It is always stimulating to be reminded how much more remains to be said about Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman frontier system that is often believed – from an archaeological perspective – to have been ‘done’. Despite centuries of scholarly scrutiny, there are key gaps in knowledge about every element of this fascinating monument. Even so, some components of the Wall system have received rather more attention than others. As Dave Armstrong, a retired engineer, notes, a fine example of one such ‘poor relation’ is the Roman road known as the Military Way. This runs to the rear of the Wall curtain, and is described by Armstrong as ‘a road which is without question the most impressive example of Roman road engineering in Britain’. Despite this, it often receives comparatively curt treatment in modern works about the Wall – a criticism your reviewer is not immune to – and Armstrong aims to help redress this imbalance.
One reason why the Military Way has received less attention is probably because it is not an original feature, and so cannot help to disentangle the intricacies of the Hadrianic construction programme. Instead, the road was most likely constructed after the army returned from the Antonine Wall, a scenario that Armstrong finds appealing. He examines the purpose and course of the road, including how the surveyors and engineers managed the sometimes competing desires for it to take a direct route, to skirt the most challenging terrain, to be set back from the Wall curtain, and to link the manned military posts set into the curtain (often via linking paths in the case of the milecastles and turrets). To illustrate this, a wealth of colour photographs are employed, as well as annotated LiDAR images that repay careful study. Traffic is also considered, with long stretches of the road seemingly best suited for pack animals, although wheeled vehicles were using the east gate at Housesteads fort.
Armstrong encourages readers to examine the Military Way on the ground, and includes a guide for walkers wishing to explore its finest stretches. This book will equip them with a new appreciation of what they encounter.
Review by Matthew Symonds.
The Hadrian’s Wall Military Way: a frontier road explored, Dave Armstrong, The Armatura Press, £15, ISBN 978-1910238202.