Hadrian’s Wall, also known as the Roman Wall or Picts’ Wall, is the largest and possibly most famous ancient monument in Northern Europe. With construction beginning in AD 122 under the reign of the emperor Hadrian, the Wall was a stone and turf fortification built across the width of Great Britain to secure the Empire’s north-western border.
Hadrian’s Wall took around six years to build, and measured 73 miles long, 15 feet high and 10 feet thick when finished. The Wall was the northern border of the Empire in Britain for much of the Roman Empire’s rule, and also the most heavily fortified border in the Empire. In addition to its use as a military fortification, it is thought that the gates through the Wall would also have served as customs posts to allow trade taxation.
A significant portion of the Wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the Wall can be followed on foot. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Northern England, where it is often known simply as the Roman Wall, and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. While the name is sometimes jokingly used as a synonym for the Anglo-Scottish border, most of its length follows a line well south of the modern border.
Who Was Hadrian?
Hadrian was Roman emperor from 117 to 138, who was born into a Hispano-Roman family in Italica, Hispania Baetica. Early in his career, Hadrian married Emperor Trajan’s grand-niece Vibia Sabina and, when Trajan died, it was announced that Trajan had nominated Hadrian as emperor immediately before his death.
Upon becoming Emperor, Hadrian was not all that popular, particularly among the elite. He abandoned Trajan’s expansionist policies and territorial gains in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Armenia, and parts of Dacia, wanting to invest in the development of stable, defensible borders and the unification of the empire’s disparate peoples. This led to the building of Hadrian’s Wall.
Throughout his time as Emperor, he visited almost every province of the Empire and encouraged the military to get ready for war. He was big on discipline and personally subsidised various civil and religious institutions and building projects, both in Rome and in other parts of the world.
Hadrian was chronically ill for the last few years of his life. He died on 10 July 138, aged 62. Following his death, he was deified, despite opposition from the Senate.
Why Was Hadrian’s Wall Built?
It is thought that Hadrian’s Wall was planned after Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122, but in reality it was probably planned before his visit. Following his succession to the throne, Hadrian was experiencing military difficulties in Britain, as well as from the peoples of various conquered lands across the Empire, including Egypt, Judea, Libya and Mauretania.
The Wall may have been Hadrian’s answer to the unrest and rebellion, as well as his construction of frontier boundaries now known as limes in other areas of the Empire, such as the Limes Germanicus in modern-day Germany. It is thought the primary purpose was as a physical barrier to slow up the crossing of raiders and people intent on getting into the empire for destructive purposes.
It is thought that the Wall was not a last-stand type of defensive line, but, instead, an observation point that could alert Romans of an incoming attack and act as a deterrent to slow down enemy forces so that additional troops could arrive for support. There is some evidence that Hadrian’s Wall was covered in plaster and then whitewashed following its construction, which would have meant it would have reflected the sunlight and been visible for miles around.
Despite the main purpose of the Wall being to keep enemies and the inhabitants of northern Britain out, the Wall also served to keep people within the Roman province. Because the Romans had control over who was allowed in and out of the empire, the Wall was very important in controlling trading and the economy. It is also thought he constructed the Wall as a symbol of Roman power, both in occupied Britain and in Rome.
What’s more, while this may not have been the purpose of building the Wall, the Wall also provided years of work for thousands of soldiers. Soldiers were responsible for building and maintaining the structure, which gave the further benefit of preventing any boredom.
Route and Dimensions Of Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall covered the entire width of Britannia (modern day Great Britain), extending 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.
In modern day, the A69 and B6318 roads follow the course of the Wall as it starts in Newcastle upon Tyne to Carlisle, then on round the northern coast of Cumbria. Despite many often joking that the Wall is the border between England and Scotland, the Wall is entirely in England and south of the border with Scotland by 15 kilometres (9 mi) in the west and 110 kilometres (68 mi) in the east.
Hadrian’s Wall had a length of 80 Roman miles (a unit of length equivalent to about 1,620 yards or 1,480 metres), or 73 modern miles. It is thought that it stood around 15 feet high, and it was originally going to be around 10 feet thick. However, not long after construction began on the Wall, its width was reduced from the originally planned ten feet to about eight feet, or even less depending on the terrain. As some areas were constructed of turf and timber, it would take decades for certain areas to be modified and replaced by stone.
Construction of Hadrian’s Wall
Wanting to build a barrier between modern day England and Scotland, Hadrian believed in using natural boundaries such as rivers for the borders of the empire, for example, the Euphrates, Rhine and Danube. However, Britain did not have any natural boundaries that could serve this purpose, and therefore it was decided that Hadrian’s Wall would be built.
The construction of the Wall began in 122, with it taking six years to build. The Wall was built out of whatever construction materials were nearby. For example, east of the river Irthing the Wall was made from brick shaped stone and west of the river the Wall was made from turf. The materials available also had an effect on the size of the Wall, as it is larger and thicker in some places than others.
Soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions — the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions — participated in the work. The initial plan was to build a wall with a ditch, with 80 small, gated milecastle fortlets every Roman mile holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. The milecastles were of three different designs, depending on which Roman legion built them. There were also three different turret designs along the route.
During construction, the Wall was divided into lengths of about 5 miles (8 km), with one group of each legion creating the foundations and building the milecastles and turrets, and then other legions following, building the wall itself.
Plans changed during the building, and the Wall’s overall width was reduced, resulting in what historians now call the “Broad Wall” and “Narrow Wall”. Broad sections of the Wall are around nine and a half feet (2.9 metres) wide with the narrow sections of the Wall two feet (60 centimetres) thinner, being around seven and a half feet (2.3 metres) wide.
A few years into the build, it was decided to add a total of somewhere between 14 and 17 full-sized forts along the length of the wall, including Housesteads and Birdoswald, each holding between 500 and 1,000 auxiliary troops. Some of these larger forts were built on top of the footings of milecastles or turrets.
Around the time that the forts were added to the wall, the so-called Vallum was built on the southern side. The Vallum was a large, flat-bottomed ditch 6 metres (20 ft) wide at the top and 3 metres (10 ft) deep, with two parallel mounds running north and south of it. The Vallum and the Wall run more or less in parallel for almost the entire length of the wall, except between the forts of Newcastle and Wallsend at the east end of the Wall, where the Vallum may have been considered superfluous on account of the close proximity of the River Tyne.
There is some evidence that the route of the Wall was shifted to avoid the Vallum, possibly pointing to the Vallum being an older construction. This means that the Wall could be viewed as a new, replacement border, built to strengthen the Romans’ definition of their territory. It is thought that the Vallum probably showed a military zone rather than intending to be a major fortification.
Completion Of Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall took around six years to complete. After the construction, around 10,000 soldiers were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, made up not of the legions who built it but by regiments of auxiliary infantry and cavalry drawn from the provinces. The new forts could hold garrisons of 500 men whilst cavalry units of 1,000 troops were stationed at either end. Soldiers who were stationed in the forts had the primary duty of defence, while the troops in the milecastles and turrets had the responsibility of frontier control.
Hadrian’s Wall After Hadrian
Following Hadrian’s death in July 138, Antoninus Pius became emperor. He left the Wall as it was, essentially abandoning it, and instead built a new wall called the Antonine Wall about 160 kilometres (100 mi) north of Hadrian’s, across the isthmus running west-south-west to east-north-east. The area became known as the Scottish Lowlands, sometimes referred to as the Central Belt or Central Lowlands.
This wall was shorter than Hadrian’s, around 40 Roman miles, or about 60.8 km (37.8 mi), but had significantly more forts than Hadrian’s Wall. Despite this, Antoninus was unable to conquer the northern tribes, so when Marcus Aurelius became emperor, he abandoned the Antonine Wall and reoccupied Hadrian’s Wall as the main defensive barrier in 164.
The garrisons suffered serious attacks in 180, and again between 196 and 197. During this time the garrison was severely weakened. Major reconstruction had to be carried out under the Emperor Septimius Severus
In 208 to 211, Septimius Severus again tried to conquer Caledonia and temporarily reoccupied the Antonine Wall. Throughout most of the rest of the 3rd century, the region near the wall remained peaceful. It is thought that many in the garrison may have married and integrated into the local community.
After The Romans
After the estimated end of Roman rule in Britain, in around 410, the Wall was not really used or occupied. It soon was abandoned and fell into ruin, and over the centuries a large proportion of the stone was reused in other local buildings. Long sections of it were used for roadbuilding in the 18th century.
Did Hadrian’s Wall Work?
The success of Hadrian’s Wall has been long debated. A lot of the argued success depends on what the actual intention of the Wall was, which is also something that has been long debated by historians.
It can be argued that the Wall was somewhat successful during his lifetime, as it helped to protect Brittania from enemies, particularly when it was garrisoned. It was also successfully used to regulate trade, and to solidify the border in Northern Britain.
Despite this, Hadrian’s Wall did not prove to be an insurmountable barrier for Pictish raids which continued to occur. In 180, enemy combatants took over the wall for a short period, also. What’s more, the fact that the Wall was soon abandoned after Hadrian’s death meant that it was not as successful as he had hoped it would be.
Hadrian’s Wall Today
Parts of Hadrian’s Wall which are preserved today is thanks to the antiquarian John Clayton. He trained as a lawyer and became town clerk of Newcastle in the 1830s, and became enthusiastic about preserving the wall after a visit to Chesters.
He began buying some of the land on which the wall stood to prevent farmers taking stones from the wall. In 1834, he started purchasing property around Steel Rigg near Crag Lough, and eventually, he controlled land from Brunton to Cawfields. This stretch included the sites of Chesters, Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Vindolanda. Clayton also carried out excavation at the fort at Cilurnum and at Housesteads, and he excavated some milecastles.
Clayton succeeded in improving both the land and the livestock in areas which he had bought, and used his profits to employ workers to restore sections of the wall. Following his death, the National Trust began acquiring the land on which the wall stands.
Since 1987, Hadrian’s Wall has been declared a World Heritage Site. In 2005, it became part of the transnational “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” World Heritage Site, which also includes sites in Germany.
Hadrian’s Wall is an extremely popular tourist destination. Despite being a World Heritage Site, it remains unguarded and tourists can climb on it and stand on it. A National Trail footpath was opened in 2003 that follows the line of the wall from Wallsend to Bowness-on-Solway. Walkers are, however, asked to follow the path only in the summer because the landscape is so fragile.
In 2021, workers for Northumbrian Water found an undiscovered 3 meter (9.8 ft) section of the wall while repairing a water main in central Newcastle upon Tyne.
Hadrian’s Wall Historical Significance
Hadrian’s Wall has remained historically significant since its completion. The Wall would have been a powerful catalyst for Romanization since it was responsible for bringing thousands of Roman soldiers to Britain. These men brought with them their food, clothes, religion, and even cooking utensils. All of these cultural markers would have had a lasting impact on the people of Britain.
In modern day, it is the largest and possibly most famous ancient monument in Northern Europe, and the most visible and best-known land frontier of the Roman empire.
Differing from other frontiers of the empire, it is the only Roman frontier built largely in stone, of which there was an abundant supply locally. Together with the Antonine Wall, it is also the only frontier where all the elements are linked, which allows historians to establish a building sequence and gain insight into Roman Britain’s development.
Although only a fraction of Hadrian’s Wall has been excavated, it is one of the most explored frontiers of the empire, leading to a large amount of archaeological material and leading to further exploration of the Roman empire.
Hadrian’s Wall FAQs
How long is Hadrian’s Wall?
At completion, Hadrian’s Wall was 73 miles (80 Roman miles) long. It crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. However, nowadays, sadly not much of it is left.
Is Hadrian’s Wall still standing?
Parts of Hadrian’s Wall are still standing. However, only around 10% of the original wall is visible. The fact that it remains standing is attributed to the work of John Clayton, who bought some of the land that the Wall stood on so that it could be protected and wouldn’t be demolished.
The parts of the Wall that remain are a very popular tourist destination. Although the site is a World Heritage Site, it remains unguarded and tourists can climb on it and stand on it.
Why was the purpose of Hadrian’s Wall?
Hadrian’s Wall was built as a barrier that guarded the northwestern frontier of the province of Britain from barbarian invaders. Hadrian was experiencing military difficulties in Britain, and so he built the Wall to help with unrest and to protect the country from those who wanted to cause harm. It is also thought that Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to be used as a lookout point for the Romans, so they could see enemies coming from a distance. It was important in controlling trading and the economy, too.
Where is Hadrian’s Wall?
Hadrian’s Wall can be found in North East England. While it is often thought of a wall that divides England and Scotland, it is actually built entirely in England, south of the border with Scotland by 15 kilometres (9 mi) in the west and 110 kilometres (68 mi) in the east.
What was Hadrian’s Wall built out of? Hadrian’s Wall was built out of construction materials that were nearby, so some of the Wall is built of different materials than other parts. It is constructed mainly of stone, although some parts are constructed of turf. A lot of the turf materials were later rebuilt by stone, so that the Wall would be more sturdy and last longer.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Hadrian’s Wall" https://englishhistory.net/romans/hadrians-wall/, April 29, 2022