Travels April 2006

Empire's End

Hadrian's Wall, which demarked Roman Britain's northern boundary, still marches across the rugged landscape—and through the mists of time

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There is no mystery about the origin of my romance with Hadrian’s Wall. I can trace it exactly to a September morning when, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy in Ireland, I cracked open my new Third Year Latin textbook and came across a color photograph of the massive fortification that crosses the landscape of northern England. The picture showed the wall in winter, dusted with snow, relentlessly marching up crags and down defiles, until it disappeared into a horizon beyond time. The wall, I read, had been built at the command of the Emperor Hadrian, beginning around 120 A.D., to delineate the boundary between Roman Britain and the barbarian hinterland to the north. It stretched seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Tyne, on the east, to the Solway Firth, on the west, with a fortified gateway at every mile and a pair of turrets between each pair of milecastles. Every manned point was visible to two others.

In one of those reinforcing coincidences that can fix a memory for all time, soon after seeing that textbook photograph I came across a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, which contains this evocation of what it might have been like for a Roman legionnaire arriving at the northern British frontier for the first time:

The hard road goes on and on—and the wind sings through your helmet-plume—past altars to Legions and Generals forgotten …

Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see the smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch … one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the wall!

Reading those words, I feel a rush of excitement even now, and involuntarily pull an imaginary cloak a little tighter around my shoulders.

That first encounter with Hadrian’s Wall was in 1965. Next I knew, quite suddenly, forty years had elapsed, and still I had come no closer to the thing itself than the words and images on a page. Last December, hoping to catch the wall in all its wintry bluster, and with the advantage of boots and textiles a legionnaire could only envy, I resolved to put matters aright.

There is always a worry that the buildup will overwhelm the reality. In the case of Hadrian’s Wall, the worry is not warranted in the least. To be sure, the wall has been dismantled in many places, as people nearby, over a period of fifteen centuries, used its expertly cut stones, each the size of a loaf of bread, to build homes and churches—making Hadrian’s Wall the first Home Depot. And even in the best-preserved stretches it is now about five feet high (and about six feet thick), rather than the ten feet high of Hadrian’s time. But no matter. My first view came on a ridge a little north of the old Roman camp at Vindolanda. A bend in the road, and there it was: a curvaceous bulwark running east, up and down and up and down, along the beetle-browed Highshield Crags and Sewingshield Crags, like some painted backdrop that seems to announce that it can’t be real.

A hiking path runs coast to coast along the course of the wall. All told, I walked twenty miles in the well- preserved center section, where visitors will most likely want to concentrate. It can be tough going: the wall is no respecter of terrain, and the open countryside of Northumbria is brutally exposed to the elements. The tall grass along the trail crunched satisfyingly under foot when I was there, because it was frozen. The shadows and swales held snow. This far north the sun sets early in wintertime—technically, around 3:00 p.m.—but in truth, sunset heralds two hours of dusky purple and orange in the western sky, above a serrated landscape visible to a range of thirty miles. And the low sun brings into sharp relief the system of defensive trenches and earthworks that parallel the wall on both sides. Ranking seasons by desirability, the official guides to Hadrian’s Wall all but scream, “Not winter!” But I was not the only one seduced by the austere boreal charms of the trail in mid-December; I counted seventeen others. (A minor demographic note: this is a place where someone with red hair and ruddy cheeks could really get lost in a crowd, if there was one.)

Northumbria was a military zone, and, leaving aside the wall itself, signs of the Roman presence are everywhere. A major Roman road, now called the Stanegate, runs east to west, straight as a rule. One glance at a 1:25,000 ordnance map shows rectangular Roman encampments, some excavated and some not, every few inches. One of the most extensive of these forts is Vercovicium (now known as Housesteads), where there is also a small museum.

Vercovicium’s northern edge is part of the wall, making the fort an excellent access point for a longer walk along the wall trail. A few miles due south is Vindolanda, which was a flourishing Roman base decades before Hadrian’s Wall was even contemplated. It’s also the site of major ongoing excavations by members of the archaeological Birley family, who have been working there since the 1930s. The underground muck at Vindolanda has created anaerobic conditions and kept artifacts, including hundreds of documents, in an astonishing state of preservation. The first piece of Latin writing in the Western world known to have come from a woman’s hand was pulled from the trenches there. (It’s an invitation to a birthday party.)

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Cullen Murphy is a senior editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a book called Are We Rome?: America's Obsession With an Ancient Empire. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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