ASIDE from the antiquated language and the pompous names, it reads exactly like what it is – a party invitation from one genteel officer’s wife to another: “On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present? Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings. I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”
What is remarkable about this missive – one of more than 400 of the famous tablets discovered at Vindolanda, an ancient settlement on the eastern side of Hadrian’s Wall – is that it was written almost 2,000 years ago. The insight into life in Roman Britain provided by the tablets and other artefacts; fragments of history unearthed by archaeologists and carefully preserved, is a key element of the fascination held by the impressive landmark.
This year marks the 30th anniversary since Hadrian’s Wall was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The subject of intense interest to historians and archaeologists the world over, to the North-East, it is iconic – integral both to the landscape and to our cultural identity.
Since it was built in the second century, purportedly as a deterrent to the marauding Scots, Hadrian’s Wall has served as a boundary between England and Scotland, as well as a link between East and West. Its ancient stone and the windswept, rugged landscape it intersects have traditionally attracted writers, artists and photographers, as well as droves of walkers and cyclists. In 2011, it was even the setting for a film, the historical epic The Eagle, which, fittingly, starred Jamie Bell, originally from Billingham.
Started in around 122AD, when Hadrian visited Britain, it took until 138AD – the year the emperor’s rule ended – for the wall to be completed. Having inherited control of a civilisation in its prime, partly thanks to its appetite for conquest, the leader was keen to segregate England, which was part of the Empire, and Scotland, which was not.
Known as the “people’s king” because he travelled with his troops, eating the same rations, Hadrian is famed for laying the foundations of the Byzantine Empire and changing the name of Judea to Palestine. Less auspiciously, he entered into a loveless, politically motivated marriage that remained childless, denying his homosexual affection for a young Greek philosopher named Antinous.
Though reputedly eager to block access by the Scots – a desire strikingly reflected by Donald Trump in his plan to build a wall with Mexico – historians now believe Hadrian saw the wall more as a symbol of power, enabling his soldiers to elicit taxes from tribes on both sides. It was the crowning achievement of his reign, marking the farthest reaches of what was possibly the greatest empire the world has ever seen with all its attendant culture and civilisation.
Under Hadrian as his predecessors, the Roman Empire thrived on a system of robbery and violence, and this permeated throughout its territories. There is evidence that the Romans thought little of their subjects, with the Vindolanda tablets referring to the locals as “Brittunculi” or “wretched little Britons”.
Found mainly in what was essentially a waterlogged rubbish heap on the site of early wooden forts at Vindolanda, the tablets are a rare archaeological treasure. Made from delicate, wafer-thin slivers of wood covered in spidery ink, they hold the distinction of being Britain’s oldest surviving handwritten documents.
The glimpse of life at Hadrian’s Wall they provide is breathtaking, highlighting the similarities, as much as the differences, between then and now. They cover everything from a lack of beer to military matters, with one tablet detailing the contents of a parcel from home – socks, sandals and underpants.
Contrary to Rome’s reputation for meticulous planning and organisation, it appears the blueprint for Hadrian’s Wall was changed mid-build. Envisaged as spanning 80 Roman miles (73 miles) across the country from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend, there were to be castles at mile intervals with two turrets in between but, after work had started, it was decided to build forts instead. Under the wall, there remains evidence of the turrets that never were.
To mark the 30th anniversary, a series of events are being held in a six-month exhibition running the entire length of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site – a total of 150 miles from Maryport to South Shields. Museums along the way will showcase local exhibits as well as those on loan from others in Britain and abroad, with an emphasis on the roles and daily lives of the Roman army’s cavalry forces.
The highlight of the celebrations, on July 1 and 2, will be re-enactments involving 30 “Roman cavalrymen” performing training exercises used by Hadrian himself – the largest of their kind seen in the UK. The aim is to challenge the widely-held assumption that it was foot soldiers who dominated the frontier garrisons and illustrate the cavalry’s key role in projecting the power of Imperial Rome.
What is hoped, above all, is that the anniversary will remind us of the importance of Hadrian’s Wall, both internationally and in the region, and that it will continue to educate and inspire for generations to come.
A Guide to What’s On
Hadrian’s Cavalry 2017 is a major new exhibition celebrating the cavalry regiments that once guarded the North-West frontier of the Roman Empire, running from April 8 to September 10.
It spans 150 miles along the length of Hadrian’s Wall and into surrounding areas, and includes ten sites from East to West. Among the highlights will be a new installation at Chesters Fort in July recreating the sound of 500 horses; while Vindolanda will display some of the famous tablets.
In the North-West, the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle will host an immersive audio visual experience enabling visitors to imagine they are cavalry based at the wall battling tribes from the North.
Segedunum at Wallsend, meanwhile, will focus on training tactics and dressing a cavalry horse; while two original cavalry helmets will be on display at the Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle.
The pinnacle of the celebrations will be mounted re-enactments involving 30 horses at Bitts Park, Carlisle, on July 1 and 2 – the largest of their kind in the UK.
Where to Stay
Matfen Hall, near Corbridge, double rooms from £79, w: matfenhall.com
The Angel of Corbridge, Corbridge, double rooms from £75, w: theangelofcorbridge.com
Warkworth House Hotel, Warkworth, double rooms from £69, w: warkworthhousehotel.co.uk
Slaley Hall, near Hexham, double rooms from £89 w: qhotels.co.uk/our-locations/slaley-hall/
The Redesdale Arms, Rochester, double rooms from £85, w: redesdale-arms.co.uk