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Hadrian's Wall: History of the Edge of an Empire

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Hadrian's Wall
History of the Edge of an Empire | A Journey Along the Edge of the Empire | The Staffordshire Moorlands Patera
The Western Defences | The Forts And Camps North Of Hadrian's Wall

Located in northern Britain, and built between the river Tyne and the Solway Firth, Hadrian's Wall is 74 miles long. It was built through some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain, from Wallsend on the east coast to Bowness on Solway on the west coast. It is not always easy to remember that this was once an active and often dangerous military frontier of the Roman Empire, and was home to thousands of men and their families.

Known as Hadrian's Wall today, the Roman name is unknown; there is evidence, however, that it was known as the Vallum Aelium, or the Aelian frontier.

When the wall was started at Wallsend it was constructed in limestone quarried at Haltwhistle Burn, where Roman graffiti has been found. It is likely that the majority of the stone used in the construction of the wall came from this quarry.

The structural elements of the wall were:

  • A deep ditch with a slope, to slow up any attack and make the attacking forces easier to kill with missile weapons such as bows.
  • A wide flat arrayed with obstacles, which also slowed attacks and provided a further space to target attackers with missile weapons such as spears.
  • The wall and towers provided a better view of the surrounding area and greater range for the defenders when firing bows and the like. If attackers reached the base of the wall or towers then heavy items could be dropped onto them.
  • A further deep ditch with a slope protected the rear of the wall.

The Stanegate supply road was vital for supplies during peace and wartime. In peacetime it could also be used for trade, while it was a way to get reinforcements to the wall during wartime.

The Emperor Hadrian - Ruler from 117 to 138 AD

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus was born in Rome on 24 January, 76 AD, and ruled until his death on 10 July, 138. He was an administrator, a scholar and a successful soldier, who saw action in Germany, Syria, Pannonia and Greece. In Dacia, as legate of the V legion The Macedonica, his abilities as a commander earned him awards from the Emperor Trajan. A favourite of Trajan's wife, he became Emperor when Trajan died in 117 AD.

The empire was in chaos and there were uprisings in Egypt, Judea, Libya and Mauretania; to add to this, Britain was having severe problems with the Caledonian tribes. To establish his rule and strengthen the peace he had won, Hadrian ordered a series of border fortifications built in Germany and Britain. The German fortifications were of timber, but in Britain they were to be more substantial. Hadrian visited Britain to organise the construction of the wall and his visit also improved the morale of the legions and the population.

Hadrian's Wall and the service roads

The western forts were supplied by local roads from Carlisle (Luguvalium). The west of Carlisle and Stanwix (Uxelodunum) were supplied by the Stanegate Roman road which predates the wall by 70 years and ran south of Hadrian's Wall, from Stanwix (Uxelodunum) to Halton Chesters. Here it joined Dere Street at Corbridge as it ran into Halton Chesters. The eastern end of the wall was served by the Wrekendike that ran to Newcastle upon Tyne (Pons Aelius1) and South Shields (Arbeia).

Hadrian's Wall was built by three of the four legions (and their attached auxiliaries) that were stationed in Britain.

  • Legion XX
  • Legion II
  • Legion VI

Legion XX and Legion II were part of the 43 AD invasion force. Legion VI was sent to Britain in 122 AD, and was posted to York.

Building Hadrian's Wall

There is little doubt that the Romans would have preferred a convenient geographical feature to form the initial barrier as on the Rhine and Danube2 frontier in Germany, and even deserts were used as barriers in Africa. It is therefore no coincidence that plans were drawn up to join two major river estuaries3 across the narrowest part of the country, part of the route following an escarpment called the Great Whin Sill. Even so, from the beginning this was destined to be a formidable project.

Hadrian's Wall was built along the line of the original border which was the Stanegate road and the forts of Carlisle, Carovian, Chesterholm and Corbridge. Roads such as Stanegate were often used to define a border of this type, and were occasionally referred to as the Limes4. In Britannia5 the Stanegate road was the original border; after the building of the wall it was used to serve the wall and its forts.

Building began around 122 AD, working from the eastern end towards the west, and took approximately eight years. It was to be built with 80 mile castles6, one a mile for the length of the route, with two turrets positioned between them for look-out posts and signal stations. It was also protected by a ditch.

The project was probably built with up to 15 miles under construction at any time. The work was divided into five-mile sections - one for each legion working on the wall. Work was started by part of the legion laying out the foundations, then the building of the mile castles. Finally the turrets and the wall were built in the spaces between.

It is interesting to note that the mile castles and turrets were built with short sections of the wall extending from either side. This made the addition of the later filling sections of the wall easier. When the wall between the mile castles and turrets was complete the legion moved to the end of the wall and started the next section.

It was not simply a wall; it had many elements.

The Forts

The original plan for the wall did not include the forts; they were a result of a major replanning during the administration of governor Aulus Platorius Nepos. Construction of the forts began about five years after the start of the wall, explaining the many examples of forts that were cut into fabric of the wall. There were 17 forts7, built to hold between 14,000 and 17,500 men; there were no men of the legions on the actual wall as this duty was given to auxiliary forces.

Mile Castles

Between each fort there were towers or small guard posts called mile castles. There were 80 in all. They were about 20-metres square and on average 8 metres high, and designed for a garrison of 50 men. There were two in each stretch of the wall between each fort, and about a mile apart (hence the name). These mile castles were only used for a short period and many were found to be blocked on excavation.


Between the mile castles were towers or turrets8; there were two on each stretch of wall between mile castles. All forts, mile castles and turrets were built on the south side of the wall (with their fronts on the wall, but the bulk of the construction extending to the south side of the wall). The only forts extending to the northern side of the wall were cavalry forts; examples of these were Halton Chesters and Chesters.

The Wall

The Romans started building the wall around 122 AD. Two distinct methods of construction were employed. When the first stages of the wall were built between Wallsend and Castlesteads, the wall was constructed in limestone blocks with a concrete and rubble core. However, when construction reached the area around the River Irthing near Gilsand Cumbria (near Castlesteads) in 126 AD, the construction method was altered: as construction of the wall continued to the east it was built in turf and timber with stone reinforcements9. This may have been due to the cost of the project, or even the need for rapid completion of the western section due to the threat of raids from the north. There was less easily available limestone at the western end, and this was the most likely reason for the change. The western section was rebuilt in stone within ten years.

Throughout its length the front of the wall was protected with a deep ditch and a bank. When completed the wall was on average five metres high and just over two metres wide. There is evidence that when the wall was completed it was lime-washed white to make it appear more imposing to the invader from the north.

Banks and Ditches

Another bank10 and ditch11 called the vallum was constructed south of the wall to provide protection if the wall was breached; it was a formidable defensive fortification.

Although there was a considerable civilian population in the area, it must be remembered that the area was an active military zone in a state of constant readiness. The wall was served by a network of supply roads: from the west the road from the port of Ravenglass (Glannoventa); from the major junction at Catterick (Cataractonium) supplies transported on Ermine Street could be sent to the western end via Carlisle or on Dere Street via Corbridge and Halton Chesters. Supplies could be transported to the eastern end of the wall via York and Chester-le-Street on the Wrekendike to South Shields (Arbeia), the fort on the southern bank of the river Tyne - or to the fort at Newcastle upon Tyne (Pons Aelius) on the northern bank.

The wall was attacked in 180 AD and again during 196 to 197 AD. After this period of 20 years the attacks ceased and the area enjoyed peace for the next 100 years. Ultimately the wall failed in its purpose as it was impossible for the Romans to keep it manned - but all the while it was garrisoned it proved a successful barrier.

In the 1,700 years since the Romans abandoned the wall it has been used by generations of builders as a quarry, so the wall looks less formidable than it once was. But if you look around you while you travel you will find many buildings, from houses to abbeys, constructed from recycled Roman stone. The wall is all around you.

The Settlements

The settlements that developed around the forts were initially the result of the following:

  • To supply the wall and the troops stationed there.

  • Trade with the local population and administration of the local area.

  • The recreation and social well-being of the troops and the local people. Many of the men stationed on the wall were from the other side of the empire. Only a small percentage would ever see their homes again, so a new life would be made in the area with wives and families. Upon retirement the men left the army and were given a grant of land in the area; this helped to Romanise the local population and increase political stability. These men also provided a ready supply of reserve forces in times of trouble.

The Legions and Auxiliaries

Although the legions built the wall they did not man it. They were the cream of the army and were too good for this duty. The legions were stationed at locations south of the wall and within easy reach of potential troublespots.

  • Caerleon (Isca) was the home of Legion II - The Augusta. A Capricorn was their battle standard.

  • York (Eburacum) was the home of Legion VI - The Victrix. A Bull was their battle standard.

  • Chester (Deva) was the home of Legion XX - The Valeria Victrix. A Celtic Boar was their battle standard.

There was another legion stationed in Britain that took no part in the building of the wall, but was held in reserve to provide security in the south-east.

  • Mancetter (Mandvessedum) was the home of Legion XIV - The Gemina Martia Victrix. A Capricorn was their battle standard.

Auxiliary units varied in strength from 500 to 1000 men. Although most of the units were infantry, the specialist units of the Roman army such as cavalry and archers were also usually auxiliary units. The auxiliaries were regarded as inferior to the Legions as the men that were recruited were not Roman citizens, even though they were often commanded by Roman officers.

The auxiliaries' equipment differed in that they tended to have lighter armour. Chain mail was the most common. Units that carried a shield had an oval one rather then the oblong shield carried by the legionary.

It was the duty of the auxiliaries to man the wall and they garrisoned the three Stanwick forts, the 17 forts on the wall, and the mile castles and the turrets. They also controlled the border crossings and manned the defences to the west of Bowness (Mais) on the coast. In the event of trouble the auxiliary commander would call for support from the Legions stationed to the south.

When the wall was complete the auxiliaries manning the wall also supported the collecting of taxes from traders crossing the wall.

Approximate Distribution of Units On And Around The Wall

  • Legions - 4
  • Auxiliary Foot Units - 30
  • Auxiliary Cavalry Units - 9
  • Specialised Auxiliary Units - 6
  • Auxiliary Navy Units - 1

The garrison of the wall, its forts, the Stanegate road forts and the forts north of the wall was probably greater than 12,000 men; in more peaceful times the number seems have been reduced to around 10,000.

As a reward for service all auxiliaries were awarded Roman citizenship after 25 years in the ranks.

The Antonine Wall

When Emperor Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian in 136 AD, he ordered that a new wall be built 98 miles to the north of Hadrian's Wall. The Antonine Wall as it was called was started in 142 AD, and it ran from the Firth of Clyde to Bo'ness, Falkirk, on the Firth of Forth. This was to have replaced Hadrian's Wall and leave it as a second line of defence. Similarly, it was built of earth reinforced with timber and stone, with a road to the south, and was protected by a ditch to the north. It was not as well built as Hadrian's Wall, but still impressive and an effective fortification, with a fort approximately every two miles.

Due to a combination of hostile action and a political compromise with the local Brythonic tribe, the Antonine Wall was abandoned after 21 years. Hadrian's Wall was reoccupied in 164 AD, and the troops stayed on the wall until the Romans left Britain. Under the orders of Emperor Septimius Severus the Antonine Wall was briefly reoccupied in 208 AD, and mistaken historical references to the Severan Wall were a result of this.

When the wall was started Gaius Julius Caesar had only been dead for 164 years, and the Romans had only been in Britain for 77 years. The other marvel of Roman construction, the Flavian Amphitheatre now better knows as the Colosseum, was completed only 40 years before. The wall was well-known to early historians such as Bede and large quantities of stone were used in the building of Jarrow Monastery.

1There is also a Pons Aelius in Rome over the River Tiber.2The Rivers Rhine and Danube formed a very convenient barrier, allowing the Romans the relatively simple task of fortifying their side.3The rivers Tyne and Solway.4In Latin limes meant road, path or border.5The Roman name for Britain.6Hence the original provision of gates, many of which were later walled up.7From 1.21 hectare to 2.22 hectares in size.8There were around 156 turrets in all. There were about 6metres square and on average 8 metres high, and held a garrison of 12 men.9Local sandstone was used.10The width was six metres and two metres in height.11The width was six metres and three metres in depth.

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