Part Three: First Port of Call, Newcastle, UK
Early in the morning of July 29 we arrived in Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom.
Newcastle has some significance for our family in so far as my husband’s paternal grandmother lived there before immigrating to the US in the early twenties century. In her honour both my husband and our son are cheering for the Premier League football team Newcastle United, otherwise known as the Magpies. Strangely enough, Silversea omitted to offer a visit to the club, so my husband had to venture out on his own to pay his respects to the Magpies. Since it was a game day, he could only circle the stadium, there were no tours available.
I, on the other hand, have a certain fixation with antiquity. Therefore I had signed up for an excursion to Emperor Hadrian’s defensive wall at Heddon-on-the-Wall, with a second stop at Chesters Roman Fort.
Seated in the tour bus, I happened to catch a glimpse of my husband crossing the pier all on his lonesome.
For us Hadrian aficionados, our excursion started with a 40-minute drive through Newcastle from east to west, to reach Heddon-on-the-Wall for a good look at a remaining section of the emperor’s famous construction project. Our guide explained that this so-called Broad Wall used to have a width of nearly 3 m and a height of 4 m. The locally quarried stones were set in mortar, and some of the foundation stones weight tons. Through repurposing of the stones over the centuries following the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles, not much is left of Emperor Hadrian’s mighty Wall.
Hadrian’s Wall spanned the Tyne – Solway isthmus for 80 Roman miles or 117.5 Km. The broad portions of the wall were 2.9m/10ft wide and 4m/12ft tall. Those dimensions may have become too ambitious to maintain, so going west the wall narrowed in places to 2.3m/8ft. Along the entire length of the wall ran a deep ditch and a dirt mount to the South, and another ditch to the North. Each mile of wall was enforced by a milecastle or fortlet, and there were two equidistant turrets, watchtowers, between the fortlets. This meant that Roman troops guarded this northern most frontier of the Roman Empire at 1/3 mile increments along the entire 80 miles of Hadrian’s stonewall.
But the Wall did not solely serve as a defensive structure against potential aggression from northern tribes the Romans called Caledonians (the Picts didn’t harass anybody for a few more centuries, so don’t expect any blue-tattooed Mel Gibson lookalikes to jump out of the bushes!), the Wall also augmented the imperial coffers. It controlled the south <-> north movement of people and goods and the occupiers collected tolls and levied taxes on everything and everyone passing through its portals.
From Heddon-on-the-Wall we drove a further 20 mins or so west through a beautiful, no, a gorgeous Northumberland landscape to Chesters Roman Fort a.k.a. Cilurnum, as it was known in imperial Rome. The fortress was built in 123 CE, immediately after The Wall was finished. Cilurnum was an important cavalry station guarding a major bridge across the North Tyne river.
The Cilurnum cavalry fortress was dedicated to the Roman deity Disciplina. Emperor Hadrian supported her cult very strongly for the soldiers serving at his Wall because her worship encompassed a multitude of characteristics that were essential for Roman soldiers, especially those serving in border garrisons. The Latin word “disciplina” denoted strict training and education, focus, endurance and determination in conjunction with emotional restraint and obedience. The goddess represented all of these crucial qualities for her soldier-worshippers. An inscription was found on an altar stone dedicated to the Goddess Disciplina saying: ala Augusta ob virtues appellata = this wing (cavalry unit) was named Augusta (representing the emperor) because of its valour. For most of the Roman presence in Britannia, the alae secundae Asturum (the second wings of the Asturian cavalry) served valiantly in Cilurnum.
The Cilurnum cavalry fortification can even be found in the Notitia Dignitatum of the 5th c. CE. This document compiled all the offices of the Roman Empire in one huge compendium: Notitia dignitatum omnium tam civilium quam militarium in partibus Occidentis = A list of all positions, both civilian and of the military in the Western part [of the empire]. The second portion of the Notitia compiled all offices of the Eastern Roman Empire. The original Notitia, probably written around 450 CE in Rome, has been lost in the mists of antiquity. The Carolingians, as successors to the Roman Might, commissioned copies around the 8th century, which were also lost. But several 16th century copies of the Carolingian copies are still extant, one of which I found online in the digital library of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München. It is quite exciting to see these beautiful, hand-written folios.
The screenshot above shows the initial title page with an introduction explaining the origin and purpose of the manuscript: Hic liber cui titulus itinerarium Antonini. I would translate that as: this book accounts for the garrisons of Antoninus, possibly referencing emperor Antoninus Pius. In modern Latin, ‘itinerarium’ means journal or guide book, but in imperial times it referred to the lists of stations, garrisons, and even military supply roads maintained by the empire. The page closes with Cæterum quia – Moreover, because … to go on in detail for another 4 or 5 pages. Very verbose, these Romans 🤣
Low and behold, I even found a reference to Chesters Roman Fort in the Notitia!
And speaking of Antoninus, there was briefly another Roman wall further North in Caledonia that has been neglected by history until it was finally accorded UNESCO status in 2008. Shortly before emperor Hadrian died in 138 CE, he adopted one of his trusted administrators as his son and successor who became known as Emperor Antoninus Pius (Pius = devoted, most likely because he pushed the deification of his adopted papa Hadrian through the Senate approval process). Our Tony was a little insecure about his imperial status because he had never led an army into war. He was a number cruncher, not a warrior. In the hope to earn his laurels, he installed Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a born Numibian and Homo Novus (the first in a family to achieve an unexpectedly high office in the Roman imperial hierarchy) as his Britannic governor, and ordered him to invaded Caledonia to subdue the northern native tribes once and for all. A constant bellicose back and forth commenced, but without achieving a clear victory on either side. To help his cause, Lollius started building a turf wall in 142 CE along the Forth – Clyde isthmus that became known as the Antonine Wall. Although the pesky Caledonians still weren’t tamed, only temporarily held in check by his wall, Emperor Antoninus Pius claimed military success in Caledonia and happily called himself Imperator henceforth. His wall disintegrated pretty soon, while Hadrian’s remained an active defence structure manned by Roman troops till the early 5th century.
And right there, when our tour group assembled in front of the commander’s home, disaster struck …
… I lost my footing in the wet grass and slammed to the ground.
The pain from the spastic thigh muscles in my left leg was so intense, I feared I had fractured the femur or dislocated the hip joint. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. After a while, with the energetic assistance from several kind shipmates, I managed to get up. Walking, though, seemed impossible at first. An especially compassionate lady lent me her cane for my lonely and very, very long struggle back to the bus, one tiny step at a time, while the rest of the group continued their tour. Back on the ship, a medical officer gave me muscle relaxing meds, a shot for the pain, and the loan of a hot water bottle. No actual examination, though, just a bill for over $200.
The Silver Whisper left Newcastle at midday for the 24h sail to Stavanger, Norway, which gave me I a nice long rest period. I stayed in bed most of the time and Roshan, our butler, served our meals in our suite to make it easier on me. Since walking remained somewhat difficult, the accident affected the rest of our cruise to various degrees.