Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
6 And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars….
7 For nation shall rise against nation….
Early in the second century, the Emperor Hadrian built a wall. Almost two millennia later, some of the ruins can still be seen, stretching across the north of England, just south of the Scottish border, between Carlisle and Newcastle.
Hadrian had a problem – his empire was getting difficult to manage. The northern tribes were hard to conquer, and there was little to the north that the Romans valued, anyway.
Hadrian’s Wall set his northern boundary, with psychological as well as military benefits. It provided a significant deterrent against northern incursions. It also announced that Rome cared not about northern Britain – and therefore had no obligation to conquer the northern tribes. They could do what they wanted, so their independence was no challenge to Rome. Like a Roman official in Jerusalem less than a century earlier, he washed his hands of a matter over which he felt little real concern.
What one human ruler decides, another can override. Less than 100 years later, a different emperor sent Roman legions north again into southern Scotland, in an unsustainable attempt to expand the empire. But within three hundred years of the building of the wall, under significant pressure in various parts of their empire, the Romans withdrew from Britain entirely – and Hadrian’s Wall began to fall into disrepair. Now, there are only ruins, and a few modern reconstructions.
Six hundred years after the Romans left, another invasion brought William the Conqueror and his Norman forces into England. Norman nobles built castles throughout the country to defend themselves (from each other and from those who preceded them in the land). In the north, they used stones quarried by Roman soldiers and built into a Roman wall as material to build castles showing Norman power.
Another hundred years, and religious leaders found Hadrian’s stones useful. Lanercost Priory rose a few miles from Carlisle, a monument to Roman Catholic worship, built out of stones quarried and assembled by those who had followed the Roman god Mithras.
In the early fourteenth century, Edward I, known as “The Hammer of the Scots,” came to Lanercost Priory on one of his campaigns to vanquish Scotland. He brought the Great Seal north, and Lanercost, constructed of stones from Hadrian’s barrier between England and Scotland, became the seat of the English government as the English king sought to subjugate Scotland.
Edward died on the shores of the Solway Firth, on his way north to fight the Scots, and his attempt to unite Scotland and England by force ultimately failed. He died in Burgh-by-Sands, the site of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. His body lay for a time in St Michael’s Church in the village — a building made of stones from the Wall once built to separate the two nations.
Edward’s temporary capital at Lanercost, built of stones from a fallen Roman construction, itself fell into ruin, and the church building at Lanercost today needs donations from tourists to help with the maintenance costs. Many castles constructed of Hadrian’s stones are now nothing more than ruins themselves, symbols of human power which once was, but has now crumbled into nothing.
The coming years saw great disorder along the Border. The Border reivers brought violence and destruction, as groups from both sides raided across the border, stealing cattle and burning the homes of their victims, at times with the victims still inside. On at least two Roman forts along the Wall, at Housesteads and Birdoswald, a stronghold was built of Roman stones to protect the inhabitants from the raids (and flames) of the reivers. Those who lived in these stone dwellings (perhaps they were reivers themselves) are now gone, and nothing but ruins remains.
The Act of Union in 1707 formed the United Kingdom, as Scotland and England, which had shared the same monarch for 100 years, were joined together under a single Parliament. That union has lasted 300 years, the same length of time that Hadrian’s Wall was defended by the Romans. But whether that human effort will continue to survive, or whether it will be dealt a death blow next week, remains to be seen. The current monarch is not part of the royal house which ruled the United Kingdom at the time of the Union – and the Queen today holds only a pale shadow of the powers of those earlier monarchs.
Nations rise, and nations fall. Human efforts may construct, through ingenuity and effort, one of the Wonders of the World – and often enough, their efforts merely become a building block that others use for power and their own purposes. A Pharaoh may build a great pyramid for his tomb, but the tomb robbers will find their way in. The things that seem important today, the monumental efforts we make, may crumble to nothingness tomorrow.
A family (whether a royal family or any other family) may die out, and come to nothing in this world. A nation may rise, but nations fall. Institutions come, and institutions go, political plans work for a time and then collapse. Buildings crumble, bridges fall, roads fall into disrepair, wood decays, even stones crack and crumble under pressure. Rivers change their courses and wash away the efforts of yesterday.
Hadrian built a wall. It is a monument to human effort and human discipline, a monument to perhaps the greatest empire the world has ever seen. It is also a ruin, partly buried, mostly just gone — as are the emperor who commanded it, the empire that gave him his power, the soldiers who built it, and the tribes against which it guarded.
Hadrian built his wall, a monument to the limitations and temporal nature of all human endeavours and human institutions.
“Only one life, ‘twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.