Hadrian’s Wall

“And so, having reformed the army in the manner of a king, Hadrian set out for Britain. There he corrected many faults and was the first to build a wall, 80 miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians.” — Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Vita Hadriani, 11, 2, 4th century 
Oooh, so close! It was 84 miles long.

Oooh, so close! It was actually 84 MILES long.

So, which one of these Romans looked like Russell Crowe then? When I’m in a conversation and (for some reason) someone mentions “Roman Empire,” I think of only two things: the film “Gladiator” and Hadrian’s Wall. Then I start wondering if they wore togas or if that was just a Greek thing…

But my brother (pictured above) loves these guys. On his last visit to the UK, I took him to a place where he can see the longest continuous stretch of Hadrian’s Wall.

What's up, Hadrian? It's me, Ivory.

Ey, Hadrian! What’s up? It’s me, Ivory.

Construction began in the year 122 AD. It was a grand undertaking and everyone was excited. It’s the biggest engineering project the Romans ever did. The most cited reason for the existence of such a colossal project was to keep the Scots out. But this was the edge of the Roman Empire, and there weren’t really all that many people in there. If building a massive structure just to defend this isolated part of the empire against the occasional attack from “rebellious Scots” seems a bit of an overkill, then yes, it is. But there were other reasons that justify the cost of this expensive project. This kind of thing isn’t cheap, would require years of investment and loads and loads of building material. It had to be a multi-purpose wall.

First, the communities in the vicinity of the wall thrived–it provided employment, and it boosted the morale of those poor sods who had to live in the borders. The wall gave them a project and made them feel like they were still part of the team. Many of those sent to the site brought families with them. It wasn’t legal to marry if one is a legionnaire in the empire, but those stationed at the wall worked around this rule by having common-law wives. Pretty soon, businesses were set up and many people moved to this “up and coming” place called the North. There were blacksmiths, public bathrooms, taverns, inns, bakeries… the list goes on and on and on.

The wall  also provided a semblance of control over those wanting to get in or out. So immigration was monitored, and the movement of goods/products from one country to the next became taxable. So really, Hadrian’s Wall is nothing more than an ancient immigration and customs office. It generated revenue, motivated the troops and it was BIG.


This big.

Construction was complete by 128 AD. After Hadrian died, there was another emperor who built another wall further up north, the Antonine Wall, but people were all like, “That has SO been done,” and that’s why practically no one’s heard of it while Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But how did the wall survive all these years? Two words. John Clayton (1792-1890).



He was a town clerk from Newcastle. The reason that only remnants of the wall survives today is over the centuries, most of the stones were reused to build other things like roads, barns, etc. After all, the material was just sitting there, why not make it useful? This Geordie town clerk was devoted to Hadrian’s Wall. His father bought the Chesters Estate, which contained the Chesters Fort. After observing how farmers were dismantling the wall to build other structures, John began buying up estates along the wall path for the sole reason of preserving it. He was one of the pioneers of archaeological digging along the wall. He loved the wall so much he probably wouldn’t have married anyone who wasn’t named Humpty Dumpty. Alas, they never met and Clayton died a bachelor.

No one else saw the merit of what John Clayton was trying to do, and that’s why he’s the only one in history who’s personally associated with the structure’s preservation. It’s always the eccentrics who change the world. There wouldn’t have been anything left of Hadrian’s Wall today if it weren’t for him. Just think of the consequences.

Can you imagine playing this game without Hadrian's Wall?

It just wouldn’t be the same without Hadrian’s Wall.

It’s a little difficult to imagine that there was a time–not that long ago–when people thought it was okay to dismantle such an important part of our history and heritage. Then again, there are many things in the past that were the norm, but we wouldn’t tolerate today. There was a time when most people thought racism was okay. Or hitting animals. Or slavery. The state of society’s standards is never “inevitable.” It never “would have happened, anyway.”  It takes people like John Clayton to change the world. People who do not only see that something’s wrong, but actually dare to do something about it.

So why do we keep ridiculing them?