Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
Today we continue examining the list of 52 Ancient Roman Monuments which had been claimed as a “must see” by Touropia Travel Experts. The last location we had checked out was #22 – the Forum of Jerash.
Begun in AD 122 by command of Emperor Hadrian, this was a defensive fortification in the Roman provincia of Britannia. With a stone base this stone wall ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea.
Known as Vallum Aelium, Vallum Hadriani, Picts‘ Wall, or the Roman Wall, Hadrian’s Wall was obviously named to honor the Emperor. According to restored sandstone fragments found in Jarrow which date from AD 118 or 119, the Roman Wall was probably planned before Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122.
It is entirely possible that, on his arrival in Britain in AD 122, one of the stops on his itinerary was the northern frontier to inspect the progress of the building of the wall. Although Hadrian’s biographer wrote “(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians”, reasons for the construction of the wall vary, and no recording of an exact explanation survives.
On his accession to the throne in AD 117, Hadrian had been experiencing rebellion in Roman Britain and from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya and Mauritania (not much has changed in a millennia). These troubles may have influenced Hadrian’s plan to construct the wall as well as his construction of Limites in other areas of the Empire.
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 defenses like the Wall. It seems that the Wall would be easier, in the long run, to hold and maintain rather than conquering and annexing what has become the Scottish Lowlands and defending the territory with a loose arrangement of forts.
From north to south, the wall comprised: a ditch, the wall, a military way and then a Vallum (another ditch with adjoining mounds). It is thought that the milecastles were staffed with static garrisons, whereas the forts had fighting garrisons of infantry and cavalry.
In addition to the wall’s defensive military role, its gates may have been used as customs posts. People within and beyond the limes traveled through the Wall each day when conducting business, and organized check-points like those offered by Hadrian’s Wall provided good opportunities for taxation.
Another theory is that Hadrian’s Wall was constructed simply to reflect the power of Rome Used as a political point by Hadrian, it would be a very obvious way to show the unaligned local tribes just what Rome was capable of and how quickly.
Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles or 73 mi long. Its width and height varied according to the construction materials that were available nearby.
East of the River Irthing, the wall was made from squared stone and measured 9.8 ft wide and 16 to 20 ft high, while west of the river the wall was originally made from turf and measured 20 feet wide and 11 ft high. This section was later rebuilt in stone.
These dimensions do not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured 8 Roman feet wide (7.8 ft) on a 10 ft base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 10 ft.
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.
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.
It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. Hadrian’s Wall lies entirely within England; it is less than 0.6 mi south of the border with Scotland in the west at Bowness-on-Solway, in the east it is as much as 68 mi away.
The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80 small gated milecastle fortlets, 1 every Roman mile, holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signaling. However, very few milecastles are actually sited at exact Roman mile divisions: they can be up to 200 yards east or west because of landscape features or to improve signaling to the Stanegate forts to the south.
Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of the River Irthing where turf was originally used instead, for unknown reasons. Milecastles in this area were also built from timber and earth rather than stone, but turrets were always made from stone.
The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones. This seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, though, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.
The milecastles and turrets were of 3 different designs, depending on which Roman Legion built them. Inscriptions from Legio II Augusta, Legio VI Victrix and Legio XX Valeria Victrix show that all were involved in the construction.
The turrets were about 539 yds apart and measured 150.9 square ft internally.
Construction was divided into lengths of about 5 mi. One group of each Legio would excavate the foundations and build the milecastles and turrets, then other Cohortes would follow with the wall construction.
Early in its construction, just after reaching the North Tyne, the width of the wall was narrowed to 8.2 ft or even less (the Narrow Wall). However, Broad Wall foundations had already been laid as far as the River Irthing, where the Turf Wall began, demonstrating that construction worked from east to west.
Within a few years it was decided to add a total of 14 – 17 full-sized forts along the length of the Wall, including Vercovicium (Housesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald), each holding between 500 and 1,000 Auxilia troops. After construction, no Legions were posted to the wall.
The eastern end of the wall was extended further east from Pons Aelius (Newcastle) to Segedunum (Wallsend) on the Tyne estuary. Some of the larger forts along the wall, such as Cilurnum (Chesters) and Vercovicium, were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets, showing the change of plan.
An inscription mentioning early Governor Aulus Platorius Nepos indicates that the change of plans took place early on. Also, sometime during Hadrian’s reign the Wall west of the Irthing was rebuilt in sandstone to about the same dimensions as the limestone section to the east.
Construction was largely completed in 6 years, beginning in the east (between milecastles IV and VII) and proceeded westwards. The Wall was finished in AD 128.
Once its construction was finished, it is thought to have been covered in plaster and then whitewashed. Its shining surface would have reflected the sunlight and been visible for miles around.
Simon Schama says that our understanding of everyday life for soldiers at the wall forts & the population around them have been “transformed” by “one of the most astonishing finds of recent Roman archaeology”: the excavations at Vindolanda and the Vindolanda tablets. Schama cites an inspection on 18 May between AD 92 – 97 where only 456 of the full quota of 756 Dutch and Belgian troops were present, the rest being sick or otherwise absent.
Much of the wall has now disappeared. Long sections of it were used for roadbuilding in the 18th Century, especially by General Wade to build a military road to move troops to crush the Jacobite insurrection.
The preservation of much of what remains can be credited to John Clayton. He became enthusiastic about preserving Hadrian’s 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.
Clayton carried out excavation at the fort at Cilurnum and at Housesteads, and he excavated some milecastles. Successfully managing, and improving, the land and livestock on his farms helped produce a cash-flow, which could then be invested in future restoration work.
Workmen were employed to restore sections of the Wall. The best example of the Clayton Wall is at Housesteads.
After Clayton’s death the National Trust eventually began acquiring the land on which the wall stands. At Wallington Hall there is a painting by William Bell Scott which shows a Centurion (with the face of John Clayton) supervising the building of the wall.
In 1987 Hadrian’s Wall was declared a World Heritage Site, and in 2005 it became part of the transnational “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” World Heritage Site which also includes sites in Germany. A significant portion of the wall still stands and can be followed on foot along the adjoining Hadrian’s Wall Path.
We hope you enjoyed today’s journey, and maybe have been inspire to make the trip yourself. In any case, we look forward to having you back again for further adventures.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Johnson, Stephen. Hadrian’s Wall. Sterling Publishing Company, 2004. ISBN 0-7134-8840-9.
Simpson, F.G.; MacIntyre, J. “Report of the Cumberland Excavation Committee for 1932”. Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, new series. Titus Wilson & Son, 1933.
Woolliscroft, D. “Signalling and the design of Hadrian’s Wall”. Archaeologia Aeliana 5th Series, 1989.