Sometimes I like to shorten my job title to ‘Curator of the Wall’. This has to be said in a serious, booming tone, matching that used in Game of Thrones to hail Jon Snow as the ‘King in the North’. As English Heritage’s curator on Hadrian’s Wall, I don’t have to make the same life and death decisions as the characters in the hit book and TV series. But many of the stories associated with Britain’s Roman frontier are every bit as bloody and fascinating as those of George RR Martin’s vast icy wall.
It is a well-known fact that Martin based his ice wall – separating the fictional Seven Kingdoms from the wild lands beyond – on Hadrian’s Wall. The parallels between the two are apparent in the descriptions we have of them: a biographer of the Roman Emperor wrote that Hadrian was “the first to construct a wall, eighty miles in length, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans”; while Game of Thrones character Maester Aemon describes the guardians of the wall – the Night’s Watch – as “the only thing standing between the realm and what lies beyond”. Martin himself has spoken of visiting Hadrian’s Wall, and I can imagine him standing on it looking north and putting himself in the shoes of the Roman soldiers garrisoned on the edge of the empire.
Why was Hadrian’s Wall built?
The construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in AD 122, and there are many theories as to why this huge project was undertaken. Scholars today think that it was part-defensive structure, part-propaganda statement, and part-tax barrier (extracting taxes on goods moving in and out of the empire). It was built by the army of Britain, with the three legions (citizen troops) providing the bulk of the building force. The main phase of building took six years, but work on the forts may have taken another 10 years. The soldiers left their mark by engraving stones built into the structure (called centurial stones), noting which sections they had built.
Initially no forts were part of the plan, but as with any big project changes were made to the scheme along the way. Fourteen forts were ultimately placed around 7 1/3 miles apart, with milecastles (small forts) every Roman mile, and turrets (watch towers) every 1/3 mile. Auxiliary units (non-citizen soldiers) manned the wall throughout its 300-year life. Units were stationed in the forts, and would send soldiers to man the milecastles and turrets on either side. This is similar to the system that Martin’s ice wall uses, although in the story, many of the forts have gone out of use and it is falling into disrepair by the time fans are introduced to the wall. A broad walkway remains on top of Wall, something that is still hotly debated by scholars about whether the same was in place on Hadrian’s Wall.
Working on Hadrian’s Wall in all weathers can cause your imagination to run wild. When I’m ‘stationed’ at Housesteads Roman Fort, staring out into the thick fog, I do occasionally wonder what might come out of it. There are comments in ancient sources of the Roman wall being overrun by barbarian attacks, but the Romans eventually triumphed and were able to repair the damage done by these assaults (easier to do if it is only men coming through, rather than zombie dragons…).
Just like members of the Night’s Watch in Martin’s story, the Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall took an oath that forbade them from marrying. But while joining the Night’s Watch is a life sentence, Roman soldiers ‘only’ had to serve 25 years before receiving citizenship into the Roman empire as a reward for their service.
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The soldiers serving on Hadrian’s came from all over the Roman empire. When a new province was conquered, the fighting men from the opposing side would be recruited into the Roman army. This allowed the army to gain new skills, such as archery and cavalry, and enabled them to remove the risk of potential rebellions by these same men, as they were not posted in their home provinces. At Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, the cavalry unit originated from Asturias in Northern Spain, while the infantry unit at Birdoswald hailed from Dacia, modern-day Romania. Housesteads Fort had soldiers from Tungria (Tongres in modern Belgium) and Frisian soldiers from the north-eastern Netherlands. Elsewhere on the wall there were boatmen from the River Tigris (in modern Iraq), Syrian archers and soldiers from many other Roman provinces.
Being recruited to the army was not all bad. Soldiers had regular pay, access to medical care, and likely better food than many were used to. However, the main reward for serving as an auxiliary was receiving citizenship, which came with political and legal privileges and protections. Until the Edict of Caracalla in 212 (which granted citizenship to all free men), citizenship was quite restricted, so serving in the army was an attractive prospect. Citizenship was passed down to children, so soldiers were also able to bolster the prospects of their descendants.
The men of the Night’s Watch, by comparison, have no such rewards – but they are able to relieve the monotony of life on the ice wall by going to Mole Town, a civilian settlement where they can drink, gamble and visit prostitutes. Each fort on Hadrian’s Wall had something similar. At one, just outside Housesteads Roman Fort, the bodies of a man and woman were found underneath the floor of what was thought to be an inn. The tip of a knife was lodged between the man’s ribs – and we can only guess at what happened there. Life on both walls – be it as a civilian or a soldier – could be nasty, brutish and short.
Not that the royals were let off any more easily. In ancient Rome, Emperor Severus came to power during the civil wars of AD 193 – the Year of the Five Emperors (Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Severus). It is hard not to draw a comparison between these five emperors and Martin’s ‘five kings’: Joffrey Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy, who all fight for control of the Iron Throne in the first three novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series.
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The year AD 193 began with the murder of the Emperor Commodus, by his mistress and other supposed friends on New Years’ Eve AD 192. His successor, Pertinax, lasted only three months before being killed by the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguard, similar to the Kingsguard in Game of Thrones). Didius Julianus then bought the throne by offering the highest bonus to the soldiers in the Praetorian Guard if they accepted him. Unfortunately for him, Septimius Severus was named emperor, and so Julianus was executed on 1 June. Severus still had to deal with Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, who both believed that they should be emperor, which started a two-year civil war that is all too reminiscent of the war between the Houses Stark and the Lannister.
Since the success of the fantasy TV series, we have seen an increasing number of people seeking out the sites that inspired it. I enjoy pointing out the similarity between the character King Joffrey and the boy emperor Caligula; they could be twins both physically and in their vicious and cruel natures. Caligula loved to make a joke at dinner parties, saying: “Ho, ho, I’ve just realised that I could click my fingers and have all your heads cut off.” It is not difficult to imagine Joffrey doing something similar; indeed, in one episode he triumphantly remarks to his grandfather: “I am the King! I will punish you.” Caligula was accused of incest with his three sisters, reminiscent of Joffrey’s mother, Cersei, and her relationship with her brother Jamie. And the comparisons between the loathsome pair do not end there: both Joffrey and Caligula were fairly keen on torture – and both, unsurprisingly, were assassinated.
Whenever visitors ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to kneel and quote from the Oath of the Night’s Watch – “I am the watcher on the wall” (although I omit the bit about having to “live and die at my post”). But my purpose on the wall is not only to look after it but to motivate people to visit it – and Martin’s brilliant epic is making my job all the easier.
At the end of the last season of Game of Thrones *spoiler alert*, the Night King dramatically breached the wall – riding a dragon, no less – and marched south. The end of Hadrian’s Wall was somewhat less spectacular. There was no great invasion or catastrophic event – troop numbers were reduced as Britain became less of a priority to the empire and the wall gradually fell into disrepair. But the impressive and evocative ruins remain, its miles and miles of turrets, forts and temples a source of inspiration for fantasy writers, hikers – and everyone else who visits.
Dr Frances McIntosh is English Heritage’s curator for Hadrian’s Wall. To discover Hadrian’s Wall, click here.