Living 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 (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.