The best books about Hadrian’s Wall

The Books I Picked & Why

Hadrian's Wall

By Brian Dobson, David J Breeze

Hadrian's Wall

Why this book?

When I’m researching a historical novel, I always find that I have what I think of as my ‘bible’, the go-to book I turn to when I am stuck for the kind of detail that gives a book layers and makes people think, or even for inspiration. Breeze and Dobson were my go-to experts when I was writing The Wall, which is set in the twilight years of a dying Roman Britain. Hadrian’s Wall places these island’s greatest and most fascinating Roman monument in the context of the Empire and examines in forensic detail its construction, development, function and decline over a period of almost three hundred years, introducing along the way the men who built it and garrisoned it. The Wall as we know it is very different from that originally envisaged by Hadrian and we know, from the alterations that took place over the centuries, that its purpose changed along with the challenges faced by the province of Britannia. Yet for all the detail contained in this wonderful book, the ‘Why?’ of Hadrian’s Wall remains a tantalizing enigma, just out of reach.


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Garrison Life at Vindolanda

By Anthony Birley

Garrison Life at Vindolanda

Why this book?

No list of the best books about Hadrian’s Wall would be complete without Anthony Birley’s hugely insightful and endlessly absorbing book about the Roman fort at Vindolanda, even if Vindolanda, a fort on the Stanegate, is not, in reality, part of Hadrian’s Wall at all. For Vindolanda is the only place in what was the Roman Empire that we actually get to meet the auxiliary soldiers who made up much of the Roman army, and the ordinary people with whom they interacted. Listen very carefully, and you can even hear them speak. The keys that open the door to their lives are the world-acclaimed Vindolanda Tablets, small slivers of alder or birch 15cm x10, which were used to send letters or messages. These tiny time capsules have opened up the lives and given us the names of several hundred of the Batavian and Tungrian soldiers who garrisoned Vindolanda, and introduced the civilian men and women who lived alongside them. Who can ever forget the first time they read the words ‘If you love me brother, send me some hunting nets ...’ from Vindolanda’s commander Flavius Cerealis to his friend Brocchus, or the birthday invitation from Brocchus’s wife Claudia Severa, to her ‘sister’ Sulpicia Lepidina. Like the Wall itself, the tablets are one of the wonders of the world, and this is the perfect introduction to them.


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The Wall: Rome's Greatest Frontier

By Alistair Moffat

The Wall: Rome's Greatest Frontier

Why this book?

A non-fiction book with the same title as my novel, well why not? Alistair Moffat is an old friend and fellow Borderer who grew up not so far north of Hadrian’s Wall and has an abiding passion for history, language and place. What I love about The Wall is the way it manages to encompass the grand theme of the Romans in Britain and at the same time shine a spotlight on the fascinating minutiae of life in those ancient times. Thus we learn about the games the Roman soldiers played, the food they consumed and the building techniques they used to construct the Wall. Fair enough, you say, but … where else would we discover that the historian Suetonius, whose Life of the Twelve Caesars helped inform several of my earlier novels, was sacked by the Emperor Hadrian. That WH Auden wrote a poem called ‘Roman Wall Blues’. Or that beneath Hexham Abbey lie the remains of St Wilfrid’s seventh century church built by stone mined from the Roman town of Corbridge, which contains a pagan altar (two of which, from the cavalry fort at Cappuck, also make up the fabric of Jedburgh Abbey, just up Dere Street, or the A68 as we call it now).


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An Archaeological Guide to Walking Hadrian's Wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend

By M.C. Bishop

An Archaeological Guide to Walking Hadrian's Wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend

Why this book?

The only way to see Hadrian’s Wall properly is to visit it on foot. Only then can you experience it as the Roman soldiers who garrisoned it between 122AD and 410AD experienced it, especially when the freezing hail comes howling in from the north. If Breeze and Dobson have written the definitive book on Hadrian’s Wall, Mike Bishop, who has walked, cycled, driven and flown along the Wall, is undoubtedly the font of all knowledge, immersed in every detail. Backed by a lifetime of archaeological experience, this guide allows you to see the monument through his eyes, with a host of historical and physical detail that most people miss. It follows the Hadrian’s Wall Trail, which Mike was involved in from the start, but where the path deviates from the Wall, this account stays with it, allowing the reader to experience and examine remains most other walkers don’t. I was fortunate enough to walk a section of the Wall with Mike from Twice Brewed to Chollerford, along with my fellow Roman era authors Ben Kane, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield, and his attention to detail is just what you’d expect from a man who has even gone to the extraordinary lengths of investigating what Hadrian’s Wall sounds like.


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Hadrian's Wall

By Derry Brabbs

Hadrian's Wall

Why this book?

Last, but certainly not least, the iconic landmark captured through the lens of a master. Despite the sub-title to my previous book, Mike Bishop’s preferred route along Hadrian’s Wall is from west to east, with the prevailing wind at his back. Derry Brabbs obviously agrees, because this beautifully illustrated book takes us from the Solway Coast to Wallsend in a series of stunning photographs that capture the Wall in the kind of breathtaking detail that perfectly illustrates why Brabbs is one of the UK’s most highly regarded photographers. It’s not just about the amazing vistas and moody landscapes, there is a very readable narrative, but it’s the photographs that will draw you back time and time again.


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