Hadrian’s Wall: Rome’s Northernmost Frontier

Location of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wal

The massive, 73-mile (118 Km) long project, in Scotland, served to protect the territory conquered by the legions from the problematic Picts up north.

Nobody really knows what the Romans actually called the defensive structure, but modern scholars have agreed on Hadrian’s Wall because it was erected after Emperor Hadrian, interested in consolidating the territories already conquered, visited Britain in 122. Apparently he recommended some sort of fortifications on the border and the Wall was the result.

Configuration of Hadrian’s Wall

The fortification extended from Wallsend on the river Tyne in the East, to Bowness-on Solway, on the Solway Firths, in the West.

The Eastern section of the Wall was the first to be built. It expanded 42 miles and it boasted two outer surfaces built of stone. Rubble and mortar were used to fill up the hollow center. The 31-mile long eastern segment was build of turf blocks on a base of cobble stones. This was done to speed up the construction process. Later on the turf was replaced with stones.

Behind the barrier, which was eight-feet wide and 12-feet tall, the Romans built between 14 and 17 forts. Each fort housed from 5000 to 1,000 soldiers. There is evidence that most of the soliders in these forts were auxiliary troops and not legionnaires Merchants, traders, carpenters, builders, smiths, and other service providers began to gather in order to meet the soldiers’ needs. With time, towns grew around these forts.

In addition, 80 Milecastles, one every Roman mile, was constructed. The Roman mile is a little shorter than its present counterpart. Each castle had a garrison of up to 60 troops. Two lookout towers, with as many as four soldiers each, were placed in between each castle.

A deep defensive ditch ran alongside the north of the wall from coast to coast, except on the small areas opened with gates. Gates were placed by the forts or castles, so they could be protected.

Furthermore, south of the forts and milecastles, a vallum (from vallus – stake), a series of earthen or turf ramparts with a wooden palisade on top was created.

While legionnaires built the Wall and probably mannned it at the beginning, for most of its history the fortification was defended by auxiliary troops; as a rule area natives who passed the job from father to son. More than 10,000 troops were assigned to Hadrian’s Wall at any given time.

A Stab at the Picts

When Antoninus Pius became emperor at Hadrian’s death in 138 AD, he undertook the conquest of the Picts.

The new emperor abandoned the Wall and built a smaller fortification 100 miles to the north, known as Antonine Wall. It had more forts than the structure to the south, but the Picts could not be conquered.

Considering the invasion of Scotland a failure, Antoninus successor, Marcus Aurelius has his troops fall back to Hadrian’s Wall by 164 A.D.

Romans Leave Britain and the Crumbling of the Wall

By 410 A.D. Rome had abandoned Britain and the Wall began to decay. The British rulers had no funds for maintenance. Manning the defenses was not a problem for the sentries, most of them by now Britons, continued to perform their duties for some time.

Eventually the fortifications were abandoned and it was reduced to rumble. Many of the stones were taken by local folks to erect new buildings.

Hadrian’s Wall plays a prominent role in the 2004 film “King Arthur,” starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, and directed by Antoine Fuqua.