Watchers on the wall


In George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, which gave rise to the series Game of Thrones, a vast wall of ice stretches across the North, 700ft high and hundreds of miles long. It staves off attacks by raiders and magical creatures alike. It’s inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built across what is now Scotland in order to stave off attacks by the Irish (Scotii) and Picts.

The wall was garrisoned by up to 10,000 men at a series of forts and towers, a considerable fighting force of ostensibly trained warriors compared to the more undisciplined raiders from the north.

There are actually two walls, the later Antonine at the Firth of Forth and the better-preserved, older, more southerly Hadrian’s, though much of it has been lost to quarrying and local construction. Having had a top height of about 10ft, It’s somewhat more modest than the wall in Westeros.


Gildas, the sixth-century British month, wrote about them, but gets their order of building wrong. The Antonine, he says, was built first, and he speaks despairingly of it. The Romans, after a plea from the helpless colony, had sent a legion which proceeded to smash Scottish/Pictish resistance and drive them back.

The British were told to construct across the island a wall linking the two seas; properly manned, this would scare away the enemy and act as a protection for the people. But it was the work of a leaderless and irrational mob, and made of turf rather than stone; so it did no good. (Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae 15)

In fact both the Antonine and southern wall were built from a combination of stone and turf; much like the Great Wall of China, it was built from whatever was closest to hand. Studies of Gildas sometimes look upon him unkindly for his portrayal of the walls, based on the paucity of his sources. However, this overlooks that he is making a very deliberate point – that the Britons have been habitually lazy (they “chose to relax in laziness and stupor”) and have preferred to look to abroad for aid rather than help themselves. We must bear in mind that Gildas was not writing history as we understand it; rather, he was using the historical section of his tract as a way of shaming the current day into moral and social reform.

The Romans, Gildas writes, having laid the barbarians low for a second time and, after offering advice on self-defence and urging the Britons to repel the invaders themselves in future, “built a wall quite different from the first. This one ran straight from sea to sea, linking towns that happened to have been sited there out of fear of the enemy” (DEB 18.2). The implication is that it was of stone, or at least better quality materials; there is a reference to a series of towers.

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be a soldier on the wall in the middle of winter, listening to the howls of the wind and wondering if, somewhere out there in the darkness, one of the native tribes was preparing to attack. It’s difficult to imagine the strangeness and fear that would bring, fear of the unknown territory as much as unknown attack. The dark is foreboding enough without having to worry about a spear in the guts or an arrow through the brain. The garrisons might have had troops from abroad, but eventually they were mostly locals.

A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them [Irish and Picts], but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee; the men were foolish and frightened, and they sat about day and night, rotting in their folly. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground … I need say no more. Our citizens abandoned the towns and the high wall [and were scattered] (Gildas, DEB 19.2-3)

For fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, this might seem vaguely familiar, with the decaying defences paralleling how the forts along the Wall had fallen into ruin and the defenders, the Night’s Watch, had been whittled down to a fraction of what they had been thousands of years previously.


While Martin is using it for dramatic effect, heralding the danger of a supernatural invasion from the far north, Gildas is again using it for political reasons. For instance, he makes it seem like the walls were built and abandoned in quick succession. The Antonine wall (built c.AD140) was indeed abandoned within 20 years, and briefly restored by Emperor Severus (c.AD200). However, Hadrian’s, built from about AD120 was garrisoned up until the early part of the fifth century, when the Romans withdrew from Britain. Gildas is collapsing history to make a moral point.

This is the kind of thing I meant when I wrote a few days ago about interrogating documents. Gildas has an agenda, so there’s no point just dismissing or accepting what he says on face value – you need to look more closely at the text to see what he really means.

I’m sure he would have considered himself a watcher on the wall, trying desperately to alert his contemporaries of dangers (temporal and spiritual) he saw coming their way, railing against the follies of the modern world and despairing that nobody is acting upon his warnings. I suspect he would have made an interesting blogger. Mad, though.