1984 [1990]: Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans

Frank Graham promoted Historic Newcastle (1976) as a fitting climax to his local history publishing career, but it was in no sense the end of his output. Throughout the 1970s he had issued a series of books about sections of Hadrian’s Wall and life thereon, illustrated by Ronald Embleton, and mostly written by himself, with notable exceptions being those written by Robin Birley or H. Russell Robinson. Robinson’s What the Soldiers Wore on Hadrian’s Wall (1977) has been described by Mike Bishop at Per Lineam Valli as Graham’s ‘archaeological coup’, breaking with the publiher’s earlier historical works which relied on older accounts of the wall for text and illustration, to present original research in popular form, although this is not to undervalue Birley’s titles for Graham such as Civilians on the Roman Frontier (1973). Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans (1984; second edition, 1990) collected, revised and expanded the material included in the earlier, more slender Hadrian’s Wall books. It was a 320pp hardback with a number of colour and black-and-white illustrations, mostly from Embleton.

Frank Graham told The Journal (Newcastle) that the cost of the 1984 edition was ‘£95,000 – £30,000 for the illustrations alone’ (30 June 1984). My copy is the 1990 edition; the expense of the colour illustrations presumably kept it on Frank Graham’s small list of reserved publications which he did not sell to Richard and Sheena Butler in 1986. Amazon.com suggests a third edition was published in 2003 by W.J. Williams and Son Books Ltd, but I’ve not seen other evidence for this. While Frank Graham’s stated policy was always to print his books in North-east England, this 1990 edition was printed in Slovenia. Presumably increasing consolidation and specialization among printers as well as high costs prevented an affordable option on these shores. Even so, the £29.95 price on this edition was not cheap in 1990 – practically twice the £15 cover price of 1984 – and it is not now.

Graham and Embleton described this book to The Journal as a labour of love. It’s a work of flawed greatness – great, because the effort spent in researching and creating the illustrations is evident, as is the inclusion of engravings from older – mostly out of copyright – works which were a hallmark of Frank Graham’s booklets, but with the advantage that they incorporate reader (and author and illustrator) thereby into an older antiquarian tradition. The flaws lie in the editing of existing material – it’s not clear whether the book thinks that the climate on Hadrian’s Wall in the Roman period was ‘probably warmer’ (p 130) than in the twentieth century, or an earlier suggestion that it was probably much the same. Some illustrations are mentioned in the text at several pages distance from their appearance. A pity, as this is an adventurous volume, possessed like most of Graham’s publications by a cause. Throughout, earlier eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarys’ accounts of Hadrian’s Wall are quoted, often as observers on demolition as stone which had stood for sixteen centuries or more was removed to provide building stone and free land for cultivation. The greatest wrecking of the wall was Marshal Wade’s road along the line of the wall to make it easier for an army in Newcastle to reach Carlisle, which proved too slow a journey when attempted in 1745 when the western city was successfully taken by Jacobites approaching from Scotland. Embleton’s art and Graham’s prose can’t restore all the inscriptions ground to dust by Wade’s men, but they can try to restore both what the wall meant to those who implored the end to its destruction, and depict within limits of imagination and research how the wall functioned as a living and working environment.

One of the strengths of the approach of Embleton and Graham is that they seem scrupulous about explaining what is based on archaeological evidence and what is conjecture. Embleton’s barrack room painting chooses to show the cavalrymen keeping their saddles in their barracks rather than the stables, but this, as the text explains, was imaginary. Others were informed, depictions of upper storeys on Roman structures deriving from the best possible inference. It’s noticeable to the twenty-first century eye that there is no obvious diversity of appearance among Embleton’s soldiers and civilians, but there is a range of personality and purpose depicted; the levity of the naked soldiers in the shared bath, the still watchfulness of the soldiers on duty, the wry smile of the soldier asking directions – and chatting up? – a local woman in her black and white dress, the farmers and labourers facing the remonstrations of William Hutton, horrified at the destruction of the wall a the turn of the nineteenth century. More so than the idealised figures seen in Geordie Pride (1974), these paintings hint at Embleton’s earthy and explicit sexually-charged satires for Penthouse as well as his comic-strip heroes.

Despite its comparatively high price, this is a useful guidebook which must have been carried by several walkers along the wall in recent decades. It empathetically synthesises experience and opinion across ages. The wall is treated as part of landscape and society, associated with roads and lakes and settlements, leaving its mark even where physical traces have been comprehensively removed. Some of its assumptions might seem outdated now – was there ever a fall of Housesteads as depicted in Embleton’s painting, with barbarian warriors overrunning ditch and walls and overpowering the garrison with sword and flame? – but the passion for the subject displayed makes Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans something to cherish.

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