Kanishk Tharoor explores the curious English nostalgia for the days when Rome divided and conquered Britain. (Read this piece in The National)
The town of Haltwhistle sees itself at the middle of things, proudly claiming to be “the centre of Britain”. Its tiny central square – flanked by a pub, a betting shop and an Indian take-away restaurant, the basic amenities of any 21st-century British market town – boasts a ceremonial signpost pointing to the extremities of the country: 290 miles north to North Orkney, 290 miles south to Portland Bill, 36 miles west to Bowness-on-Solway and 36 miles east to Wallsend. Yet this geometry is deceiving. Haltwhistle may be the centre of modern Britain, but for much of its history it has been a place on the edge. The town sits in the historic border country between England and Scotland. In 1597, a woman was hanged for marrying a Scottish man, an event described by a plaque in the same square. The plaque recalls an uncompromising ancient decree: “It be treason for any Borderer, man or woman, to intermarry with a Scot.”
At the heart of Britain – and, some would argue, Britishness – lies division. Just a few kilometres north of Haltwhistle, that split manifests itself in the crumbling remains of a great boundary. In 122 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian commissioned the construction of a 73-mile long fortification across the neck of Britain from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, marking the frontier of Rome’s expansion. My girlfriend and I came to Haltwhistle to hike the scenic, rugged trail that follows the path of Hadrian’s Wall. I was drawn to its ruin in part out of a desire to stretch my city legs and get muddy in the misty north, and in part by the wall’s allusive appeal. Though it ceased to be an effective border or defensive line after Rome abandoned Britain in 410 AD, the wall’s symbolic connotations are legion: it marked the ends of empire, the real and finite limits of imperial ambition, and it claimed to separate the realm of civilisation (Roman-ruled Britain) from that of the unconquerable barbarian, a distinction that has forever tinged relations with Wales and Scotland, which together with England comprise the increasingly unwieldy creature that is Great Britain. Haltwhistle’s fear of Scotch miscegenation had old roots.
I confess also a boyish yearning for the wall, nourished by the historical novels of the British writer Rosemary Sutcliff, whom I read religiously as a child. Immersed in her evocations of Roman Britain, I would imagine myself in the company of auxiliaries and legionaries drawn from across the empire (Syrians, Sarmatians from Central Asia, Dacians from Romania) as they manned the stone ramparts, watching along its line for beacon fires of their fellows miles away, all the while swallowed by the darkness before them, a vast implacable wilderness full of mystery and threat. There was something impossibly courageous about it, I thought, with misplaced romanticism that I still struggle to suppress.
Hadrian’s Wall today exists only in patches. Evidence has been excavated of many of its forts, numerous “milecastles” (smaller forts built into every mile of the wall) and even more frequent turrets. The wall remains visible in some places, though much diminished. No more than a metre high, its ruin runs along ridges, skirting green burns and lakes, diving through swampy farmland. In other places, it is overgrown, but one can make out the regular, rectangular stonework bumping through the earth, shuffling in mossy silence alongside the trail. Elsewhere, the wall is altogether invisible, cannibalised over the centuries by farmers for their own boundary walls, their little empires of sod. Walkers will find the wall a fickle companion as it vanishes with no warning or as it appears suddenly around a bend, like a lost friend pretending he never left you in the first place.
Hiking along Hadrian’s Wall is a revelation of that very British joy of walking. Even as the rain cuts to your skin and your shoes dissolve into squelching puddles, there are pleasures to be had. Here, the path wends through a copse of trees, and the crinkle-and-snap of your plastic poncho subsides, replaced by the rush of the wind through the leaves and the thick resiny smell of pine. Here, the wall clings to the bare edge of the ridge, and you can see its foundation stones jutting out of the hill-face like strange, watching totems. Here, you stumble to the lip of an escarpment, and below, sweeping to the horizon of cloud, roll rippling tides of bracken and heather. The wind flushes the hills and valleys shades of green and yellow, the way the sea breeze skims the white caps of waves. And you feel alone, so joyfully alone amidst the bleak immensity of it all, a silly kind of joy, perhaps only the joy of cloistered urbanites like me, naïve enough to want solitude in the wild.
Of course, you aren’t alone. There are many other walkers (though you can often go upwards of a mile without seeing a soul, only sheep defecating in your path). I enjoyed the broad, easy camaraderie of the trail, the casual greetings, generously offered drinks and nibbles, even the chiding advice that, don’t you know, you should never walk east-to-west, because that way is against the wind, which will blow west-to-east for all eternity. Chastened and sodden, we would break for feasts not terribly different from those of Roman soldiers on the frontiers – dried apricots and nuts, crumbled brown bread and tiny wax wheels of cheese, and enough cheap red wine to slake our rough thirsts. We pressed on, doing our best to avoid the ubiquitous sheep that, like true cynics, drift back and forth across the line of the wall, as if it was merely a pile of rocks on the indifferent earth.
The wall was always more of an imagined boundary than it was real. Procopius, a Byzantine historian of the sixth century, brushed it with a healthy dollop of myth:
“In the island of Brittia the men of old built a long wall, cutting off a large part of it, and the air and the soil and everything else is different on the two sides of it. For to the south of the wall there is healthy air… and many men dwell there… and the crops flourish. But on the other side everything is the opposite of this… innumerable snakes and all kinds of wild beasts occupy the place as their own… and the natives say that if a man crosses the wall and goes to the other side he forthwith dies, unable to bear the pestilential nature of the air.”
From my vantage point on the ramparts, it took quite a leap of imagination to distinguish the landscapes either side of the wall. Centuries of change have smoothed Britain to its comfortable tumbling vistas. But modern historians and archaeologists also doubt there was a great deal of difference between either side even when the wall was still in use. The outstanding British scholar of Roman antiquity David Mattingly, amongst others, has argued quite compellingly that the purpose of Hadrian’s Wall was first and foremost control, not demarcation. The wall stood as a symbol of Roman power, radiating stony authority in every direction, particularly back towards restive indigenous tribes in occupied Britain. It also allowed Roman officials to straddle north-south trade routes, controlling commercial activity that long pre-dated the Roman conquest. And yet an aura of noble myth still clings to the wall: Rosemary Sutcliff’s books jostled for space in every giftshop along the wall’s route. Alongside plastic Roman swords and shields, replica denarii coins and mosaic tiles, and pencil sharpeners shaped as catapults, her nostalgia for the supposed golden age of Roman Britain was almost palpable.
When Britain considers its Roman past, the British identify with their colonisers. This isn’t true for much of the rest of Europe, even for those countries which formerly harboured grand imperial ambitions. The French romanticised the native Gauls in their dogged resistance against the Romans (a history much popularised by the incomparable Asterix cartoon series). The Germans searched for their national character in the Wagnerian forests of “barbarian Germania”, a robust, honest world that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, was fundamentally opposed to the decadent sophistry of Rome. But the British don’t see themselves amongst the grubby ranks of the colonised. “In our national mythology,” writes Mattingly, “the Roman period is presented as one of development and opportunity far more than one of defeat, subjugation and exploitation. There is surprisingly little attention focused on the themes of resistance and underdevelopment.” Along the wall, tourists and bedraggled walkers are peddled history from the eyes of Rome, the view of the military garrison, the home-sick centurion, the wine merchant pining for the Mediterranean sun. How “natives” judged this snaking line of stone is not only a mystery, it seems hardly considered.
In this light, Hadrian’s Wall takes on another dimension: it is a sign of Britain’s inability to come to terms with its own imperial past. After years in London, I’ve grown familiar with the architecture of vanished empire, from the peeling cupolas of the Strand to gleaming Pall Mall. Such grandeur looks almost quaint in the 21st century, tinged with nostalgia. Even as an Indian, I find it difficult to muster real post-colonial angst in London’s sombre marble shadows, now that the United Kingdom is in the midst of an era of devolution and Europeanisation, its imperial self-image unravelled and unravelling. Yet far from the capital and its monumental certainties, Hadrian’s Wall is an altogether different kind of symbol. It should remind those who walk it that Britain itself was once a mere outpost of empire, its peoples bullied and suppressed. But instead, the wall feeds into a narrative of imperial pretence and pride. It is a testament to the dangerous ambiguities of historical memory. And it would be almost sinister, if the sun didn’t break so warmly on its ruins, and if its wending, crumbling course was not confirmation that all power is ephemeral.