Review – Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and History at the Limit of Rome’s Empire

5 mins read
Nick Hodgson
Robert Hale, £19.99
ISBN 978-0719818158
Review Matthew Symonds

Creating the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail has led to a steady rise in guidebooks catering to walkers following the former frontier, but books providing an authoritative biography of the border works remain rare. The standard undergraduate textbook – and entry point for anyone seriously interested in the subject – remains Breeze and Dobson’s Hadrian’s Wall, first published in 1976 and currently in its fourth edition. Publication of a fresh look at the frontier by Nick Hodgson, a respected Wall scholar and highly experienced excavator of its remains, is therefore cause for celebration.

Regular CA readers will be aware that the purpose of Hadrian’s Wall remains a source of uncertainty, with some viewing the border as a bureaucratic barrier to regulate movement, while others cast it as a defensible military line. Nick Hodgson belongs to the latter camp, and although he takes pains to acknowledge both sides of the argument, his book sketches out a view of the Wall that challenges the widely held view that the army did not face a serious threat in the north. As such, the familiar strutting soldiers of a complacent occupying force are absent, replaced by an army firmly on the back foot at the start of Hadrian’s reign and struggling to contain northern aggression.

This approach brings the attitude and capabilities of the Britons, living both in the shadow of the Wall and far to the north, into sharp focus. One of the great strengths of this book is that it firmly anchors discussion of Roman military matters into a thoughtful and considered account of the local population. We still know far too little about these shadowy figures, but Nick Hodgson employs the results of excavations he led north of the Wall near Newcastle to maximum advantage (see CA 277). These present a grim picture of a farming community centuries in the making suddenly disappearing at around the time the border was created. South of the Wall, meanwhile, new types of rural settlement emerge. Such a scenario casts the border as a gamechanger, disrupting or ending traditional lifestyles.

As well as emphasising what establishing a border zone meant for local people, Nick Hodgson sets Hadrian’s Wall within its widest possible context. His incisive and engaging text introduces both Roman Britain and the Roman army, while forays into pay, religious matters, soldiers’ dependants, and more present a rounded view of the military presence. The melting pot of Roman, Eastern, and seemingly local gods created by the collision of cultures in the frontier zone offers a contrast to an apparently far less inclusive human border.

A lucid account of the Wall’s various components and the construction programme deftly negotiates the fiendish complexity of this subject. But it is the author’s reconstruction of the evolving nature of both the threat faced by Rome and the nature of the military response that is most intriguing. In Hadrian’s reign, he detects urgency in the decision to build part of the border of turf, reasoning that a defensive Wall was needed to constrain the unruly inhabitants of south-west Scotland. By the early 3rd century, the army of Septimius Severus had a completely different region in its sights and ravaged north-east Scotland. It is a powerful illustration of the fluid nature of the reactions the border provoked.

So, what about that critical question of purpose? Nick Hodgson firmly makes the case for ‘defence’ rather than ‘control’, emphasising that the Wall garrisons could project power to the north or fight from the Wall-top when necessary. By pointing out the vulnerability of small milecastle and turret garrisons to even large raiding parties, the author highlights the importance of rapid reinforcement from the Wall forts, although more discussion would be useful about how the border was intended to work before the decision to add these was taken. Nevertheless, this important volume needs to be read by anyone interested in frontiers or Roman Britain.

This review appeared in CA 333.

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