The Rise and Fall of a Boundary Builder
If the Roman Emperor Hadrian were alive today, I wonder what he might have to say about the tumbled down remains of the 2nd century border wall in modern-day England that bears his name.
Would he stand by his long-ago decision to send thousands of his legionnaires to the northern most outpost of the Roman Empire in order build and maintain a costly 73-mile-long border system?
Or express regret? Might he concede his wall was not, in fact, sine qua non—an indispensable thing?
I imagine it would be humbling for him to see his once great wall in ruins, its carefully cut stones pilfered for a plebby farmhouse and nearby cow stall.
Without the proper background and a good site map, a person could easily mistake what remains of Hadrian’s stone-built structure for the property of a Northumberland sheep farmer and not a long-ago Roman emperor.
Surely this would not be lost on Hadrian, considered by historians to be one of the “Five Good Emperors” associated with Rome’s 2nd century ascendance as a geopolitical and bureaucratic powerhouse.
Retrospectum—retrospective existed when Hadrian was alive, so it’s not a stretch to imagine this so-called “Good Emperor” partaking in thoughtful self-reflection about his boundary-building days.
As leaders go, Hadrian was no rube.
A senator’s son, Hadrian was an experienced soldier, scholar, bureaucrat, and politician. He was also a kick-ass architect who didn’t just leave the behind a legendary wall but also soaring structures like the Pantheon in Rome. Not bad for a guy who ruled Rome for a relatively short period of time—A.D. 117-138.
Mary Beard, my favorite author-historian in the know about Ancient Rome, described his imperial highness this way in her compulsively readable SPQR.
“Hadrian could be vain, capricious and cruel, as much a jealous tyrant as an excellent prince.” In her compulsively readable book, Beard makes the case that emperors like Hadrian, “spent longer at their desks than at the dinner table. They were expected to work at the job, to be seen to exercise practical power…”
Whether Hadrian’s wall-building was motivated by “practical power” or politics or both, we can’t know as no written records remain to explain the emperor’s border-based decision making.
Certainly, Hadrian would have understood the risks and opportunity of such a magisterial undertaking. It’s one thing to build a great temple, it’s another thing to construct a military industrial complex at the chilly edge of Roman Britannia, some 1,100 miles away from one’s imperial headquarters.
Whatever its purpose—Barbarian buster, customs barrier for civilian and commercial control, or military industrial complex—such a wall would have offered a clear statement about the boundaries of ancient Roman dominion, ephemeral as they were.
The single largest Roman structure ever built, the imperial powerbase on which Hadrian built his wall did not last more than a few centuries, its crumbly demise as much the fault of internal wrangling as external aggression.
In the 19 centuries since he built his ill-fated barrier, boundary builders far and wide have followed suit, often arriving at a similar end.
Experitentia docet. Experiences teaches.
Hadrian didn’t just leave behind a wall, but an object lesson, too. In a modern world carved up by man-made borders, it’s hard to distance oneself from the reality of these structures. I’d like to think if Hadrian were able to come from the grave, he’d agree with me. As a dead ruler, known for his good leadership, Hadrian seems like just the perfect guy to provide our border-building modern society with some well-aged perspective.