The Wall – by Historian John Henry Clay

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The Game of Thrones Wall and Hadrian’s Wall. Images: © HBO and JW Clay (respectively).


This week we are delighted and honored to have an article by historian and novelist John Henry Clay. Dr. Clay is a lecturer in medieval history at Durham University and the author of The Lion and the Lamb, an epic novel of Roman Britain.


When it comes to real-world inspirations behind Game of Thrones, they don’t come much more obvious than Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans called it uallum Aelii, ‘the frontier of Aelius’, using Emperor Hadrian’s family name. In interviews George R. R. Martin has described seeing it for the first time:

A friend of mine, Lisa Tuttle (we wrote Windhaven together), had just moved to Scotland and was giving me a tour. We were driving in her car and got to Hadrian’s Wall at the end of the day. The tour buses were leaving. We walked along the top of the wall just as the sun was going down. It was the fall. I stood there and looked out over the hills of Scotland and wondered what it would be like to be a Roman centurion from Italy, Greece, or even Africa, covered in furs and not knowing what would be coming out of the north at you. I wanted to capture that feeling.

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View of Hadrian’s Wall near Housesteads. Image: © JW Clay

It’s a common reaction to Hadrian’s Wall. There isn’t much to see of it now, even in the best preserved sections, but in such an evocative landscape a little imagination can go a long way. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has used a lot of imagination to go even further. His vision of ‘the Wall’ is more like how Hadrian’s Wall might have loomed as a symbol in the Roman psyche – much bigger than reality, more daunting, dividing the imperium from barbaricum, and the realm of light and warmth from a realm of darkness and cold.

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The Staffordshire Moorlands Cup is a Roman ‘souvenir’ cup inscribed with the names of four forts along the Wall.

Here are a few fascinating facts about the two Walls…

Building the Wall

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The Wall at Castle Black. © HBO

In the world of Westeros, the Wall was built 7,000 years ago by Brandon the Builder. At one point in A Storm of Swords, Martin gives a hint about how Brandon used the landscape to his advantage1 :

Before them, the ice rose sheer from the trees like some immense cliff, crowned by wind-carved battlements that loomed at least eight hundred feet high, perhaps nine hundred in spots. But that was deceptive, Jon realised as they drew closer. Brandon the Builder had laid his huge foundation blocks along the heights wherever feasible, and hereabouts the hills rose wild and rugged.

Hadrian’s Wall was built in a few short years from AD 122 by soldiers from three legions. No historical record survives of the actual planning and engineering involved, but the artefact speaks for itself. The Roman surveyors knew exactly what they were doing when they chose the narrow neck between the Solway Firth and Tynemouth. The landscape here is defined by the Whin Sill: some 420 million years ago this long slab of igneous rock broke up through the surface, resulting in a series of east-west scarps that present sheer cliff faces towards the north.

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Part of the Whin Sill – the Wall no longer survives along the top.  Image: © JW Clay

Emperor Hadrian, keen engineer that he was, couldn’t have dreamed up a better geological fluke. So while Hadrian’s Wall itself only stood about 20 feet high – scalable with a good-sized ladder – if you put that 20-foot wall on top of a 50-foot cliff, it’s a very different story.

Vows of Celibacy and Banned Marriage

Unlike the Night’s Watch, Roman soldiers never had to take a vow of celibacy. Had any emperor tried to enforce such a rule, he wouldn’t have lasted long. However, until the third century the rank and file were forbidden by law from marrying, though that wouldn’t have stopped them wandering off campus now and then to the Roman equivalent of Mole’s Town. One common misconception about Hadrian’s Wall is that it was manned by legionaries from the Mediterranean. This isn’t entirely true – it was built by legionaries, but it was garrisoned by auxiliaries, non-citizens who were recruited from many different parts of the empire.

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Reconstruction of a Wall fortress (Housesteads Roman Fort). Image: © English Heritage

For example, the fort of Vercovicium (Housesteads), the setting for part of my novel, was garrisoned by the First Tungrian Cohort. The Tungrians were a tribe from the lower Rhine, so cold and damp weren’t exactly foreign to them. The most exotic troops on the Wall were a detachment at Arbeia on the east coast – they were Tigris boatmen from Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, the very farthest corner of the empire. They were probably used to the damp… not so much the cold. Commanding officers were luckier, as they could marry and even have their families live with them in a comfortable Italian-style courtyard villa, set rather incongruously in the middle of a military base. As the famous letters from Vindolanda show, life for the officers’ wives must have been pretty lonely at times.

Feeding the Wall

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Gilly brandishes a joint of meat from the larder. © HBO.

It’s estimated that the full garrison of Hadrian’s Wall numbered about 10,000 troops. That’s a lot of hungry men, not to mention the thousands of horses, mules, oxen and other animals. They all had to be fed somehow. The Night’s Watch have the Gift and Brandon’s Gift to support them. The Romans must have had something similar, drawing most of their supplies from local communities through taxation. Anything else they would have imported via the military supply network.

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The Starks gave the Night’s Watch the territory called The Gift so they could get provisions and food. Image from the HBO Viewer’s Guide. © HBO.

In the early phase of the Wall the Romans kept the locals at arm’s length by digging a massive ditch to the south – known today, confusingly, as the uallum (which can mean ‘ditch’ as well as ‘frontier’). This probably defined a militarised zone, necessary so long as the Romans were seen as an invading force, facing hostility from the south as well as the north.

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Reconstruction of a section of the Wall (Vindolanda Roman Fort). Image: © JW Clay

Things changed after a few generations. In the third century all freeborn men within the empire were granted Roman citizenship, obscuring the line between Roman and non-Roman. By this time most of the regiments on the Wall were probably recruiting locally, and villages were springing up within the uallum, bunching up right to the gates of the forts themselves. Far from being foreign occupiers, the ‘Roman’ garrisons were now part of local society.

Conscripts and deserters

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The recruits at the Night’s Watch: Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), Sam  Tarley (John Bradley), Pyp (Josef Atlin), and Grenn (Mark Stanley).  © HBO.

The Night’s Watch are a pretty rough bunch, mostly petty criminal conscripts who ‘take the black’ only to avoid prison or execution. Few of them actually want to be freezing to death on the Wall. The Roman Army was different, right? Not so much. By the fourth century, the Roman world was a long way from an idealised republic of free citizens. To be ‘freeborn’ was not necessarily to be free. According to a law of AD 313, the sons of veterans were legally forced to sign up, whether they wanted to or not. Some were so desperate to avoid the army they cut off their thumbs to make themselves unfit for service. Others had relatives who begged high-ranking officers for special treatment, like in this letter from the personal archive of Flavius Abinnaeus, a cavalry commander in Egypt2 :

I am writing to you about my wife Naomi’s brother. He is a soldier’s son, and he has been enrolled to go for a soldier. If you can release him again it is a fine thing you do … since his mother is a widow and has none but him. But if he must serve, please safeguard him from going abroad with the draft for the field army.

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Papyrus letter from the archive of Abbinaeus (National Museum of Berlin)

Desertion from the ranks became such a problem that the emperors issued a series of tough laws trying to stop it. If any commoner was caught harbouring a deserter, he or she could be enslaved and sent to the imperial mines. According to another law, they could even be burned alive. Not even the nobility were spared: they could not be physically harmed, but they would lose half their property.

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Ned (Sean Bean) executes a deserter from the Night’s Watch. © HBO

Still, every army in history (apart from the Unsullied!) has had to deal with shirkers and deserters, and military service was still an attractive option for many Romans. For the people who lived along Hadrian’s Wall, after 250 years the army had become even more than this – it was a way of life, as it is for families who live near army bases today. Even if the garrisons couldn’t be kept at full strength, there would always be a strong pool of local recruits. Generation upon generation of military families must have lived and died in the forts of the Wall, with traditions being handed down from father to son.

The Mysteriously Abandoned Wall

The end of Hadrian’s Wall is one of its biggest mysteries. When and why was it abandoned? The Romans officially relinquished Britain about AD 410, and 300 years later a local Anglo-Saxon monk wrote our first actual eye-witness account of the Wall3 :

This famous wall, which is still to be seen, was built at the public and private expense, the Britons also lending their assistance. It is eight feet in breadth, and twelve in height, in a straight line from east to west, as is still visible to beholders .

This monk, Bede, was fascinated by Roman ruins, but after three centuries the Wall had become an object of mystery. Nobody even remembered when it had been built; Bede thought the Romans had only built it when they left Britain. In truth, most people weren’t interested. The Wall was mainly used as a handy quarry of pre-cut stone for everything from churches and farm houses to field boundaries – which is why so little of it survives today.

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The Roman granary at Birdoswald (Birdoswald Roman Fort) Image: © English Heritage

Archaeology, though, has opened up the picture. It seems that the Wall wasn’t abandoned overnight. Many of the garrisons were probably left behind to defend the Wall until the empire could reclaim Britain. They weren’t to know that such a time would never come. Meanwhile, they did what they had been doing for generations: they defended their communities. The difference now was that there was no central command issuing orders or sending pay packets. The result? A gradual shift from professional regiments to paramilitary militias, and from official Roman commanders to petty local lords. There’s no better illustration of this than Banna (Birdoswald), one of the major forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Here archaeologists discovered an amazing sequence of buildings overlying the fort granary. Originally built of stone, after the granary collapsed it was directly replaced by a large timber building – the sort of feasting hall associated with Dark Age lords and kings.

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The Dark Age timber hall at Birdoswald (Birdoswald Roman Fort) Image: © English Heritage

So at Banna it seems that the fort wasn’t abandoned when the Romans left. In fact the Romans never ‘left’, as such. The soldiers and their families simply adapted to a very different world – a less certain world, where they had to fight to survive amidst the crumbling ruins of an empire. Now, that’s a good story. In Game of Thrones, the Wall is in a poor state. Most of the forts have been long abandoned, and there are hardly enough men to guard the ones left. When winter truly comes, will the Westerosi Wall go the way of its Roman model? No-one except George R. R. Martin knows what the future holds for the Sworn Brothers of the Night’s Watch…


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© Craig McKibbin

John Henry Clay was born in Birmingham, England and honed a lifelong interest in the early medieval by studying archaeology at the University of York. After living in exotic locales around the world like Mexico, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, he completed a PhD at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York. Dr. Clay is a lecturer of medieval history at Durham University. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Lion and the Lamb. John is currently busy working on his second novel, performing research, and introducing new generations of students to the real-life drama and excitement of the early Middle Ages.

Find out more at www.johnhenryclay.co.uk

Follow John on Twitter @JohnHenryClay and John Henry Clay on Facebook


lion-and-the-lamb-john-henry-clayThe Lion and the Lamb by John Henry Clay

Condemned to a hovel, beaten by a merciless commander, crushed by the weather and forced to survive on starvation rations: no one looking at Paul would ever guess that he is heir to one of Roman Britain’s wealthiest families. But Paul had his reasons for joining the army and fleeing the family he loves.

But when rumors of a barbarian uprising from beyond the Wall begin to circulate, Paul realizes that his family is in grave danger.

With only the former slave-girl Eachna for company, Paul deserts the army, for which the penalty is death, and undertakes a hazardous journey across Britain where danger lurks round every corner.

Epic in scope, rich with historical detail, The Lion and the Lamb is a novel of Roman Britain on the cusp of the Dark Ages, when all that stands between her citizens and oblivion is one family.

The Lion and the Lamb (Amazon US)

The Lion and the Lamb (Amazon UK)


 

  1.  A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow, p. 406, UK edition []
  2.  Pat Southern and Karen Dixon, The Late Roman Army, p. 69 []
  3.  Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book I, chapter 12 []
John Henry Clay

Historian, novelist, and sometime archaeologist is a lecturer in early medieval history at Durham University. His debut novel, The Lion and the Lamb, is located in the Late Roman Empire. The Lion and the Lamb is a family saga set against the exciting backdrop of military adventure.

8 Comments

  • Olga Hughes
    Reply June 13, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    A fantastic article John, really fascinating – and great to see so many references to the books.
    I am glad you mentioned the fate of the Wall, at the moment I am still guessing the change in climate will be absolutely catastrophic. Except I can’t go into spoilers of course…

    • Reply June 13, 2014

      John Henry Clay

      Thanks Olga! Yes, the Romans never had to contend with what the Night’s Watch are facing, weather and all…

  • Reply June 13, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I’ve been to the Vindolanda fortress; some years back, before the Millennium anyway. It’s interesting to read that some of the people who manned the wall were from far flung people of the Roman Empire. When the TV show “Merlin” (which admittedly did differ from the myths quite significantly) was aired in the UK – well it was a UK show – some people got their undies in quite a knot because the actress playing Guinevere was of mixed race. I did try to say that although there were probably not many people of mixed race in Britain in the “Dark Ages” it was just possible as the Roman Empire extended into part of north Africa and it was possible that sub-Saharan Africans (as opposed to coastal North Africans) might have migrated north and joined a Roman legion and ended up doing a tour of duty in Britain and perhaps inter-marrying (or having relations with) local ladies. Also there would very likely have been sailors from Africa on some of the ships serving the Roman Empire. I don’t think I managed to convince anybody who thought a certain way to think differently, though.

    I had never thought about non-military auxiliaries manning Hadrian’s Wall but it makes sense. Nowadays there are civil servants who help the police or members of the judicial system. I remember seeing an advertisement for assistants to circuit judges and thought it looked interesting (this was while I was still working full-time). Trouble was that as well as the secretarial support and administration side of it they wanted people who could be chauffeurs too and I was so out of practice with driving that I gave that application a miss.

    I shall have to look out for the novel by the writer of this article. I shall probably go the library route. Books are so expensive now but this is not the place to rant about that….I don’t have a Kindle but I have an e-book reader which is a poor relation of the Kindle so perhaps I could use that. I am grateful to the writer for providing a thought-provoking article.

    • Reply June 13, 2014

      John Henry Clay

      Thank you for the interesting comments! I agree about the silliness of fussing about the casting of Guinevere in “Merlin”. At least in the Roman period Britain must have been pretty multicultural. Besides, if someone watching “Merlin” is that bothered about historical accuracy, they should probably complain first about all the magic… 😉

  • Reply June 15, 2014

    Melanie

    “His vision of ‘the Wall’ is more like how Hadrian’s Wall might have loomed as a symbol in the Roman psyche – much bigger than reality, more daunting, dividing the imperium from barbaricum, and the realm of light and warmth from a realm of darkness and cold.”

    Well put, Mr. Clay. I’ll look for your novel.

    (I have happy memories of staying at a sheep farm in Cumberland built along remnants of the wall–and of my daughter’s making a snowbaby, whom she named “Coventina” for the Romano-British goddess of springs and wells. A fascinating part of the world.)

  • Reply June 17, 2014

    Anonymous

    Here are so more facts about Hadrian’s wall.. It was to control people who had been transported to the wilds of north England to fell and process timber for the towns of the Roman empire, its main function was to stop them rustling and raiding upon the settled lands of the Tyne valley and would have been a replacement for the less effective vallum; the mile castles are where charcoal and deal would be exchanged for a payment of corn; the large forts with granaries is where the corn would have been stored; the Stafford cup most likely belonged to a merchant who became wealthy from trading at the wall.

  • Reply June 17, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Is the Stafford cup part of the Staffordshire Hoard, Anonymous (if not sorry to show my ignorance)? I’m from mid-Staffordshire (the hoard was discovered further south in the county) but I’ve never found anything more exciting than rusty tin cans…not that I go out with a metal detector or even go out looking for buried treasure. Some friends and I (when we were quite young kids) thought we might have found the skeleton of a prehistoric fish one time, but my pal’s mother said “Looks more like kipper bones to me”. Translation for people outside the UK a “kipper” is a “kippered herring”

  • […] the “civilized” by a massive wall manned at various outpost-castles along its length.  History Behind Game of Thrones explains the inspiration according to Martin’s own […]

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