In A.D. 122, a few years after taking control of the Roman Empire, which reached its greatest expanse by the time of his rule, Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus trekked to the edge of the known world. It was a bold journey, one that few of his contemporaries cared to make. "I would not like to be Caesar, to walk through Britain," a waggish poet wrote at the time.
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There's no way to be sure how long he stayed in Britain or what he did there, but Hadrian apparently left orders to construct one of the most formidable building projects the world had ever seen: a wall 15 feet high and up to 10 feet thick, stretching from sea to sea.
Hadrian's Wall has long attracted hikers and history buffs and is now the heart of an 84-mile-long National Trail that winds through some of England's most scenic countryside, following in the footsteps of Roman soldiers who once patrolled the empire's frontier. Not long ago, I set out to see Hadrian's monumental fortification, crossing England east to west in search of the island's Roman past.
I began in Wallsend, a town outside Newcastle, in the shadow of shipyard cranes, where a small museum of Roman artifacts marks the wall's eastern terminus at the River Tyne. In Roman days, there was a four-acre fort here called Segedunum ("strong fort" or "victory fort"); today, all that remains are a few of the fort's stone foundations and a carefully reconstructed Mediterranean-style bathhouse guarded by a few bored-looking men in legionary costume.
Across the street, I got my first glimpse of the wall itself. A few dozen feet of sturdy stonework faces a row of squat brown brick townhouses, then disappears into a suburban development. I followed the dashed purple line for the wall on my official map past warehouses and abandoned lots, across a tangle of overpasses, raised walkways and bridges, and into bustling downtown Newcastle. Here the modern trail hews to the Tyne, but I took a shortcut along the main highway, a busy six-lane thoroughfare that runs close to where the wall once stood. The Roman surveyors did a good job: the A186 heads west from Newcastle in a straight line, twisting and turning only to follow the ridgeline. The wall suddenly appears again for about ten yards on the city outskirts, in a parking lot between an auto parts store and Solomon's Halal Punjabi Indian Cuisine.
Planning the trip, I had assumed I could make 15 or 20 miles a day. After all, Roman soldiers in leather sandals are said to have averaged about that distance, with time enough at the end of each march to build a fortified camp. But for the first couple of days I limped into bed-and-breakfasts after about eight miles with blisters on top of my blisters.
So on the third day I hopped a bus from Tower Tyne to one of the most important sites along the wall: Vindolanda ("white lawns," possibly after a native term), a Roman fort that predated the wall and covered four acres in Hadrian's day; it supplied and housed soldiers who manned the wall's 80 milecastles, akin to small forts, and 160 turrets. Robin Birley, 74, a stooped, bespectacled man proffering a muscular handshake, has been conducting an archaeological dig at Vindolanda for more than 50 years; his father began digging here in 1930, and Robin's son, Andrew, directs excavations at the site. The nearby house in which Robin Birley grew up is now the Chesterholm Museum, home to Vindolanda artifacts.
While digging a drainage ditch in 1972, Robin Birley punched through thick clay and found a large deposit of organic artifacts, including leather shoes, animal bones and wooden combs—all preserved by wet, oxygen-poor soil. Most important, Birley and his team have turned up almost 1,400 thin wooden writing tablets, inked in Latin, from A.D. 85 to 160. There are military documents, lists of kitchenware and other ephemera, including the oldest known examples of women's writing in Latin. "On the third day before the Ides of September, sister," to cite one letter, "for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival."
The tablets reveal an army concerned with order and minutiae, from requests for leave to beer inventories. "The documentary evidence is unbeatable," Birley said. "It's like listening in to private conversations."
At the height of Roman Britain, in the second and third centuries A.D., 15,000 troops and engineers were stationed along the wall, and another 15,000 to 18,000 legionaries were elsewhere in Britain; together, they made up one of the largest imperial forces outside of Rome. Still, few histories from the period survive—and those that do focus more on politics in Rome than battles on the periphery. "There's practically a whole century without any reference to what was going on in Britain at all," says David Breeze, a Scottish archaeologist and author of the latest edition of J. Collingwood Bruce's Handbook to the Roman Wall. "Apart from the Vindolanda tablets, we have enormous gaps, and we're never going to fill them."