Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium, “Aelian Wall” – the Latin name is inferred from text on the Staffordshire Moorlands Patera) was a defensive fortification in Roman Britain. Begun in AD 122, during the rule of emperor Hadrian, it was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antonine Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today.

Hadrian’s Wall is part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site.

The fortifications pass close to the following towns:

The wall was the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its role as a military fortification, it is thought that many of the gates through the wall would have served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxation.

A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot by Hadrian’s Wall Path or by cycle on National Cycle Route 72. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles (73 statute miles or 120 km) long, its width and height dependent on the construction materials which were available nearby. East of River Irthing the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 metres (9.7 ft) wide and five to six metres (16–20 ft) high, while west of the river the wall was made from turf and measured 6 metres (20 ft) wide and 3.5 metres (11.5 ft) high. This does not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 10-foot (3.0 m) base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 10 feet (3.0 m).

Hadrian’s Wall extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne to the shore of the Solway Firth, ending a short but unknown distance west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway.

Although the curtain wall ends near Bowness-on-Solway, this does not mark the end of the line of defensive structures. The system of Milecastles and Turrets is known to have continued along the Cumbria coast as far as Maryport. For classification purposes, the Milecastles west of Bowness-on-Solway are referred to as Milefortlets.

The A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the wall as it starts in Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then along the northern coast of Cumbria (south shore of the Solway Firth). It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometre in the west at Bowness-on-Solway, and 110 kilometres (68 mi) in the east.

Hadrian’s Wall was likely planned before Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122. According to restored sandstone fragments found in Jarrow that date from 118 or 119, it was Hadrian’s wish to keep “intact the empire,” which had been imposed upon him by “divine instruction.” The fragments then announce the building of the wall. It is entirely possible that, on his arrival in Britain in 122, one of the stops on his itinerary was the northern frontier and an inspection of the progress of the wall as it was being built.

Reasons for the construction of the wall vary, and the exact explanation has never been recorded. However, a number of theories have been presented by historians, primarily centring around an expression of Roman power and Hadrian’s policy of defence before expansion. For example, on his accession to the throne in 117, Hadrian had been experiencing rebellion in Roman Britain and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya, Mauretania. These troubles may have had a hand in Hadrian’s plan to construct the wall, and his construction of limes in other areas of the Empire, but to what extent is unknown.

Scholars also disagree over how much of an actual threat the sparsely populated land of northern Britannia (Scotland) actually presented, and whether there was any more economic advantage in defending and garrisoning a fixed line of defences like the Wall over simply conquering and annexing the Scottish Lowlands and manning the territory with a loose arrangement of forts. The limes of Rome were never expected to stop whole tribes from migrating or entire armies from invading, and while a frontier protected by a palisade or stone wall would surely help curb cattle-raiders and the incursions of other small groups, the economic viability of constructing and constantly manning a 72-mile (116 km) long boundary along a sparsely populated border to stop small-scale raiding is dubious.

Another possible explanation for the erection of the great wall is the degree of control it would have provided over immigration, smuggling, and customs. Limes did not strictly mark the boundaries of Rome, with Roman power and influence often extending beyond its walls. People inside and beyond the limes travelled through it each day when conducting business, and organized check-points like those offered by Hadrian’s Wall provided good opportunities for taxation. With watch towers only a short distance from gateways in the limes, patrolling legionaries would have been able to keep track of entering and exiting natives and Roman citizens alike, charging customs dues, and checking for smuggling activity.

Another theory is of the simpler variety—Hadrian’s Wall was, if not wholly, at least partially, constructed to reflect the power of Rome, and was used as a political point by Hadrian. Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then white-washed, its shining surface able to reflect the sunlight and be visible for miles around.

Construction probably started sometime in AD 122 and was largely completed within six years. Construction started in the east, between milecastles four and seven, and proceeded westwards, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria (Corbridge), upon which were situated a series of forts, including Vindolanda. The wall in the east follows a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill.

The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80 small gated milecastle fortlets, one placed every Roman mile, holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. However, very few milecastles are actually situated at exact Roman mile divisions; they can be up to 200 yards east or west because of landscape features or to improve signalling to the Stanegate forts to the south. Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of Irthing where turf was used instead, since there were no useful outcrops nearby. Milecastles in this area were also built from timber and earth rather than stone, but turrets were always made from stone. The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.

The milecastles and turrets were of three different designs, depending on which Roman legion built them — inscriptions of the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions, show that all were involved in the construction. All were about 493 metres (539 yards) apart and measured 4.27 square metres (46.0 square feet) internally.

Construction was divided into lengths of about 5 miles (8.0 km). One group of each legion would excavate the foundations and build the milecastles and turrets and then other cohorts would follow with the wall construction. It was finished in 128 AD.

Early in its construction, just after reaching the North Tyne, the width of the wall was narrowed to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) or even less (sometimes 1.8 metres) (the “Narrow Wall”). However, Broad Wall foundations had already been laid as far as the River Irthing, where the Turf Wall began, demonstrating that construction worked from east to west. Many turrets and milecastles were optimistically provided with stub ‘wing walls’ in preparation for joining to the Broad Wall, offering a handy reference for archaeologists trying to piece together the construction chronology.

Within a few years it was decided to add a total of 14 to 17 (sources disagree) full-sized forts along the length of the wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops (no legions were posted to the wall). The eastern end of the wall was extended further east from Pons Aelius (Newcastle) to Segedunum (Wallsend) on the Tyne estuary. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters) and Vercovicium (Housesteads), were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing the change of plan. An inscription mentioning early governor Aulus Platorius Nepos indicates that the change of plans took place early on. Also some time still during Hadrian’s reign (before AD 138) the wall west of the Irthing was rebuilt in sandstone to basically the same dimensions as the limestone section to the east.

After most of the forts had been added, the Vallum was built on the southern side. The wall was thus part of a defensive system which, from north to south included:

  • A row of forts built 5 to 10 miles (16 km) north of the wall, used for scouting and intelligence (e.g. Bewcastle Roman Fort)
  • a glacis and a deep ditch
  • a berm with rows of pits holding entanglements
  • the curtain wall
  • a later military road (the Military Way)
  • The Vallum.

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