Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hadrian Built a Wall

Ruins and remnants of Hadrian's Wall.

Donald Trump probably slept through world history classes at expensive New York Military Academy and the two years he spent at Fordham before transferring to Wharton to study the art of the real estate swindle.  He probably promised to pay some dweeb to do his homework and then stiffed him.  So chances are that The Donald never heard of Hadrian and his wall.  If he had, I am sure he would have been inspired.  After all, he wants to be Caesar  and has a taste for bloated projects.  According to sources I consult when choosing topics for the blog, on this date in 122 A.D. work began on the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, defensive fortifications that stretched across the northern boundary of the Roman province of Britannia.  How that can be determined with such precision is unclear to me, but never let a fuzzy date interfere with a good story.
The wall was built at the direction of the Emperor Hadrian, the third of the so-called Five Good Emperors, who ruled the Empire from 117 to 138.  He came from a noble Roman family of Iberian origins and was also a noted Stoic philosopher.  Hadrian ruled over a period of stability and initiated a policy of peace through strength by fortifying and garrisoning the borders of the Empire most threatened—in Germania and Britannia.  The German fortifications were elaborate wooden palisades, but the largely treeless moors of northern Britannia caused those fortifications to be built of abundant local stone.

A statue of the Emperor Hadrian photo shopped to re-create its original vivid paint job makes for a stunningly life-like image. 

Hadrian’s Legions had crushed a major rebellion in Britannia a year earlier and sent the remnants of the defeated armies scurrying north into the Cornish and Scottish highlands where both Celts and Picts had long resisted Roman rule. The Emperor personally ordered the construction to “separate the Romans from the Barbarians,” while on a personal inspection tour of the remote province. 
The Wall eventually extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth.  For most of its distance the wall was continuous but interspersed at intervals with gates to allow trade and collect tariffs and garrison forts.  In the rugged terrain near its western terminus, the curtain wall was replaced by a system of Milecastles and Turrets, each within sight of one another.
Construction on the wall took six years to complete.  Sections were assigned to each of the three Legions posted to Britannia, and construction details differed depending on which Legion did the work.  Originally Milecastles and gates were to be manned by small garrisons of a few dozen each.  Within a few years, it was determined to strengthen the line with the construction of 14 to 17 major forts at intervals, each capable of holding 100 to 1000 troops.  Infantry was posted along most of the distance and two large cavalry posts for 1000 riders anchored each end.

Construction of a section of the wall with a diagram of fortifications.

Eventually the entire defensive line included small forts set north of the wall as an early warning system; a glacis, an artificial slope of earth and ditch; a berm with rows of pits concealing entanglements; the curtain wall and gate fortresses; and an interior military road.  It was a formidable barrier.
After the Legions completed construction, the Wall was garrisoned by Auxiliary troops—non-Roman citizens mercenaries hired by the Empire.  They probably included troops raised in Germania, Gaul, and Iberia, but eventually were mostly locally recruited Britons.  The garrisons were permanent and the soldiers farmed nearby lands on both sides of the wall for sustenance, married, and raised families.  By the end of its useful existence, which actually outlived the Roman presence in Britain, the troops were so well integrated that they were essentially a local militia.  In its early years as many as 10,000 soldiers maintained the garrisons.
After Hadrian’s death his successor Antoninus Pius sought to aggressively push the frontier north.  He ordered the Antoine Wall built to the north at the narrowest width of lower Scotia.  Hadrian’s Wall was stripped of most of its garrisons and made a secondary defensive line.  But the barbarians of the north were too much and after Marcus Aurelius came to power he ordered the Antoine Wall abandoned in 164 and the return to and reconditioning of Hadrian’s original line. 
In the years around 190 the wall came under concerted attack from the barbarians.  Fierce fighting damaged some sections, but on the whole the Wall prevented Britannia from being overwhelmed.  Major renovations and repairs were made.
By 410 the Legions and most Roman administrators had left the island.  While still technically part of the Empire, local troops and Romanized Britons were left to their own devises.  Parts of the wall remained occupied and garrisoned well into the 5th Century before the last remnants of Romanized Briton collapsed under pressure—the myth shrouded era that gave original birth to the Arthurian Legend.
For generations local farmers stripped portions of the wall of stone for their own construction and local authorities used it for road building.  By the early 19th Century it was in danger of disappearing as a landmark.  

John Clayton who saved, preserved, and restored much of the Wall.

In 1830 Newcastle upon Tyne Town Clerk John Clayton, an avid antiquarian, undertook to save the Wall from continued demolition and to restore as much of it as possible.  In 1834 he personally began to buy land on which the wall sat and to do excavations and eventual restoration.  Over time he had control of land from Brunton to Cawfields.  By the introduction of modern agricultural techniques and selective livestock breading, the lands became profitable enough to sustain Clayton’s continued work on the wall.  He also publicized and popularized his work throughout England.
Although Clayton’s heir squandered his fortune at the gambling tables, much of the work was done. 
In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Its maintenance and preservation is the responsibility of English Heritage, a government organization in charge of historic sites in England.  Hiking trails parallel much of the Wall and in most places visitors can walk right up to it, and even climb it to have their pictures taken.  It is the most popular tourist attraction in northern England.

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