A slim, tight history of a Roman fortification that “is special because it is unlike any other Roman frontier.”
An award-winning British historian of the classical world, Goldsworthy takes time out from big subjects (Augustus: First Emperor of Rome, 2014, etc.) to write a short book on a more obscure subject, with equally satisfying results. Roman armies had mostly conquered Britain by 43 C.E., but they never occupied the Scottish Highlands, whose tribes persistently raided south. In 122, Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138, ordered a defensive wall constructed across northern Britain. Extending only about 73 miles, it took 20 years to build and remained in use for more than three centuries. Goldsworthy admits that this is trivial compared to the immense Great Wall of China, which served far longer, but it is a historical treasure nonetheless. “Nowhere else were the defenses so elaborate or monumental in scale,” writes the author, “nor is there so much archeology to see in so small an area.” Existing ancient documents rarely mention the wall, but Goldsworthy is an old hand at filling historical holes. The barrier itself was dotted by forts, towers, and military bases that were often surrounded by towns that served the needs of the soldiers. Parchment was expensive, so Britons wrote official documents and even personal letters on wood or clay slabs, many of which survive. Trash piles and even latrines turn up archaeological gems. The narrative, following a capsule history of Rome and its conquest of Britain, is comprised of 100 pages of richly complex details of late empire life along the wall. Goldsworthy concludes with a brief guide to visiting the wall.
Readers will learn perhaps more about the wall’s engineering than they want to know, but this is an appealing, detailed history of the largest monument left by the Roman Empire.