National Geographic : 1949 Apr
The Roman Wall (A. D. 121-211) A TOUR of Britain might well start with a visit to the Roman Wall, which stretches 73 miles from the mouth of the Tyne to Solway Firth; for the Roman occupation was virtually the beginning of British history. About the Celtic ancestors who lived in the island before the coming of Julius Caesar little is known. Most schoolboys know that Julius Caesar paid two visits to Britain, in 55 and 54 B. c. He came to punish "the interfering islanders" for coming to the help of their kinsfolk in Gaul. Then ensued "a long forgetfulness of Britain" till Claudius came, A. D. 43, and incidentally massacred a number of trouble some Druids. A triumph was staged on Clau dius's return to Rome, and he was hailed as "Britannicus." The Romans built walled towns and baths: they constructed virtually indestructible high ways . . . along which English motorists still drive in comfort despite the fact that the road beds have been in use for 18 centuries; they drained fenlands and cut down some forests. In the Roman settlements the leading officials and warriors had their pleasant villas with "central heating." The home of a prominent Roman probably was much better heated than the houses of the majority of present-day Eng lishmen. In Roman Britain the total population was probably no more than half a million. The largest city was London, first mentioned by Tacitus, a Celtic name but a Roman foun dation. Scholars who have studied excava tions of numerous sites believe that London in Roman times had more stone and brick buildings than at any subsequent time until after the Great Fire, which laid waste the city in 1666. We may regard Agricola as the sponsor of the Wall, for although it was left to Hadrian to construct it, the builder received his in spiration from Agricola. Agricola foresaw that the inhabitants on the south of the border would have to take strong measures against the Scots and Picts, and therefore he built a chain of forts from Tyne to Solway. There were in fact two walls, the first built by Hadrian, A. D. 121-26; the second by Severus 85 years later. Hadrian visited Britain several years before he began his construction. In the British Museum can be seen the head of a colossal statue of him which was dredged from the bottom of the River Thames below the site of London Bridge. Hadrian's wall consisted of a "great ditch between mounds, called a vallum." Between the vallum and the wall ran a military road. Severus rebuilt Hadrian's wall, A. D. 211, and replaced the turf ramparts by solid masonry. The Wall represents the limit of effective Roman occupation. It is true that under Severus, who, "racked with gout, traveled in a litter," the legionaries penetrated as far north as Moray Firth; but Severus wisely left the inhabitants of Scotland to their own de vices and decided that the Wall should mark the northern boundary between the Empire and the "barbarians." Like the Great Wall of China, our Wall curls up hill and down dale. At irregular in tervals there were great forts which served as camps, barracks, storehouses, and baths. At the fort of Borcovicus can be seen the wheel ruts of Roman chariots, similar in measure ment to those at Pompeii. The sight, strangely moving, reveals how far-reaching were the tentacles of Imperial Rome. In some places the vandal has been at work. and the stones of the Wall have been used in the construction of farmhouses and build ings. In other stretches the Wall stands as it was in Roman times, climbing up lonely and lofty heights. It is not easy to estimate the exact influence which the Roman occupation has had on Britain. Probably its permanent effect has been much less than that caused in France and Spain by the presence of Caesar's armies. Nevertheless, there are today many British families with some Roman blood in their veins, for many of the imperial legionaries who came under Caesar's banner took to themselves native wives. Apparently all but a few signs of the Roman occupation had vanished by the time of Alfred the Great. Vikings and Norsemen had wrought havoc throughout the land. By 1066 the islanders had become a mongrel race, described by Defoe, in his True-Born Englishman, as Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman-English . .. A True Born Englishman's a contradiction! In speech an irony, in fact a fiction! . . . A metaphor invented to express A man akin to all the universe! Under Hadrian British levies were recruited to serve the Roman Empire. It is highly prob able that the recruits were offspring of the unions between Caesar's men and the fair haired daughters of Albion. The end of the Roman occupation of Brit ain came early in the fifth century, when Rome had her troubles nearer home and the Emperor Honorius decided that the Britons could no longer rely on the Empire to protect them.