BMCR 2007.07.59

Hadrian’s Wall and its People

Geraint Osborn, Hadrian's Wall and its people. Greece & Rome live. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix, 2006. xii, 132 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9781904675198 £12.99 (pb).

Geraint Osborn’s Hadrian’s Wall and its People is part of a series of introductory-level works entitled “Greece and Rome Live.” The intention of this series is to introduce the general reader to major aspects, historical figures, and important themes of the classical world, with an emphasis on the legacy of Greece and Rome in the modern world. The overall aim of this book is to inform the general reader about the traditional military and political history of Hadrian’s Wall, but, more importantly, to alert the inquisitive reader to the social, cultural, and historiographic research which has been carried out in recent decades, as public history is a subject that is too often neglected by “professional” classicists. The study of Hadrian’s Wall is a multifaceted, long-lived subject, with a vast body of critical knowledge and opinion, which non-professionals oftentimes do not know exist. Osborn attempts to rectify that situation.

Historians often cite a quotation from the Augustan History detailing the true purpose of the Wall as ‘qui barbaros Romanosque divideret’ (S. H. A. Hadr. 11.2). Now, however, almost two thousand years later, the dividing Wall has become an important historical landmark for British national identity, a tourist spot for families on vacation, and an educational destination for British school children. Geraint Osborn, a faculty member in the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff, and Durham, has written a short, concise book on a landmark that is fundamental to the British consciousness of the past. As a result, this book is targeted specifically for a general audience, hopefully one that either has visited or will visit the remains of the Wall. What makes the book stand out is that Osborn does not solely deal with the military organization and construction techniques of the Wall itself during its heyday between the second and fourth centuries A.D., but also deals with the social and cultural life of the military soldiers, civilians, and natives from the Stanegate frontier to the Christian communities around the Wall in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The first chapter (pp. 1-18), “Introduction,” is a general overview of the major points Osborn wishes to discuss. He first gives a very brief overview of Roman imperial history up to the beginning of construction of the Wall in A.D. 122. He then describes its actual composition, size, and location. Once the basics have been laid out, the author begins an overview of the local economy and society. This is the main focus and purpose of the book and is a subject that is often neglected in works directed toward the non-professional audience. Osborn concludes this chapter with a brief history of the archaeologists who studied the ancient remains, from the antiquarians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to John Leland and William Camden, all the way to the discovery of the Vindolanda Tablets in 1973. Again, Osborn deals with a topic that is often left out of introductory level scholarship concerning Hadrian’s Wall.

Osborn turns the second chapter (pp. 19-34), “Why Build a Wall?,” into an exploration of the modern concept of frontiers and the possible reasons why Hadrian would want to build a physical barrier on the Tyne-Solway isthmus. Relying heavily on the work of C.R. Whittaker, the author states that Hadrian’s Wall was not a “scientific frontier,” i.e. an impenetrable, military barrier intended to divide the peoples, economies, and ideologies of Romans and barbarians.1 Osborn supports the generally accepted notion that frontiers were not stark lines, but semi-permeable zones in which a great deal of bilateral social and economic activity took place, a fundamental idea which needs to be stressed to the general public interested in ancient history. Even in today’s post-colonial and multi-cultural society, many people still view the Romans as benign imperialists, struggling to keep savage barbarians at bay throughout all the corners of the Roman Empire, whether they are mead drinking highlanders from Scotland or exotic, camel-riding bandit-nomads in North Africa. Recent contemporary history might be somewhat responsible. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, a military barrier that did try to separate and divide two economies and ideologies, is still in recent memory. Ultimately, Osborn believes that Hadrian began construction of the Wall as a show of force to the potentially powerful and disruptive indigenous population and as a propagandist validation to the Roman world that he was a worthy successor of Augustus.

The third chapter (pp. 35-64), “Military Life,” and the fourth chapter (pp. 65-86), “Civilian Life,” constitute the heart of the book. Osborn gives a detailed account of what specific legions were stationed on the Wall during specific time periods. He supplies a description of the weapons, armor, etc. of both the legionary soldiers and auxiliary troops, with an appropriate definition of the difference between the two. However, Osborn supplies the most meaningful information when he discusses the social life of both the military and civilian populations located near the Wall. Relying heavily on the recent information that has been gleaned from the Vindolanda Tablets, Osborn presents a brief account of everyday life. Although Osborn’s goal of educating the general public to the social and cultural aspects of Hadrian’s Wall is noble, some reservations exist. Osborn is correct in stating that past excavations concentrated primarily on the military aspects of the Wall, while almost all civilian structures and artifacts were ignored. Osborn suggests that elite civilians around the Wall did not display their wealth in patterns that were similar to the rest of the empire, i.e. villas, mosaics, euergetistic works, etc. While this is true, Osborn states that the local elite did not conspicuously display their wealth simply because they had nothing to achieve from self-aggrandizement. In Osborn’s framework, the military leaders stationed on the Wall executed and supervised almost all military and civic functions within the soldier camps and vici. As a result, rich merchants and private citizens never had any real reason to advertise their wealth because they would never achieve any real administrative rank, since the high-ranking army officers dominated the area. This idea can be challenged. Hingley has questioned the conventional wisdom among Romanists that symbols of wealth and power networks of Roman Italy were successfully and easily transferred to Britain and accepted by all its inhabitants without significant changes, even on its frontiers. The Romano-British citizen and soldier probably drew on a mixture of concepts of local, tribal, and traditionally ‘Roman’ identity. As a result, the lack of villas and other traditional symbols of Roman aristocratic wealth of the countryside do not necessarily mean that the local civilian elite did not publicly showcase their wealth and power; they simply may have done this in a way that was not typical of Roman Italy, or even southern Britain.2

Arguably, Osborn’s largest gap is his failure to properly discuss the indigenous population of Britain before, during, and after the Roman conquest. This is parallel to American historians often not dealing properly with the indigenous Americans when discussing the history of the American frontier. The Roman pacification and colonization of Britain was a massive, violent upheaval for the pre-existing Iron Age cultures. How did the Roman soldiers interact with the natives? How did the indigenous population around Hadrian’s Wall react to Roman rule? Was Hadrian’s Wall a benefit to the surrounding indigenous population with the introduction of a stable, police force and a functioning, stable civilian market to sell surplus food and craft products, or was it an oppressive force which often used potential and actual violence to fleece the surrounding population of animal and cereal products in the form of taxes-in-kind? (This author believes it is the latter.) Even though the archaeological evidence of the native population is sparse, an attempt to answer these questions should be made if all social and cultural aspects of the human community of Hadrian’s Wall are going to be discussed. Within such a short book, naturally some topics need to be omitted. However, since Osborn wants to avoid the traditional military focus of the Wall and concentrate more on the social and cultural aspects of the human landscape of North Britain, this omission is problematic.

The fifth chapter (pp. 87-104) “The End of Roman Britain” and the sixth chapter (pp. 105-116) “Conclusion: Hadrian’s Wall and the English Sense of History” are informative discussions of topics often left out of traditional historical surveys. Osborn is correct and should be commended for stating that the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries A.D. of Roman history are often seen as a series of progressions toward an ultimate dismantling and destruction of the Roman order. Osborn fittingly maintains that this approach, with the inevitable collapse of Roman society as a driving theme, ignores how human communities throughout the Roman Empire attempted to adapt and restructure their societies to the new changes and socio-economic pressures. Until the mid-twentieth century archaeologists ignored late Roman material remains and strongly assumed that the late Roman Empire was inferior and decadent. It is only quite recently that this later time period has been given the attention it properly deserves. The last chapter is a brief summary of how the British people have used the Wall as an ideological construct for British national identity. Osborn gives a quick overview of the study of Hadrian’s Wall and Romano-British history from the sixteenth century antiquarians, to Francis Haverfield’s coining of the term “Romanisation” in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, up to the archaeologists of our current millennium. Once again, the short overview is most likely quite eye-opening for a general audience who often thought of Hadrian’s Wall as simply a fighting rampart that separated Romans and barbarians.

Finally, Osborn provides limited suggestions of further reading for those interested in pursuing this subject and an extremely brief overview of the actual remains of Hadrian’s Wall for those who want to see the extant ruins for themselves. While the book is intended for the layman, this review is written for professional classicists. As a result, most criticism offered in this review needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Overall, the book is easy to read, the narrative flows well, and there are many subheadings within the chapters that keep the pace moving at an appropriate rate for an introductory text. In such a short space of only 116 pages the author does an exceptional job of introducing the major topics, areas of research, and debates surrounding this subject. Arguably, the true aim of this book is to enhance the educational experience of British citizens, curious tourists from abroad, and young school children visiting the Wall itself. If this is the intent of Hadrian’s Wall and its People, it is this reviewer’s opinion that Osborn is successful.


1. C.R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994); C.R. Whittaker, Rome and Its Frontiers: The Dynamics of Empire (London: Routledge, 2004).

2. R. Hingley, “Resistance and Domination: Social Change in Roman Britain,” in Dialogues in Roman Imperialism: Power, Discourse, and Discrepant Experience in the Roman Empire ed. D.J. Mattingly (Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Studies, Supplementary Series, no.23, 1997) 93-97.