15 – Hadrian’s Wall

Have you ever wanted to know about Hadrian’s Wall? Have you ever wondered what life was like there, how it was constructed, or even just the basic question of “what exactly is Hadrian’s Wall?” Then this is the podcast for you!

(History of Britain, History of England, History of Wales, History of Scotland, Celtic History, Roman History)

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  1. I recently listened to your Hadrian’s Wall podcast I couldn’t help notice that you casually mentioned that the Roman soldiers’ diet included pasta. Pasta’s origins MIGHT begin in the first century but it’s rather unlikely to have made it’s way to Britannia by the send century. Is there a source available that will contradict me or did I miss the fact that you were being whimsical?

    1. Oh, I wasn’t being whimsical. And as I recall there are references to pasta like foods being commonly eaten in the Mediterranean from the first century BCE. And this isn’t a matter of native Britons eating it, but rather Roman soldiers eating it. So I think it’s possible that a couple centuries later the soldiers knew how to make it, had the resources in the area to make it (all you really need is milled wheat and liquid), and made it there.

      But I will be the first to admit that I was also failing to place enough “maybes” in there (I was still new at this whole thing, I’m much better at it now). Furthermore, I can’t recall off the top of my head where I read the reference to pasta, and unfortunately I’m at the office so I don’t have my books nearby, but I do remember that it was one of those things that was only mentioned by one (or maybe two) secondary sources. So it wasn’t an absolute food and really should have been read as “list of foods, and maybe pasta.”

      Sorry about that, and thank you for taking the time to write.

    2. I am just catching up. I enjoyed this episode very much. The description of the Wall and its construction are 8nteresting to me.

  2. Every time I listen to one of these podcasts on Hadrian’s or the Antonine wall, I keep thinking about The Wall in Game of Thrones. This may be a bit of a literary question, but do you see any further parallels to Roman Britannia, or parallels between to attitudes towards Wildlings/Whitewalkers and attitudes towards the barbarians in the North?

  3. I’ve only recently discovered this podcast, and, as a fan of the genre of these historical narrative podcasts (like the various “history of x” podcasts), I’ve found it very enjoyable. However, I just wanted to register some very belated complaints , and since you invited people to come comment and dispute your characterization of the Romans in a previous episode, I’m going to do that, more or less. Let me preface this by saying that, obviously the narrative has far outstripped my concerns in these matters, and I’m not looking for any course change, revision of old episodes or anything of the sort. Just a presentation of concerns for you to take as you wish.

    First, while there are repeated references of the Roman treatment of the Britons as genocide (not incorrectly), its somewhat conspicuous that there’s not even a casual mention of the brutal treatment Hadrian enacted upon the Jews; he was so ruthless to them that all Jewish references to Hadrian through history include the phrase “may his bones be crushed.” Obviously, thats barely even remotely relevant to Britain, but its disconcerting to have all the Hadrian praise and then crickets towards his capacity for brutality, especially when similarly brutal emperors get at least passing mention for their non-British atrocities.

    Second, the description of the Romans as homophobic particularly seemed off-base, especially after the repeated descriptions of the Romans as misogynistic. To be sure, by our modern standards, the Romans were certainly misogynistic, and there is mention their ideas about homosexuality as different from ours, but in a sense that portrays those views as hypocritical. So, I figure I’ll argue about both at once.

    To the idea that the Romans were particularly misogynistic, this seems odd. While they may possibly have been moreso than the Pre-Roman Celtic Britons (a culture on which my expertise is minimal), by the standards of mediterranean society, they were somewhat on the more “progressive” (for lack of a better word) end of the spectrum. Compare the Romans to their cousins, the Greeks. While the Spartans were noted for their liberal attitudes for women, allowing them to be educated, marry as adults rather than right after puberty, and own property, the Athenians, for all their democratic virtue, would have fit right in with the Taliban in terms of their attitudes towards women, not allowing them out of the house, forcing them to cover themselves up, prohibiting them from engaging in business, and, of course, totally excluding them from politics (even Athenian slaves had it better by some standards); the rest of the Greece probably fell somewhere between the two. However, the Romans fell much closer to the Spartan end than the Athenian end. Women were citizens (though citizens without the vote), could own property, and were always considered to be their father’s daughter, rather than their husband’s wife. While this may sound just as misogynistic as saying they were subject to their husband, remember that it was the husband with whom they lived, rather than their father. They basically had legal independence; something very rare in those times. It would be a gross simplification to portray Roman attitudes towards women as enlightened, but they were certainly not all that barbaric as simply describing them as ‘misogynistic’ would seem to indicate.

    To the idea that the Romans were homophobic, attention should be paid to their idea that it was only okay to be ‘on top,’ to which allusion is made in the podcast. Were the Romans as comfortable with same-sex relationships as the Greeks? No, not at all. Were they absolutely opposed to them? Not at all. The basic concept that superior classes of society should be ‘on top’ and inferior classes should be ‘on the bottom’ was the underpinning of their ideas; a notion that, by the way, was fairly prevalent, and still continues to this day in many societies. The sex of the individuals did not matter much, only their social standing. Thus, a patrician could sleep with pretty much anyone, so long as he was the dominant parter: a woman of any status, a freeman, a male slave, anyone except another patrician. Rather, he could, but the other patrician couldn’t, since only one of them could be dominant. This chain continued all the way down. The problem Romans had with Hadrian was that, beyond engaging in sexual relations with another man, he seemed to genuinely love his partner and was almost infatuated (naming a city after him). This sounds more homophobic, except when considered in light of how odd Romans found it when a man would fall in love with his wife (an undercurrent of light scorn tinted descriptions of Pompey’s love of Julia). But worse than the infatuation with his lover was the whole Hellenophilic persona of Hadrian. The Romans, despite all their admiration for Greek culture, just did not trust the Greeks further than they could crucify them. Being actively in love with another man was the sort of thing Greeks did. Put simply, it was just a totally different dynamic than the way we view sexuality and, while our views might be more accurate, we have the advantage of millennia of history and modern biology and psychology to attempt to understand such issues.

    My final complaint is that throwaway line about comparing Hadrian’s detractors in Rome to the American Tea Party movement. The desire to keep history relevant is certainly understandable and laudable, but it seems that inserting highly contentious contemporary politics into the narrative accomplishes little. Particularly when it was obviously a negative comparison to the highly praised Hadrian. Even more-so when the Roman attitudes towards slavery were considered: Hadrian was not at all remarkable in his laws regarding the treatment of slaves. Rome had been long been gradually granting further and further protections to slaves against their owners, and Romans generally had a dim view of those that mistreated their slaves (mistreatment by Roman standards, that is). Consider that, in Augustus’s time, patricians were so eager to free all their slaves that Augustus had to severely limit emancipation, for fear of crashing the economy; the takeaway is that the Emperors were not, generally speaking, out of line with upperclass attitudes regarding slavery. But back to the modern political angle, to compare a modern political movement (composed, notably, of many members of a political party founded on the platform of abolishing slavery) to a bunch of fictitious straw men historical villains is not only useless to the podcast, its also fairly insulting to many potential members of the audience.

    Well, those are my concerns and complaints. I ended up being a bit more verbose than I intended, but I wanted to give each topic the due I felt it deserved. Obviously, Roman attitudes on anything are almost certainly not going to crop up now that you’re covering the Anglo-Saxon period, but I wanted to say something. I still enjoy the podcast very much, and look forward to the point, in the coming month or so, where I’ve caught up to the narrative.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for writing in.

      As you pointed out, this episode was quite early on in the series (it was only my 15th episode). As a consequence, I wasn’t sure how much the audience would be willing to accept from me as far as depth goes and so I was offering fewer theories and focusing more on an over-arching story. As the show goes on, you’ll see that it develops into a more detailed analysis that still clings to a narrative, but also provides for numerous competing theories and nuanced character analysis. This is especially true for the so-called Dark Ages. Further, on those early episodes, I very much wasn’t sure how much cultural history that the listeners would accept. It turns out that people love cultural history, and as the show progressed it got increasingly more air-time in the Podcast. But unfortunately, these early episodes were very much me still figuring out the medium and trying to suss out what people were interested in.

      As for Hadrian’s treatment of the Jewish community, you’re absolutely right about that. Again, because this was so early on, I was primarily focusing on banner events and tried to keep things as heavily focused on what was happening specifically on the British Isles as possible.

      And I try to keep the show light and have an irreverent sense of humor, so you’re right that I occasionally make light of situations… but they tend to be quick comments and are intended to just get a small chuckle out of the audience, rather than be the focus of the show or the subject of any serious analysis.

      Anyway, thanks for listening and also for taking the time to write such a detailed and thoughtful critique. :)

    2. Re: Hadrian’s treatment of the Jews.

      If the discussion was to go into depth on Hadrian’s actions, it would have necessarily been required to go into the ‘why’. The reason for which was the great Jewish revolt which had broken out and resulted in the deaths of 200,000 non Jewish citizens in Cypress and Cyrenaea – a clear move by the Zealots to enact genocide on the gentiles.

  4. Fun Fact: Most of the wall that people can still see standing is actually a Victorian Reconstruction because much of the stone used in the original Roman one was taken by locals for building after Rome left. The Victorians went and collected these stones from various farmhouses and then put them back up in what they thought might be the way it used to look.

  5. Wow! Never knew there was so much to the wall as a building project! When I’d heard wall before, well, I thought of just a wall. Turns out I was quite wrong! hehe.

  6. Hi Jamie I’ve just started listening to your podcasts and this one about Hadrian’s Wall is my favourite so far. Please don’t worry about boring us with the nitty gritty; it’s fabulous. Thank you for turning my ironing and driving time into something special! Ellie

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