Hadrian's Wall

History of Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall served as the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly three centuries. Commissioned by Emperor Hadrian during his visit to Britain in AD 122, the Wall extended 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. This monumental structure is the most renowned of all Roman frontiers and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Construction and Design

Permanent Roman conquest of Britain began in AD 43, and by around AD 100, the northernmost Roman military presence was concentrated along the Tyne-Solway isthmus. The forts in this area were connected by the Stanegate road, running between Corbridge and Carlisle. Following Hadrian’s visit, work on the Wall likely commenced in AD 122 and took at least six years to complete. The initial plan included a stone or turf wall with guarded gates every mile and two observation towers in between. A wide, deep ditch fronted the Wall, and before construction finished, 14 forts were added, as well as the Vallum, an earthwork to the south.

The Wall was meticulously placed north of the existing military installations, utilising the topography to its advantage. The construction began in the east, at the junction with Dere Street, where a gate, the Portgate, was later added. While most of the Wall was built of stone, the eastern 30-mile section was turf. Each mile featured a gate protected by a small guard post known as a milecastle, with two turrets between each pair of milecastles, ensuring observation points every third of a mile.

Changes in the Original Plan

The original plan for Hadrian’s Wall underwent significant changes before its completion. Initially, the forts were located behind the Wall along the Stanegate, but a shift in strategy led to the construction of forts directly on the Wall line and down the Cumbrian coast. These forts were placed roughly 7⅓ miles apart and designed to house a single unit, each equipped with multiple gates to facilitate increased mobility.

An additional earthwork, the Vallum, was constructed to the south of the Wall, featuring a central ditch flanked by two mounds. The Vallum’s purpose was likely to protect the rear of the frontier sone. Following these modifications, the Wall’s width was reduced from 10 to 8 Roman feet (3 to 2.4 meters) to expedite the construction process.

Building and Manning the Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman army in Britain, primarily by three legions, each consisting of about 5,000 infantrymen. Auxiliary units and even the British fleet assisted in the construction. Although the Wall was built by legionaries, it was manned by auxiliaries organised into regiments of 500 or 1,000 soldiers, including both infantry and cavalry. These troops were primarily recruited from the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire, though some came from further afield.

While army units were typically accompanied by camp followers, little is known about these people during the early years of the Wall. Evidence of civil settlements dating to the 3rd century suggests an eventual urban sprawl beyond the forts.

After Hadrian

Upon Hadrian’s death in AD 138, Emperor Antoninus Pius abandoned Hadrian’s Wall in favour of a new frontier, the Antonine Wall, constructed on the Forth-Clyde isthmus. This turf wall, however, was short-lived, and Hadrian’s Wall was reinstated approximately 20 years later. During this period, milecastle gates were removed, and crossings were built over the Vallum ditch. Repairs were made, and a road was added to the frontier, allowing the Wall to function into the late 2nd century.

Following a major war around AD 180, the Wall underwent further changes, including the abandonment of many turrets and a redeployment of the army. In the early 3rd century, cavalry units were strategically placed along the main roads to the north and south of the Wall. Many milecastles were modified to restrict access to pedestrian traffic only, and significant repairs to the Wall were undertaken.

The forts on Hadrian’s Wall continued to evolve over nearly 300 years, with modifications to barrack blocks, headquarters buildings, and commanders’ houses. The forts remained operational until the end of Roman Britain in the early 5th century. The latest coins found on the Wall date from AD 403–6.

Post-Roman Period and Preservation

After the Romans abandoned Britain, Hadrian’s Wall became a quarry for building materials. The conservation movement in the 18th and 19th centuries, led by figures such as John Clayton, John Hodgson, and John Collingwood Bruce, sought to protect and study the Wall. Clayton, in particular, played a significant role in uncovering and rebuilding many miles of the frontier.

In the years following the Roman departure, Hadrian’s Wall became part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire (FRE) World Heritage Site, which includes the German Limes and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. The Antonine Wall, constructed by Emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 142, represents the northwesternmost portion of the Roman Limes.

Today, Hadrian’s Wall stands as a testament to Roman engineering and military strategy. It is the best-preserved Roman frontier and offers unparalleled public access to numerous archaeological remains. The Wall was brought under national care in 1913 and became a World Heritage Site in 1987, joining other global heritage sites like the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal.

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