« Previous | Main | Next »

In Our Time: Hadrian's Wall

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 16:49, Thursday, 12 July 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Hadrian's Wall. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

Hadrian's Wall



It's all very strange. It must be like living at the time of Caxton - if you are at all aware of Caxton - I wonder how many won't be. But when this programme started about fourteen years ago, I imagined people in ones and twos of the autodidactic tendency and the intelligentsia variety listening rather guiltily to the radio instead of doing something more important - comparison with novels at one time being thought a frivolous waste of time and under no circumstances read in the morning - and not letting the neighbours know.

Last week, after our programme on Scepticism and an audience far bigger than any arts programme on television (including, alas, my own), we had emails from Singapore, Brazil, Vancouver, India, Morocco, Croatia, Sweden, Italy... What is the world coming to? Well, some of the world is coming to In Our Time and we're very grateful.

Hadrian's Wall this morning was an immense strain. I gave myself a medal at the end of it. How did I manage to say so little? I first went on to Hadrian's Wall with my first serious girlfriend when I was seventeen and we walked along most of it, with memorable stops at the youth hostel at Twice Brewed. Or was that Once Brewed? Which is the pub and which is the youth hostel? Because it was near where we were in the north of England - Carlisle is only a few miles away and it would eventually be uncovered as one of the greatest Roman cities in Britain - there was a feeling of ownership. As there was for the whole Celtic religious movement, with Iona so close and islands in the Lakes which had their own hermits who yearned to die on the same day as St Cuthbert (one of them, St Herbert, did, in fact, or so says Bede and who would question Bede?)

But the wall is there in its utter magnificence, and few ruins anywhere in the world can evoke such a powerful feeling of what they were there for once - that is to say, when you're up around Halsteads, or along at Chesters, or even at Birdoswald, you can feel (or if you have any imagination at all you can feel) that you are a soldier in the Roman military, peering eagle-eyed to the north to see if those Picts are gathering their forces to come and assail you. You can feel the frontier mentality of that world empire. Because of the exposed nature of the wall, the weather gives you a feeling of the time as much as the stones and the milecastles do.

I took my son there a couple of years ago and we walked some of it. It was in some way a monumental folly by Hadrian which has turned out to be a monument for all time. Up, then, with follies and off we folly-well go, lonely as clouds - that is the production team and myself - until September.

Have a good summer. Remember what the man said: "There is no such thing as bad weather; only inadequate clothing".

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    And so Melvyn comes to the end of another series as he runs up against time rushing towards him at a rate of knots or even Brigantes, Picts or Novontae.This was appropriately a frontier episode with 3 experts who it seems kept his emotions of his own visits to the Wall under wraps(came out in the newsletter).Forget the invisibility of Higgs-Boson,and they’re telling us now it would have been better not to find it!We did learn Hadrian’s succession reversed Trajan’s policy of expansion. This was a period of reinforcement of borders and frontiers with imperial tours of the provinces.His mission to separate the barbarians from the Romans.With the VI Legion he came to strengthen the northern frontiers of Britain,where the Britains could not be kept under Roman control.The experts beat about the bush to say what the Wall was for.It controlled the movement of peoples,consolidating the economies of the Britains freed from invasions to live in peace.Devoted to Greek culture and vast building works and uniting the peoples within the Roman frontiers into a single nation.The movement from offence to defence may have marked assign of decadence but also a century of peace.Although it has been said he wished to extend the classical way of life to the Jews by slaughter.We also were told of the definite stimulation to the economy by the presence of so many troops,and the families and associated trading community in its wake.The Wall was primarily for the keeping of order,internally and against the incursions of foreign invaders.It furthered the careers of the upper and lowerclasses, and gratified the personal ambitions for glory of emperors.By strengthening the many frontiers of the Roman Empire it brought a period of stability,it consolidated the foundations laid down under the Flavians and Trajan.The impact of the Wall was awesome to tribes on either side.The Wall was constantly modified and added to over the next 6 years.The main purpose of moving the garrisons onto the Wall was to allow the rapid deployment of troops along and in front of it. Hadrian was trying to push the Roman way of life out into the provinces with all the values,order and privileges that entailed.By reinforcing civilized bonds he kept the Romans above the barbarians.

  • Comment number 2.

    This relates to the latest 'In Our Time' podcast on Hadrian's Wall - In the course of the programme there was a reference to Pamirian people who helped in the construction of the wall. The speaker identified the location of Pamirians as an area between present day Iraq & Syria - that is not correct they come from an area between present day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. This facts makes their involvement even more important & worthy of further discussion as Pamirians were not under the rule of Romans at the time or, any time before.

  • Comment number 3.

    bijan I think they were referring to the Palmyrian people:-
    In the mid 1st century AD, Palmyra, a wealthy and elegant city located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, came under Roman control. A period of great prosperity followed.

    Jones and Erieira note that Palmyran merchants owned ships in Italian waters and controlled the Indian silk trade. "Palmyra became one of the richest cities of the Near East." "The Palmyrans had really pulled off a great trick, they were the only people who managed to live alongside Rome without being Romanized. They simply pretended to be Romans."

    Palmyra was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 AD). It steadily grew in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.

  • Comment number 4.

    And in the gravity free digital world a click into a pit is another blink of the pendulum into another unlike the sapping disproportionalty of terra firma.
    One advantage of self medalling is not only that it constrains vainglory but if metalicly embarrassed, there is the sop of the ostentatious weight of another the modest upside of a millstone.

    Mystery dissolved, one could say, why me and the missus experienced al dente magnifico in Calisle of all seemingly improbable places-solid salford value too. And maybe even, Hadrian's own digging for the stuff of his magnificence out of division could have unearthed one or two things of its own.
    All for ownership too-let nowt escape the swinge and crash of the gavel.

    Although one person's poor summertime livin' can be another's breeze of it, macs or slacks, the weather more than likely would be bad for both of them.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thank you John, I stand corrected. I misheard and thanks for the extra information. The reason I did not think of Palmyrians may be partly because I read an article in the Guardian maybe 7-8 years ago about a defensive wall in present day Azerbaijan (Darband) built by the Persians and,  if I remember correctly, the article said that Hadrian had visited the area and seen the wall & was impressed by it and had taken/invited Persian builders/architects to help him with his project in Britain. As you will know Pamiri people (not Palmyrians) are linguistically/culturally related to the Persians so I made that connection. In fact the wall the Guardian article referred to may have been the Gorgan Wall.

  • Comment number 6.

    Some great typos here - Melvyn - if you're going to spell Housesteads its Housesteads not Halsteads - and John - Britons, not Britains. Now - why is it that those experts harp on about the Romans v barbarians thing? Many archaeologists now recognise that the Romans and their army had to work with lots of 'Other' - tribes previously known as barbarians (TPKAB). We wax lyrical (that's R4 lyrical) about the frontier mentality and the Picts - but of course there was the Antonine Wall (did that get more than a mention?) and then there were the Brigantes (one of the TPKAB) - upon and across whose territories the Wall ran. Not much said about them - and their material culture indicates they certainly weren't the first to benefit from that Roman 'economic stimulation' (George Osborne of c AD 122 presumably).... Cumbrian archaeologists recognise that the situation was, and remains, a lot more complex than the programme made out.


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.