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About Hadrian's Wall

The Roman Hadrian's Wall created an intimidating barrier for enemies. Remaining parts of it still attract tourists/historians today.

A remaining section of Hadrian's Wall in northern England.

A remaining section of Hadrian's Wall in northern England.

Why Was Hadrian's Wall Built?

Hadrian’s Wall was called Vallum Hadriani and Vallum Aelium in Latin. It was a Roman-built turf and stone wall erected between the Solway Firth on the west coast to Wallsend, then called Segedunum, on the River Tyne in the northeast of the Province of Britannia.

It was constructed to protect the Roman-ruled people from Caledonia’s (broadly speaking, Scotland) Pict army’s insurgences and to intimidate the enemy. Its other primary purpose was to counter the easy transit across the border. It has long been assumed that the wall housed customs posts because smuggling was rife. The position of Hadrian’s Wall is not the same as the border between England and Scotland.

The positions of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.

The positions of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.

Emperor Hadrian's Defensive Wall

The manmade defensive barrier stretched continuously for 118km or 73 miles and it was named after Emperor Hadrian who reigned between 117 and 138A.D. It took six years to build from 122A.D. and it was the soldiers themselves who erected Hadrian’s Wall. Many of them were from the Legio VI Victrix, founded in 41B.C. It was intended that any fighting would take place in the open spaces around the wall rather than from the wall itself.

Historia Augusta recorded that Hadrian was “the first to build a wall, 80 miles long to separate Romans from the barbarians.”

Saint Bede, also known as the Venerable Bede (c.672-735) lived for most of his life in Jarrow by the River Tyne. He wrote of Hadrian’s Wall that, “It is eight feet in breadth, and twelve in height; and, as can be clearly seen to this day, ran straight from east to west.”

English Heritage: Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall Tells Its Own Story

Under the governorship of Hadrian’s friend and ally Aulus Platorius Nepos the western section of the wall was designed prior to Hadrian’s arrival in Britannia and it featured a turf wall at a 75% gradient with ramparts 20 Roman feet wide, slightly more than today’s foot measurement, at the base and with a ditch to the front. These sections were soon replaced by stone.

At 12 Roman feet high on the eastern side, the wall averaged 8 to 10 Roman feet wide. Every third of a Roman mile a tower was built and a milefort or fortlet was constructed at each Roman mile along the route.

Forts to house 600 soldiers were constructed 7 Roman miles apart. These included Mais, modern Bowness-on-Solway, Pons Aelius, (Hadrian’s Bridge in English) which is today’s Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Cilurnum in Walwick Chesters. They had a gate through the wall, barracks, a bathhouse and usually a tower.

Behind Hadrian's Wall, a vallum earthwork was dug. Defense was the watchword throughout the build. Almost 10000 soldiers were stationed along the wall at any time during the Roman era.

The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Cilurnum, Walwick Chesters.

The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Cilurnum, Walwick Chesters.

Extensions and Alterations to the Landmark

The defensive buildings continued past the end of the wall down the Cumbrian coast towards Maryport so that there was maximum protection from invasion and it discouraged smugglers from evading the authorities. Extensions to the wall were made in the years following the main build. It has been surmised that the entire wall was later plastered and whitewashed.

In 1930 R.G. Collingwood suggested that the vallum predated the wall and that the wall’s course was dictated by the drop in the ditch. This claim was countered in 1936 when it was found that the vallum was redirected so that it did not veer into one of the forts. The general opinion is that the wall and vallum were built and dug concurrently which seems logical.

The vallum or earthworks near to Cawfield in Northumberland.

The vallum or earthworks near to Cawfield in Northumberland.

Humans Damage Hadrian's Wall

Throughout its history the wall has suffered damage, often from people clambering over the no longer guarded surfaces or through the liberation of the stonework for housing or building projects, and of course as a result of the long-lasting acrimony between England and Scotland until they were united.

Roads have sprung up and displaced expanses of the wall but the remaining sections are awe-inspiring to see. In 2021 Northumbrian Water workers discovered a three-metre section as they carried out work in central Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. They altered the route of the pipework to leave the ancient wall undisturbed.

Emperor Hadrian. This bronze bust was found in the River Thames and today it lives at the British Museum, London.

Emperor Hadrian. This bronze bust was found in the River Thames and today it lives at the British Museum, London.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unsurprisingly, excavations along the wall have revealed how the Romans lived in the forts and mileforts.

Since 2003 the Hadrian’s Wall Walk has operated along the wall’s route in six manageable sections of 12-16 miles. The walk is from east to west so that the wind is behind walkers making it slightly easier. A cycle tour is available and the “AD122” bus runs throughout the summer months for tourists who don’t feel inclined to exercise their limbs.

A New Roman Ruler and the Antonine Wall

Antonius Pius succeeded Hadrian in 138 and he decided to create another wall deeper into what we know as Scotland. He reduced the number of soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall as his project seemed to make the earlier wall surplus to requirements. His wall was the 59km- or 37-mile-long Antonine Wall, but this wall was forsaken during his reign in favour of Hadrian’s more effective wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was still an active boundary at the end of the Roman Empire. Antonine’s reign came to an end in 161A.D. The Antonine Wall was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle