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 © David Simpson

By 70 AD, a powerful army led by the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, 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.

In terms of military organisation a 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 the remote highland people a formidable and rather unprofitable task.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 39, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

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 far northern tribes 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.

Sheep standing guard in Hadrian's Wall country with Crag Lough in the distance
Sheep standing guard in Hadrian’s Wall country with Crag Lough in the distance © David Simpson

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.

Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall
Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

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.

A dramatic depiction of the building of Hadrian's Wall by William Bell Scott in the painting at Wallington Hall : National Trust
A dramatic depiction of the building of Hadrian’s Wall by William Bell Scott in a painting at Wallington Hall : National Trust

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.

Hadrian's Wall © David Simpson
Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

Siting of the Wall

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 county with its rich Anglo-Saxon history, lies to the north of the Wall.

A number of factors contributed to the siting and location of Hadrian’s Wall. Firstly, the relatively narrow cross country coast to coast distance between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth.

Hadrian's Wall near Cawfields
Hadrian’s Wall near Cawfields © David Simpson

Secondly, the Tyne gap itself forms a natural vale which enabled efficient communication and swift movement of troops.  Indeed, the Roman road called the Stanegate which passes through this vale initially formed the northern Roman frontier along the line from Corbridge to Carlisle, well before Hadrian’s Wall was built.

The third important and most dramatic factor in the siting of Hadrian’s Wall was the presence of the Great Whin Sill, a natural geological intrusion. The impressive cliff-like crags form a naturally defensive barrier in the central region of the wall. The most wonderful sections of the wall follow the crest of the Great Whin Sill creating a formidable barrier with steep north-facing drops.

Cross section of Hadrian's Wall
Cross section of Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

Multi-cultural military zone

Hadrian’s Wall was eighty Roman 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.

Footpath, Hadrian's Wall
Footpath, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

Most important of the military garrisons along the wall were of course the great forts, of which there were sixteen on the wall itself, each housing between five hundred and one thousand men. The men who occupied these forts and the other Hadrian’s Wall defences might be recruited locally, but more 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.

Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall
Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

The map below shows the multi-cultural origins of military units stationed on Hadrian’s Wall along with other Roman forts in the North mostly identified by inscriptions within the fort sites. The numbers in brackets on the map show the century in which they occupied the fort and the abbreviated letters show the geographical origin of the unit and where it was first raised. Over time it is likely that more soldiers were recruited locally but the names of the units still demonstrate the multi-cultural nature of the Roman Empire.

Geographical origins of military units in northern Roman forts
Geographical origins of military units in northern Roman forts  CLICK ON MAP TO SEE FULL DETAILS © David Simpson

Civilian Towns

The ‘multi-cultural society was further developed by civilian populations. Most forts included a civilian village called a ‘vicus‘ which would develop outside each fort. These were inhabited by women, children, craftsmen, traders and retired soldiers who brought the wall to life in the way that Kipling describes in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’.

“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.”

Turret, Hadrian's Wall
Turret, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

It can be seen that Hadrian’s frontier was not just a dull and simple stone wall. Far 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 © David Simpson

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 pre-empted 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.

Housesteads Roman fort, Hadrian's Wall
Housesteads Roman fort, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

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.

Hadrian’s Wall : The Forts

Here we include a brief list of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall from west to east, showing the modern English name with the Roman name in Italics. The forts were built of stone except for the ones in Cumbria – from Bowness to the River Irthing – where Hadrian’s Wall was constructed with layers of turf with an outer surface of timber.

Map of Hadrian's Wall
Map of Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson and Tangled Worm 2019

Bowness on Solway :  Maia

Fort on the broad estuary of the Solway Firth in Cumbria at the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall’s defences were supplemented to the south west by a string of forts along the Cumbrian coast. There are no visible remains of Maia.

Drumburgh :  Concavata

No visible remains of this fort in Cumbria but the fifteenth century Drumburgh House was built using stones from the fort.

Burgh by Sands :  Aballava

No visible remains of this Cumbrian fort which is thought to have ben built to defend two low tide fords across the Solway Firth.

Carlisle :  Luguvalium

Few visible remains of this Roman fort in the Cumbrian city of Carlisle. It was later abandoned and became a Roman civilian settlement when it was superseded by the nearby fort at Stanwix. The Carlisle fort site is just south of Carlisle castle. Carlisle’s Roman name was later shortened to Luel with the addition of ancient British word ‘Caer’ – a city – Caer-Luel became Carlisle.

Stanwix :  Uxelodunum

In Cumbria over the River Eden just north of Carlisle. Guarding a river crossing it was home to the commanding officer for Hadrian’s Wall and one of the most important forts on the frontier.

Castlesteads :  Camboglanna

Few visible remains of this Roman fort in Cumbria situated between the vallum and Hadrian’s Wall rather than on the wall itself. A Roman temple and civilian settlement were situated just south of the fort. The medieval Lanercost Priory two miles to the east has masonry incorporating stones and altars from the Roman  wall and Birdoswald. The remains of a Roman signal tower can be seen on the wall at Pike Hill less than a mile east of Lanercost.

Birdoswald :  Banna

Significant remains of this fort in Cumbria can be seen. It guarded a bridge across the Irthing. Remains of a Roman bridge abutment can be seen on the Irthing at Willowford half a mile east.

Hadrian's Wall near Carvoran
Hadrian’s Wall near Carvoran © David Simpson

Carvoran :  Magnis

Very few visible remains of this fort in Northumberland can be seen, though nearby is situated the Roman Army Museum and some notable sections of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen at Walltown Crags on the Great Whin Sill nearby.

Great Chesters :  Aesica

There are few visible remains of this fort in Northumberland which guarded a natural gap called the Caw Gap. Traces of a Roman civilian settlement and a bathhouse have been found to its south while to the east are notable sections of the wall on the Great Whin Sill near Cawfields Quarry.

Chesterholm :  Vindolanda

This fort in Northumberland is best known by its Roman name and is not actually located on Hadrian’s Wall but situated on the Roman Stanegate road a mile to the south which preceded the wall and formed the original frontier. There were a succession of nine forts at Vindolanda. There are impressive remains of the fort and its extensive vicus and there is an excellent on site museum.

Vindolanda Roman fort
Vindolanda Roman fort © David Simpson

Housesteads :  Vercovicium

Some of the most impressive sections of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen north of Vindolanda stretching along the Great Whin Sill from Steel Rigg to Housesteads including the famous Sycamore Gap. Perhaps the best known fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads has impressive and extensive remains situated on a sloping site rising to the crest of the whin sill. Traces of a number of temples have been found to the south of the fort. To the west of the fort the wall tops Cuddy Crags and to the north east it follows the crest of the Sewingshields Crags.

Housesteads, Hadrian's Wall
Housesteads, Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

Carrawburgh :  Brocolitia

A small Northumberland fort alongside the vallum. A Roman shrine called Coventina’s Well is situated nearby in which many Roman coins have been found. Also, close by, to the south are the notable remains of a temple to Mithras.

Chesters :  Cilurnum

Situated near Chollerford this extensive Roman fort in Northumberland guarded a bridge across the North Tyne. Significant remains of the Roman bridge abutment can be seen.

Halton Chesters :  Onnum

Situated about half a mile east of the Port Gate (where the Roman road of Dere Street (A68) crosses the Roman Wall), Halton Chesters was an extensive fort.

The River Tyne at Corbridge
The River Tyne at Corbridge © David Simpson

Corbridge :  Corstopitum

An important Roman town and Roman fort situated about two miles south of the Roman wall. Corbridge was a very significant Roman location situated in the frontier zone at the junction of Dere Street and the Stanegate and guarding a crossing of the River Tyne.

Rudchester :  Vindobala

The last Roman wall fort in the county of Northumberland before we enter Tyneside. A temple of Mithras was situated nearby as an Mithraic altar has been found in the vicinity.

Benwell :  Condercum

Situated in Benwell, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. One notable Roman feature amongst the houses here is the Temple of Antenociticus and a surviving vallum crossing point.

Temple of Antenociticus
Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell, Newcastle © David Simpson 2021

Newcastle upon Tyne :  Pons Aelius

The Roman fort of Pons Aelius was situated at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall before the wall was extended to Wallsend and it guarded a bridge (pons) across the River Tyne. The site of the fort is beneath the present Newcastle castle. In the post-Roman era, an Anglo-Saxon church was built within the walls of the fort.

Modern stone replica commemorating the site of the Roman fort of Newcastle.
Modern stone replica commemorating the site of the Roman fort of Newcastle © David Simpson

Wallsend :  Segedunum

The Roman fort of Segedunum at Wallsend is situated alongside the Tyne in an area that was in more recent times a major shipbuilding district. There is a Roman visitor centre which includes a viewing area with excellent views overlooking the Tyne and the fort site.

Segedunum Roman fort at Wallsend
Segedunum Roman fort at Wallsend © David Simpson

South Shields :  Arbeia

Situated south of the River Tyne at the mouth of the river Arbeia at South Shields was not of course situated on Hadrian’s Wall but was an important part of the frontier system of defences and served as a supply port for the wall.

Arbeia, South Shields
Arbeia reconstruction, South Shields © David Simpson 2015

 See also : More about Hadrian’s Wall Country

Newcastle West | Roman Newcastle 

Wallsend | Roman South Shields

Hexham Corbridge South Tynedale | Allendale


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North East England History and Culture