Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division

Symonds provides a particularly accessible and entertaining overview of this complex monument, including the history of its construction and the role of the Wall in later history.

This important new study is written by an internationally acknowledged expert on Hadrian’s Wall who is also editor of Current World Archaeology magazine. This is the latest volume in a series on world-famous ancient monuments published by Bloomsbury, including the ancient cities of Dura-Europos, Troy, and Ur. Matt Symonds’ book joins a long lineage of volumes written about Hadrian’s Wall, beginning with The Roman Wall, published by John Collingwood Bruce in 1851. The most recent previous account is Nick Hodgson’s 2017 volume, Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and History at the Limit of Rome’s Empire (Hale). Symonds’ and Hodgson’s books are so different in approach and style, however, that anyone with a genuine interest in our most important Roman monument will want to acquire both.

Symonds provides a particularly accessible and entertaining overview of this complex monument, including the history of its construction and the role of the Wall in later history. Many earlier accounts have described, in considerable detail, the structures that make up the Wall, and information derived from excavations and the inscriptions that have been found along its line. This new book sets out a lively and highly readable general history of the significance of the Wall that addresses new topics that have emerged from recent studies. As such, Symonds’ book is at the forefront of archaeological research. The Wall is argued to have been a physical border that was extremely difficult for local peoples to cross, constructed during the violent upheaval that resulted from the collapse of their friendly relations with Romans early in Hadrian’s reign.

The immense scale of the Wall has contributed to the popular assumption that it was intended to be fundamentally defensive in character. Victorian excavators found regularly spaced gateways at the milecastles, however, and the idea that the barrier was constructed to control and manage movement rather than to prevent it was proposed during the 20th century. Symonds’ account adds considerably to this perspective by re-emphasising the physical impact of building the curtain wall and its supporting structures during the AD 120s. The Wall is now perceived as an effective way for the Roman military to strictly control or prevent the movement of peoples across its line while stamping Roman control on to this frontier landscape. That the Wall remained in use from the AD 120s to the late 4th or early 5th century, with a short period of disuse during the Antonine occupation of southern Scotland (in the 140s to 150s), must surely indicate that it worked effectively.

To set the building of the Wall in context, Symonds addresses the earlier history of the Roman conquest of Britain. At the other end of the Wall’s story, he explores the continued occupation of many of the fort sites along the mural line during the decades after the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century. He breaks with the previous tradition of writings on the ‘Roman’ Wall, continuing the historical narrative of the monument until the present day. He discusses how knowledge of its physical remains has helped to forge ideas of Englishness and Scottishness, and how ideas about the Wall have inspired creative works such as Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

At the forefront of scholarly research, this volume is written in an entertaining style that will be familiar to regular readers of Current Archaeology. It is well illustrated with 57 figures, including maps, photographs of archaeological structures and artefacts, and historical images. This is a vibrant account of the new directions of study that are making the Wall even more relevant today, when frontier barriers of many kinds are proliferating across our world.

Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division, Matthew Symonds, Bloomsbury, £17.99, ISBN 978-1350105348.
Review by Richard Hingley.