Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall by Rob CollinsLiving on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall by Rob Collins

Living on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall by Rob CollinsLiving on the Edge of Empire: The Objects and People of Hadrian’s Wall (2020) is a lavishly illustrated glimpse at the daily lives of soldiers and others who lived in and along Hadrian’s Wall during the several centuries it was occupied by the Romans. While there are more academic works available, this is an excellent read for non-researchers or for those who might want an introduction to more difficult, comprehensive works; say, a writer planning on setting a story in Roman Britain.

Following the introduction, Collins divides the book into eight sections: the makeup of the communities and homes, dress, food and drink, weapons and armor, daily business and entertainment, religious beliefs, “unknowns” (more on this later), and the post-Roman years of the wall. As noted, the book is chock-full of photographs illustrating the archaeological conclusions regarding types of food eaten, shoes worn, weapons wielded, etc. This is absolutely the highlight of the book. The photographic detail is vividly sharp, and while most of the objects show the expected signs of their age, some of them are in shockingly good shape, allowing the reader to fully imagine them in the hands of a Roman soldier as they drank or diced.

The text, meanwhile, is efficient, informative, and clear throughout. Collins avoids being overly generalizing in his approach, making necessary distinctions when necessary in terms of class or regional background, noting for instance that most inhabitants probably slept on simple floor pallets, while those who could afford more luxurious accommodations might have a bed and a hay-filled mattress, and those even further up the social status ladder would fill their mattresses with wool or feathers. One of the more fascinating sections is the religious one, as Collins goes beyond the traditional Roman pantheon most readers will already be well aware of, discussing not only nearly-as-well-known mystery cults like Mithras, but also hyper-local gods whose names are found on shrines, amulets, and the like. I also loved that Collins included the “unknowns” section, which details multiple objects whose purposes we can only guess at, such as a series of dodecahedrons whose creation required “a skilled craftsperson” (some possible uses: game pieces, part of a regularly-used scepter or standard, a surveying tool). I enjoyed this section because it showed Collins as being happy to admit that there’s a lot we don’t know, even when we have objects of study in hand.

In his introduction Collins says, “it is my sincere hope that this approach will prove entertaining and illuminating, as well as injecting some humanity into our understanding of the past. Mission accomplished.

Published in May 2020. Dr Rob Collins and the curators of the remarkable collections from Hadrian’s Wall present a striking new contribution to understanding the archaeology of a Roman frontier. This highly-illustrated volume showcases the artefacts recovered from archaeological investigations along Hadrian’s Wall in order to examine the daily lives of those living along the Northern Frontier of the Roman Empire. Presented by theme, no other book offers such a diverse and thorough range of the rich material culture of the Wall. The accompanying text provides an ethnographic perspective, guiding us through the everyday lives of the people of frontier communities, from the Commanding Officer to the local farmer. This holistic view allows us an insight into the homes and communities, how people dressed, what they ate and drank, their religions and beliefs, domestic and military forms of security, and how they conducted their business and pleasure.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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