Book review: The emperor's new foes

Share this article

THE WALL By Alistair Moffat Birlinn, 400pp, £16.99

SNAKING ITS WAY ACROSS THE wind-blown moors and craggy heights of northern England, Hadrian's Wall dominates the landscape of Britain like nothing man-made before or since. Its breathtaking scale and haunting beauty also ensure it dominates the consciousness of anyone who visits it.

In The Wall, Alistair Moffat's fascination shines through as he captures the enormous endeavour of the builders along with the captivating human stories the stones still tell after nearly two millennia. Moffat believes in taking on epic challenges. In his book Before Scotland he managed to shine a light on a period of history that most others would have regarded as impenetrable. In Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms he attempted to wrest Britain's most enduring hero from Wales and the West Country and transplant him to his beloved Borders. He made a convincing case.

A glimpse of any aerial photograph confirms the epic proportions, but there is something essentially illogical about Hadrian's Wall. It took the combined labour of at least three Roman legions to construct, over a decade and at enormous cost. Moffat estimates that the wall consisted of 24 million stones and had a mass greater than all of the Egyptian pyramids combined. Once it was built, its entire 73 miles would have to be manned by the Roman auxiliary equivalent of two full legions (10,400 men), repaired and maintained for as long as it was kept in use, again at huge expense. As the writer himself admits, thanks to decades of study and painstaking archaeological investigation, particularly by the Birley family, we actually know a great deal about the wall: we know when and how it was built, which units constructed which sections, and, thanks to the marvel of the Vindolanda tablets – wooden shavings on which Roman officers made lists and wrote draft letters – we even know the names of the men, and occasionally the women, who lived and worked in the forts which only just predated it. The one thing we don't truly understand is the role Hadrian intended for it.

Strategically, it was a failure. For many years the popular view was of a mighty bulwark holding back the barbarian tide. But when the Picts and the Maeatae chose to sweep down from their mountain strongholds they overcame the defences with ease and swarmed south with fire and sword. Hadrian's great wall achieved nothing that a combination of the military might of the legions and Roman diplomacy could not have done more cheaply and effectively.

Yet if Hadrian built his wall simply as a monument to himself – a symbol of his power and a line dividing civilisation and savagery – he succeeded beyond his wildest measure. After 2,000 years his name is still remembered, while those of other, perhaps more deserving, emperors are all but forgotten.

Few people understand the Celts better than Moffat. His knowledge of the language and his years of study of their culture have provided him with a unique platform from which to view and analyse Iron Age Britain. In The Wall he uses this to give the Roman occupation a context few others could have achieved. Devotees of his work will recognise a familiar thread running through the book, as he occasionally uses previously published material to illuminate the present subject. This is much more than a history of Hadrian's Wall; it is also a concise history of Roman Britain from the first invasion by Julius Caesar to the abandonment of the province as Rome crumbled, and beyond. Boxes with interesting nuggets of information add to the narrative. Thus, we learn about Roman society, medicine, diet and dress, how legionary soldiers lived and were trained, the cults they belonged to and the gods they worshipped.

So has Moffat succeeded in answering the fundamental question of why the wall was built? For the most part, he places the facts before his readers and invites them to come to their own conclusions. Only once does he hint at his own thoughts, when he describes it, aptly I think, as Hadrian's folie de grandeur. In the end, the wall remains the enigma it has been since he drew a line between Tyne and Solway almost 2,000 years ago. But that does not make this very readable book any less of an achievement. With his scholarly evaluation of the available evidence, Moffat has added greatly to our understanding of a remarkable monument to an emperor whose ambitions were perhaps not matched by his judgment.

• Alistair Moffat discusses his new book with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, with whom he appears in a forthcoming TV series on The Wall, at the Borders Book Festival, 4:30pm today, and at the Edinburgh book festival on 24 August. Douglas Jackson's Caligula is out next month from Bantam Press.