April Mini Post 1: Wall in the Family

Father-son oneupmanship in second-century Rome

I’m writing this post from the sunny patch of grass outside my apartment because it’s just too nice outside to do my usual hunker-down-until-it’s-done strategy. So far I’ve met a very good dog named Cookie, a kid who takes credit for other kids’ sidewalk chalk art, and a delightful neighbour who likes to visit with the ceramic frog and turtle that live in the communal front garden.

The cherry blossoms are out in full force here in Vancouver, so going outside comes with the sweet smell that reminds everyone, yes, the sun still exists, and no, you don’t have to think about the sun setting before 6pm for many many months. We made it.

In the spirit of springtime renewal, I’ve decided to try out a different format for the April newsletters. Instead of a couple of longer deep dives on a single subject, I thought it would be fun to do some shorter mini-posts that focus in on a single bite-sized idea. There are just too many topics out there to choose from! Can’t we just do them all? You’d better believe we’re gonna try.

Give me a shout if you have opinions about what format you like best. You can leave a comment on this post, reply directly via email on any newsletter, or reach out on social media if we’re connected there.

And even further, if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, you can share this publication with someone new or support it for $5 a month (or less)!

Roman emperor Hadrian, who reigned 117-138 CE, famously commissioned the construction of a wall near the northernmost point of Roman-controlled territory, Atlantic coast to North Sea coast in today’s northern England. The eponymous defensive fortification was meant to slow invasion from Celtic tribes (though not stop them entirely…historians have made the case that this wall was more of a “get in their way” wall than a “stop them in their tracks” wall).

It took three legions of the Roman army (about 15,000 soldiers) six years to construct Hadrian’s Wall. It ended up measuring 73 km long and was mostly made of stone (that’s how you know it’s good) along with some pretty serious landscaping features like turf walls and a deep parallel trench called the Vallum. In short, Hadrian really made a name for himself with this one. His reign marked the shift from imperial expansion to a more conservative defensive position.

Hadrian was a tough act to follow, so of course there was some drama involved when his successor Antoninus Pius took power following Hadrian’s death in 138. The backstory here is that Hadrian picked Antoninus to be his successor shortly before he died. To make sure the line of succession was intact, he actually adopted Antoninus as his son, despite being only ten years apart in age. Antoninus was a bouncing baby boy of 52 when Hadrian adopted him.

Antoninus took power with no trouble, but within four years he decided that Roman Britain needed another, better wall. He ordered the construction of the Antonine Wall some 160 kilometres north of his predecessor’s. It took 12 years to complete and spanned 63 km, made mostly of wood and stone foundations with turf piled on top to create height. Nineteen stone forts and many more fortlets along the wall weren’t enough to keep it from falling, however. The less resilient materials plus a series of attacks from the north left the Romans no choice but to pick up their toys and go home.

So while it seems like a very “little brother” move to try to one-up Hadrian’s immediately iconic and successful wall, it turns out that it more of a “large adult son” attempt at replacing something that was working just fine. Rome abandoned their northern position and went back to using Hadrian’s Wall just eight years after the Antonine Wall was completed. Ouch.

To add insult to injury, briefly:

  • Today, most of the Antonine Wall has been lost to erosion (but much of the middle section of Hadrian’s Wall is intact).

  • Centuries’ worth of historians have done Antoninus dirty by inaccurately attributing his wall to either the Britons or…you guessed it…Hadrian.

  • Hadrian’s Wall has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. As of 2008, after years of petitions and bids to join his dad, the Antonine Wall is under the care of none other than Historic Scotland. Good for him!