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.
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.