BMCR 2019.02.41

Hadrian’s Wall

, Hadrian's Wall. New York: Basic Books, 2018. xx, 169. ISBN 9781541644427 $25.00.


Hadrian’s Wall is unquestionably the most impressive and monumental frontier system from the Roman Empire. The wall is a major tourist destination, where one can hike the 84-mile path from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, stopping along the way at well-curated museums at Vindolanda, Carvoran and Birdoswald, not mention enough pubs to fuel the journey. This book is a brief survey of the wall and its garrison. Goldsworthy himself states that the project is less about Hadrian’s Wall than about the Roman army on Hadrian’s Wall. This is well within his bailiwick, as prior to departing academia for a career as a popular writer and public ambassador for the Classics, Goldsworthy wrote an Oxford DPhil thesis on the Imperial Roman army, which subsequently was published as a landmark book on the topic.1

While the book moves quickly, it does at least have some basic arguments to make. It is tempting to view Hadrian’s Wall as primarily an “argument in stone,” given that Roman frontiers elsewhere managed to get by without continuous stone walls. While the monumentality of the wall was certainly important and had ideological implications, Goldsworthy makes the case that the wall, in stone, was also a practical tool for managing the British frontier. He notes that the very fact that the wall was reoccupied in the 160s AD after the frontier shifted back south from the Antonine Wall suggests it was more than a mere vanity project for Hadrian; otherwise it would have been abandoned after his death. And the western sections of the wall, initially built out of turf, were subsequently replaced by a stone wall, suggesting that the merits of stone construction were determined after experience manning spans of both materials. The many changes to the wall over time, which Goldsworthy concisely surveys, were at once corrections to the original top-down plan, but also proof that the fortification system could be effectively modified to retain its utility as circumstances shifted.

Goldsworthy has the courage to plunge into one of the longest running and most unsolvable controversies regarding the wall: did a walkway run along the top? He tentatively suggests that one did, plausibly noting that the eventual demolition of the towers might have been prompted by the fact that sentries could achieve the same field of observation standing on the wall itself as they could posted slightly higher up in a tower. The bridges connecting the wall as its path was broken by streams also strongly imply the presence of a sentry pathway.

On the uses of the wall, it has long been known that it would do little to repel a determined invading army. Goldsworthy reasonably presents the goal of the wall as detering raiding parties form the north, not so much by preventing them from getting in, but rather by making it difficult and unprofitable to get back out again. A small party might, of course, slip across the outer ditch, scale the wall and flit across the vallum. But the military zone behind the wall increased the probability that their presence would be detected, and more seriously, the vallum, wall and ditch would have represented a profound impediment against returning with anything of value, especially items such as livestock, wagons, or captives.

For a popular book, the content can be somewhat sterile. Goldsworthy, for example, mentions in passing the discovery of murder victims along the wall: a child found buried beneath a house in Vindolanda, and a couple buried under a building just outside of Housesteads. But why not talk more about the grisly details, given that such crimes reveal the messy humanity of the frontier? The book does feature a grim illustration (pg. 116) by Graham Sumner of a Roman cavalryman toting about a severed head. But Goldsworthy does not mention that we have a severed head from the wall, found at Vindolanda, which seems to have been displayed outside the fort at one point. One reason to discuss the skull would simply be to titillate the casual reader with gore, but it also captures the stark violence that was omnipresent on the Roman frontier, violence which discussions of curtain walls, towers and mile-castles can too easily, if inadvertently, sanitize. And why not mention the various phalluses that have been carved into the wall (there are three on mile 49 alone), not simply because sex sells, but also because of how they incontrovertibly gender Roman military power in general, and the wall in particular?

While Goldsworthy does not make things as interesting as he might, what he does do he generally does well. He provides an overview of the Roman army of the principate, and a discussion of the complex construction and occupation history of the wall from A.D. 122 to the late fourth century. The last few chapters mostly follow the history of the Roman army in Britain, although these are sometimes more the history of emperors and pretenders than of the wall itself. The book ends with a brief guide on how to visit the wall. One disappointing aspect is the illustrations. There are plenty, to be sure, but all in black and white, and all printed directly on paper instead of plates, which inevitably reduces the sharpness and quality of the image. In many ways we get a coffee table book in terms of breezy content, but without the glossy pictures.

Unlike some of Goldworthy’s other popular works, Hadrian’s Wall has limited crossover appeal for scholars. It contains only a smattering of notes and a short list of suggested reading in lieu of a bibliography. A scholar needing an overview of the wall before giving a lecture on Roman Britain would still be best advised to consult the guide provided by Breeze and Dobson.2 Nonetheless, Goldsworthy’s work is concise and competent for the general reader. The slim and light volume also enjoys the practical advantage of fitting nicely into a rucksack if you are through-hiking the wall.


1. A. Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War: 100 BC-AD 200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

2. D. Breeze and B. Dobson. Hadrian’s Wall, 4th edition. New York: Penguin, 2000.