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Hadrian's Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier

Hadrian's Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier

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Patricia Southern's writing breathes wit and entertainment into her treatment of Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian's Wall: Everyday Life on a Roman Frontier could easily have been yet another dry interpretation of the archaeological and historical data about the ruins. Instead, Southern takes every aspect of the Wall's historical supposition to task, examining current science and generally accepted conclusions with a sense of healthy self-deprecation. “None of this speculation is supported by any evidence, but somebody had to do it.” (88)

Hadrian's Wall discusses everything relating to the structure, not just the Wall itself. The first half of the book is devoted to reasons why the Wall was built, including an extensively detailed chapter on Hadrian's exposure to frontiers during his rise to Emperor, and how those postings may have influenced his decisions. Southern covers all the practicalities of the construction, how the Legions built such a structure (including a list of the trade expertise generally found in a typical Legion in the 120s CE), when construction must have started, who was in charge of supplies, why some areas were built in turf while others were stone, and what might have happened with the older systems of forts South of the Wall. She does not shy away from the effect the Wall had on Britons at the time either, discussing difficulties the Romans had with local tribes during construction and the possibility one tribe's territory was actually split by the wall.

The second half covers how the Wall was really used at its height, as well as the withdrawal of Romans from the frontier and eventually Britain. Of particular interest is her explanation of life along the Wall. The chapter “Living on the Wall” details every possible aspect of a soldier's posting at the Wall, including military policies and procedures, a soldier's kit and weaponry, expected terms of service and retirement, auxiliary service, and civilians living nearby. It's an excellent, well-rounded snapshot of what life must have been like serving on the frontier.

Chapters eight and nine cover the Wall from the 3rd century CE through the end of Rome's occupation in Britain. Here, she reviews the myriad of political and social changes affecting the structure. Southern includes political climate, recruitment and military changes, and the later influences of Constantine's conversion to Christianity in her analysis.

Hadrian's Wall concludes with a chapter devoted to investigating how the Wall actually worked. Southern fully admits there are holes in the history and archaeology which cannot be answered. “There are too many imponderables for anyone to be pedantic about how the Wall functioned at any period of its long history.” (361) She discusses many of the unanswered questions such as what was the enemy really like at the time (was a firm barrier necessary, or was it a political show), was there a walk on the top of the wall or not, and what happened when the Romans left versus when the Wall actually fell out of use.

Southern grew up close to the Wall and has clearly been fascinated by it since childhood. Her passion is evident, as is her sense of humor. Anyone who ends a necessary-but-dry discussion of timing with “This sentence invites incredulous mutterings about porcine aviation” (88) definitely has my attention and appreciation. In general, Southern's writing style is extremely accessible to anyone interested in the topic: no Ph.D. required. This is a well-written, interesting book about not only the structure itself but the legends and archaeological evidence behind it.

The Vindolanda Tablets

The Vindolanda tablets (also known as Vindolanda Letters) are thin pieces of wood about the size of a modern postcard, which were used as writing paper for the Roman soldiers garrisoned at the fort of Vindolanda between AD 85 and 130. Such tablets have been found at other Roman sites, including nearby Carlisle, but not in as much abundance. In Latin texts, such as those of Pliny the Elder, these kinds of tablets are referred to as leaf tablets or sectiles or laminae—Pliny used them to keep notes for his Natural History, written in the first century AD.

The tablets are thin slivers (.5 centimeters to 3 millimeters thick) of imported spruce or larch, which for the most part measure about 10 by 15 centimers (around 4 by 6 inches). The surface of the wood was smoothed and treated so it could be used for writing. Often the tablets were scored in the center so that they could be folded and tied together for security purposes—to keep couriers from reading the contents. Longer documents were created by tying several leaves together.

Review – Hadrian’s Wall: everyday life on a Roman frontier

As the author herself asks, why do we need another book on Hadrian’s Wall? The question is conclusively answered over the course of the book’s 400 pages. It includes the standard sections on, for example, the history, construction, and purpose of the Wall, but it digs deeper than many volumes into the Wall’s management. The book takes a detailed look at Hadrian himself, examines the region before the Wall was built, and throughout weaves in information on life experienced by soldiers and civilians alike.

We read about the Wall’s diverse population, what they wore, the sort of food and drink they consumed, the gods they worshipped, civilian settlements on the frontier, and much more. Inevitably, much is gleaned from the Vindolanda writing tablets, whose relevance, given that they largely pre-date the Wall, could be questioned. More, too, could have been made of the material culture recovered from the Wall.

Nevertheless, Patricia Southern’s book is highly readable, well-illustrated, and informative, and deserves to be added to the list of essential books on the Wall.


The length of the Wall was 80 Roman miles (a unit of length. equivalent to about 1620 yards [or 1480 metres] in the modern measurement), or 73 modern miles. [13] This covered the entire width of the island, from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. [2]

Not long after production began on the Wall, its width was reduced to be about eight feet, or even less depending on the terrain. [2] As some areas were constructed of turf and timber, it would take decades for certain areas to be modified and replaced by stone. [2]

Bede, a medieval historian, wrote the Wall to be standing at 12 feet high, with evidence suggesting it could have been a few feet higher at its formation. [2]

R.S.O. Tomlin argues that along the miles-long wall there would have been a tower every third of a mile, adding more to the dimensions of the structure. This however is not an argument but a fact, as there are plentiful remains of the turrets. [14]

Hadrian's Wall extended west from Segedunum at Wallsend on the River Tyne, via Carlisle and Kirkandrews-on-Eden, to the shore of the Solway Firth, ending a short but unknown distance west of the village of Bowness-on-Solway. [15] The A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the wall from Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then along the northern coast of Cumbria (south shore of the Solway Firth).

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 Risehow, south of Maryport. [16] For classification purposes, the milecastles west of Bowness-on-Solway are referred to as Milefortlets.

Hadrian's Wall was probably planned before Hadrian's visit to Britain in 122. According to restored sandstone fragments found in Jarrow which date from 118 or 119, it was Hadrian's wish to keep "intact the empire", which had been imposed on him via "divine instruction". [17]

Lobell comments on the obvious nature of the Wall, saying "if there are troublesome tribes to the north, and you want to keep them out, you build a strong defensive wall". [2] The Historia Augusta also states that Hadrian was the first to build a wall 80 miles from sea to sea to separate the barbarians from the Romans. [2] However, this reasoning does not cover the various reasonings Hadrian could have had in mind when commissioning the Wall's construction. [2]

On Hadrian's accession to the throne in 117, there was unrest and rebellion in Roman Britain and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya and Mauretania. [17] These troubles may have influenced his plan to construct the wall as well as his construction of frontier boundaries in other areas of the Empire, but to what extent is unknown. Scholars disagree over how much of a threat the inhabitants of northern Britain really presented and whether there was any economic advantage in defending and garrisoning a fixed line of defences like the Wall, rather than conquering and annexing what has become Northumberland and the Scottish Lowlands and defending the territory with a loose arrangement of forts. [17]

Besides a defensive structure made to keep people out, the Wall also served to keep people within the Roman province. [2] Since the Romans had control over who was allowed in and out of the empire, the Wall was invaluable in controlling the markets and economy. [2] Describing the Wall as a major component of the empire's frontier military strategy, Lobell argues for the psychological impact of the Wall:

For nearly three centuries, until the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410 [CE], Hadrian's Wall was the clearest statement of the might, resourcefulness, and determination of an individual emperor and of his empire. [2]

The Wall also provided years of work for thousands of soldiers who were responsible for building and maintaining the structure which gave the further benefit of preventing any boredom for the soldiers. [2]

Nick Hodgson suggests that the Wall's primary purpose was as a physical barrier to slow up the crossing of raiders and people intent on getting into the empire for destructive or plundering purposes. [2] Hodgson argues that the Wall was not a last stand type of defensive line, but, instead, an observation point that could alert Romans of an incoming attack and act as a deterrent to slow down enemy forces so that additional troops could arrive for support. [2] This is supported by another defensive measure found in front of the Wall as well – pits or holes which likely held branches or small tree trunks entangled with sharpened branches. [2] Originally thought of as local features for the nearby fort, it is now thought that they are a general feature of Hadrian's Wall. [2] Hodgson argues that this new discovery has reignited the discussion of the purpose of the wall and demanded a reconsideration of the long-held interpretation that it had no defensive or tactical role. [2]

Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed: its shining surface reflected the sunlight and was visible for miles around. [17]

Hadrian ended his predecessor Trajan's policy of expanding the empire and instead focused on defending the current borders, namely at the time Britain. [2] Like Augustus, Hadrian believed in making the natural boundaries around the empire as the borders such as the Euphrates, the Rhine, and Danube Rivers. [2] Britain, however, did not have any natural boundaries that could serve this purpose – to divide the province controlled by the Romans from the rebellious Celtic tribes in the north. [2] Construction started in 122. [18]

The entire length of the Wall was built with an alternating series of forts, each housing as many as 600 men, and manned milecastles, operated by "between 12 and 20 men". [2]

It took six years to build most of Hadrian's Wall with the work coming at the hands of three Roman legions – the II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix, (totalling 15,000 soldiers) – and some members of the Roman fleet. [2] The production of the Wall was not out of the area of expertise for the soldiers as they travelled with their own surveyors, engineers, masons, and carpenters. [2]

"Broad Wall" and "Narrow Wall" Edit

The terms "Broad Wall" and "Narrow Wall" are used to describe different sections of Hadrian's Wall. They are aptly named as they are referring to the width of a particular section as some areas are wider than others. R.G. Collingwood found evidence for the existence of a broad section of the Wall and conversely a narrow section. [19] He argues that plans changed during construction of the Wall and its overall width was reduced, resulting in both broad and narrow sections of the Wall. [19]

Broad sections of the Wall are around nine and a half feet wide with the narrow sections of the Wall two feet thinner, being around seven and a half feet wide. [19] The narrow sections were found to be built upon broad foundations. [19] Based on this evidence, Collingwood concludes that the Wall was originally due to be built between present-day Newcastle and Bowness, with a uniform width of ten Roman feet, all in stone. [19] However, in the end, only three-fifths of the Wall was built from stone and the remaining part of the Wall in the west was a turf wall. [19] Plans possibly changed due to a lack of resources. [19]

In an effort to preserve resources further, the eastern half's width was therefore reduced from the original ten Roman feet to eight, with the remaining stones from the eastern half used for around five miles of the turf wall in the west. [19] [14] This reduction from the original ten Roman feet to eight, created the so called "Narrow Wall". [14]

The Vallum Edit

South of the Wall there is a ten feet deep, ditch-like construction known as the Vallum, which to its south is a twenty feet high mound of dirt. [19] The Vallum and the Wall have in many ways shared pathways that led many nineteenth century thinkers to note and ponder their relation to one another. [19]

Some evidence shows the pathway of the Wall was shifted to avoid the Vallum, possibly pointing to the Vallum being an older construction. [19] Collingwood therefore asserted in 1930, that the Vallum was built before the Wall in its final form. [19] Collingwood also questioned whether the Vallum was in fact an original border built before the Wall, defining the end of Roman territory. [19] Based on this consideration, the Wall could be viewed as a new, replacement border, built to strengthen the Roman's definition of their territory. [19]

However, in 1936, further research suggested that the Vallum could not have been built before the Wall because it clearly avoided one of its milecastles. [19] This new discovery was continually supported by more evidence, strengthening the idea that there was a simultaneous construction of the Vallum and the Wall. [19]

Other evidence still pointed in other, slightly different directions. Evidence shows that the Vallum preceded sections of the Narrow Wall specifically and, to account for this discrepancy, Couse suggests that either construction of the Vallum began with the Broad wall, or it began when the Narrow Wall succeeded the Broad Wall but proceeded more quickly than that of the Narrow Wall. [19]

Turf wall Edit

From Milecastle 49 to the western terminus of the wall at Bowness-on-Solway, the curtain wall was originally constructed from turf, possibly due to the absence of limestone for the manufacture of mortar. [20] Subsequently, the Turf Wall was demolished and replaced with a stone wall. This took place in two phases the first (from the River Irthing to a point west of Milecastle 54), during the reign of Hadrian, and the second following the reoccupation of Hadrian's Wall subsequent to the abandonment of the Antonine Wall (though it has also been suggested that this second phase took place during the reign of Septimius Severus). The line of the new stone wall follows the line of the turf wall, apart from the stretch between Milecastle 49 and Milecastle 51, where the line of the stone wall is slightly further to the north. [20]

In the stretch around Milecastle 50TW, it was built on a flat base with three to four courses of turf blocks. [21] A basal layer of cobbles was used westwards from Milecastle 72 (at Burgh-by-Sands) and possibly at Milecastle 53. [22] Where the underlying ground was boggy, wooden piles were used. [20]

At its base, the now-demolished turf wall was 6 metres (20 feet) wide, and built in courses of turf blocks measuring 46 cm (18 inches) long by 30 cm (12 inches) deep by 15 cm (6 inches) high, to a height estimated at around 3.66 metres (12.0 feet). The north face is thought to have had a slope of 75%, whereas the south face is thought to have started vertical above the foundation, quickly becoming much shallower. [20]

Standards Edit

Above the stone curtain wall's foundations, one or more footing courses were laid. Offsets were introduced above these footing courses (on both the north and south faces), which reduced the wall's width. Where the width of the curtain wall is stated, it is in reference to the width above the offset. Two standards of offset have been identified: Standard A, where the offset occurs above the first footing course, and Standard B, where the offset occurs after the third (or sometimes fourth) footing course. [23]

Lobell says that following construction, and "when fully manned" almost 10,000 soldiers were stationed on Hadrian's Wall, made up not of the legions who built it "but by regiments of auxiliary infantry and cavalry drawn from the provinces". [2]

Following from this David J. Breeze laid out the two basic functions for soldiers on or around Hadrian's Wall. [24] Breeze says that soldiers who were stationed in the forts around the Wall had the primary duty of defence at the same time, the troops in the milecastles and turrets had the responsibility of frontier control. [24] Evidence, as Breeze says, for soldiers stationed in forts is far more pronounced than the ones in the milecastles and turrets. [24]

Breeze discusses three theories about the soldiers on Hadrian's Wall. One, these soldiers who manned the milecastles and turrets on the Wall came from the forts near the Wall two, regiments from auxiliaries were specifically chosen for this role or three, "a special force" was formed to man these stations. [24]

Breeze comes to the conclusion that through all the inscriptions gathered there were soldiers from three, or even four, auxiliary units at milecastles on the Wall. [24] These units were "cohors I Batavorum, cohors I Vardullorum, an un-numbered Pannonian cohort, and a duplicarius from Upper Germany". [24] Breeze adds that there appears to be some legionaries as well at these milecastles. [24]

Breeze also continues saying that evidence is "still open on whether" soldiers who manned the Wall milecastles were from nearby forts or were specifically chosen for this task, and further adds that "the balance [of evidence] perhaps lies towards the latter". [24] And finally, a surprise for Breeze is that "soldiers from the three British legions" outnumbered the auxiliaries which goes against the assertion "that legionaries would not be used on such detached duties". [24]

Further information on the garrisoning of the wall has been provided by the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, such as the record of an inspection on 18 May of a year 92 and 97, where only 456 of the full quota of 756 Belgae troops were present, the rest being sick or otherwise absent. [25]

In the years after Hadrian's death in 138, the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, left the wall occupied in a support role, essentially abandoning it. He began building a new wall called the Antonine Wall about 160 kilometres (100 mi) north, across the isthmus running west-south-west to east-north-east. This turf wall ran 40 Roman miles, or about 60.8 km (37.8 mi), and had significantly more forts than Hadrian's Wall. This area later became known as the Scottish Lowlands, sometimes referred to as the Central Belt or Central Lowlands.

Antoninus was unable to conquer the northern tribes, so when Marcus Aurelius became emperor, he abandoned the Antonine Wall and reoccupied Hadrian's Wall as the main defensive barrier in 164. In 208–211, the Emperor Septimius Severus again tried to conquer Caledonia and temporarily reoccupied the Antonine Wall. The campaign ended inconclusively and the Romans eventually withdrew to Hadrian's Wall. The early historian Bede (AD 672/3-735), following Gildas, wrote (circa AD 730):

[the departing Romans] thinking that it might be some help to the allies [Britons], whom they were forced to abandon, constructed a strong stone wall from sea to sea, in a straight line between the towns that had been there built for fear of the enemy, where Severus also had formerly built a rampart.

Bede obviously identified Gildas's stone wall as Hadrian's Wall (actually built in the 120s) and he would appear to have believed that the ditch-and-mound barrier known as the Vallum (just to the south of and contemporary with, Hadrian's Wall) was the rampart constructed by Severus. Many centuries would pass before just who built what became apparent. [27]

In the same passage, Bede describes Hadrian's Wall as follows: "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." Bede by his own account [28] lived his whole life at Jarrow, just across the River Tyne from the eastern end of the Wall at Wallsend, so as he indicates, he would have been very familiar with the Wall. What he does not say is whether there was a walkway along the top of the wall. It might be thought likely that there was, but if so it no longer exists.

In the late 4th century, barbarian invasions, economic decline and military coups loosened the Empire's hold on Britain. By 410, the estimated end of Roman rule in Britain, the Roman administration and its legions were gone and Britain was left to look to its own defences and government. Archaeologists have revealed that some parts of the wall remained occupied well into the 5th century. It has been suggested that some forts continued to be garrisoned by local Britons under the control of a Coel Hen figure and former dux. Hadrian's Wall fell into ruin and over the centuries the stone was reused in other local buildings. Enough survived in the 7th century for spolia from Hadrian's Wall (illustrated at right) to find its way into the construction of St Paul's Church in Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where Bede was a monk. It was presumably incorporated before the setting of the church's dedication stone, still to be seen in the church, precisely dated to 23 April 685. [29]

The wall fascinated John Speed, who published a set of maps of England and Wales by county at the start of the 17th century. He described it as "the Picts Wall" (or "Pictes" he uses both spellings). A map of Newecastle (sic), drawn in 1610 by William Matthew, described it as "Severus' Wall", mistakenly giving it the name ascribed by Bede to the Vallum. The maps for Cumberland and Northumberland not only show the wall as a major feature, but are ornamented with drawings of Roman finds, together with, in the case of the Cumberland map, a cartouche in which he sets out a description of the wall itself.

Preservation by John Clayton Edit

Much of the wall has now disappeared. Long sections of it were used for roadbuilding in the 18th century, [30] especially by General Wade to build a military road (most of which lies beneath the present day B6318 "Military Road") to move troops to crush the Jacobite insurrection. The preservation of much of what remains can be credited to John Clayton. He trained as a lawyer and became town clerk of Newcastle in the 1830s. He became enthusiastic about preserving the wall after a visit to Chesters. To prevent farmers taking stones from the wall, he began buying some of the land on which the wall stood. In 1834, he started purchasing property around Steel Rigg near Crag Lough. Eventually, he controlled land from Brunton to Cawfields. This stretch included the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. Clayton carried out excavation at the fort at Cilurnum and at Housesteads, and he excavated some milecastles.

Clayton managed the farms he had acquired and succeeded in improving both the land and the livestock. He used the profits from his farms for restoration work. Workmen were employed to restore sections of the wall, generally up to a height of seven courses. The best example of the Clayton Wall is at Housesteads. After Clayton's death, the estate passed to relatives and was soon lost at gambling. Eventually, the National Trust began acquiring the land on which the wall stands. At Wallington Hall, near Morpeth, there is a painting by William Bell Scott, which shows a centurion supervising the building of the wall. The centurion has been given the face of John Clayton.

World Heritage Site Edit

Hadrian's Wall was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and in 2005 it became part of the transnational "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" World Heritage Site, which also includes sites in Germany. [31]

Tourism Edit

Although Hadrian's Wall was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, it remains unguarded, enabling visitors to climb and stand on the wall, although this is not encouraged, as it could damage the historic structure. On 13 March 2010, a public event Illuminating Hadrian's Wall took place, which saw the route of the wall lit with 500 beacons. On 31 August and 2 September 2012, there was a second illumination of the wall as a digital art installation called "Connecting Light", which was part of the London 2012 Festival. In 2018, the organisations which manage the Great Wall of China and Hadrian's Wall signed an agreement to collaborate for the growth of tourism and for historical and cultural understanding of the monuments. [32]

Hadrian's Wall Path Edit

In 2003, a National Trail footpath was opened that follows the line of the wall from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway. [33] Because of the fragile landscape, walkers are asked to follow the path only in summer. [34]

Hadrian's Wall was known in the Roman period as the vallum (wall) and the discovery of the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan in Staffordshire in 2003 has thrown further light on its name. This copper alloy pan (trulla), dating to the 2nd century, is inscribed with a series of names of Roman forts along the western sector of the wall: MAIS [Bowness-on-Solway] COGGABATA [Drumburgh] VXELODVNVM [Stanwix] CAMBOGLANNA [Castlesteads]. This is followed by RIGORE VALI AELI DRACONIS . Hadrian's family name was Aelius, and the most likely reading of the inscription is Valli Aelii (genitive), Hadrian's Wall, suggesting that the wall was called by the same name by contemporaries. However, another possibility is that it refers to the personal name Aelius Draco. [35] [36]

Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Explore the archaeology of the most heavily fortified frontier in the Roman Empire, its people and their lives.

Hadrian’s Wall stretches over 73 miles (117 km), from coast to coast in what is now Northern England. The Wall, complemented by a sophisticated system of outposts and coastal watch stations, offers a remarkable glimpse of ancient society. In addition to housing one of the largest concentrations of Roman soldiers anywhere in the Empire’s provinces, Hadrian’s frontier system was home to an incredibly cosmopolitan array of civilians.

This six week course offers a comprehensive introduction to Hadrian’s Wall and its people and raises fascinating issues concerning colonisation, cultural transformation, immigration, integration and imperialism. We will explore life in the region before the construction of the Wall, the arrival of the Roman army and its impact on the local population. Detailed case studies will consider the different features of the Wall and its surroundings, considering the way in which the frontier system evolved throughout the Roman period. The changing face of both the Roman army and indigenous populations is richly illuminated through archaeological finds and reconstructions. To appreciate the range and character of native people, soldiers’ families, slaves, merchants and migrants, we will examine their homes, dress, diet, rituals and religious beliefs.

Drawing on the very latest research, we will investigate how archaeologists interpret evidence, considering:

  • the factors that determine the survival of evidence
  • the different methods of archaeological prospection used to detect settlement locations and better understand their organisation
  • the planning of archaeological projects
  • excavation techniques
  • and the detailed study of structures and artefacts.

As part of the course you can test your understanding of these methods with real case studies and participate in a series of archaeological experiments designed to help you appreciate the complexities of daily life on Rome’s most famous frontier.

Find out more about new discoveries and how learners are helping to shape the content of these course runs on the FutureLearn blog.

This course is intended for anyone with an interest in the archaeology or history of the Roman Empire. It focuses on the most heavily fortified Roman frontier, located in what is now northern England. It does not require any reading before you start, or previous experience of studying these subjects.

When Emperor Hadrian decided to have a cross-country boundary wall built across northern England, he ordered all the extras - a north ditch, a south ditch (the vallum), forts, fortlets, milecastles and turrets. This military zone was about law and order and trade. It was policed by auxiliary soldiers who would have gone hungry without efficient supply bases, who would have been bored without lively, local villages to have fun in and who would have gone smelly without a good bath.

Hadrian's Wall: A Life

This book addresses the post-Roman history of this world-famous ancient monument. Constructed on the orders of the emperor Hadrian during the 120s AD, the Wall was maintained for almost three centuries before ceasing to operate as a Roman frontier during the fifth century. The scale and complexity of Hadrian's Wall makes it one of the most important ancient monuments in the British Isles. It is the most well-preserved of the frontier works that once defined the Roman Empire. While the Wall is famous as a Roman construct, its monumental physical structure did not suddenly cease to exist in the . More

This book addresses the post-Roman history of this world-famous ancient monument. Constructed on the orders of the emperor Hadrian during the 120s AD, the Wall was maintained for almost three centuries before ceasing to operate as a Roman frontier during the fifth century. The scale and complexity of Hadrian's Wall makes it one of the most important ancient monuments in the British Isles. It is the most well-preserved of the frontier works that once defined the Roman Empire. While the Wall is famous as a Roman construct, its monumental physical structure did not suddenly cease to exist in the fifth century. This volume explores the after-life of Hadrian's Wall and considers the ways it has been imagined, represented, and researched from the sixth century to the era of the internet. The sixteen chapters, illustrated with over 100 images, show the changing manner in which the Wall has been conceived and the significant role it has played in imagining the identity of the English, including its appropriation as symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. This book discusses the transforming political, cultural, and religious significance of the Wall during this entire period and addresses the ways in which scholars and artists have been inspired by the monument over the years.

At the peak of its powers, the Roman Empire stretched from northern Britain to the deserts of Arabia – some 5,000 kilometres. Hadrian’s Wall represented the northern frontier of the empire, marking out a section of its limites (a border, typically incorporating military defences), which can still be traced in the remains of walls and fortifications.

Limes Germanicus marked the empire’s Germanic frontier, Limes Arabicus the limits of the empire’s Arabian Province, and Fossatum Africae (African ditch) the southern frontier, which stretched for at least 750km across northern Africa.

Hadrian’s Wall – the grandeur and intimacy of the Roman Empire

The fact that most of Britain was part of the Roman Empire is one of the defining aspects of our past and nothing epitomises that episode of history more than Hadrian’s Wall. Started in 122AD on the occasion of the visit of his to Britain it was part of Hadrian’s plan to establish fixed and defensible limits to the Roman Empire. It is not a wall. It is the Wall which, even if it is through a mistaken piece of translation, has given us the word in the English language.

In a nation with an ambivalent attitude today to grand public works, its ambition and scale are breath-taking. 72 miles long and built across a landscape which, even today, can still be forbidding and desolate, the Wall makes few compromises to geography in its aim to furnish the best defensive positions. Follow the Wall today around Walltown Crags or Steel Rigg and you cannot fail to be taken back by the boldness and determination of the Roman engineers and soldiers who constructed it.

Built by the legionary soldiers of the 2 nd , 6 th and 20 th Legions over a period of around 5 years the Wall was built of stone, except for its western reaches which, initially, were constructed from turf. In addition to the Wall itself, the legionaries constructed a series of milecastles, a network of forts such as those which can still be seen at Housesteads, Chesters and Birdoswald and an enormous ditch or “vallum” running in parallel to the Wall. The Wall was, by any standards, an enormous logistical exercise. By one estimate it might have taken 30,000 vehicles, 6000 oxen and 14,000 horses and mules to transport the materials required. Its scale is highlighted by the extent to which so many subsequent buildings in the area are constructed from stone robbed from the Wall.

The Wall was occupied for 300 years. In the period after Hadrian the Romans tried to extend the boundary of the Empire northwards to the line of the Firth of Forth where they built the Antonine Wall as an alternative frontier defence. It didn’t last much more than 20 years and for the rest of the life of Roman occupation they relied on the defences of Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Empire from incursions from the northern tribes of Scotland. The Wall was garrisoned by around 9000 auxiliary troops drawn from different parts of the empire, Romanians, Spaniards, Belgians, Dutch, Germans but with their strength made up over time form more local recruits. It is a classic image of the Roman occupation of Britain to imagine soldiers, drawn from sunnier climes in the Empire, shivering on sentry duty on the windswept Wall.

But the Wall and the forts and settlements which grew up are not just about military expediency. As well as forbidding fortifications, the Romans were determined to bring the comforts of civilisation to the northern frontier of the Empire. Forts such as Chesters had their bathhouse blocks there was access to fine pottery, literature, decent wine, fine clothes and all the other accoutrements of civilised Roman life.

Nowhere is this more on display that at Vindolanda, a fort behind the lines of the Wall. Thanks to excavations starting in the 1970s which uncovered a fascinating series of wooden tablets, preserved in damp anaerobic conditions, recording many of the details of everyday life at the fort. The tablets, now mainly held at the British Museum, are a unique and wonderful historical source, their everyday character making them particularly special. The tablets cast light on many of the practical everyday features of how the Roman army went about its business and how it was supplied. They include quotes from Vergil, an insight into how the Romans view the natives (there is a tablet which patronisingly refers to the Britons as “Britunculi” – “little Britons”), a reference to the disastrous day on which the Fort ran out of beer.

One tablet stands out as particularly lovely. It is an invitation sent by Claudia Severa the wife of the commander of a neighbouring fort to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the Flavius Cerialis the commander at Vindolanda inviting her to a birthday party. As well as being the oldest surviving writing by a Roman woman, it is an artefact of heartrending beauty connecting us in such an intimate way with the lives of those who have gone before us.

So when you next wonder what the Romans did for us make your way up to Hadrian’s Wall.

If you are interested in reading more about Hadrian’s Wall I would recommend for starters:

Hadrian's Wall

The most famous Roman remain in England is Hadrian's Wall. It is not by any stretch the most northerly point of the Roman advance they reached as far north as modern Aberdeen. It isn't even the most northerly wall built by the Romans in Britain. That honour goes to the Antonine Wall, an earthwork defence between the firths of Clyde and Forth. It is, however, an impressive engineering feat, and well worth visiting.

Emperor Hadrian
Emperor Hadrian came to the imperial throne in 117 A.D. He decided that the Empire needed securing, not expanding, and in 122 he gave the order to build a wall across the northern frontier. Build it they did eighty miles worth, following the northern escarpment of the valleys of Tyne, Irthing, and Eden between Newcastle and Carlisle.

The original construction took six years to complete, during which time plans were altered several times. The building was done by members of three vexillations - temporary legion subunits - working from east to west, and it has been estimated that they used more than a million cubic metres of stone in its completion. This was not a weekend project. The wall was manned until sometime around 400 A.D.

Forts along the Wall
The wall itself was eight to ten feet wide and fifteen feet high, with a rampart walk and six-foot-high parapet. There are over 80 mile forts spaced, yes, every mile, with a kitchen and barracks for a small garrison. In between the mile forts two observation towers were built, resulting in lookouts every third of a mile for the entire length of the wall.

In addition to the mile forts, there were seventeen larger forts holding from 500 to 1000 troops, infantry or cavalry, or a mixture of both. These forts were built into the wall, with large gates on the north face flanked by stone towers.

The Ditch
To the south of the wall, the Romans dug a wide ditch, or vallum, with six-foot-high earth banks. Why a ditch to the south when the threat was to the north? Most likely the Romans were afraid that the Brigantes tribe of northern England might join with the tribes of Lowland Scotland to make trouble. This way troops manning the wall could control, or at least observe, traffic going both directions. It is just as well, for the Brigantes remained rebellious long after Britain was nominally in Roman hands.

Civilian settlements
One other point of note about the wall concerns the growth of civilian settlements close to the major legionary forts, to the south of the ditch. These settlements, or vici, sprawled in unplanned confusion, in contrast to the regulation army forts.

In the later years of the Empire, when the wall was allowed to lapse, it appears that some of the civilians moved into the forts. Finds have been made of women's rings inside the barracks area. Several possible reasons for their presence come to mind, but the least said about that, the better.

Where to visit
The central sections of the wall remain in good condition and worth visiting. The forts of Chesters, Corbridge, and Housesteads offer good viewing, while the section of wall between Housesteads and Great Chesters is the most wildly evocative in terms of scenery. There are several sections where the Wall is very well preserved, notably near Cawfields, Gilsland, Birdoswald, and Haltwhistle. There are forts at Sewingshields and Vindolanda, and a restored Mithraic temple at Carrawburgh.

The Hadrian's Wall National Trail now follows the course of the Wall through fabulous countryside, giving visitors the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Roman legionnaires who manned this outpost of the Roman Empire so many years ago.

To get a better idea of all the places to see along the course of the Wall, see our list of Hadrian's Wall attractions, and for a more in-depth look at Hadrian's Wall, see our feature article here.


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