Review: Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian's Wall
Rome’s Northern Frontier AD 70–235: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall by Nic Fields
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A comprehensive review of the Roman fortifications of the first two centuries in the area to the north of Hadrian’s wall. I was impressed by the plentiful tables, totalling not only the benefits and drawbacks of the wall but also it’s construction plan, manhours spent, garrison sizes, etc. Overall, this review stands out as a very brief but strong introduction to Rome in Scotland.

What I found missing was the political context. Though the Severian re-expansion into the north is mentioned, barely half a sentence touches on it. The Antonine and Flavian periods are covered in far greater detail, and I think if the book had restricted itself to the pre-Severian period in what it covered, it would have achieved it’s goals superbly.

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‘Rough Castle’, Vallum Antonini

The Antonine Wall is a cousin of the more familiar Vallum Aelium, or Hadrian’s Wall. Was it a sign of imperial hubris by a man who wanted to leave his mark on the world, or an example of unintentional overextension? What did it represent to the hundreds and thousands of men who had seen the previous wall being built to the south? What did it represent to the thousands sent to serve at the very edge of their civilisation, in common contact with people who did not acknowledge the southern customs?

To Victory, the VI cohort of Nervii, under the acting command of Flavius Betto, Centurion of the XX Legion Valeria Victrix, gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled its vow.

This vow was to march north and build a new wall where they thought they could draw the limit of civilisation. They were right, for a time — and are we all not right for only a certain time? It is amazing for me to think that such an inscription has preserved through nineteen centuries to come to us. We, the loyal soldiers of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, “we gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled” our vow. Many others have done far worse.

Overall, it is a miracle to consider what we do and do not know. We know the names of some of the people who served here. We do not know the names of the forts (excepting one for this wall, but this point is also more generally true in Roman Britain). But, I guess, the people matter more than the places in any case?

When I visited this fort, what I thought about was how a person born in what is modern Glasgow — or near there — shared an identity, a Roman identity, with millions of people from modern Syria to Greece to what is now Morocco. These people had the theoretical rights and opportunities to make themselves into anything they wanted. I am sure in practice this was not as easy, but the simple consideration that for millions of people over thousands of square kilometres, the only language they knew was their very own Latin and the only government they had any reason to think about was their Imperial government. What a thought!

Admittedly, the occupation of the frontier that far north did not last for long. The reasons for this are of more academic interest than relevant for present considerations. Hadrian’s Wall has a similar impact to a visitor: at least if that visitor is me. But what matters more is that this monument to power has come down through time from the latter part of the second century. What have its ramparts seen? What secrets have they heard? Were people regretful to demolish it or to use its resources to build their homes?

What would a Strathclyde farmer in the 8th century have thought of this structure? Did it carry connotations of power, of strength, of survival? Or was it a monument to occupation and a despised foreign government? Again, as with so many of these mysteries that have survived ages, we can never know. All we can do is think, and to place ourselves in the shoes of the people who came before us.

‘Rough Castle’, Vallum Antonini

As with so many of these places, I would say that if you can, go and visit it. See what emotions it brings about, and what thoughts awaken in you. I have shown you mine.

For a closing thought:

I like knowing, but in cases where I cannot know, I am happy to speculate. And in cases like this, there is so much we need to speculate about. Further, the speculation leads me to regard in surprise and admiration the entrepreneurial sense of these ancient people. And, what I always wish is that more people would recognise the beauty of the mysteries ancient sites like this present all around the world. Visit them and give them a new life.

On How Mr Asimov Was Correct

I am sure that Isaac Asimov was right about a number of things, and not the least amongst these is his portrayal of General Bel Riose. Previously, it has been widely know that it can find proof in Belisarius but I saw a similar instance in the Chinese histories. Namely, while reading ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ I found note of a Ming General, Yuan Chonghuan.

This Yuan Chonghuan was executed by the Ming Emperor when the Jurchen enemies started rumours of how the General would betray the Emperor. While none of his previous actions had done anything to substantiate these rumours, the Emperor feared for his life and position — and that fear quickly allowed General Yuan to see the last sunrise of his life.

Belisarius, as we well know, was not executed but rather retired from public life after becoming too prominent for Justinianus to like him. In any case, the situation is practically the same.

There are certainly a number of other commanders who can fit into this category, but rather than look for more of the same, I’ll present a metaphor that I found in the chapter in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’:

“Since antiquity, have there been instances in which military men have been able to perform meritorious service while there have been powerful officials at court?”
— Ryotaro Shiba, ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’, p. 443

How close and similar is this to Mr Asimov’s in-universe explanation to why the Empire’s Bel Riose would not defeat the Foundation:

“Look at the situation. A weak general could never have endangered us, obviously. A strong general during the time of a weak Emperor would never have endangered us, either; for he would have turned his arms towards a much more fruitful target. … It was the success of Riose that was suspicious. So he was recalled, and accused, condemned, murdered. ”
— I. Asimov, ‘Foundation and Empire’, p. 85

In other words, what Mr Asimov wrote in the ‘Foundation and Empire’ has a number of parallels in history, and they all substantiate what he thought of. Surely, that was the case before I knew of Yuan Chenghuan, but I was personally rather pleased at finding another example of the same.

The logic behind the actions has clearly stayed the same, but the feeling that I had when I read that part in ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ was… of literature making its way into life. And I knew well that General Yuan had lived a three centuries before Mr Asimov. Yet, it all was more alive: Bel Riose and Yuan Chenghuan breathed anew, if only for a second in my mind.

Those two could probably talk of so many things…

‘Hannibal’, Nic Fields

I’ve recently come to read two of the Osprey Command series books (first on the Admiral, Yamamoto Isoroku, and now the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca), and I have had to completely reevaluate my opinion of what the series was originally for. Not as much a concise biography that does not really achieve much, they rather provide a story of how the person got into the position of command, and then provide a review of the tactical situations he was presented with. Indeed, I find this a very valid way of assessing a military commander when compared to a massive tome on the person. Of course, there are plenty of things that those tomes mention that these shorter books do not, but I find the amount of information to still be considerable.

The book on Hannibal was indeed quite good — and partly forced me to change my opinion of the man. While a general of admirable qualities, I believed him to be a bit… ‘worse’, all along. And I now think far less of the victory at Cannae compared to the one achieved at Trasimene.

Overall, I enjoyed the flow of this book far more than I expected it would — it is very easy to make a history book read ‘slow’ and thereby make it somewhat cumbersome. Indeed, Osprey, based on my experience, has mostly avoided this, and it was quite nice to see them continue to do so.

Also, two things of note:

  • bârâq, or the origin of the name of Barca, has the meaning ‘thunderbolt’
  • daimónios would translate to ‘marvelously’, or a variation thereof

Not to mention the fact that apparently word of the results at Trasimene were passed to the Roman people with the phrase “We have been beaten in a great battle.”

‘Roma’, S. Saylor

‘Roma’ was a truly brilliant book in my opinion — designed as a history book more than a historical novel (with an explanation referring to the ancient art of history writing in which storytelling was considered a good part of it, and an in-joke that Titus Livius would well appreciate what has been done in ‘Roma’) the book is an appealing move through a thousand years or more from before the 11th century BC into 1 BC — vaguely following the stories of a patrician family, the Potitii, through the events they encounter.

We are first introduced to the ancient legend the Romans used to tell of Hercules visiting their lands in times past, and freeing the people from the horror of a monster. Next, we are taken to times when Roma is already a city of greater importance and the brothers, Romulus and Remus, live there. The book describes (a possibility) of how the Lupercalian festival originated as well as how Romulus became the king.

The continuing years are described as they are, with a touch on the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus and the following sagas of Coriolanus, as well as the creation of the Twelve Tables. Similarly, we pass down and see the characters Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus speak to us, and then the famed/fabled Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. The tragic story of the Gracchii brothers has it’s place, as does the early history of Gaius Julius Caesar (in the days of Sulla). Later, as any novel of Rome of that time, we are given the sight of the death of the dictator, as well as a reflection of what the successors might have done and discussed in their private conversations, which is the last stop before a final reflection of how Roma itself, as a city, managed to change from the beginning of the reign of Augustus to a few decades into it.

All in all, Stephen Saylor provides for an interesting view into the the legends and stories surrounding ancient Rome, not shying away from difficult topics concerning the rights of classes and privileges.

 ‘Our families are so very old, and our ancestors accomplished so many things — great and small, wonderful and terrible — it’s hard to keep track! Sometimes I think it would be a relief if we all turned to dust, so the rest of the world could simply forget us and go on about its business as if we never existed.

“No friend ever did him a kindness, and no enemy ever did him a wrong, without being fully repaid.”

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