Halfway between the North Sea and the Solway Firth on the largely treeless and windswept moors of the northern Pennines, the fort of Vindolanda stood on a small plateau, well watered with springs. The beautiful, bleak landscape around it has changed little during the last two thousand years.
The fort’s name brought together two Celtic words—vindos, “white” (winter derives from the same root), and landa, signifying enclosure or lawn. It was surely so-called because of a still-persisting trick of the weather. For about half an hour after sunrise in winter, the plateau remains in the shadow of a neighboring hill. While all around the frost on the ground melts away, the fort remains crisp and white—a magical shining enclosure.
Vindolanda was one of a series of strongpoints strung along a road (now known by its medieval name, Stanegate), rather like the limes of Domitian in Germania. High ramparts topped by a palisade formed a rectangle with rounded corners, and inside could be found the usual components of a Roman camp—tidy rows of barracks, storehouses, a hospital, and the commander’s grand residence, the praetorium. The cultural amenities of urban life were available: a stone bathhouse stood outside the fort, and a temple.
Britannia’s northern defenses were guarded by auxiliary troops, mainly Germans. Vindolanda was home variably to Tungrians, a Germanic tribe that had settled in northeastern Gaul, and the indispensable Batavians. It was not originally on the front line, but between 85 and 105 demands elsewhere in the empire led Domitian, and then Trajan, to pull back from forts in Scotland. The legions themselves were held in reserve in three towns whose Latin names were all drawn from native languages—Eboracum (York), Deva (Chester), and Isca Silurum (Caerleon).
The auxiliaries thought little of the locals’ fighting quality—unfairly, for they had acquitted themselves well during their rebellion, probably led by a militant tribe, the Brigantes, who had controlled much of northern England and the Midlands before the coming of the Romans. Now it was policy to recruit from them, much to the disgust of the Batavians, who called them Britunculi, “miserable little Brits.”
The early forts at Vindolanda were built of wood and were replaced every seven or eight years. Rather than clear a site before rebuilding, the Romans simply demolished it and overlaid the wreckage with a layer of clay or turf. The wet conditions ensured an environment without oxygen and preserved every object the legionaries discarded.
Since the early 1970s archaeologists have unearthed much priceless, well-preserved evidence of life as it was lived in an outpost of empire two thousand years ago. Shoes, belts, textiles, wooden tools, utensils of bronze and iron, have been discovered—and, most remarkable of all, correspondence, including personal letters, accounts, requests for leave, even drawings.
Most of the letters were penned in ink on slivers of oak or alder, usually the size and shape of a modern postcard or half a postcard (some were scratched onto wax-layered tablets). They reanimate the long-vanished dead—among them Flavius Cerealis, prefect of the ninth cohort of the Batavians, and his wife, Sulpicia Lepidina, who were in Vindolanda around the turn of the century.
A colleague apologizes to Cerealis for not having attended his wife’s birthday party, and a woman friend dictates a note to Lepidina inviting her to her birthday celebrations. She has added, in her own slightly wobbly hand, “I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, as I hope to prosper, and hail.” The same woman gets her husband’s permission for Lepidina to visit her at her home in another fort, for she had “certain personal matters” she wanted to discuss. Lonely in Vindolanda one winter and in need of society, Cerealis asks a highly placed correspondent, perhaps a senator, to “furnish me with very many friends that, thanks to you, I may enjoy a pleasant period of military service.”
Cerealis and other cohort prefects appear to have been Germanic noblemen, and so well placed to win the loyalty of their men. However, the Vindolanda documents show that they and their families willingly Romanized themselves. Education of the young was a key tool: a couple of tablets reveal the efforts of a little boy, doubtless Cerealis and Lepidina’s son, to learn lines from Virgil’s Aeneid. He wrote down from memory a famous quotation: interea pavidum volitans pinnata p’ ubem, or “meanwhile, the winged creature [Rumor] flying through the trembling city.” He abbreviated per with p’ and accidentally left out the r of urbem. A tantalizing glimpse of a young Batavian learning to grow up into a proper Roman.
It was not only the elite that corresponded. In their remote outpost ordinary people were needy for news. Solemnis wrote to his “brother” Paris (their names suggest they were slaves, not soldiers): “Many hellos. You should know that I am well, and I hope you are too. You are a most disloyal man, for you haven’t sent me a single letter. I think I am behaving much more decently by writing to you.”
The northern edge of Roman rule was the emperor’s main destination, and there is evidence that the garrison at Vindolanda made expensive preparations to receive the great man in appropriate style. Archaeologists have discovered and explored a building that was erected at about the time of the emperor’s visit to Britannia. It was more elaborate and substantial than anything seen before on the site; it had massive oak posts and the floors were laid with opus signinum, a pavement mix of material such as gravel, terra-cotta, or stone set in limestone or clay, a common feature of private houses. The internal walls were plastered and some were painted. These were spacious quarters specially commissioned for a personage of higher status than had ever stayed at the fort before. The obvious candidate was Hadrian, who had to have a domestic base appropriate for an emperor during his tour of the north. Vindolanda’s central position made it a good choice, and doubtless provincial governors found it a convenient billet in the coming years long after the emperor had departed.
Hadrian probably crossed the sea to Britannia in June 122. He brought with him one of the Rhine legions, the VI Victrix (Victorious), which he added to the provincial garrison (perhaps replacing a legion lost in the late rebellion or transferred elsewhere). Also, three thousand men, borrowed from Spain and Germania, joined the expedition. The emperor was accompanied by the newly appointed governor, Aulus Platorius Nepos. Nepos was a friend and possibly a relative who originated in Hadrian’s hometown of Italica. He had fought in the Parthian war and governed Thrace, before holding a suffect consulship in Hadrian’s first year, 119. Platorius Nepos was to replace Falco, who had put down the stubborn British insurgents with efficiency but only after heavy losses.
Falco’s last task was to organize the imperial visit, a feat comparable to staging the modern Olympic Games. Thousands of legionaries needed to be accommodated, as did a detachment of the Praetorian Guard and the Batavian cavalry. Then there was a phalanx of dignitaries—the members of the emperor’s consilium, assorted comites and amici. Key members of the bureaucracy were present too, among them the ab epistulis Suetonius. A route had to be agreed and a series of hapless towns warned to prepare hospitality and plan to accommodate costly disruption with a smile.
The empress was of the party, there not from love but for decorum, and would have had her own court. The most politically significant of those accompanying the emperor was the praetorian prefect, Gaius Septicius Clarus (his colleague Turbo was still in charge in Rome). A distinguished eques and former governor of Egypt, this civilized man was a correspondent of Pliny and the dedicatee of Suetonius’ masterpiece, De Vita Caesarum, “The Lives of the Caesars.”
Information about Hadrian’s movements in Britannia are scarce. He probably set sail from the main base for the Britannic fleet, the classis Britannica, at Gesoriacum (today’s Boulogne), landing on the south coast and traveling up to the provincial capital, Londinium, where he doubtless parked the empress and most of the administrative staff. His subsequent itinerary is unknown, but a rational guess would have him visit the three legionary bases. Certificates were issued to soldiers from every army unit in the province whose service contracts had expired. These granted the usual privileges—in particular, “to their children and descendants, the citizenship and the right of legal marriage with the common-law wife they had at the time that citizenship was granted to them, or, if there are any bachelors, with the wife they subsequently marry”—the formula judiciously adds, “but only one at a time.” This mass discharge was unusual and we may safely suppose was designed to justify a grand ceremony at which the emperor addressed his men, something he liked doing.
It appears that the VI Victrix sailed directly from the Continent to the river Tyne. On their arrival they dedicated two altars; one, to the sea god Neptune, was decorated with a dolphin curled around a trident, and the other, to Oceanus, with a ship’s anchor. Oceanus was believed to be a vast river that encircled all land (of course, nobody knew then of the Americas, Australasia, and the Arctic). The event was powerfully evocative of a similar rite conducted by Alexander the Great on the eastern edge of the known world.
The emperor was surely present, and was perhaps making a political point about his predecessor. The glamorous ghost of Alexander ran through the Roman imagination like an obsession. Trajan had ruefully confessed that he was too old to emulate the conqueror of the Persian empire and reach Oceanus. And here was Hadrian offering the identical sacrifice at the other end of the world, where neither Alexander nor Trajan had ever been, at a time of peace rather than of war.
Britannia might have been a long way from the center of things, but the business of empire had to be maintained. One day a letter arrived from the governor of Asia asking for guidance on how to deal with Christians. By a happy chance the emperor’s letters secretary, Suetonius, was able to offer well-informed advice: he had been Pliny’s secretary in Bithynia a little more than ten years previously when Pliny had corresponded on the same subject with Trajan.
The governor wrote that he had received a petition to take action against local Christians and was unsure how to respond. The imperial government kept comprehensive archives, which enabled officials to keep an eye on precedents when requests, appeals, and petitions came in. While having no sympathy for the new sect, Trajan had had little wish to hunt down its adherents. They should be condemned only if the evidence against them was incontrovertible.
Hadrian took the same line. His reply survives (it found its way into Christian hands and is cited as an appendix in Justin’s First Apology, Christian propaganda published some thirty or so years later). He makes clear that detractors should put up proofs, or shut up. “I will not allow them simply to beg and shout,” the emperor insisted. If there was evidence, then the governor should hear it. If it was shown that the accused had committed offenses—in particular, that they were Christian and refused to make the appropriate sacrifices—then they should receive punishment proportional to their guilt. Provided that the text has not been tampered with, it looks as if Hadrian wanted to pursue Christians only for specific alleged crimes, not merely for membership in their church.
The emperor’s anger is aroused less by the Christians than by their ill-natured critics. “And this, by Hercules, you shall pay special attention to, that if any man shall, through sheer ill will, bring an accusation against any of these persons, you shall sentence him to more severe penalties in proportion to his wickedness.” The oath and the strangled syntax suggest that Hadrian was dictating the letter, and was in an irritated frame of mind.
The emperor may have adopted a tolerant policy because he saw through the hysterical prejudice against the sect and understood that it was not a group of fanatical criminals who practiced cannibalism, but was in fact pacific and posed no serious political threat. Alternatively, we know that he was fascinated by religion, especially the kind concerned with spiritual experience and individual commitment, and this may have motivated his approach.
One way or another, having won popularity with the Jews for his fairness toward them after their revolt in Egypt and Cyrene had been put down, the emperor became a favorite with Christian apologists. The Historia Augusta reports that Hadrian commissioned the building of temples throughout the empire without any divine images in them, and that it was thought they were dedicated to Christ. Apparently they came to be known as Hadrian’s temples. It is difficult to be sure what to make of this: the story may simply be the product of authorial fantasy, but if there is anything in it, it is more likely to have been the emperor’s general attempt to widen the scope of recognized or official worship than to single out any particular sect (rather as the Athenians did with their altar to the Unknown God). However, he could well have had Christianity in mind alongside other salvationist and monotheistic creeds of the day.
It was only a few years since rebellion in Britannia had marked the transition between Trajan and Hadrian. Curiously, though, the Vindolanda tablets do not convey an impression of military danger. Social life among senior officers was relaxed. A document of May 18 of an unknown year sets down the whereabouts of the members of the first cohort of the Tungrians, from which we learn that most of them, 456 soldiers out of a total complement of 752, were away from Vindolanda on every kind of errand and business. Of thirty-one soldiers who were sick, six were recovering from wounds—the only reference to fighting in all the Vindolanda texts. About half the cohort was at the neighboring fort of Coria (today’s Corbridge), about twelve miles away to the east along the Stanegate for training or some military exercise. Nearly fifty were singulares—that is, soldiers deputed to the provincial governor’s bodyguard. A number of small groups were in London or elsewhere; one detachment had gone to collect the cohort’s pay, perhaps at York. Nine men and a centurion were in Gaul, probably on a mission to collect clothing.
All these traveling soldiers doubled as postmen, carrying messages and goods to and fro up and down the country. The Vindolanda tablets demonstrate how much of the army’s time was devoted to economic activity and business trips. Nothing seems to have been exactly corrupt or incompetent, but the system would have been hard put to respond quickly and effectively to an emergency.
What did the emperor make of such commercial bustle? We are not told, but we may guess. There is plenty of evidence that discipline was a theme of his visit to Britannia. The Historia Augusta remarks that he “corrected many abuses.” An altar found at Chesters, where a fort stood on the Tyne, was dedicated “To the discipline of the emperor Hadrian” by a regiment of horse “called Augustan because of its valor.” Coins made the same point. A young military tribune with the VI Victrix at the time learned a lesson he never forgot. We hear of him forty years later as “a man of character and a disciplinarian of the old school”; arriving at a new posting, he saw that his soldiers were better clothed than armed. He
ripped up their cuirasses with his fingertips; he found horses saddled with cushions, and by his orders the little pommels on them were slit open and the down plucked from their saddles as from geese.
We can reasonably infer that Hadrian tightened arrangements in the Britannic army that had worked themselves loose, and that the Batavians at Vindolanda awaited his arrival with justifiable anxiety.
Rather than fear of punishment, one man had high hopes of redress from the emperor. A draft letter of protest to him has been discovered at the fort, complaining of mistreatment. A civilian trader scribbled it on the back of some accounts he had prepared. He was not from Britannia, but a transmarinus, from overseas, and so believed he was exempt from corporal punishment. However, a centurion had given him a good flogging for delivery of substandard wine or oil. “I implore Your Clemency,” he wrote, “not to suffer a transmarinus and an innocent one to have been made to bleed by a beating, as though I had committed some crime.”
The single most telling feature of the letter is where it was unearthed—in the centurions’ quarters. Someone must have found and confiscated the draft appeal, and we may doubt that a fair copy ever found its way to its addressee. Even if it did, the trader’s accounts do not look altogether defensible. A best guess at an outcome is that the poor man merely earned himself another beating.
Something very strange took place during the expeditio Britannica that implies strongly that although the reign had already lasted four years the emperor’s position was not entirely secure. Hadrian had a suspicious mind and he made full use of the secret police that had been developed from army supply officers. He had these agents pry into people’s private lives, including those of his friends. They acted with the utmost secrecy so that their surveillance went unnoticed.
In one case, there was an amusing sequel. A woman wrote to her husband to complain that he spent too much time enjoying himself at the public baths and generally living a life of pleasure, and as a result neglected her. Hadrian found out about this from his frumentarii, and when the man applied for leave reproached him for his selfish conduct. He replied: “Oh, don’t tell me she wrote to you as well to complain!”
More seriously, the frumentarii unearthed some delinquent behavior among senior members of the court. The details are obscure. With inexplicit brevity, the Historia Augusta says that Hadrian
replaced Septicius Clarus, Praetorian prefect, and Suetonius Tranquillus, his letters secretary, and many others as well, because, without his consent, they had behaved at that time toward his wife, Sabina, in a more informal manner than respect for the imperial family required. He would have dismissed his wife, too, for being moody and difficult—if he had been a private citizen.
It is hard to work out from this what actually took place, but the impression given is of a venial offense. Sabina seems to have been innocent of any material wrongdoing, for she is criticized only for being a trying spouse. “More informally”(familiarius) could mean something as slight as a breach of court etiquette or something as damaging as a sexual flirtation. Hadrian made a point of not being a stickler for etiquette, but would have expected appropriately proper behavior in his wife’s circle.
Whatever the offense was, we can only conclude that it was a pretext. The dismissal of two such senior figures was a political event of the first order, and so it must have been regarded at the time by informed opinion at court and in the Senate. Something grave had happened, but whatever it was is lost for good.
Sabina made her own, heavy riposte to Hadrian’s treatment of her. She used to say in public that because of his monstrous personality, she had taken pains not to become pregnant by him, for it would be “to the destruction of the human race.” Contraception was an imperfect and inconvenient art in the ancient world, entailing such prescriptions as wiping the vagina with old olive oil or moist alum, or jumping up and down and sneezing. However, sympathy for the empress is unnecessary, for we cannot suppose that Hadrian often insisted on his conjugal rights.
Suetonius’ dismissal has been bad news for classical historians, for he now no longer had access to the imperial archives. Only his biographies of Rome’s first two emperors, Augustus and Tiberius, were complete. Thereafter, he was unable to quote from original papers.
The most famous Roman monument in the British Isles is Hadrian’s Wall, the Vallum Aelium. Despite its celebrity today, there is only one literary reference to it in antiquity linking it to Hadrian. The Historia Augusta observes that he was “the first to construct a wall, eighty [Roman] miles long, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans.”
Much of the wall survives in good condition, especially the midsection, and is northern England’s most popular tourist attraction. Its construction appears to have been planned before the emperor set off on his travels, if we can trust a much-restored inscription on two fragments of sandstone found at Jarrow and dating from 118 or 119, which asserted that the “necessity of keeping intact the empire [within its borders] had been imposed upon [Hadrian] by divine instruction” and announces the building of the wall.
The wall was a tremendous venture; all three of the British garrison legions, the Britannic fleet, and auxiliary troops were engaged in its construction. We may assume that the emperor took the closest interest in the design, and a sample length of wall could well have been built for his inspection.
At Newcastle a new bridge, made from timber on an estimated ten stone piers, was to cross the Tyne. This was the Pons Aelius, or “Hadrian’s Bridge,” which stood on the site of today’s swing bridge. Here work on the great fortification began and proceeded westward for seventy-three miles to the Irish Sea. It was to be a stone wall, thirty feet broad and fifteen high, with added battlements (some parts survive today up to ten feet high). Along its northern side a huge ditch was dug, thirty feet wide and nine feet deep. The ditch was V-shaped, making it difficult for an attacker to climb out of, once he had fallen in.
Every Roman mile (slightly shorter than today’s statute mile), measured from the pons, there was a guardpost or “mile castle,” with barracks accommodating up to sixty or so men; and between each pair of guardposts, two signaling turrets every mile enabled the rapid communication of danger along the wall. The wall itself had a clay-and-rubble core with a stone facing, probably with a stone-floored walkway on top. It curved down the coast to guard against sea raiders.
The wall ran a few hundred yards north of the Stanegate, which enabled the rapid arrival of reinforcements when needed. An old Stanegate fortress such as Vindolanda ensured the ready presence of reserves.
The wall is believed to have taken about six years to complete. There was evidently some pressure applied to work as fast as possible, for some parts of it were reduced in width to six feet, and widened later. For the eastern third of its length from sea to sea, the wall was a turf rampart about sixteen feet wide, topped by a wooden palisade and walkway and punctuated by timber-framed turrets and mile castles. Perhaps this was because there were no ready supplies of stone and lime. Later the stretch up to the western coast was rebuilt in stone.
Originally the wall was to be garrisoned and patrolled by soldiers based at the mile castles, but this turned out to be unsatisfactory, so a number of large garrison forts were built, some for infantry and others for cavalry.
The single most striking feature of the wall was its visual appearance. It seems to have been finished with plaster, grooved to represent smooth courses of cut stone, and then whitewashed. A ribbon tracing the rise and fall of the rugged green moorland, it could be seen for miles as it shone in the sunlight, an almost magical metaphor for Roman imperium.
Soon after work on the wall had finished, another ambitious project was launched—the construction, south of the wall, of two turf banks, each about ten feet high, separated by a flat-bottomed, twenty-foot-wide ditch. Between each bank and the central ditch was a level space roughly thirty feet wide. This vallum was crossed by roadways running south from the wall forts toward the Stanegate.
What was Hadrian’s Wall for? This is a harder question to answer than one might think. Little is known for sure about the population of northern Britannia (Scotland), but it is hard to believe that it posed much of a military threat. It is not obvious that building and managing a defended frontier along a fixed line was cheaper in manpower and treasure than annexing and governing the Scottish Lowlands (there was very little point, of course, in casting a covetous eye on the barren and sparsely populated Highlands). They could have been defended by a loose arrangement of forts that would cost no more, and maybe less, than manning a great wall from the Solway coast to the North Sea. It has been estimated that four thousand men, a little fewer than a legion, would have been a sufficient garrison.
As in Germania, the fact of a wall did not mean that Rome made no claim on land beyond it. Quite the opposite: it provided a secure baseline from which to project Roman power farther north as and when required. On a day-to-day basis we may safely assume that the fortification was permeable for migrants and merchants; indeed it bisected Brigantine territory, and tribesmen caught on the Pictish side were surely allowed access to their southern heartland. By enabling greater control of people’s comings and goings the wall must have generated income through customs dues. But were the benefits accruing from the wall enough to justify the high cost of its construction?
The vast vallum presents its own particular mystery. It was not topped by a palisade, and so cannot have had a defensive function. If it was to mark a rearward boundary behind the wall, creating an exclusion zone, then surely something less elaborate—a fence of some sort—would have sufficed. Perhaps the vallum was a two-way communications route along either side of the central ditch, which troops and civilians could use, conveniently closer to the wall itself than the Stanegate. But little evidence of a road surface has been found, and the vallum sometimes traverses very steep terrain, unsuitable for travel. In any case, we know that a purpose-built supply road ran between the wall and the vallum.
One can only conclude that the emperor was restating his commitment to imperial containment. As with his building program in Rome, he used the visual language of architecture and engineering to make a political point. The white ribbon thrown across an empty landscape and the monumental vallum were politics as spectacular art.