Hadrian’s WallsBob Royalty » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Hadrian’s Walls

Bob Royalty

Hadrian’s Wall originally ran 80 Roman miles across northern Britannia. I walked it last May, 9 days and 112 miles, from Northumberland to Cumbria. (The wall path itself is 84 miles but I took a few diversions and wrong turns). Hadrian’s Wall is a special wall indeed, a World Heritage Site and the most famous ancient Roman monument in Britain.

Hadrian became Emperor in 117 ce under somewhat dicey circumstances when the Emperor Trajan died. Trajan was Hadrian’s guardian and planned to make Hadrian Emperor, but never got around to publicly declaring the succession. Perhaps he was ambivalent; his final years were marked by heavy drinking and failed campaigns against Parthia. Hadrian and Trajan’s wife Plotina, a supporter of Hadrian’s his entire life, had to scramble to make his accession look legitimate in Rome, although he had the support of the army all along. At any rate, the often forward-thinking Hadrian made sure both his successor, Antoninus Pius and his successor’s successor, Marcus Aurelius, were chosen before he died.

Around the time of Trajan’s death in 117, the Empire erupted, from Britain to Egypt to Mesopotamia. Hadrian had to act quickly. He made strategic retreats, negotiated treaties, and bribed kings on the borders. In other words, he began his reign by shrinking the borders of the Roman Empire, which was not popular. He was by no means a peaceful Emperor—and he was devoted to the Army—but he did not start new campaigns of expansion. A revolt against Rome in the north of Britannia, which occurred during almost every new Emperor’s reign, likely turned Hadrian’s mind to the northern limes or borders.

Before he left Rome for the first time as Emperor, three years into his reign, Hadrian redrew the sacred boundary of Rome, the pomerium, during the annual ceremony celebrating the founding of the city. Trajan had extended the Empire into Dacia and Parthia but not its sacred boundaries; Hadrian emphatically re-drew the boundaries after giving up these very territories. This was in a sense his first wall—the boundaries of the Empire were set with new boundary stones. He proceeded north to the German provinces and ordered the construction of a wooden palisade along the frontier. This palisade was clearly more a symbolic boundary than a military fortification—and it kept the soldiers busy as well. Hadrian wanted to mark the borders clearly for both the Romans and the German barbarians.

 Hadrian arrived in Britain from Germany in 122—hence the bus that runs along the Wall during the summer is called the AD122.  He probably stayed at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, built by Agricola (Tacitus’ father-in-law) during a campaign in northern Britain. He likely surveyed a good part of the Wall as well, perhaps to the high peaks of the Pennines; Hadrian was famously attracted to climbing peaks. Roman legions built the Wall, originally stone in the eastern half and turf in the west, which was converted to stone by the end of the second century.

 There’s not much Wall left along the walk, maybe 15 out of the 84 miles of trail. What is excavated only suggests the ancient Wall. Rather than a fortlet every mile and two towers between, there are ruins of the milecastles and turrets here and there, or sometimes just the shape of one in a field. We’re not even sure how high the Wall was or whether there was a walk and parapet along the top, although most scholars think there was.  Even the great Roman forts are often just big lumpy squares of field with crops or sheep, unexcavated or excavated and filled again.  Where there is no Wall, there are often the magnificent earthworks. As stunning as the remains of the Wall itself are today in the fields and farmlands of northern England, the ditch on its north side and Vallum along the south side —a large berm, not clearly understood by historians—are almost equally impressive today. Walking in and along the ditch and Vallum for days, you get a sense of the size and scope of the construction since the Wall itself comes and goes in short bits.

Israeli West Bank barrier

Israeli West Bank barrier

As far as I know, Hadrian did not claim that he would build a wall and the Britons would pay for it. A wall with Mexico would be like Hadrian’s German border of wooden stakes, ideological but hardly practical. Modern walls—in Berlin, dividing Germans from Germans, and between Israel and Palestine—have a cruel history. They are divisive by definition and dehumanizing by design. But they fit Roman ideology: “we” are on this side and “you” are on the other. You are a barbarian. You don’t belong with us. You are not fully human.  Hadrian set lines between Roman and Barbarian, two sides where previously there had only been one. There were oddly Britons on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps even from the same tribe, which makes the analogy with the Mexican American border stronger.

During Hadrian’s time, Christians began to construct their own walls, the walls of orthodoxy and heresy. We are on this side, the Orthodox claimed; you are on that side. You are on that side because of what you think, what you believe, and what you don’t believe. And what you think changes who you are. For Orthodox Christians, heretics were under the dominion of Satan and heresy led to damnation. Heretics were not fully human.

The foundation of this wall, the heresiological rhetoric of demonized difference, was being built for over a hundred years before Hadrian’s Wall; that story is the focus of my 2013 book, The Origin of Heresy. What changes soon after Hadrian’s reign is that one of the first major proponents of “orthodox” Christianity’s superiority to heresy, Justin Martyr (100-165), makes a political argument as well. In his Apology or defense of Christians written to Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius, he claims that not only is his group of “right thinking” Christians the only proper type of Christians, but that they are also proper Romans—while the heretics who claim the name of Christian are not (1 Apol. 23). Justin denies them the name of “Christian” and labels them by their heretical teachers instead: Simon (the legendary Magus of Acts 8:9–13); Menander, whom Justin claims was a disciple of Simon’s; and Marcion, the only historical figure in this list who becomes the arch-heretic for Tertullian and other orthodox heresiologists. In a parallel passage in his Dialogue with Trypho 35, Justin includes Marcians, Saturnilians, and followers of teachers we know about from the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, Valentinus and Basilides. As radical outsiders to the true faith, they are even “worse” than barbarians, they are demonic. Justin’s theological wall of heresy, in other words, dovetails with Hadrian’s physical Wall. The orthodox project of heresy follows the lead of Hadrian’s policy of setting boundaries. We Orthodox Christians are on this side with you Romans, Justin claims, while heretics are on the other side with the barbarians. Justin presages the Christian empire of the fourth century of Constantine and his successors, who codify and enforce Christian ideas of orthodoxy and heresy.

Hadrian certainly knew about Christians. He could have been aware of the letters between Pliny and Trajan around 112 ce, in which Trajan gives that Roman governor some clear and not very drastic guidelines for dealing with Christians, who were just beginning to attract attention in the Roman world. While travelling in Germany or Britain, Hadrian received a similar letter about Christians from a governor of Asia Minor. His reply—following Trajan, basically, “leave them alone unless they cause trouble”—was quoted and expanded on with some creative license by Justin in his Apology to Antoninus.

Roman religion, unlike orthodox Christianity, had no concept of heresy or exclusivity in worship. There were many gods along Hadrian’s Wall, whom the Emperor would have been much more familiar with than the God of these odd, new Christians: Jupiter, Mars, Mercury; Fortuna, Disciplina, Roma and the Emperor himself; local gods such as Coventina and Faunus; and gods who travelled with the army such as the Syrian Mother Goddess and Mithras.  The evidence for Christianity in Britain emerges slowly, well after 122. The first martyr accounts are set in the third century and British bishops attended Constantine’s Council of Arles in 314. One of these was the Bishop of York, the site of the closest legion to Hadrian’s Wall, which was manned by auxiliary troops. Almost all of the material evidence for Christianity in Britain comes from the fourth century onwards, after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, particularly in the more peaceful, Romanized south of Britain. We can say with confidence that the God of the Christians looked over at least some if not most of the last Roman soldiers along the Wall before they withdrew from Britain in 410 as the Western Empire collapsed.

Mithraeum at Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian himself sowed the seeds of a modern heresy of sorts. After leaving Britain in 122 with the construction of the Wall underway, Hadrian travelled across Gaul (France) to the eastern end of the Empire, first to Bithynia in 123­-124 and then on to Asia. It was probably on this visit that he met his lover, a beautiful boy named Antinous.  There is no public record of Hadrian and Antinous together until they were hunting in Egypt in 130. Many surviving statues portray Antinous as an idealized teenager but one shows him as a young man of about 20. This could mean they were together for up to seven years.  Hadrian was not crossing a wall by taking Antinous as a lover. The sexual exploits of Emperors such as Caligula and Nero were both infamous and legendary; Trajan, while known as both a virile general and family man, preferred boys in his later years. Hadrian clearly preferred men; today we might call him gay or bisexual, but modern gender identities are foreign to Greco-Roman antiquity. Hadrian’s marriage to Sabina was political and polite but apparently loveless. Taking a young man for so long did however cross a wall; Hadrian might have been influenced by the ancient Greeks, as he was in so many ways. Plato’s Symposium describes the custom of an older man, the erastes taking on a younger man, the eromenos, as pupil or protégé as well as sexual partner. Hadrian’s behavior provoked gossip and criticism in the Senate. The highest wall he crossed with Antinous was infatuation—perhaps love, perhaps obsession.

Hadrian and Antinous

Hadrian and Antinous

By Greek standards, the relationship was appropriate until Antinous reached manhood. They toured Egypt in 130 as Hadrian continued his way around the Empire. There, Antinous committed suicide by drowning himself in the Nile. Again we do not know why, only when and where. There was some indication of religious ritual around his death, that he was offering himself to the spirit or genius of the Emperor Hadrian by taking on the ritual death of Osiris in the Nile. And perhaps he was. Others have speculated that he had to end the relationship when he turned 20. But from our vantage point it is hard to see this as anything but a young man’s suicide, what we would call today depression.

We know about Antinous because of Hadrian’s public, powerful grief that obsessed him for the rest of his life. He immediately deified Antinous, a process that was still reserved for the Senate, and built his temple-tomb in a new city across the Nile. His magnificent villa outside Rome included a temple to Antinous and multiple statues and images of his deceased beloved.  There are at least 100 marble images of Antinous discovered so far, more than any other ancient Roman besides Augustus and Hadrian himself; his cult continued long enough to be critiqued by Christians in the fourth century, for whom Antinous was seen as a rival savior to Christ.

Antinous today is celebrated as “the Gay God.” According the website using that title ()

The name and beauty of Antinous fascinated people, throughout history, especially gay men. And now the beautiful mystery of Antinous has been given to us, to the Modern Gay Community. It is therefore our duty (for those who choose to take his image upon their shoulders) in answer to the request of Hadrian, for the world, for gay men, to remember Antinous, to perpetuate his name, and to love him for all eternity, as Hadrian loved him.

This is the deepest foundation of the Modern Religion of Antinous…to hear the call of Hadrian across the centuries, to love, worship and care for the memory of the beautiful Antinous, because without us, the Name of Antinous could vanish into oblivion, or else he could merely languish on a shelf in a museum without anyone to ever say:

Behold the Divine Antinous! May He live Forever!

Even in Christian churches that welcome LGBTQ members and clergy, such as my own Episcopal Church, this would strike most people as a heresy. Hadrian’s heresiological influence remains to this day.



Birley, Anthony. Hadrian : The Restless Emperor. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.

Lambert, Malcolm. Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Opper, Thorsten. Hadrian : Empire and Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Royalty, Robert M. The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity. Routledge Studies in Religion. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Southern, Patricia. Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016.

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