Hadrian’s Wall: A big history

Roman conquest of Britain began in earnest in AD43 when Emperor Claudius’s four legion army captured the southern territories and made them part of the Roman Empire. By AD85 the Romans had pushed northwards into what is now Scotland and defeated the northern tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius.

Following the withdrawal of one of the four legions assisting the Emperor Trajan in his war with the Dacians (modern Romania) a frontier road, the Stanegate, was established where the land narrows between the Tyne to the east and the Solway to the west. A line of forts was established along the Stanegate, including an important base at Vindolanda. In AD117 Emperor Hadrian came to power and determined to consolidate the Roman frontiers. Construction of Hadrian’s intensely ambitious boundary probably began early in his reign and he came to inspect the work in progress in AD122.

Building the Wall took three legions of men at least six years to complete. The scale of the Wall’s design was epic. Hadrian’s original plan set out that the Wall would be made of stone or turf, that it would be a maximum 4.6 metres high and approximately 3 metres deep, and that it would cover a total of 84 miles Roman miles from one sea to the other. Along the Wall, each mile was marked by a milecastle, or small fort, and between each pair of milecastles two towers, or turrets, were built at every third of a mile interval. A number of extra forts on the line of the Wall itself were a late addition to Hadrian’s original plan, and were perhaps ordered by him when he visited in AD122. These forts were set around 7 miles apart along the Wall, straddling it where the land would allow.

Where the Wall finished, this network of forts continued down to Ravenglass on the Cumbrian coast.  Another feature that was introduced after the original designs were completed was a 6-metre deep ditch called the Vallum. This extra defence ran parallel to the Wall’s southern side, protecting the Romans from a rear attack and it is still visible today along much of the route.

When Hadrian died in AD138, the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, pushed the frontier north to run between the Forth and the Clyde. However, occupation of the Antonine Wall lasted only around 25 years before the Romans returned to refurbish and restore Hadrian’s Wall. They did not restore the Vallum, which suggests that the area around Hadrian’s Wall had been pacified by this time.

Having been erected by legionaries, the Wall was manned by auxiliary units recruited from every corner of the empire, each garrison numbering  between 500 and 1000 men. It’s thought that each fort along the route was designed to house a singe auxiliary unit, which would have comprised either infantry or cavalry soldiers, or both. Cavalry forts were established at key locations near river crossings or where major roads crossed the line of the Wall. Communities of merchants, traders and camp followers were established close to the forts. These settlements would have been home to a cosmopolitan mix of locals and incomers from across the Empire, including retired soldiers, serving soldiers’ dependents, and individuals who made a living from servicing the fort - everyone from blacksmiths and food-vendors to innkeepers and prostitutes.


Although details are scarce regarding the Wall’s 300-year active lifespan, historical sources suggest that frontier battles and skirmishes occurred from time to time during the late second and early third centuries AD with a major uprising not long after AD180. The Emperor Septimius Severus brought a vast army to Britain in AD 208 and campaigned far north of Hadrian’s Wall. He fell ill and died in York in AD 211.  His sons made a peace with the northern tribes that seems to have lasted for over 100 years.  When Roman Imperial rule over Britain ended in the early fifth century, many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall continued to be occupied through the fifth and into the sixth centuries AD.  The fort commanders and their soldiers appear to have taken responsibility for local security.  

The Wall seems to have survived in a reasonable state of preservation into the Elizabethan period of the 16th century when there were even proposals to rebuild it due to the ongoing tension and conflict with Scotland and the lack of security created by the lawless Border Reivers. From this period though, stone from the Wall was increasingly taken and used to build houses, churches and farms across Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear. In the 1800s people interested in antiquities began to speak out and prevent this from happening. By the mid-19th century, momentum behind the drive to preserve the Wall had grown and Victorian archaeologists and historians began to contribute to an understanding of the Roman frontier that continues to grow today.

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