by Patricia Lightfoot
In Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, when asked if he would like to live on another planet, Charles-Edouard de Valhubert replies that he is not interested in going to a place where there were “oceans on which Ulysses never sailed, mountains uncrossed by Hannibal and Napoleon.” I understand his sentiment, a product of a classical education and a life spent in Europe, because I now live in a country where the Romans did not set foot, and sometimes I miss their mark on the landscape.
In primary school, we were taught about the Roman invasion of Britain and the subsequent infrastructure the Romans developed, including towns, forts and a network of roads intended for troop movements, as well as the everyday domestic activities of the local population. Ermine Street, Watling Street and the Fosse Way are the names I remember. Maybe it was their level of organization and urbanization that made the Romans seem less distant than the the medieval inhabitants of Britain, although their remains were well concealed by almost two thousand years of further invasions, conquests, destruction and construction. We knew they were there, but hidden.
Over in continental Europe, there are, of course, clearly visible signs of Roman activity, such as the remains of Italica, near Seville, which was the home town of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. We wandered in the late-morning heat one August alongside what must have been a couple of dozen mosaic floors open to the elements, featuring images of various creatures being hunted with spears and tridents, as well as birds, human faces and even a tiger. We walked around the amphitheatre and below it through the network of tunnels, through which animals and gladiators once passed on their way to combat. I was reminded of the eighteenth-century Plaza de toros at Ronda, also in Andalusia, which we had visited a few days before. The construction of the bullring is clearly modelled on the Roman amphitheatre, with the same circular structure and tunnels to move the bulls from holding pens into the ring.
Before we left Italica in search of “tubas” of beer and bowls of gazpacho, I remember thinking that the Roman remains in the UK were so paltry compared with this abundance, but then I had not been to visit Hadrian’s wall.
When I mentioned my intention to walk on or by Hadrian’s Wall, various friends asked if any parts of the wall remained to be visited. I am happy to report that the wall is still there! Some pieces are missing, but there are good stretches of it snaking across the landscape from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. We walked westward alongside the wall from Housesteads fort, home of the best-preserved Roman latrine in the world. The topography is gently rolling with lovely views of Cumbrian farmland, featuring fields of sheep and few trees. Every so often, approximately one Roman mile apart, there is a milecastle, which was a small fort designed to guard a gateway to manage traffic coming from outside the wall to inside and vice versa. Essentially, these were border-control points for the Roman empire.
Further signs of Roman life were visible at the remains of Vindolanda, the fort and village located a little to the south of the wall. As a former student of prehistoric archaeology, whose excavations were more likely to feature pits and post holes and nothing else, I felt some envy of the abundant small finds at Vindolanda: leather shoes, hundreds of them, even small children’s shoes, beads, glass bangles, coins and tablets with writing on them. A particularly notable piece was a silver hair pin, one end of which took the form of a little hand holding a fine chain with a mirror attached to it. It was more disturbing than desirable.
I found it thrilling to see the wall that Hadrian had commissioned to consolidate the ragged north-western edge of the Roman empire. It felt as if the Romans had come out of hiding. Walking through the gently rolling countryside beside the wall, I looked north beyond the frontier where my origins lie and then south to what once seemed to be an indestructible power.