Between Civilization and Chaos

There is a fierce wind the day I visit Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. At 73 miles long, it cuts Britain in half as it stretches from the Irish to the North Seas. Farmers use it to separate their sheep flocks. 2000 years ago it was the very edge of civilization, as far as one could get from the shining beacon of Rome while still basking in its soft glow. Beyond this point, there were barbarians, lawlessness, perhaps White Walkers and giants, too. Only this was not a popular fantasy series. This was where real men from the world over would come to live and die in order to protect humanity.

I trudge up a muddy hill to see a section of the Wall at Housesteads Roman Fort. A sudden gale cuts through the scarf I have coiled around my head in a frail effort to fight back against the cold, and I stop for a moment to steady myself. I thank the inventors of thermal undershirts even as I curse myself for forgetting to layer my socks. I am apparently not alone in my need for additional footwear—a 2nd-century letter, found at nearby Vindonlanda, includes a Roman soldier’s plea to his family for more woolen socks.

Picture from the top of Hadrian's Wall in England, looking north into Caledonia

Looking north into Caledonia

I tend to think of the Continent when imaging the Roman Empire, easily forgetting that its civilization once had a stranglehold on most of the known world. When Emperor Hadrian decided to delineate this realm by building Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD, he was keeping out the savages of Caledonia (modern-day Scotland) and asserting Roman authority. And, unbeknownst to him, he was reminding a pale, redheaded woman 2000 years in the future of something she should have learned in history class.

We tour the ruins of the fort first— at its height, 800 Roman soldiers would have manned Housesteads, tasked with keeping the northern rebels at bay. I imagine men in Italian sandals huddled around a campfire, shivering as they waited for an invasion that never really came.

The guides and pamphlets make frequently mention of the fort’s toilets, so I plod through thickening mud to the stone latrines. An intricate network of cisterns and pipes once kept the water flowing, but now only a few rows of brick remain. I cannot help but wonder about the sudden shock of cold stone that must have awaited the bare bottoms that desperately sought out these latrines nearly 2000 years ago.

From the latrines I take a moment to hear about the traveling circus of prostitutes and gamblers who would follow Roman soldiers from fort to fort. Yes, Hadrian’s Wall is far more than simply a dividing line between good and evil, civilization and chaos: it is also the ancient world’s answer to Las Vegas.

By the time I finally make our way to the Wall itself, my fingers are stiff and red, my cheeks raw with frost. I traipse through a grove of trees with branches hunched down against the blustery October air. At first I don’t even realize the path I’m walking on is made of rock. Then the bed of browning leaves scatters away to reveal Hadrian’s Wall.

Picture of remains of Hadrian's Wall at Housesteads

Walking along Hadrian’s Wall

It’s a river of stone that gushes into the horizon. The encroaching forest dutifully folds back as if to say it too will not challenge the power of Rome. I’m walking on the Wall’s top, only a few inches off the ground thanks to millennia of erosion and soil growth. And yet, I feel immediately connected to men who had given their lives to this place, who had built it brick by brick.

The breeze brings with it the smells of earth and a distant fire. I imagine the soldiers who first manned the turrets. As they stared off into the untamed north did they smell the same heavy scents? Did they wonder if they’d ever see home again? Had they forgotten their socks?

As I make my way back from the very edge of the Roman Empire, I am struck by the absolute remoteness of the place. The rolling hills are bleak and unpopulated, the skyline sparse with trees. Few visited the Wall when it was built, and few think to visit it now. But yet it sits, vigilant throughout the centuries as it protects us all from utter annihilation.

Have you visited Hadrian’s Wall? I’d love to hear what you thought!

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