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Mares: Hadrian's Wall

Nineteen hundred years ago, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered a defensive wall built 75 miles across the island of Britain to defend the northernmost reaches of his two and a half million square mile Empire. It was 15 feet high, and it took 20,000 legionnaires ten years to quarry, cut, haul and set all the stones. For the next 300 years soldiers stationed in forts, turrets and camps along the Wall successfully protected Romans and Britons from marauding tribes to the north.

Recently, my wife and I walked a portion of this massive project, which still evokes the power of imperial Rome, 1200 miles away. It was a kick to walk in fact, and reflect in mind, on what the sword, a common language, and roads had built so far from the empire’s center.

Today as you walk along, or on, its millennial stonework you can easily imagine how the landscape might have looked in Hadrian's time. You can see how the engineers used natural ridgelines as defense. You see that the wall was wide enough for soldiers to drive carts along its top. You clamber over stone ruins of turrets and watch towers. Along the wall, the Romans built 13 forts containing massive granaries, stables, forges, training grounds and barracks.

Curiously, the landscape there today reminds me of what Vermont must have been like 150 years ago, when the land was 80% cleared and full of sheep. Here, sheep and occasional cattle are pastured within marvelous and meticulously laid stone enclosures, some of which no doubt include rocks borrowed permanently from the nearby Wall.

Adding greatly to our understanding of life in Roman times were several museums located along the Wall. One was devoted to the military, and included surprisingly well-done 3-D films of life on that long-ago frontier. Another contained the idiosyncratic collection of a 19th century private citizen who at his death owned five of the forts.

The museum that impressed us most was built around an ongoing archaeological dig at the camp of Vindolanda. This site became world famous in the ‘70s with the discovery of a trove of everyday artifacts preserved almost perfectly in the airless environment of mud five to six feet deep. In addition to jewelry, tools, glass jars and coins, there were hundreds of leather goods, including boots, and even baby shoes. Most interesting of all were the more than 2000 hand-written letters on wooden tablets, most as legible as the day they were written. They documented military orders and commercial records, but also everyday communications such as birthday greetings, an enquiry about a place to stay, and the price of beer. The actual tablets themselves are now in London’s British Museum.

Overall, we were struck by how narrow the distance seemed between us and the Romans, how accessible the wall was, how well constructed and illuminating the museums. But perhaps it was simply the combination of physical exertion and intellectual engagement that made this journey so darned enjoyable!

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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