The Army on the Wall: Prologue

Thought you knew the Roman army? Well, you’re in for a surprise. You’ve been looking through a glass darkly, my friends. Allow me to share my view of the reality with you.

First, let’s distinguish between the builders of Hadrian’s Wall and the garrison: not the same thing at all.

The Builders: a Prologue

RIB 1638

What do you notice about this inscription? Try breaking it into three parts: dedication, execution, attribution.


This is the inscription (from Milecastle 38, if you must know, but there are virtually identical ones from elsewhere) that gave antiquaries the clue that Hadrian, not Severus, built the stone wall. However, I want you to analyse the nomenclature. IMP(eratori). The first word on the first line is easily overlooked, because we instantly, almost autonomically, think ’emperor’; but a Roman soldier looked at it differently. ‘Imperator‘ meant victorious general, hailed as such by his troops. True, only emperors received that acclamation from Augustus onwards, but that’s not the point. First word, first line: ‘conquering general’. Next comes the meat of the nomenclature: CAES(aris) TRAIAN(i) HADRIANI AUG(usti). No praenomen, no nomen, just Hadrian’s cognomen and that of his adoptive father (think Trajan, think warrior), sandwiched between the weasel words of Empire, Caesar and Augustus. This man is the commander-in-chief; your commander-in-chief.


Whodunnit. Now look carefully at the named unit. What do you notice? LEG(io) II AVG(usta). That’s right, there’s a missing word: VEX(illatio). The building work is not being undertaken by a detachment of the legion, but by the whole unit. In other words, their eagle (and the accompanying HQ staff) has travelled north with them; Legio II Augusta is in the field.


So, finally, who’s the project manager? Oh yes, A(ulo) PLATORIO NEPOTE LEG(ato Augusti) PR(o) PR(aetore). He gets the full tria nomina. Commander of the Exercitus Britannicus, newly arrived (by 17th July AD 122) from commanding the Exercitus Germanicus Inferior, where he had been Hadrian’s man to shake it up a bit … no, no, no, he’s NOT the governor, that’s just silly modern politico speak. He is The Commander of the Army in Britannia, deputed as such by the Emperor himself, and he just happens to have gubernatorial duties as well … as do the legionary commanders … and all the auxiliary commanders … in fact, just like any aristocrat anywhere in the Roman world. He learned how to run an army and a province by running an army unit and its civil settlement (possibly several times) and mixing with other men who had done it. The process was the same, only the scale changed. In fact, you could pretty much run an empire like that (oops, no! Pretend I didn’t say that! Thinking like that could be dangerous … couldn’t it, Sallustius Lucullus?).

Remember, Hadrian’s Wall was built ‘to separate the barbarians from the Romans‘; yet, who is the inscription telling its story to? The clue is in the language used: the Romans themselves. More specifically, the Exercitus Britannicus. Ever heard of esprit de corps? This inscription positively oozes it. The Romans kept their army (or, rather, armies) successful by keeping them competitive. It could all go horribly wrong at times (think of those inscriptions to Concordia!) but, by and large, it worked. How best to get a massive engineering task completed? By injecting a little of the competitive spirit into it. There were few finer managers of men (proponents of Japanese management techniques would doubtless approve of Hadrian’s no-nonsense approach) and he managed to combine that sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling (except he really did it, unlike modern politicians) with touting the due reverence of that ominous and oh-so-prominent Imperator.

So there you have it: a new way of looking at RIB 1638. And you thought it just told you who built the milecastle!

NEXT: Who built the Wall?