Roman History on our Doorstep
Wallsend is an interesting place which is very readily accessible and has much to commend it. It exudes layers of history, being the eastern reach of Hadrian’s Wall, then a centre of coal-mining, then a centre of ship-building and now effectively a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The layers have overlapped, but now they have been partially separated and excellently displayed in the Segedunum Roman museum on the site.
Wallsend is very easy to reach from the centre ofNewcastle as it is on the Metro system and only ten minutes from Monument which is one metro-stop away from Newcastle Central Station. As soon as you get off the Metro, the spirit of the place is apparent, with a sign in Latin directing you to the buses and Latin signs on the platforms. In Roman times, Wallsend was the site of Segedunum, the fort at the eastern reach of Hadrian’s wall, which is why the place acquired the name Wall’s-end. Segedunum is Latin for "strong fort", and this is what it had to be in its heyday.
From the Metro station it is only five minutes walk to site of Segedunum and the first thing you notice is the impressive observation tower of the museum which provides an aerial view of the remains of the fort and the remaining ship-building activity on the Tyne. From the tower it is easy to see the outlines of the buildings which comprised the Roman Fort. There was accommodation for men, horses, grain and supplies, and it would have been a thriving and disciplined complex.
The museum at ground level is well kept and presents a very good impression of what the fort buildings were and the hierarchy and skills of the men who manned them. There is a feeling of living history to the point that once the 21st Century technology is taken away, a Roman soldier's life in the fort then would not have been too different from how things would be today. The men would be doing a job and when things were quiet, enjoying recreational pastimes just as we do.
The weaponry, rank and discipline were peculiarly Roman, and since Hadrian’s 21 year reign from the year 117, when the Roman Empire was near its peak, the discipline was strict and military training standardised. Wallsend is only one of many such Roman fortifications that were built along the more than 80 miles of the wall. Soldiers would have been moved between these forts as the need presented itself. They would also have been moved to and from it from other parts of the Empire and as they arrived here or went to forts elsewhere they would need to know exactly what to do to maintain Roman might. The Roman private soldier had to be more afraid of his centurion than of the enemy.
The museum has a reconstructed Roman bath-house, but this had to be placed within the walls of the fortification because the original bath-house site has buildings from Wallsend’s shipbuilding era. The original was outside the walls of the fort, and was only added more than a century after the fort was built. That allowed almost two centuries of use as the fort functioned for three hundred years until the Roman Empire collapsed. The bath-house provided some home comforts for the men in a cold, damp climate at the far north-western reach of a vast empire, stretching 2,500 miles. One wonders how it would have felt to be posted a thousand miles from home in or near Italy to such a climate.
Much of the wall is now gone, the section in Wallsend being visible but only at ground level. The museum has made up a section as is believed the wall originally was. This was twelve feet high with battlements and wide enough for three to walk abreast on top. A very effective barrier to the hostile tribes of the North, which with the garrison and the fort system would have made it impenetrable.
One can only marvel at the organisation and labour required to construct such a long and solid wall. It was a major project which would require men, materials and labour, all carefully organised, to produce the final fortification. Much of the labour would no doubt have come from slaves.
So what of Hadrian, the man behind it? He was a protégé of Trajan, a previous Roman Emperor whose statue you will find in the City of London, near the entrance to Tower Hill station, next to London’s Roman Wall. Hadrian was an energetic man who reigned for 21 years. He was keen to promote Roman and Greek culture in an empire which stretched from England to Mesopotamia, taking in the whole circumference of the Mediterranean Sea. It was important to him to put the Roman stamp on the conquered territories and to conduct campaigns to extend the empire or to put down rebellions. His repression of the peoples the Romans had conquered was savage and uncompromising.
He would spend time with working Roman soldiers in their encampments to know what was going on and to take a personal interest in the workings of the Roman army as an instrument both of conquest and of maintaining order.
How difficult it would have been for him to imagine that but 300 years after he built the forts and the wall, Rome would have degenerated to the point at which the empire would fade away and the city of Rome itself would be sacked and destroyed. When that happened, the wall and the empty forts remained as a mark of the civilisation that the Romans had brought with them to this outpost of the empire.
So as we leave Wallsend we pass the Latin transport signs again and wait for the Metro to take us back to Newcastle, we can reflect that as well as the wall, the Romans left us with the useful Latin word “omnibus” - a way we can return to Newcastle if the Metro takes too long to arrive.