Click the picture for the long list of participants.
And what is Hadrian best known for?
Yes, his wall! It is an amazing structure that ran for 80 miles across the narrowest part of northern England from sea to sea. There was a small fort or watch tower every mile and 16
larger forts garrisoned by legionaries and auxiliary cavalry.
It has been assumed that Hadrian authorised the building of the wall when he visited the province in 122 AD, an inscription survives to support this theory, and the work was completed in six years. Detachments of legionaries were given five mile stretches and competed to see who could do the best and fastest job. It was constructed from local materials – stone where plentiful and turf and timber where it was scarce – with a deep ditch, a sheer wall making the most of the natural defensive features in the landscape, fighting platforms protected by a parapet and a path that was wide enough to allow the guards to march double time to where the trouble was, even if the weather was filthy.
It is an amazing construction. Here, have another picture.
Why Hadrian had the wall built is a bit of a mystery. That it extends along the coast in Cumbria suggests that there may have been problems with sea raiders from Ireland and southwest Scotland but for most of the length of it there were no particular dangers to the north. So if it was not to fend off the howling savages why devote that amount of time and money to it? There are a variety of possibilities – a demonstration of power, a desire to keep bored soldiers busy – but I favour one that is so stupid that I hesitate to mention it here.
Oh, go on then.
In the late first century AD, or early second by the time he got back, a traveller called Maes Titianus traversed the northern Silk Route as far as China’s western Xinjiang province in order to cut out the middle men in the trade in silks jewels and ceramics. In 1998 it was discovered that the Great Wall of China, an immense barricade made from local stone, where available, and rammed earth and timber where it was not, had been extended by the emperor Qin Shihuang as far as, you guessed it, Xinjiang province. Here’s the link. Now what would be more likely than that Hadrian had heard the traveller’s tales about the massive eastern empire and how the emperor had built a great wall to keep the enemies out, keep his soldiers busy and had thus demonstrated his incredible power. Hadrian may well have thought “I could do that – but I’d best do a trial run first before I try to wall off the Parthians” and picked that bit of Britannia because nobody much would see it if it was a disaster. It wasn’t a disaster and it moved a later Antonine emperor to build another, even further north, though little of that remains.
Of course, Hadrian wasn’t just famous for his wall. He was actually one of the better, more benign emperors, a good statesman and diplomat and no more bloody than an emperor needed to be in those days. He was a great traveller, visiting almost all of the provinces including Bithynia where he met and fell completely in love with the beautiful youth Antinous. It would take too long to tell the tale of their love – A to Z posts are supposed to be short to the point – but I wanted to mention him so I can post a picture. He was so very, very beautiful.