Strangely, as sizable as it was and is, Emperor Hadrian’s Wall was a phantom that only skittered in and out of my Romacentric studies. You know, England: a provincia, an outback, the reflux of history where occasionally an emperor quelled an uprising… And yet the phantom of the Wall visited me obsessively. Hamlet would understand. The Wall had something to share with me. It persistently asked, When would I see it? When would I go?
“But enough autobiographic musing!” you say. “We want some stats. Some hard facts.” Rightly so. In 122 AD, Aulus Platorius Nepos, the newly appointed governor of Britannia, arrived at what is now called the Tyne River in England with his boss, Emperor Hadrian. In tow were expert land surveyors and military engineers, who would outline the most sensible and strategic path for Hadrian’s Wall. Several months later, Emperor Hadrian saluted Aulus Platorius Nepos, left him instructions and blueprints, and continued the tour of inspection of his vast empire.
Nepos rolled up his sleeves, relying on the manpower of three Roman legions: the II AVGVSTA, the VI VICTRIX, and the VALERIA VICTRIX. Roman legionaries were both heavy infantrymen and expert builders. They could march up to, if not over, 20 miles a day, while shouldering roughly 60 pounds of baggage. (I traveled with a roughly 5-pound backpack. And on the first day or two, I envied ancient Roman legionaries: I swear I never topped 2 miles an hour.)
After their marches, they could then work indefatigably and with assembly-line-like precision to turn out trenches, fortifications, and encampments cookie-cutter style. But they also bent landscapes to their will, whether in Rhine country, North Africa, or the Middle East. And that’s exactly what they were doing in England – but in a totally novel way.