Hadrian’s Wall — The Inspiration Behind The Wall in Game of Thrones
Hadrian’s Wall was used to “assuage the fears of those it supposedly guarded.”
“For nearly three centuries, until the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410, Hadrian’s Wall was the clearest statement possible of the might, resourcefulness, and determination of an individual emperor and of his empire,” — Jarrett Lobell, Archaeology
It’s no secret I’ve been re-watching Game of Thrones, the HBO show my friends just couldn’t shut up about for several years. If I’m being honest, I didn’t even watch all of the show the first time: I was the guy who read the books, so this is my first serious watch-through. In the show, there’s a wall at the north end of the Seven Kingdoms, designed to keep heathens and perceived “savages” away from the realm. The Wall is 700 feet tall and made of ice, made of magic, and defended by just a handful of soldiers at three major castles.
In real life, I thought the wall’s original inspiration was the Great Wall of China. However, scouring through the Internet, I realized George R.R. Martin himself credited Hadrian’s Wall as the real inspiration behind the famous wall. Hadrian’s Wall was named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who built the wall in 122 A.D.
According to Carly Silver at Smithsonian Magazine, the “barbarians” and “savages” Hadrian’s Wall was designed to protect the Romans from were the Picts. The Picts occupied modern-day Scotland, and they were known as “the painted ones” in Latin, referring to the group’s body tattoos. They would usually raid Roman territories in guerilla warfare style, stealing cattle from the Romans as well as taking slaves.
Jarrett Lobell at Archaeology calls Hadrian’s Wall “the wall at the end of the Empire.” Hadrian made a visit to the province of Britannia in 122 A.D. and had been emperor for five years at the time. As someone who traveled through half the empire, Hadrian knew and wanted to build architecture all over the empire, much like Augustus.
Despite the empire being at peace during the Pax Romana, Hadrian wanted to cement his legacy with other expressions of greatness, like art and architecture. Lobell notes Hadrian built the largest temple in ancient Rome, and he also presided over the restoration of the Temple of Olympian Zeus with a statue to Zeus there. In front of the temple, Hadrian built a statue of himself, just so the Greeks wouldn’t forget who was in charge.
Because of the great size of the Roman Empire, Hadrian ceded territory he couldn’t defend. East of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, he started ceding territory. He also made the borders of the empire natural boundaries that could be easily defended, like the Euphrates River.
In Britannia, however, the act of defending the empire was much more complicated. There were no “broad rivers,” in Lobell’s words, to defend the Roman Empire from the Celtic tribes in the north.
“Hadrian decided that the only solution was to build a wall,” Lobell says.
As a wall, Hadrian’s Wall was made entirely of stone, and still survives today because of that reason. It would span 73 miles, and while the eastern part of the wall was built entirely of stone, the western part of the wall had turf and timber. There would be several modifications to the wall over time, like replacing the turf and timber with stone.
But in six years, the construction of Hadrian’s Wall was completed. 15,000 Roman troops occupied Great Britain, and the wall accomplished its defensive purpose. According to Silver, 15,000 men weren’t enough men to adequately defend the area, so a small group of soldiers on the wall could hold off a large force of enemies while reinforcements arrived. Notably, the wall stopped horses from getting into Roman territory, stopping mounting raiders.
“Delaying an attack for even a day or two would enable other troops to come to that area,” Benjamin Hudson, a history professor at Pennsylvania State University said.
Of course, Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t just used to keep out intruders — it was also used to tax locals who needed to cross the wall. It also served to keep Roman subjects inside the walls as much as it served to keep intruders out. As a major public works project, the Romans also used Hadrian’s Wall to give thousands of workers and soldiers work.
In a way, Hadrian’s Wall functioned very similarly to the Wall in Game of Thrones. While Hadrian’s Wall is not 300 miles long, 700 feet tall, or made of ice, it served to keep out raiders and enemies to the north.
As Lobell notes, the construction of Hadrian’s Wall was intended to be a statement. Did Hadrian’s Wall actually work to keep the Picts away? Well, one time, historian Tim Clarkson says the Picts overtook Hadrian’s Wall in the 180s. Over the following several centuries, the Picts successfully invaded Roman lands, all the way until Britain left the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
Silver says Hadrian’s Wall was used to “assuage the fears of those it supposedly guarded.” But Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t the only wall in Great Britain — The Antoine Wall was built 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, and was more reinforced. According to blogger Kate Dolan, a huge difference between these walls and the Wall in the show was the sheer size of the Wall prevented intruders, while more men had to be used to defend the Roman walls.
Regardless, the inspiration doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the fictional wall. Perhaps it was more about perception than the walls themselves — to the south, according to Dolan, the Romans saw civilization. To the north, they saw the wilderness.
Originally published on September 15, 2021 on Frame of Reference.
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