Edge of Empire: the Archaeology of an Annoying Meme


This is a tale of frustration, despair, and – frankly – misunderstanding. Frustration, because it does not come to a satisfactory conclusion; despair, because the ubiquitous quotation that forms our subject matter is verging on becoming an annoying cliché; and misunderstanding, because it begs a question that is left unanswered: do empires have an edge?


Let’s make this easy: hands up who hasn’t written a book, made a film, or baked a cupcake and not used the phrase Edge of Empire in relation to it? Thought so: not many of you. The phrase seems to have spread amongst both academic and popular writers like the common cold. It is everywhere (no hyperbole in that statement, naturally); just try googling “edge of empire” (if nothing else, a lot of Star Wars references turn up). Apart from finding it slightly annoying, I have become intrigued by its origins and set about trying to track them down.

Lendering & BrouwersWho said it?

It looks like it ought to be a quote from one of the usual suspects, but it turns out it is not Shakespeare, or Roger, Francis, or even Danish Bacon to whom it can be attributed. There is, perhaps, a Kiplingesque quality to it, but even that instinct proves wrong.

After you’ve waded through the plethora of volumes on frontier studies dealing with various periods that have been produced in the last two decades, mostly touting sexy terms like ‘interaction’ and ‘exchange’ (and mostly deploring the role of whichever oppressor they decry), you get back into the barren wastelands of the 1960s, when nobody seems to have worried whether empires were edgy. How did scholars (and publishers, who have special bandwagon-adhesive-coated-boots) manage? Well, they got by. But do all these modern writers know the source of the phrase? It seems unlikely. I asked a few I know (and, yes, I know more than one) who have used it and they did not, and none of the others seem to quote the Urquelle for their label. The mystery deepens. Let’s venture a little further back in time.

In 1906, it turns out, Mills and Boon (that made you sit up!) published The Edge of Empire,  a piece of romantic fiction by Joan Sutherland – no, not that one; this is the pen name of Joan Collings (1890–1947) – set in, you will not be surprised to learn, Imperial India. You famously can’t copyright a title, which is probably just as well, when we look only a few years earlier and find On The Edge of Empire by Edgar Jepson and David Beames. Again, it is set in India and of its time (as fiction usually is). So, we are getting closer, but can the phrase really have originated with one or other romantic historical fiction author?

Stockton villaUnfortunately, at that point the trail peters out. Novelists have a habit of using quotations as titles and ‘The Edge of Empire’ has the feel of a quote, but I have been unable to trace the source. If you know it, do let me know and put me out of my misery. Actually, you can only really put me out of that misery by banning anybody from using it again for a period of, say, a century. Yes, that should do it.


The truth is, of course, that most of the frontiers so spectacularly plastered with the label Edge of Empire were very far from the edge of anybody’s empire. Hadrian’s Wall was always accompanied by its outpost forts at Birrens, Netherby, Bewcastle, Risingham, and High Rochester. Even without them, we might have suspected that Roman material culture would have oozed over the frontier, but with them there, it seems fairly certain. Even the Antonine Wall had contemporary forts to the north (Strageath, Ardoch, and Bertha spring to mind), so that too was far from the edge of anything. The areas outwith the frontiers were nevertheless under Rome’s sway to some extent and certain areas, Caledonia and Germania for instance, could be seen as handy ‘big game parks’, in which emperors hungry for a bit of military glory could venture out, defeat some barbarians and garner some captives, before returning home, issuing some self-congratulatory coins and perhaps putting up an arch somewhere more-or-less obscure to wrap things up nicely. Frontiers, it seems, tend to be two-way ticket barriers, not edged weapons, and as we are all discovering in 2014, they can have an afterlife as political footballs.

PLV Inscriptions of Hadrian’s Wall

Mapping the inscriptions of the Wall

For the last year or so, PLV has been tweeting and blogging the geolocated inscriptions of Hadrian’s Wall, revealing something of their spatial, social, and historical context. As we went on our merry way, they were mapped in chunks onto Google Maps. However, when it comes to showing you a map of all of them, it is not so easy.

Google Maps LiteGoogle Maps only allows a certain number of placemarkers on the screen at any one time. Their new Map Engine Lite will allow all of them on the screen (see above) but cannot be embedded here on wordpress.com, so that image is just a screenshot.

GeocommonsLikewise, Geocommons, which provides a really stylish map, cannot be embedded here. However, both can be embedded on the sister Per Lineam Valli atlas website, so they have been put there and you will have to content yourselves with these screenshots.

Mural epigraphy

Think of the inscriptions of Hadrian’s Wall as being like those plastic ducks (and other buoyant bath-time fun chums) that were washed overboard from a container ship in 1992. They are markers. The ducks revealed the subtleties of worldwide ocean currents, and the inscriptions from the Wall zone reveal how that former frontier defence has been spread around the landscape. Field walls, farm buildings, religious houses, and outbuildings all have their fair share of these manuports.* I am frequently asked where Hadrian’s Wall has gone and my standard response is that it is still all around, just slightly rearranged.

RIB 1428

RIB 1428

Of course, they are also an invaluable primary record of the activities of the people of Roman Britain. Their accomplishments, lives, and loves are writ large on the local stone. Like the roughly squared facing stones of the Wall themselves, they are competent, if not outstanding, in their execution. Some are touchingly crude, whilst others are haughtily formal. Before the Vindolanda Tablets became a much-loved treasure, these were the nearest we got to knowing how the local people around the Wall thought and communicated. The stilted, formal phraseology contrasted with the struggles with spelling and grammar that are so often evident.

RIB 2003

RIB 2003

The back-breaking labour of constructing the Wall is relayed to us in the abrupt shorthand of the centurial stones, whilst the observances of the military calendar of the garrison units is conveyed through countless commanding officers dedicating altars to the standard, and some not-so-standard, deities. At the same time, the superstitions of the population are hinted at in offerings to minor deities. The ethnic mix of the Wall population is also clear to see, both in names, places of origin, and deities worshipped.

RIB 1444

RIB 1444

It is also worth recalling what we do not have. The organic epigraphy from the initial construction of the Turf Wall is one of the major missing components. One tiny fragment of a monumental inscription on wood survives from Milecastle 50TW, hinting at what is missing from 30 miles on the western side of the Tyne-Solway isthmus. At the very least, that is 60 milecastle and 24 fort gateway inscriptions, as well as all the intervening centurial records (if they too were in timber). The archaeological record is inevitably biased towards stone inscriptions, but it also presents us with the occasional ‘uninscribed’ item, such as the milestone still to be seen to the west of Great Chesters fort. Finds from Jordan show us that milestones could have painted inscriptions alone and the date distribution of British examples (largely 3rd to 4th century AD) suggests they may also have been just painted in this manner in the first two centuries after the Roman invasion and not inscribed into the surface of the stone until later.

Uninscribed milestone west of Great Chesters

Uninscribed milestone west of Great Chesters

So, with these things in mind, head out to one of the museums where you can see some Hadrian’s Wall inscriptions and let the Romans talk to you.

Chesters museum

Chesters museum


You can find some goodly chunks of mural epigraphy at a number of museums:

Whilst you’re at it, why not pop into Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran to give yourself some background context?

* A manuport is something that has been carried away from its place of origin by hand. Thus each stone of Hadrian’s Wall starts out as a manuport, having been brought from a nearby quarry, but then has to suffer the further indignity of being moved again when reused, and yet again when carted off to a museum!

The PLV eboojs

What did the top of Hadrian’s Wall look like?

If it is accepted that there was a walkway along the top of Hadrian’s Wall (and this has long been a matter of debate), then we may justifiably wonder what the top of the curtain wall actually looked like. In 1927, Amédée Forestier offered one possible interpretation.

First, a walkway would almost inevitably demand a breastwork, otherwise it would be pointless. In Forestier’s vision, it is arguably a little on the low side, but we’ll come back to that later. This would need to defend the lower part of the body of anybody patrolling the Wall. There is an extant example of a breastwork at Dura-Europos in Syria, a Hellenized city with a Roman military presence.

The breastwork at Dura-Europos was preserved beneath the earthen rampart the Romans raised to counter the Persian besiegers’ ramp and shows the likely proportion between breastwork and walkway widths (about 1:2), the use of traverses (we shall return to those, too), and the likely form of at least part of the top of the wall (look at the junction with the tower: this reveals that there were merlon caps). However, it must be remembered that the Romans did not build these defences, they merely adopted them when they took over the city in the 2nd century AD.

Now, there is another, rather important, piece of evidence and it comes from the very heart of the Roman Empire: the Praetorian Camp (Castra Praetoria) in Rome itself. The north and east sides of the Castra Praetoria were incorporated in the later Aurelian Walls of the city. As the walls were raised in height over the years (first in the Flavian, then the Severan, and finally the Aurelian periods) the earlier walls were at least partly preserved. This included the very first Castra Praetoria, built in brick-faced concrete under Tiberius. Gate, interval, and corner towers can still be seen, but so can the breastwork. It has traditionally been interpreted as having narrow merlons and broad crenels (below right) but it can equally well be viewed as having broad merlons and narrow crenels (below left).

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc provided an idealised illustration of what a crenellated wall (of any period) looked like.

Time for some terminology:crenellations

The surviving walls at Pompeii, like Dura-Europos, demonstrate the use of traverses to enhance the effect of crenellation.

The advantage of traverses was that they served to protect the defender from oblique attack through the neighbouring crenel. The disadvantage was that they took up part of the width of the walkway.

On the one hand, when the defences at Saalburg (Germany) were reconstructed, crenellations with a 1:1 proportion (between crenel and merlon) were used and (uniquely for reconstructions) traverses incorporated. Similarly, for both the Vindolanda and Wallsend lengths of reconstructed curtain wall, a 1:1 proportion was also adopted. On the other hand, the reconstructed length of curtain wall and gateway at South Shields fort were given a proportion of 2:1 in favour of the crenels.

Broad crenels and narrow merlons have a long history in scholars’ views of Roman wall breastworks and two items are key in this interpretation. First there is Trajan’s Column. Many Roman defences are depicted on this and some (but not all) have narrow merlons. Of course, Trajan’s Column is an impressionistic source, in the sense that whilst it can be used to demonstrate that crenellations were used, but cannot be relied upon to get the spacings right: it is not a photographic record.

To reinforce the uncertain nature of Trajan’s Column as a visual source for anything, it is also important to remember that these are turf-and-timber forts and camps that are being depicted, not stone fortifications.

When the defences of the fort at Saalburg in Germany were reconstructed, short traverses were added behind the merlons.

The reconstruction of the stone curtain wall of Hadrian’s Wall at Vindolanda chose not to include traverses. A handrail is de rigeur nowadays, but presumably not in the Roman period.Similarly, the short reconstructed length of curtain wall at Wallsend also did not include traverses (but once again requires a handrail).So, what can we say about the top of Hadrian’s Wall? Its width makes a walkway likely and a walkway has to be protected by a breastwork. We know the Romans used crenellations on breastworks, so the Wall would have been crenellated. A hint of this is shown on the Rudge Cup (although even the fact that crenellations are depicted has been disputed: are they in fact turrets which have small merlons on top?).The Rudge CupAs for the proportions of the crenellations, logic dictates that the merlons would have been wider than the crenels. Armies, however, are not always logical.

So there we have it. A brief run through the likely appearance of the top of Hadrian’s Wall in the light of what we know from Roman fortifications elsewhere. But is there any physical evidence? Here’s a merlon cap from South Shields, just south of the River Tyne. If they could have them, why not the Wall?

The PLV eboojs

PLV Inscriptions (Bowness-on-Solway)


In our final tranche of inscriptions from Hadrian’s Wall, we meet the commander of one of the garrison units.



RIB 2056

RIB 2056: Deo Belato/cairo Peisi/us m(iles) solv/it votu/m l(ibens) m(erito) (‘For the god Belatucadrus, Peisius Marcus willingly and deservedly fulfilled a vow’). Altar found before 1873 at Kirkbride. Source: RIB I p.630


RIB 2057

RIB 2057: I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) / pro salute / dd(ominorum) nn(ostrorum) Galli / et Volusiani / Augg(ustorum) Sulpicius / Secundian/us trib(unus) coh(ortis) / [p]osuit (‘For Iupiter Best and Greatest, for the welfare of our lords the emperors Gallus and Volusianus, Sulpicius Secundianus, cohort tribune, set this up’). Altar found in 1739 SW of the fort, now built into a farm building just outside the E gate. Source: RIB I p.630


RIB 2058

RIB 2058: …] / DD(ominorum) nn(ostrorum) G[alli et] / Volusian[i Augg(ustorum)] / Sulpicius S[ecun]/dianus trib(unus) / [coh(ortis)] posuit (‘…our lords the emperors Gallus and Volusianus, Sulpicius Secundianus, cohort tribune, set this up’). Altar found before 1872 built into a cattle shed at Herd Hill. Source: RIB I p.630

RIB 2059: [Matribus deabus aed]em / [Ant]onianus dedico / [se]d date ut fetura quaestus / suppleat votis fidem / aureis sacrabo carmen / mox viritim litteris (‘(For the mother goddesses), I Antonianus dedicate this shrine, but grant that the increase of the venture confirms my prayers and I shall soon adorn each letter of this poem individually with gold’). Dedication slab found before 1791 at Bowness. Source: RIB I pp.630-1

RIB 2060: a) …] MARC AVRELLIVS / IMPERA TRIVMPH / PERSA[… b) …] MARC AVREL / PHILO [… (‘?’). Two fragments found before 1601 at Bowness. Now lost. Source: RIB I p.631


RIB 2061

RIB 2061: Legio / VI V(ictrix) P(ia) / F(idelis) f(ecit) (‘The Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis built this’). Building stone found in 1739 at Bowness. Source: RIB I p.632


There are two inscriptions (2057–8) set up by Sulpicius Secundianus, the tribune in charge of the double-strength infantry cohort based at Bowness in AD251-3. Unfortunately, he did not mention which unit he was commanding. The Notitia Dignitatum is no help as it does not include Maia (Bowness) in its list of commands per lineam valli. Otherwise, we are left wondering whether Antonianus ever gilded the lettering on his altar (2059). It survives (in Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery) and seems decidedly gold-free. Must have been a bad year after all.