Hadrian’s Wall is the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain. The Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman empire for nearly 300 years. It was built by the Roman army on the orders of Hadrian following his visit to Britain in 122 AD. At 117 kilometres long (80 Roman miles), it crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Frontier installations continued for a further 40 kilometres down the Cumbrian coast.
Considered as the most famous of all the frontiers of the Roman empire, Hadrian’s Wall stands today as a reminder of the past glories of one of the world’s greatest powers. Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS (see here), inscribed in 2005 and currently comprising Hadrian’s Wall, the German Limes and the Antonine Wall in Scotland.
The military importance of the area was recognised by the Romans during their early campaigns through northern England and into Scotland in the 2nd half of the 1st century AD. At this time a military road, the Stanegate, was constructed along with a series of forts. Subsequently, the Romans withdrew from Scotland and the Stanegate became the new frontier. This position was consolidated in the early 2nd century by the construction of a substantial frontier work, Hadrian’s Wall.
The original plan of Hadrian’s Wall was for a wall of turf in the west and stone in the east, with small forts (milecastles) at intervals of a Roman mile, and two observation towers (turrets) in between the milecastles. These were installations where small groups of soldiers could be outposted in areas where there were concerns about security. Size varied, but in general, they were about 15m by 18m internally, with stone walls as much as 3m thick and probably 5m to 6m high, to match the height of the adjacent wall. There were 80 milecastles and 158 turrets.
To the north lay a broad and deep ditch, except where the lie of the land made this unnecessary. Forts were added along the length of the wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops, and a great earthwork, known as the Vallum, was constructed a short distance south of the Wall. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters), were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing a change of plan.
The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was a major feat of engineering. Soldiers from three legions are known to have helped build the Wall, Legio VI Victrix (which arrived in Britain c. 122 AD, just in time to start work on the Wall), Legio XX Valeria Victrix and Legio II Augusta. Other soldiers from the provincial army helped. It stood up to 4.4 metres high in places with walls 3 meters wide and was built by a force of no more than 15,000 men in under six years. It had dressed facing stones in a soft mortar and a core of earth or clay with stones. There is some evidence that there was a wall-walk and parapet along its top. The Wall underwent various changes over time. Changes in design from a broad wall through to a later adoption of a narrower gauge wall, and subsequent rebuilding in the 3rd century AD.
Up until at least the 1850s, it was thought that Septimius Severus built the wall during his failed attempts to finally bring all of Britain under Roman control while Hadrian was credited with building the Vallum. However, the Milecasle 38 stone inscription, found in the mid-1700s, proves that Hadrian commissioned the wall that now bears his name. The inscription, probably made and erected to mark the completion of the milecastle, bears the names of the emperor Hadrian and Aulus Platorius Nepos (Governor of Britannia during Hadrian’s reign), as well as Legio II Augusta (Second Augustan Legion). It is on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned from 142 AD for about 20 years when the Antonine Wall was built to the north, but from about 160 for 250 years it remained the north-west frontier of the Roman empire.
With the end of Roman rule, the ruins of the Wall became the homes of farmers, strongholds of lords, hide-outs of thieves and the building material of churchmen, but always remained a powerful reminder of what had once been.
Almost 2,000 years on, long sections on Hadrian’s Wall still stand, remarkably well-preserved.
Hadrian’s Wall Path
Hadrian’s Wall has long attracted hikers and history fans and is now the heart of an 84-mile-long (135 km) National Trail through some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. Hadrian’s Wall Path stretches coast to coast across northern England, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway on the west coast. The trail is well signposted and despite the fact that it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern England, it retains a real sense of quiet wilderness. The sites of several Roman forts lie along the route, including Segedunum at Wallsend, Chesters, Housesteads, Vindolanda and Birdoswald.
Hadrian’s wall trail is an extraordinary journey which gives you a unique insight into a fascinating era in history as well as a massive respect for the soldiers who engineered and built the Wall. National Trail Maps and Guides are available to download from the Hadrian’s Wall Country website at hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/.
PLEASE DO NOT stand or climb on Hadrian’s Wall!