The ‘Romans going beyond the wall’ trope

In the past decade or so Hadrian’s Wall has cropped up a bunch of times in popular culture.

Hell, these films all had the same basic plot:

  • King Arthur
  • The Eagle
  • Centurion

To whit; Roman dude and his buddies go ‘beyond the wall’, do things, several of the gang die, the hero returns home worse off for the experience. If you watch Game of Thrones, Jon Snow’s storyline follows the same plot. The 2008 film Doomsday is a near-future spin on the trope.

This trailer only shows a glimpse of the wall, around the 1:10 mark.

The line ‘Open the gate, soldier’ betrays the fact that those soldiers didn’t want to open the gate. This, in turn, reflects a presumption that has gained and lost popularity over the years; that The Wall was the last bastion of civilisation before venturing into the unknown. After all, only a truly civilised culture could build such an impressive edifice, right?

If that’s the case, why do the heroes hate seeing the wall on their return? To them it, and by extension Rome, is either a symbol of betrayed trust or messed-up priorities.

When I first studied The Wall, my best parallel I came across was with the American border with Mexico. Both are designed to be crossed. The border has passport control areas, and the wall has gates every mile. There may be a power (and prosperity) difference across the wall, but it’s not as black-and-white as ‘civilised one side, barbarian on the other’.

King Arthur, Rome, and Hadrian's Wall

In each story, there is a great deal of ‘going native’: The titular Centurion goes off to shack up with a girl living north of The Wall. The hero of The Eagle turns down Roman glory, frees his slave, and decides to go into farming (actually a pretty Roman notion). And King Arthur? He marries a Briton, and becomes King. For reasons.

The real problem with each of these stories is that they are trying to capture a romantic, emotional snapshot. The reality of life in the Roman Legion, and on Hadrian’s Wall, was an entirely pragmatic one. The Wall was there to control the movement of cattle, not people. The Legions were there to maintain a balance of power.

If you want to read more on the subject, Almost Archaeology does a pretty decent analysis of the whole trope. For my own two pence, I’d like to remind the world that Hadrian’s Wall was less than 10% of a border system that stretched across Europe and Africa. I’m getting bored of misty glens and drenched, desperate Romans. Let’s get them hot and dusty instead!

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