This week: Roman frontiers

Picasa 2.0 Hadrian’s Wall. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Sonja Pieper.

The Roman Empire was at its height when Hadrian came to power in AD 117, its territory encircling the Mediterranean, and reaching from Britain in the north to as far as Egypt in the south.

Naturally, the defence of such a vast expanse of territory – along with an equally vast political and social structure – necessitated the construction and maintenance of an unprecedented network of frontier systems: one that stretched some 13,000km through 20 modern countries on three continents.

As we discover this week on The Past, however, not all of those frontier systems were created equal – and one, in particular, stood out: the 117km stretch known as Hadrian’s Wall, that traverses Britain from coast to coast, and whose massive stone fortifications, enigmatic earthworks and 81 milecastles still dominate the landscape between Bowness-on-Solway and Wallsend on the River Tyne.

In the new issue of Military History Matters, and on the latest edition of our brilliant PastCast podcast (from 14 July), Matthew Symonds looks at the genesis of the Wall, and asks: how did it come to be built on such an epic scale?

Was it designed to repulse barbarian armies? Was it meant to control the peaceful movement of people? Or does the evidence of earlier clashes between Britons and Romans in fact suggest a fascinating new possibility: that Britain’s most impressive military fortification was constructed as a response to a guerrilla war that was in danger of spiralling out of control?

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to find out more more about Roman frontiers: we learned how the edges of empire became the world’s biggest single archaeological site; we discovered how the garrisoning of thousands of soldiers led new societies to be forged; and we looked in detail at the extraordinary resources emperors were willing to commit in the name of security.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of the emperor Hadrian. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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