Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division

In this stimulating addition to the burgeoning literature of Hadrian’s Wall, Matthew Symonds, editor of Current World Archaeology, brings fresh emphases to the study of this endlessly fascinating Roman monument in the north of Britain, and in doing so shows that continuing research on the frontier constantly alters the way in which the Wall is seen and interpreted. Symonds aims to examine ‘why it was built, what it was intended to do, and what it actually did, both in the Roman period and beyond’. After an introduction to the study, two chapters examine the contrasting cultures of Rome and Britain, and the progress of Roman arms to the point at which Hadrian’s Wall was constructed. A chapter then considers the construction of the Wall, concentrating on the many changes in plan that can be discerned through archaeology. Two further chapters consider the later Roman history of the frontier, including the important phase of the ‘Long 4th Century’, and the final three examine the afterlife of the Wall, from mythical interpretations through the evolution and progress of archaeological research, to the ways in which the Wall has been received in popular culture.

Symonds touches on comparative frontier studies, innovatively evoking the modern land border in Ireland and its role in the Troubles of the 1960s and ’70s to introduce concepts of guerrilla and ‘asymmetric’ conflict, which he sees as key to the genesis of Hadrian’s Wall. He compares the way guerrilla tactics employed against Rome were countered by the imposition of military posts of different sizes to British tactics during the late 19th-century colonial wars. This parallel runs through the book, and the idea of Hadrian’s Wall as the ultimate expression of a long-developing counterinsurgency strategy is closely argued and persuasive. In this interpretation, the Wall sits between the two frequently argued ideas of the function of Hadrian’s Wall: that of a controlled border, or of a fortification against large-scale threat. The problems concerning the relationship between the beginning of construction and actual warfare are discussed in detail, while topographic and practical reasons are found for the many changes in plan that took place as work advanced.

The Wall was built in a peopled landscape, and its practical and cultural impact on the local population is brought to the fore. The Wall had an immediate impact on patterns of settlement in its vicinity, and particularly on freedom of movement. In this context, the book stresses the importance of the 2.55km-wide natural bottleneck the Tipalt–Irthing gap as the only place where the Tyne–Solway isthmus could be crossed from north to south without the need for a substantial river crossing. The concentration of unusual Wall features and the prioritisation of building in this and other potential penetration routes emphasises the Wall’s purpose in preventing ‘longstanding patterns of north–south movement’.

The development of the Wall from the 2nd to the early 4th century AD implies a peaceful period within the province as the stance of the frontier began to look resolutely northward. Along the line of the monument, towns developed and some of the fort settlements extended north of the curtain wall. The initial auxiliary garrisons of the Wall brought not only Roman ways, but also were a ‘vector for the spread of non-Roman beliefs’ from all over the Empire, resulting in a highly cosmopolitan frontier society. Symonds uses religious belief to illustrate this, showing the use of wheel symbols and a ‘fascination with circular objects’ to be a constant. He further hints at the occasional practice of human sacrifice, usually considered nefas, a violation of divine law, in Roman culture. The huge changes witnessed in the 4th century are discussed in detail with reference to the results of the recent work that shows how occupation may have continued in some places on the Wall through the 5th and maybe into the 6th century.

Symonds’ book follows many years of work and thinking on the subject, beginning with his in-depth observation of the smaller elements of the structure – in particular, the milecastles. He has a clear and elegant prose style that makes the book deceptively easy to read. The result is a thought-provoking volume that will seriously influence the way we look at Hadrian’s Wall in the future.

Review by Tony Wilmott.
Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division, Matthew Symonds, Bloomsbury, £19.99, Paperback, ISBN 978-1350105348.