ‘If you bear a child and it is male, leave it be; if it is female, throw it out.’65 People can also be enslaved for debt or, in desperation, even sellthemselves into slavery.

Unlike soldiers in the ranks, commanding officers are permitted to take their wives and children on tour with them, as well as their household staff.*20 The wives of officers on the Wall can feel rather isolated, with their husbands fully occupied in their work and their sport. As they can socialize only with people of the same sort of status as themselves, then their female company is limited to the wives of other officers at neighbouring camps—unless they bring out members of their own family. Unsurprisingly, the wives seize every opportunity to write letters to each other and, best of all, to meet up when weather and their own commitments permit them—and are prepared to travel considerable distances to do so. They long to share special occasions with each other, such as birthdays, and dictate their invitations, adding more personal greetings in their own hand.*21

While men can ride about the countryside with relative ease and visit their friends at neighbouring forts comparatively easily, officer’s wives are no doubt dependent on travelling by carriage with an escort, and so might only be able to meet on special occasions and long-planned trips.


When the weather is bad in winter, travel along muddy or frozen roads is difficult, for man, woman and beast. Often there is nothing else to do but to sit it out and wait until the weather improves. No one will risk damage to their carts or animals or put their own lives in danger by setting out in poor weather on bad roads unless it is an emergency.66 It is small wonder that Titus Irdas, who is in charge of procurement at the busy military supply centre at Cataractonium (Catterick), will dedicate an altar in that town ‘to the god who devised roads and paths’.67

As Julius Severus is travelling in summer with his own dedicated transport officer, all roads should be accessible for him, including those that follow the wild course east of the Wall from Vercovicium towards the River Tyne, which is where he must now head. Even so, during the course of his journey along the 8 or so miles from here to the fort at Cilurnum (Chesters) he may get a sense that the area is vulnerable and consequently order a fort to be built at Brocolita (Carrawburgh),68 which will be situated just to the west of the most northern point of the Wall.

After the wild drama of the landscape around Vercovicium, Cilurnum lies in tranquil contrast on the west side of a lush valley of the North Tyne. The fort is situated at a major river crossing, where the Wall is carried across the river by a bridge of nine 4-metre-wide (13 feet) arches. The fort itself is a mere five years old. It is home to the 500-strong ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata (‘the cavalry unit named Augusta on account of its courage’), who live with their horses in sixteen stable-barracks, each housing thirty men, which corresponds to the number in a cavalry turma (troop).

The cavalrymen at Cilurnum will no doubt be keen, if not a little nervous, to display their riding skills when the governor comes to visit. To pass muster they must first ensure that their horses look resplendent in decorated harnesses, fancy trappings and bright saddle cloths, while they themselves, sitting resolutely in their horned saddles and awaiting the order to begin manoeuvres, will cut unearthly figures in their gilded parade helmets with face masks drawn down, crowned with brightly coloured plumes.

When addressing them after their demonstration, Julius Severus will doubtless echo the kind of observations made by Hadrian after inspecting the ala I Pannoniorum in Lambaesis (in North Africa) a couple of years earlier: ‘You filled the parade ground with your wheelings, your spear-throwing was not ungraceful, though performed with short, stiff shafts. Several of you hurled lances skilfully; you jumped onto horses in a lively way; and yesterday you did this speedily. Had anything been lacking, I would note it; had anything stood out, I would mention it. The entire manoeuvre was equally pleasing.’69 Hadrian remarked approvingly that ‘omnia per ordinem egistis’—everything was in order—and the ala Augusta will surely be just as keen to show Severus that everything is tip-top at Cilurnum so that he can make a favourable report to an emperor who is so keenly interested in military matters. Hadrian’s reforms of the army are commemorated on coins celebrating ‘the discipline of Augustus’, and indeed so highly rated is the ideal of discipline that it is now deified as Discipulina.*22 The ala Augusta are clearly keen to demonstrate their allegiance to the ideal and have dedicated an altar to the Discipline of the Emperor Hadrian Augustus. It stands in the shrine of their headquarters building, sternly reinforcing the idea that military discipline as practised by the Romans is divinely ordained.70

Hadrian knows that his men need to train continually to be ready to defend the empire, and although keen to keep the peace rather than foment war, Hadrian is passionate about keeping soldiers in prime condition. Many of his reforms are said to have been made during his tour of the north-western provinces, which included his visit to Britannia, where the recent unrest doubtless informed his ideas, as would have his inspections of British troops. He likes to lead by example, too, demonstrating that he is physically strong and fit and willing to share in the soldiers’ hardships. To this end he cheerfully eats army field rations, such as bacon, cheese and vinegary wine, and is said to be able to march 20 miles (32km) a day, fully armed. He is as determined to establish discipline in the camp as in the field. Accordingly, he has taken great interest in the regulation of soldiers’ duties and in camp expenses, looking into everything from conditions of leave—to prevent officers using the promise of leave to curry favour with troops—to the improvement of arms and equipment. Legionary legates such as Minicius Natalis, now in Eboracum, will be well aware of the emperor’s reputation for examining receipts from provinces scrupulously and of his desire to acquire a sound knowledge of military stores in every province.

Minicius Natalis, who clearly likes to cut a dash, may feel less in tune with Hadrian’s disapproval of the flashy-dress and bejewelled-wine-cooler style of officer life. The emperor refuses to wear gold ornaments on his sword belt, jewels on his clasp or ivory on his sword hilt, and is said to have cleared the camps of ‘banqueting rooms, porticoes, grottoes and bowers’.71 It is tempting to speculate whether the rather fancy nymphaeum attached to the long swimming pool at Isca runs the risk of now being classified as acrypta(grotto) and therefore banned, not to mention the porticoed courtyard next to the fortress’s amphitheatre.*23

Hadrian knows, of course, that an army is not a machine operated by abstracts but a body of men governed by officers. Consequently, he is keen to ensure that the tribunes have enough maturity and authority, that only centurions who are fit and have an upstanding reputation are appointed to the post, that no one enters the army who is too young, and that no one stays in service when they are too infirm. As with every good leader who encourages morale, Hadrian is said to make a point of visiting sick soldiers in their quarters.


After Cilurnum, and the displays of horsemanship, the governor must cross the Tyne and proceed east, visiting Coria next, a supply fort about 2.5 miles (4km) south of the Wall, lying at the junction of the Stanegate with Dere Street. Dere Street runs north of Coria all the way to the outpost fort at Bremenium (High Rochester) and into Caledonia. Were Severus to turn south at this point, his route would take him along Dere Street to the military supply centre at Cataractonium (Catterick), and then through the centre of Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough), the capital of the Brigantes tribe (whose territory covers the greater part of northern England). It would continue to Eboracum—and a welcome from Minicius Natalis at the legionary fortress there—and then on to Lindum (Lincoln) and Verulamium (St Albans) before reaching Londinium.

But Julius Severus must first finish his inspection of the Wall, which stretches a further 20 or so miles (32km) further east. As Severus and his party will see, as surely as they did further west, old tracks and ancestral land have been sliced through along the frontier. In the fertile open land of this eastern section, parts of the Wall have been constructed on fields fresh from ploughing, and the area to the north bears the scars of enclosures, which were being dug right up until the building of the Wall. In the not too distant landscape on this eastern stretch are the remains of once-great native landholdings, ripped apart only recently. Even at places considerably further north, centuries-old settlements have been left or replaced by much smaller stock enclosures. Some of these properties had been continuously occupied for more than 300 years.

Far from being squalid little smallholdings, randomly dotted in the landscape, many of these ancestral enclosures were substantial, and had contained in their innermost core large roundhouses, sometimes grouped together or in pairs, where two or more high-status families (presumably related) would have lived and farmed side by side.72 The biggest of these two-storey houses were as large as any found in southern Britain, big enough to accommodate livestock if necessary on a low-ceilinged ground floor, with the family quartered on the upper level. These places also had subsidiary enclosures where metal—the preserve of the powerful—could be worked, and droveways for cattle and horses, with ditches either side to prevent livestock wandering off. Around these dwellings of chiefs, and presumably dependent on them in some way, lay smaller clusters of roundhouses, protected by much less substantial ditches.73 The deep foundations of the largest roundhouses and the drainage gullies around them, which collected water from their conical thatched roofs, can still be seen clearly, scarring the ground.

In common with the Cornovii before the conquest, these people evidently prized cattle but showed little interest in material goods. In contrast with tribes further south, these northern people seem to have kept themselves to themselves, at least where the Romans were concerned, right up until the construction of the Wall. A few old bangles,74 made from melted-down Roman glass, and the odd Roman pot mark the limited extent of their interaction with the alien Roman culture.75

Things are different now. Unlike in the west, in Cumbria, where people continue to live in traditional enclosures south of the Wall,*24 some richer chiefs who live south of the Wall in this eastern sector are showing signs that they are succumbing at last to the blandishments of Roman life, to the shops, fine dining, baths and togas. Some villas and settlements, similar to those of small towns in the south, have gradually begun to appear.*25

Nowadays, some provincials seem to have adopted an idiosyncratic ‘pick and mix’ attitude to Roman culture. Down at Faverdale, which lies between Dere Street and another major north–south route, Cade’s Road, some 25 miles (40km) south of the Wall, one family group continues to live in a roundhouse but has adapted Roman methods of stock-rearing, producing bigger specimens of cattle, sheep and pigs. Although they clearly have the means to buy imported pottery and have assembled an impressive number of Samian-ware drinking vessels, they continue to use handmade pottery of ancient, Iron Age form. While maintaining time-honoured rituals, such as the careful burial of broken quernstones, they have acquired new ones, including a miniature bath house, startlingly painted in red, white, green, yellow, orange, black and pink. It contains two heated rooms and a waterproof (opus signum) floor; but it may strike a visitor used to traditional baths as a little odd, as there is no pool or basin. The remnants of seafood snacks, such as cockles, mussels and oysters, lying about the place, however, suggest that the inhabitants are eagerly embracing the enticements of baths and dining rolled into one. If so, these shellfish sauna parties must be intimate gatherings, for the room can only accommodate a maximum of six people.76


Although Julius Severus is on a tour of duty and clearly has a great deal of work to do, he will surely not miss the opportunity to take advantage of the marvellous hunting country in this area and to join some of the senior officers in their favourite—and in many cases pretty much only—pastime. Even when officers cannot leave their work commitments for the day, they write to each other about hunting and fishing—and send each other requests for kit. ‘If you love me, brother, I ask that you send me hunting-nets,’ implores Flavius Cerialis from Vindolanda to his friend Brocchus.77

Friends also exchange news about their hunting hounds. Two Celtic breeds seem to be popular, the segusius and the vertragus.78 The former are shaggy and ugly—the purer the breed, the uglier they are, according to Arrian (who will also find time to write a treatise on hunting while in Cappadocia). In addition to their unfortunate looks, they also make a terrible noise, a point not lost on Arrian: ‘Among the Celts, there is a famous comparison of these dogs with roadside beggars because of their mournful and miserable voice and because they follow their prey not with a keen sound but with importunate and pitiful howls.’

Arrian himself owned a vertragus bitch called Horme (Όρμη), meaning something like ‘Dash’. It is a good name, for this breed is renowned for its speed and is rather better looking than the unfortunate segosian hound. ‘There is nothing finer to look at than the shape and appearance of the best bred of these dogs… First of all they are long from head to tail, and there is no other sign of speed and good breeding in any dog which is so important for speed as length.’79 If the officers on the Wall care for their hounds as much as Arrian does for his, they will be well looked after—sensibly fed, praised and fondled after a good chase, and given a soft, warm bed at night where (Arrian advises) ‘it is best that they sleep with a man so as to become more affectionate and appreciate companionship, and to love the person who sleeps next to them no less than the one who nurtured them’.80

Keen though Arrian and these officers are on hunting, there is no one in the empire more passionate about the chase than Hadrian, who holds both his horses and his hounds in deep affection. He famously erected a tomb with a stele and inscription for his favourite hunter, Borysthenes, who died at Apte in Gallia Narbonensis while on the first leg of the journey that brought Hadrian to Britannia.81 As a young man, Hadrian was so fond of hunting that he was criticized for it; but he continued to hunt passionately—and, some would say, theatrically—throughout his life. If eating bacon in the camps with the men helps him gain political kudos by suggesting he has the common touch, stagey hunts celebrated by carefully selected poets elevate him to the level of hero, putting his spectacular bravery and strength on a par with Hercules and Alexander.82 They say he founded a town called Hadrianotherae at the place where he killed a bear.83

Lesser mortals can continue to rejoice in the thrill of the hunt and also commemorate their achievements in monuments, even if, in scale at least, they are rather more modest than those of the emperor. Some 27 miles (43km) south of Coria on Dere Street, near Vinovia (Binchester) auxiliary fort, Gaius Tetius Venturius Micianus, prefect of the Sebosian Cavalry Regiment, who hunts in the wild beauty of Weardale, has been unable to contain his pride and excitement at bagging an elusive boar. It was an animal he was so determined to catch that he made a pact with the hunting god, Silvanus, to whom he dedicates an altar ‘in fulfilment of his vow… for having caught a remarkably fine wild boar which many of his predecessors had been unable to catch’.84 Britannia may not be able to provide lions, but up in the north country, in addition to wild boar, there are polecats, grey wolves, beavers, and the odd brown bear lurking in the remote fells; and lynx have been spotted as far south as Yorkshire.85

It is to be hoped that the soldiers do enjoy their hunting, for beyond the daily military duties there is precious little else to do, except to make occasional visits to friends at other forts and to look forward to periods of leave or a secondment to one of the legionary bases or to Londinium. If you like to read or study, then the winters can be particularly hard, with heat and light both in short supply. Anyone who employs a secretary in winter will need to ensure his hands are well protected by sleeves so that the cold does not prevent him from taking dictation.86

Oil lamps are far less common in Britannia than in other parts of the empire, and outside the most prosperous houses in the cities and the military camps they are a rarity. As olive oil has to be brought hundreds of miles into Britannia it is a luxury, rather than an everyday staple, and is used sparingly, even by the military. Oil lamps are so desirable because they provide a steady, clear flame, provided that the wick is not too long, and even a small lamp can burn for about three or four hours before it needs a refill.87 In Britannia, however, open lamps, in the form of shallow iron dishes, are more common, fuelled by either liquid tallow (the rendered fat of cattle or sheep), lard from pigs, dripping from cows—or occasionally even fish oil. These lamps can be hung on a wall or carried around.

Candles made out of tallow are also an option, but far from ideal. Mutton tallow is firm but very smelly, while pig tallow gives off a lot of smoke. Quite apart from their unsteady, smoky flames, tallow candles are also greasy to hold and leave fatty marks wherever they drip. They also need constant attention, as their wicks burn only partially, so they need to be trimmed regularly to keep the flame bright. Far better, if you can afford it, are candles made from beeswax.

Once you are up here on the Wall you just have to get on with it and try to maintain the traditions of army and home as best you can. In this wild place, you must hope for the companionship of a fellow officer with all the qualities of a bonus vir, a cultured man of steady character.88 Dressed in formal dinner attire, with scarves as accessories, officers invite each other to taste the fruits of their sport at dinner: game such as roe deer and venison may appear alongside the thrushes, duck and swans they have taken pleasure in hunting, all washed down with Massic wine from Campania.

Out in the barracks, the men are provided with plainer food, including a weekly ration of wheat for themselves and barley for any horses. For the most part they are well fed, and well clothed in long-sleeved tunics and trousers (also available in hard-wearing, waterproof leather) and thick woollen cloaks. They wear underclothes and woollen socks (which, in their letters, they request friends and family to send), and when the weather is particularly bitter they can wrap great thick wads of wool around their legs. Having cash to spend, they are able to supplement their rations with treats such as oysters and go drinking, gambling and whoring in the small settlements outside the camp and the larger towns when on leave or secondment. While sour wine is standard army issue, many of the auxiliary troops from the north-west provinces have more of a taste for beer.


As winter approaches, unless there is serious and pressing trouble at the frontier, Julius Severus may choose to return south after he has finished his inspection of the Wall. The great bridge across the Tyne marked the Wall’s original terminus. As it seems that work on the Wall began here, this bridge must have been one of the very first structures to be built as part of Hadrian’s great project.

The bridge’s main purpose is not so much practical as symbolic and magnificent. It is flanked by altars at either end, to the two watery gods Neptunus and Oceanus, both dedicated by the Legion VI Victrix.89 Its name—Pons Aelius (Hadrian’s Bridge)—is of such consequence that the fort built later*26 on a promontory above it will go by the same name.90 Wherever the emperor goes on his travels, he gives impetus—and often his name—to monumental projects, so it will be said that one can ‘see memorials of his journeys in most cities of Europe and Asia’.91 Pons Aelius bears the same name as the bridge he built in Rome. The two monuments, such worlds apart, are united by Hadrian’s name and vision.*27

The bridge no longer marks the terminus of the Wall, which is to be found a little further on at Segedunum (Wallsend). Should Maenius Agrippa be accompanying Severus at this point, he will be able to give him an eyewitness account of Hadrian’s visit eight years before, as he was present in person. Both men can pause to reflect on the words of the monumental inscription at Segedunum, which records that Hadrian, having scattered the barbarians and restored the province, added a frontier between the shores of both oceans.92

Now Britannia’s new governor has completed his first tour of the remote frontier between those two oceans. It is time for him to embark on one of the ships of the classis Britannica anchored in the Tyne, underneath the watchful eye of the garrison at the fort of Arbeia, who defend the lower reaches of the river.

Of those left behind on the Wall as winter approaches, the officers and men from the north-western provinces (especially the Batavians) might be hardened to the rain and the grey, brooding skies; at least they can cherish their recipes from home. The Dacians here might well find in the wintry hills and forests something to remind them of their homeland, the memory of which they try so hard to preserve. Those from sunnier parts of the world, such as the Syrian merchants and Mauretanian town councillors, cannot help but spare a thought now and then for their native cities. Some will die here, their only remaining journey being the one they will take to the Underworld. But others will live to return to their homes or, like Julius Severus, will make further remarkable journeys throughout the length and breadth of the empire.

*1 Some of the potters at Wilderspool migrated to Luguvalium on the western part of Hadrian’s Wall later in the century so that they could produce their mortaria closer to their core market of some 13,800 men stationed on the Wall and in York.

*2 A maritime route from Deva, stopping along the way to visit inland bases near the estuaries of the rivers Mersey, Ribble and Lune, would also have been a possibility.

*3 Tantalizingly, beyond an initial letter ‘L’ the Latin name for Lancaster is unknown.

*4 It is uncertain exactly where ships would have found safe harbour for the night along the Lancashire coast—the coastline has changed greatly since the second century, and evidence for Roman harbours has disappeared.

*5 Identification of Hardknott with Mediobogdum is uncertain.

*6 His presence is probable, if not definitive.

*7 Apart from a few outposts north of the Wall whose status is uncertain.

*8 The date of the African wall is not certain but most probably dates from Hadrian’s reign.

*9 By the third century AD, Luguvalium was a flourishing town, the probable civitas capital of the Carvetii, which was a branch, or sept, of the Brigantes tribe based in the Eden Valley. But in the 130s it still lacked a clear urban identity. The timber fort was demolished in the 140s and subsequently rebuilt.

*10 The ala Petriana is presumed to have been here under Hadrian but is not attested until much later. Little is known about Stanwix in the Hadrianic period. The stone fort is generally dated to the 160s.

*11 The banks are set back 9 metres (almost 30 feet) and are 6 metres (20 feet) wide.

*12 Fanum Cocidi means Shrine of Cocidus, a Celtic warrior god. It is not known if the fort had another ‘official’ name.

*13 Milecastles and turrets along Hadrian’s Wall are numbered according to a modern convention from east to west, starting from 0 at Wallsend and finishing at 80 at Bowness-on-Solway. Harrow’s Scar is No. 49.

*14 Evidence for whitewashing has been found at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where hard white mortar is still preserved on some of the facing stones; and at Peel Gap between turrets 39a and 39b. The view that the whole wall was painted white is highly speculative. See Bidwell (1996), pp. 19–32. For a brief discussion about whitewashing, see Crow (1991), pp. 51–63.

*15 The modern city of Cologne derives its name from the Latin colonia.

*16 A different type of society seems to have emerged in Scotland after the imposition of the Wall, with new tribal names like the Maeatae and eventually the Picts being documented. Such developments seem to have left the people of the coastal plain north-east of the Wall exposed.

*17 Whether the trouble was in the far north, in Caledonia, or in the region immediately around the Wall is not known.

*18 It is not known who manned Housesteads during the Hadrianic period. Later, the First Cohort of Tungrians, formerly at Vindolanda, was stationed there.

*19 The ban on soldiers marrying remained in place until the early third century.

*20 It is not clear whether centurions, who were provided with more spacious accommodation than the ranks, were also accorded this privilege.

*21 ‘On 11 September, sister, for the celebration of my birthday, I ask you warmly to come to us, you will make the day more enjoyable by your presence. Greet your Cerialis. My Aelius and our little son greet you. Farewell, sister, dearest soul, as I hope to prosper and hail.’ The commanding officer’s wife, Claudia Severa, added the last sentence, with its sweet sign-off, in her own slightly uncertain hand. Vindolanda Tablet 291.

*22 Possibly this was Hadrian’s idea.

*23 Although there is no record of their nature, Hadrian is said to have corrected many abuses in Britain while on his tour. Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Hadrian), 1, 11.

*24 They would continue to do so into the fourth century.

*25 Although some of these places may equally have been the preserve of retired soldiers and merchants profiting from business on the Wall.

*26 The fort was constructed in the later second century AD.

*27 It is tempting to speculate that there was also some sort of monument high on the promontory above the northern bridgehead (on the site of the later fort which retained the name of the bridge) in the form of a mausoleum, perhaps commemorating the end of the wars in the manner of Augustus’s monument at La Turbie, above the Bay of Monaco. But there is no archaeological evidence to support this.

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