Hadrian’s Wall – Spotting swarming savages and sheep at Housesteads and Chesters Forts
The end of the world.
Well, at least it was for one of the greatest Empires in civilisation.
Because, common knowledge tells us, for the Romans, Hadrian’s Wall marked the edge of their domain – and a powerful and necessary fortification against the savage Scots beyond.
Looking out from the sometimes crumbling, often impressive remains of the wall at Housesteads Fort you can almost imagine the hordes of ‘barbarians’ beyond descending on Roman Britain.
The wide expanse of empty fields beyond only add to the feeling that you are standing at the edge of the world.
Of course, modern Scotland and all that holds is just a few miles beyond your view – and the only invaders likely to come down upon the wall are the scores of sheep that flock around the outskirts of the fort.
But then history and facts have a habit of destroying such romantic visions.
Like the evidence the inhabitants of northern Britain didn’t actually present that much of a threat, and that a 80 mile long defensive wall would’ve been an economic and logistical nightmare to man and run.
It is unlikely the wall was even the end of Roman control, with trade and taxes passing beyond its watch.
In his book, ‘Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome’, Anthony Everitt said the wall was more likely to have been used to impose a degree of control over immigration, smuggling, and customs; or simply as a symbol of the power of Rome.
None of that makes the surrounds of Housesteads Fort any less impressive.
The fort is based in Hexham in rural Northumberland, a beautiful green and rolling slab of pure England.
The remains of Housesteads sits in the midst of this natural wilderness, owned by National Trust, maintained by English Heritage and complete with its own compact and unobtrusive visitor’s centre.
Called Vercovicium by the Romans, it is the best-known fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Built in AD 124 it would have been garrisoned by around 1,000 infantry.
Less than ten miles away lie the remains of another power base of the Roman Empire, Chesters Fort.
Chesters is the best-preserved Roman cavalry fort in Britain, complete with officers’ quarters and well-preserved baths and steam room.
Although the original plans for Hadrian’s Wall, begun in AD 122, didn’t include any forts, within two years the decision was taken to add 15 such buildings along its length.
As well as Housesteads, these included Chesters – which housed a 500-strong cavalry unit.
A look through its history shows that by AD 230-70, a time of crises for Rome, civil wars and barbarian invasions were swarming around Chesters and the wall in general.
Perhaps there was some truth in my vision…