Mary Beard has a great piece at the TLS on life in Roman Britain (no subscription required). I've pasted in a big chunk of it below because I found it so appealing; I am addicted to this sort of thing from reading the novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe as a child. It would make an interesting topic for an essay--well, probably someone's written it already--the obsession with Britishness in the English children's literature of my (American but British-inflected) childhood, it's there in Susan Cooper (who is I believe American) as well. And obviously the Roman empire is still totally the model for everything from Star Trek to Star Wars, it's the pattern our imaginations run along when we want to meditate on that sort of thing. I'm too lazy to look for the link, but Garth Nix (whose Sabriel trilogy is one of my particular favorite things in all the world) wrote somewhere about the whole thing being inspired by a photograph of Hadrian's Wall in which the landscape south of the wall is all green and luxuriant, while the bit to the north is still completely covered with snow. Evocative.
Anyway, here's Beard:
Hadrian’s Wall must have been a decidedly undesirable posting for a soldier in the Roman army. Many a British schoolchild has reflected on just how undesirable it was, with the help of W. H. Auden’s engaging piece of doggerel, “Roman Wall Blues”:
Over the heather the wet wind blows
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky
I’m a Wall soldier; I don’t know why.
The mist sweeps over the hard grey stone
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone . . . .
And so on, in much the same vein.
What neither the children nor, I suspect, most of their teachers have often realized is that this poem – as its title hints – was originally a song, with music by Benjamin Britten (quite how “Blues-y” Britten managed to be we shall probably never know, for his score is lost). It was written to be part of a radio documentary for the Home Service broadcast in 1937, on the ancient and modern history of the Wall. In fact, this Reithian background probably explains some of the poem’s coyness: when Auden goes on to characterize an irritating Christian mess-mate as being against “kissing” (“There’d be no kissing if he had his wish”), it’s hard not to imagine that Auden had something a bit more raunchy in mind.
Auden’s script of the whole programme survives intact. It is an imaginative interweaving of two stories. The first features a motley family of tourists making a visit to the fort at Housesteads: the kids are enthralled by their guidebook’s account of the building of the Wall; Dad refuses to be impressed (“I’m glad they put up notices to tell you what’s what. It looks to me more like a housing estate after the builder’s gone broke”). The second story, told in song and spoken dialogue, is that of the Roman garrison, with their discomforts and troubles, lice and all. It ends on an unsettling note, as Auden poses the question that dogs so many histories of Roman Britain: whose side are we on in this conflict between invader and native? Auden’s answer is bleak and even-handed. There is little to choose between Romans and Britons and not much moral difference between (Roman) Imperialism and (native) barbarity: “That man is born a savage, there needs no other proof than the Roman Wall. It characterizes both nations as robbers and murderers”. The very last line of the script must have struck home in the late 1930s: “Whoever deprives an unoffending man of his right, is a barbarian”.
The fact that Auden’s lyrics are less well known now than they were twenty or thirty years ago has little to do with changing tastes in poetry, and not much to do with the disappearance of Classics from the school syllabus (the Romans in Britain still have a secure place in Key Stage 2 of the National Curriculum). It has more to do with the fact that teachers can now offer their pupils authentic Roman voices from the Wall and dispense with Auden’s ventriloquism. These voices come from the famous documents that since the 1970s have been unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda. Never mind the fact that Vindolanda is actually a mile south of the Wall, or that the overwhelming majority of the preserved texts date from a period before it was even built. The documents discovered there, written on small sheets of wood – letters, complaints, lists and accounts – bring us much closer to real Roman soldiers than Auden ever could. How far they have captured the scholarly and popular imagination is shown by a television vote on Britain’s “Top Ten Treasures” in 2003. BBC viewers put them second only to the finds from Sutton Hoo.
Out of the hundreds of texts so far discovered, the popular favourite is a letter from the wife of one officer to another, inviting her to a birthday celebration (“I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival”). This has been a godsend to teachers looking for a female angle in the generally blokeish world of Roman military history. It has also launched a load of nonsense about just how like us the Romans were (they even had birthday parties . . . ). More interesting are the apparently more austere documents. A “Strength Report”, for example, of the cohort garrisoning Vindolanda at the end of the first century AD gives the lie to our usual image of cohesive, individual units of the Roman army, based all together at a single camp. Out of the 750 soldiers who made up this cohort, more than half were absent from base: including over 300 at the neighbouring fort at Corbridge, a handful on some business in Gaul, eleven in York “to collect the pay”. When you subtract the fifteen sick, the six wounded and the ten squaddies with an eye infection, only 265 at Vindolanda were “fit for active service”. Other documents in the collection give the Roman view of the military capabilities of the “bloody Brits” (Brittunculi), list the impressive quantity of poultry consumed in the officers’ mess, request that hunting nets be sent, or record the dispatch of new underwear.