"Oh no! Not another book about Hadrian's Wall"
I was given The Wall: Rome’s Greatest Frontier by Alistair Moffat by my wife as a birthday present and, through slightly gritted teeth I thanked her, trying desperately to inject some degree of sincerity that I didn’t particularly feel. Just what I needed, yet another book on Hadrian’s Wall. So I squeezed it onto my “Hadrian’s Wall” bookshelf (along with all the others), and for a couple of weeks, forgot all about it.
But, as the days passed, guilt started to get the better of me, and eventually I decided to let it jump to the front of my long, long queue of unread books, and give it a go. How glad I am that I did. It didn’t take long for me to realise that this was far from “just another Hadrian’s Wall” book. In fact, it nicely plugged a gap long left unfilled by the many other books available. In fact, two gaps.
The first is historical context. Alistair Moffatt really does know his onions as far as Roman Britain is concerned, and it’s all right there on the page. All the way back as far as the first tentative steps taken on the Kentish coast by our friend Julius Caesar and his legions. One by one he tells us all about key events (both in Britannia and right across the far flung reaches of the Empire), and the reasons they influenced Hadrian’s decision to say, “you know what we could do with on those cliffs . . . ”. In fact, such is his thorough coverage that it isn’t until shortly after the halfway mark that one stone is laid upon another.
From that point on, the second niche is nicely filled. Rather than an east-west tour, Alistair Moffat takes us on a chronological journey of the Wall, and the political changes in the Empire that had an impact on it; the abandonment for the Antonine Wall and subsequent reoccupation, the Severan campaigns into Scotland, the Gallic Empire, the defeat of Carausius by Constantius Chlorus. All told with passion and flair that grabs the reader and guides them expertly from one event to next.
As our guide on this journey, Alistair Moffat does exactly what a good guide should do. He not only points the sites and tells us all about them, he peppers his prose with little fact-ettes from his own particular area of interest, which in Mr Moffat’s case would seem to be etymology. You can almost feel his joy when he tells us that, for example, a Pompeian prostitute was known as ‘Culibona’, being Latin for “Nice Bum”. What does this have to do with Britannia, Hadrian, or his Wall? Not a thing. Did I really want to know that? You bet your bottom dollar I did. I can now flirt outrageously with all but Latin speaking ladies, without fear of being served a restraining order. I digress merely to illustrate just how infectious the author’s enthusiasm for these little sojourns into etymology can be.
So why this particular book over all the other books covering Hadrian’s Wall? No reason. It’s horses for courses. If you want a dry, academic description of the current remains for research purposes, you need “Handbook to the Roman Wall”. If you want an entertaining look at the wall with only a little in the way of history lessons, read “A Walk along the Wall” by Hunter Davies. If you already have knowledge of Roman History, but would like to find out about the wall itself, read “Hadrian’s Wall” by Breeze and Dobson. The list goes on, but if you want a history-rich, chronological tour of this dynamic, ever-changing frontier, then “The Wall” is the book for you.
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