Hard or soft borders? The Roman experience in Britain

4 mins read
Today, Hadiran’s Wall is a spectacular sight as it crosses Winshields Crags, but what were the consequences for this newly divided land when the frontier was first built? (Photo: M Symonds)
What were Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall for, and how did they influence everyday life in their shadow? As questions about modern borders continue to make the headlines, Matthew Symonds investigates Rome’s land frontiers in Britain.

Borders are big news at the moment. We all know that a ‘great wall’ is planned along the US border with Mexico, albeit one with a ‘big beautiful door’ to funnel people through. Closer to home the relative merits of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ borders are being debated as national governments respond to refugees and the UK ponders its new relationship with the European Union. This surge of interest in borders reflects the simple truth that changing their nature often changes people’s lives. Observing that borders have consequences is not the same, though, as echoing the terse justification offered for a new US border barrier: ‘Walls work’. Whether or not they do indeed work is just as important for understanding our past as our future.

Hadrian’s Wall in its completed form. (Image courtesy of David Breeze)

Two of Britain’s most celebrated archaeological monuments are also two of Rome’s greatest – or at least most robust and visually spectacular – frontiers: Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Current discussion of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ borders finds a parallel in the longstanding attempts to determine whether these Roman frontiers were geared towards controlling or blocking movement. Just as this research could help inform modern views, so too the powerful passions these issues provoke today, among both proponents and detractors, may be relevant to students of Rome’s frontiers. After all, neither the Roman soldiers tasked with the slog of building and then operating the border systems nor the local groups whose land they crossed are likely to have been neutral on the matter.

Naturally, history never repeats itself wholesale, and the dual role that the Roman frontiers served – as barriers to movement and baselines for military action beyond them – is one that distinguishes them from modern counterparts. Equally, today the talk is of reinforcing existing national boundaries, rather than the Roman technique in Britain of carving them out from scratch across previously open ground. While some modern ‘soft’ borders are so innocuous that you barely realise you have crossed them, it is a fairly safe bet that this experience was not shared by anyone travelling through Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall. Despite these differences, though, the single surviving Roman explanation of what Hadrian’s Wall was for sounds increasingly familiar: ‘to separate the Romans and barbarians’ even passes the test of being a tweetable number of characters. But what did it mean in practice?

The image of Hadrian’s Wall that most readily springs to mind is of the curtain majestically cresting precipitous crags, but in reality far longer stretches of the frontier bisected gently undulating farmland. (Photo: M Symonds)

A popular modern perception of Hadrian’s Wall is that the Roman army advanced as far north as the Tyne–Solway isthmus linking Newcastle and Carlisle, and then halted to build a frontier. In reality, the decades leading up to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall were a more dispiriting experience for the Roman army. During the AD 80s Roman military units were operating on the very edge of the Scottish Highlands, seemingly poised to administer what they believed would be the coup de grâce to resistance in Britain. Instead, trouble on the Danube resulted in about a quarter of the Roman force being sent to the Continent. A gradual withdrawal from Scotland ensued, and by AD 105 the army had returned to the Tyne–Solway isthmus, a region where Roman soldiers had first been stationed three decades earlier. The whispers in the ancient literature of serious warfare in Britain at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign may be aftershocks from a concerted attempt to persuade the army to retire even further south.

Milecastles built later during the construction programme tend to avoid such slopes, and there is a chance that the decision to shift milecastle 39 away from its measured position to occupy more suitable ground was a late revision to the building plan. (Photo: M Symonds)

Against this backdrop of retreat and warfare, the curiously tenacious view that Hadrian’s Wall was essentially a make-work scheme to keep soldiers’ hands from becoming idle seems unlikely. That the frontier was essentially an arbitrary imposition on the landscape does, though, find some support in a famous and radical design quirk. Rather than following the usual technique of placing small garrisoned posts at the points where they were needed, the milecastles and turrets along the Hadrian’s Wall curtain were built at regular intervals of about 495m. As the name ‘milecastle’ implies, these small stations were placed approximately a mile apart. They also housed ‘big beautiful doors’ through the frontier – indeed, Paul Bidwell has noted that these gateways were larger than those found in some forts. Originally, the milecastles and turrets were intended to be the only manned installations along the frontier, meaning that passage was only possible either through the milecastle gates or at two points where major roads crossed the frontier. The spacing system itself makes most sense as a technique to minimise opportunities to cross the curtain unobserved, and it may even have been partly a response to the comparatively high local population numbers to the north and south of the Wall.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 326. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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