Hadrian’s Wall

Why Hadrian’s Wall was built

55 BC is the year in which the Romans first invaded Britain under Julius Caesar but it was not until almost a century later in 43 AD, in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, that the full-scale Roman conquest and occupation of Britain really began.

Hadrian's Wall near Steel Rigg
Hadrian’s Wall near Steel Rigg Photo © 2018 David Simpson

By 70 AD, a powerful army led by the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, had captured most of southern Britain and advanced into the northern part of our land. Here they defeated two great Celtic tribes, the Brigantes at Scotch Corner to the south of the Tees and the Picts at the Battle of Mons Grapius in Caledonia.

Victory over the Picts was not too challenging for the might of the Roman army, but the wild mountainous terrain of Caledonia made the total subjugation of this remote Highland people a formidable and rather unprofitable task.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 AD he recognised the difficulties of establishing control in Caledonia and saw that it would be impossible to introduce the Picts to the Roman way of life. So the Emperor ordered the construction of a great defensive wall that would mark the northern limits of his empire and consolidate the hold on those parts of Britain already subdued. Hadrian’s empire would not include Caledonia.

Romans and ‘Barbarians’

A biographer of Hadrian’s time summed up the purpose of the Emperor’s great wall when he recorded that its construction would “Separate the Romans from the Barbarians”. The ‘Barbarians’ in question included the Caledonian Picts and locally the great local tribe called the Brigantes, whose territory lay on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall.

It is worth noting that when Hadrian’s Wall was first built many of its forts actually faced south into the heart of the Brigantian territory. This suggests that initially it was not the Picts who were the greatest threat to the Roman presence in northern Britain.

The Picts and Brigantes were neither English or Scottish, but were the tribal descendants of earlier inhabitants of Britain’s mainland. When Hadrian’s Wall was built the English and Scots were yet to invade or settle in Britain. England or Scotland simply did not exist in Roman times.

One misconception about Hadrian’s Wall should therefore be dismissed: it did not act as a boundary between England and Scotland. The English and the Scots did not settle in Britain until three centuries after Hadrian’s Wall was built.

In Hadrian’s time the ancient race called the Scots inhabited Hibernia, which is now called Ireland. The English, or more accurately the Angles and Saxons, were a Germanic race who inhabited the central mainland of northern Europe. Notably, it was the Angles who inhabited the region of Jutland called Angeln that today lies close to the border of Germany and Denmark. It is from Angeln that England ultimately takes its name.

It is also a misconception that Hadrian’s Wall forms a boundary between England and Scotland today. This is simply incorrect as Northumberland, England’s northernmost and very Anglo-Saxon county, lies north of the Wall.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 39, Hadrian’s Wall. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

A multi-cultural military zone

Hadrian’s Wall was eighty miles long, six metres high, three metres wide and built of stone, (although the Cumbrian sections of the wall were originally built of turf).

The defences of the wall were supplemented by a northern ditch, a military road and an earthwork called the ‘vallum’. Together these features formed a ‘military zone’ which restricted the movement of people to the north and south of the wall. This military zone was a ‘no go’ area for armed ‘Barbarians’.

The defences of the military zone were supplemented by milecastles which housed garrisons of up to sixty men. These were built at intervals of one Roman mile and between each of these stood two smaller defensive towers called turrets which held small garrisons of four men.

Turret Hadrian's Wall
A turret, Hadrian’s Wall Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Most important of the military garrisons along the wall were of course the great forts, of which there were sixteen, each housing between five hundred and one thousand men. The men who occupied these forts and the other Hadrian’s Wall defences were rarely recruited locally, and were often brought in from some distant corner of the Roman Empire.

Soldiers garrisoned on the wall, thus came from as far away as what are now Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, Germania, Romania and even North Africa. Surprisingly very few of the Roman soldiers originated from Rome or Italy. Instead the wall was a multi-cultural military zone whose people brought with them many different customs, languages and religions.

“Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see smoke rising from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then under it, also as far as the eye can stretch, houses, temples, shops and theatres, barracks and granaries, trickling along like dice behind….one, long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers…that is the wall.”

Rudyard Kipling from ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’

Civilian Towns

The ‘multi-cultural society was further developed by small civilian towns called ‘vicus’ which grew up around the Roman forts. These were inhabited by women, children, craftsmen, traders and retired soldiers who brought the wall to life in the way that Kipling describes above in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’.

It can be seen that Hadrian’s frontier was not just a dull and simple stone wall. Ffar from it. Hadrian’s Wall was an active military zone; a customs barrier; a line of defence and ‘a way of life’.

“Towns stood upon my length, where garrisons were laid.
Their limits to defend and; for my greater aid
With turrets I was built where sentinels were placed
To watch upon the Pict; so me my makers graced.”

Michael Drayton ‘Poly Oblion’ (1613)

Hadrian’s Wall was occupied for almost three centuries and at the height of its importance had been the home to thousands of men, women and children. Today, at eighteen hundred years old, Hadrian’s Wall may be a mere relic of its magnificent past, but it is still nevertheless the most impressive monument to the Roman occupation of Britain, as well as being a very important feature of the heritage of North Eastern England.

Roman gatehouse at Arbeia
Reconstruction of Roman gatehouse at Arbeia, South Shields : Photo © David Simpson

The end of Roman Occupation

From the middle of the third century AD, the Empire of Rome came increasingly under threat from raiding Vandals and Goths on its eastern frontiers in continental Europe. This resulted in heavy demand for Roman troops in Europe and caused a gradual depletion in the number of Roman soldiers stationed in Britain.

The movement of troops from Britain was bad news for the native Welsh speaking Britons of the wall country as the presence of the Roman army had provided them with much needed protection from raiding Picts. By 367 AD the number of Roman troops on Hadrian’s Wall had reached an all time low and preempted the so called ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ in which the Picts overran Hadrian’s Wall in conjunction with the Scots (from Ireland) who invaded western Britain while the Angles and Saxons (from Germany), invaded the south and the east.

For a short period following the Barbarian Conspiracy the Romans managed to restore law and order to the wall country but by the year 399 AD the Roman Empire was crumbling, with further trouble in mainland Europe. The full-scale evacuation of Roman troops from Roman Britain began.

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