Hadrian’s Wall Meets Hollywood

Darryl Campbell visits one of the Roman Empire’s most important monuments and suddenly can’t stop thinking about Kevin Costner.

I‘m standing in front of a section of Hadrian’s Wall, the 74-mile stretch of fortifications that once marked the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. It’s been a long week, but I’ve managed to survive several days’ worth of long bus trips, crowded hostel rooms, unwashed British teenagers, and (especially) beans-and-toast for breakfast, which is more than enough to make any American a little unhinged. And now, looking at a nearly 1900-year-old monument to Roman power, a UNESCO Heritage Site, and the most popular tourist attraction in the north of England, all I can think about is… Kevin Costner. Specifically, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

I do have a good reason for all of this. The leader of our tour group mentioned that Kevin Costner et al. filmed part of Prince of Thieves — the scene when Robin and Azeem first arrive back in England and encounter Guy of Gisborne — at a section of Hadrian’s Wall called Sycamore Gap. And, after a five-kilometer hike, we’re standing at the very spot where Hollywood royalty, or at least Hollywood royalty of the early ’90s, once stood, too.

The Wall at Birdoswald

But I’m a little worried about my temporary fixation. I’d be willing to bet that nobody thinks about Prince of Thieves if they can help it, no matter how punch-drunk from sightseeing they may be. The fact that I’m visiting Roman ruins — which have inspired everyone from Renaissance architects to twentieth-century typographers — makes it even more inexcusable. A young Edward Gibbon decided to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire after viewing the ruins of the Forum from the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Me? I’m just trying to remember a movie consigned to the dustbin of history. So much for an epiphany of my own.

Actually, I’ve been getting the sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one who finds it hard to wrap my mind around Hadrian’s Wall — or at least, to do so in appropriately dignified ways. On the second day of the trip, my tour group, which consists almost entirely of undergraduates majoring in archaeology, visited a temple of Mithras (a kind of sun god) in Carrawburgh. We got there a little before dusk, in time for the last of the sun’s rays to illuminate the altar and the figure of Mithras carved into it, just as they would have nearly two millenia ago. As the light died, I heard one of my tour-mates mention that this was a scene right out of the videogame The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I assume that he meant it as a compliment.

Mithraic temple at Carrawburgh

It went on like that for the rest of the trip: for every mention of Prince of Thieves and Oblivion, there must have been two references to World of Warcraft, King Arthur (which was at least partially set at Hadrian’s Wall), and, of course, Lord of the Rings. A hundred years ago, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt likened history to poetry. Now we compare it to movies and computer RPGs. And I’m as guilty as the other nerds on this trip, even though I’m supposed to have a more mature perspective on all of this — my job as a historian-in-training is to care, and make others care, about the past and its legacy.

So, what am I to take away from all of this? It might be easy to beat the drums of cultural alarmism – to insist that we’ve lost all sense of the dignity of past human achievement, or that we’re so isolated from the world of rolling hillsides and ancient stone fortifications that we can only compare something as unique as Hadrian’s Wall to what we’ve seen in a “medievalizing” piece of pop culture. All I see, however, is that the points of reference have shifted, that we express amazement a little differently than people have in the past. I suspect that — whatever our predecessors might say — the sight of Roman ruins has never really driven anyone into immediate literary ecstasies. As lowbrow as my and my tour group’s reactions may have been, I’d like to think that a twenty-seven-year-old Gibbon would have understood them. Or, at least, he would have taken a pop culture reference over the alternatives: “This is boring.” “When do we go home?”

Sycamore Gap

Here, by the way, is a picture of Sycamore Gap. That lone sycamore tree is now known as “The Robin Hood Tree,” and Kevin Costner walked, leaped, and under-acted all over that part of the wall. You’ll notice, of course, that I’m not in the picture. I made one of my friends take my picture there, with both my camera and hers. But when we got back, we found that my camera had stopped working by that point, and hers had its color balance off so much that the picture looked like someone had spilled green watercolors all over it. In a way, it’s a minor instance of cosmic justice: I have no photograph of the one moment that most defines this trip in my own memory, and makes my stories about that trip accessible (and hopefully, entertaining) to people without much knowledge of Roman history. Instead, my photographs only communicate that sense of awe that comes from looking at something so massive, and so old. It’s a deficiency that I don’t really mind — and one that I hope other people in my tour group struggle with, too.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.