Jan 242016


Today is the birthday (76 CE) of Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus, known in English as Hadrian, Roman emperor from 117 to 138. He is included in a group called the “Five Good Emperors” by later historians: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, noted because they became emperors through adoption and not biological succession, and because they were noted for fair government. Perhaps in a later post I’ll take issue with the second statement.

Hadrian was born into a Hispano-Roman family. Although Italica near Santiponce (in modern-day Spain) is often considered his birthplace, his actual place of birth remains uncertain. However, it is generally accepted that he came from a family with centuries-old roots in Hispania. His predecessor, Trajan, was a maternal cousin of Hadrian’s father. Trajan did not officially designate an heir, but according to his wife Pompeia Plotina, Trajan named Hadrian emperor immediately before his death.

During his reign, Hadrian traveled to nearly every province of the Empire. He was an ardent admirer of Greece, sought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire, and ordered the construction of many opulent temples in the city. He used his relationship with his Greek lover Antinous to underline his philhellenism which led to the creation of one of the most popular cults of ancient times. He spent a great deal of time with the military, and usually wore military attire even though much of his rule was peaceful.


Upon his accession to the throne, Hadrian withdrew from Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia and Armenia, and even considered abandoning Dacia. One of his great strengths as emperor was to put a stop to expansion of the empire and instead consolidate and strengthen what existed. Typical was his suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judea. The Jews had rebelled against Roman rule in 70 CE and been crushed (and the temple destroyed). Many Jews had been killed or dispersed, but many remained under Roman rule. Hadrian visited Judea in 130 CE and initially appeared sympathetic towards the Jews. Hadrian promised to rebuild the Temple, but the Jews felt betrayed when they found out that he intended to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter upon the ruins of the Second Temple.


Between 132 and 135 Simon Bar Kokhba led a revolt which resulted in the amassing of between 60,000 and 120,000 Roman troops in Judea, called from all across the empire, and resulting in catastrophic losses on both sides. As many as 580,000 Jews were slaughtered in the conflict with Hadrian ultimately successful. He forbade circumcision forbidden, had the Torah publicly burned, and Jewish intellectuals executed. At the former Temple sanctuary, he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea or Ancient Israel, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with Syria Palaestina. By destroying the association of Jews to Judea and forbidding the practice of Jewish faith, Hadrian aimed to root out a nation that had inflicted heavy casualties on the Roman Empire. Similarly, he re-established Jerusalem, but now as the Roman pagan polis of Aelia Capitolina, and Jews were forbidden from entering it, except on the day of Tisha B’Av.

Hadrian was noted for his extensive building program, aimed at consolidating the empire, and no project is more famous than the wall he had constructed in northern England: Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, also called Vallum Aelium, the Roman Wall, Picts’ Wall, or Vallum Hadriani in Latin, was begun in 122 CE. It ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. It had a stone base and a stone wall. When in use it was effectively the northern limit of the Roman Empire.

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[Click to enlarge maps]

Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles or 117.5 km (73.0 mi) long; its width and height varied according to the construction materials that were available nearby. East of the River Irthing, the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 meters (9.8 feet) wide and 5 to 6 meters (16 to 20 feet) high, while west of the river the wall was originally made from turf and measured 6 meters (20 feet) wide and 3.5 meters (11 feet) high; it was later rebuilt in stone. These dimensions do not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 3 m (10 ft) base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 3 m (10 ft).


Immediately south of the wall, a large ditch was dug, with adjoining parallel mounds, one on either side. This is known today as the Vallum, even though the word Vallum in Latin is the origin of the English word “wall,” and does not refer to a ditch. In many places – for example Limestone Corner – the Vallum is better preserved than the wall, which has been robbed of its stone.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall remain along the route, though much has been dismantled over the years to use the stones for various nearby construction projects. Although the curtain wall ends near Bowness-on-Solway, this does not mark the end of the line of defensive structures. The system of milecastles and turrets is known to have continued along the Cumbria coast as far as Risehow, south of Maryport.


The A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the wall from Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then along the northern coast of Cumbria (south shore of the Solway Firth). It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. In fact Hadrian’s Wall lies entirely within England: while it is less than 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) south of the border with Scotland in the west at Bowness-on-Solway, in the east it is as much as 110 kilometres (68 mi) away.


Although Hadrian’s biographer wrote “[Hadrian] was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians,” proposed reasons for the construction of the wall vary. Contemporary historians tend to agree that the wall was mostly an expression of Roman power and of Hadrian’s policy of defense before expansion. Scholars disagree over how much of a threat the inhabitants of northern Britain really presented and whether there was any economic advantage in defending and garrisoning a fixed line of defenses like the Wall, rather than conquering and annexing what has become the Scottish Lowlands and defending the territory with a loose arrangement of forts.


The limites of Rome, various border structures throughout the empire (singular: limes), were never expected to stop groups from migrating or armies from invading, and while a frontier protected by a palisade or stone wall would help curb cattle-raiders and the incursions of other small groups, the economic viability of constructing and keeping guarded a wall 72 miles (116 km) long along a sparsely populated border to stop small-scale raiding is dubious.


Primarily Hadrian’s wall provided a degree of control over immigration, smuggling and customs. Limites did not strictly mark the boundaries of the empire: Roman power and influence often extended beyond the walls. People within and beyond the limites travelled through them each day when conducting business, and organized check-points like those offered by Hadrian’s Wall provided good opportunities for taxation. With watch towers only a short distance from gateways in the limites, patrolling legionaries could have kept track of entering and exiting natives and Roman citizens alike, charging customs dues and checking for smuggling. There is also the simple fact that Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in part to reflect the power of Rome and was used as a political point by Hadrian. Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed: its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around.


It is well known that Hadrian periodically slept and ate with his soldiers. Roman armies were provisioned with daily rations of wheat, wine, and oil. For the rest they lived on what was available locally. Each soldier ideally received a ration of about 830 grams (1.8 lb) of wheat per day in the form of unmilled grain, which was then mostly turned into bread as a staple. Ancient sources imply that sometimes stale bread was used up in soup, which, in turn, reminds me of the Tuscan ribollita which I’ve had as a hearty first course many times throughout Italy. The modern version uses tomatoes and beans that originate in the Americas, but there are records of Medieval versions that are basically vegetable soup with stale bread. Here’s a serviceable recipe of my own. Obviously this gives you the basic idea, which you can vary to suit what you have on hand. Kale or other hardy greens would serve well for a garrison in northern England at Hadrian’s wall.


© Ribollita

Bring a rich broth (chicken or beef) to a simmer and add shredded kale, chopped onion, and diced celery and carrots. Cook for about an hour along with what flavorings you prefer. I usually add nothing more than pepper and parsley. Refrigerate overnight to marry the flavors.

Next day reheat the soup. Take slices of day old bread, spread them with olive oil, rub with cut garlic, and sauté until golden on both sides. Lay a slice in the bottom of a shallow soup bowl, and ladle the soup on top. Top with grated cheese.

Alternatively, you can place the fried bread on top of the soup, put shredded cheese on top, and melt the cheese under the broiler for a few minutes.