Magazine article History Today

The Power of Place: Hadrian's Wall: Martin Henig, Interviewed by Tony Morris, Shares a Beaker of Wine with the Emperor Hadrian

Magazine article History Today

The Power of Place: Hadrian's Wall: Martin Henig, Interviewed by Tony Morris, Shares a Beaker of Wine with the Emperor Hadrian

Article excerpt

OF ALL THE CONSTRUCTIONS ROMAN IN BRITANNIA, one stands out above the rest. From sea to sea for eighty miles, it stretched from Bowness on the Solway Firth to Wallsend on the River Tyne. And the section of Hadrian's Wall which is most impressive--most evocative, most photographed and best to walk--is the one we are on now, that from Cawfields to the great fort of Vercovicium, modern-day Housesteads.

Martin Henig has left the warmth and security of his office in Oxford to join me here. We're crouching under the wall of a milecastle struggling to put on our waterproofs: Milecastle 42, one of sixty which punctuate the wall at exact intervals of 1620 yards (the Roman mile being slightly shorter than the modern measure). Regular, exact, precise. That was the Roman way. They liked their lines straight and their angles uniform.

There are modern-day walkers who like that too of course. We have already been overtaken by a group of earnest bagpackers with serious haircuts. Some people experience the wall as a challenge: they want to march briskly in legionnaire footsteps. Others prefer to take their time, get a sense not only of the wall but also of the archaeological structures which accompany it, to reconstruct the towers and lodgings, peer through the gateways, and above all soak in the view.

'That seems me to be the whole point,' says Martin, as we begin to make the first of a number of steep ascents along the brow of the hill. 'The scale of the vision, the trim of the stone, the drama of the landscape, the commanding power of the view. Who could fail to be impressed by it?' A sudden shaft of sun seems to strike Highshield Crags on cue. 'This was a statement on the grand scale. To its enemies it said: "This is what Rome can do. Look on my works, ye barbarians, and despair!" But much more important in my view was what it proclaimed to the people this side of it. To them it said: "This is the edge of the civilised world. It's a straight edge. You can marvel at it, peer over it, survey the land beyond, inhabited by those who live without the law, and you can know you are Roman, civilised, one of us." We actually have evidence of second and third century tourists coming from the Home Counties and France to visit it and taking away gaudy enamel bowls with them, marked with the names of the forts along the Wall. Imagine what they must have made of it all.'

There are views in all directions, East and West along the switchback of the wall, South to a second wave of parallel hills marching into England, below to the Crag Lough where two swans glide imperiously, behind to the vallum or double ditch and the road along which messages, men and materiel would have been relayed. And to the North ... We are momentarily transfixed by a kestrel wheeling in the distance and below it a couple of people climbing a fence (the Pennine way runs into the horizon). We are looking down at them. They will be looking up at us, seeing our silhouettes on top of the wall.

Martin Henig's Romans aren't military grunts and roboticengineers. They are aesthetes like him, with a sense of the power of the landscape to move and inspire as well as to awe and subject. 'Roman poetry had a great appreciation of landscape. This isn't taken into account in assessments of the wall. Simply seeing it as a military, defensive line seems to me to leave so much out of the picture--hot least the character of the man who gave his name to the project. …

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